A tale of two Thomas Smiths

This is a bit different from previous convict tales: it’s about two people – who shared the same name. Lucy Williams has previously blogged here about the difficulties that people with identical names (and few other pieces of information to differentiate them) present for historians attempting to do record linkage. But the story of the two Thomas Smiths suggests that contemporary administrators sometimes found this challenging too.

Let’s start at the beginning, in the Old Bailey, with two trials just over a month apart in late 1833. Firstly, Thomas Smith (we’ll call him “Thomas A”), aged 35, was convicted in October of stealing gowns and other clothing, and sentenced to 7 years transportation. According to the transportation registers he was transported on the John Barry, 2 April 1834, to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania).[1]

In November, Thomas Smith (“Thomas B”), aged 18, was convicted along with Benjamin Underwood of stealing lead piping. Benjamin was a year younger, which may be why he was sentenced to 6 months imprisonment rather than the 7 years transportation which Thomas received. In the transportation register, he went on the Henry Tanner, 27 June 1834, to New South Wales.

So far it seems straightforward – there’s enough detail in the register to make linkage quite easy, even though there were four convicts called Thomas Smith on the John Barry and two more on the Henry Tanner. (Moreover, there are upwards of 300 Thomas Smiths in the register database as a whole – and 8 Old Bailey defendants named Thomas Smith in 1833 alone.)

But then, on looking in the Tasmanian Founders and Survivors data at what’s supposed to be the entry for Thomas A, it suddenly gets a lot less simple:

This Man who states himself to have been tried in November came by mistake, in the place of Thomas Smith a Glass Cutter.

The statement is from a conduct record, and it’s corroborated by the corresponding entry in the description lists, where his age is given as 18.[2]

Thomas Smith in the  Description Lists (Tas CON 14/1/11)

Which Thomas Smith? (Tas CON 18/1/11)

In other words, the transportation register is wrong: it was actually Thomas B, the younger man, who went to Tasmania. This is also confirmed by the convict indents for the Thomas Smith who went to New South Wales on the Henry Tanner.[3] That Thomas is evidently Thomas A: aged 35, married with several children, and a glass cutter. (In receiving a mature, skilled worker rather than a teenage labourer, NSW seems to have done quite well out of the mix-up.)

So the confusion seems to be cleared up quite readily. But the mystery remains: how could the mistake come about in the first place?

It’s time to turn to some large datasets that have recently become available to the project: the several important series of hulk records digitised by FindMyPast and Ancestry. (Prison hulks were old ships, no longer sea-worthy, where convicts awaiting transportation were held, to ease overcrowding in gaols.) The two Thomases were transferred together from Newgate to the Fortitude at Chatham in December 1833. They are both in the quarterly returns for December 1833 and March 1834. In the latter, Thomas A’s entry has a note of his departure, “VDL 26 March 1834”. Thomas B makes one final appearance in the June 1834 register with the note “NSW 21 June 1834”. The British authorities had no doubts about where the two men were supposed to have gone.[4]

In Convict Maids, Deb Oxley describes how clerks built up detailed records of every convict transported, drawn both from judicial records and from individually examining and questioning the convicts several times during the stages of their journey from British gaols to Australia.[5] A key part of this process was the creation of the convict indents shortly before departure, which would travel with the ship to provide the receiving colony with essential information about each convict:

In order to construct his indent, [John] Clark [the clerk contracted to carry out this particular task during the 1830s] collated the relevant documentation, attended the docks several days before the voyage was expected to take place, inspected the convicts and called the roll, and finally questioned them, checking their answers against his paperwork.

I still don’t know exactly how the mix-up occurred, but it’s clear that in the case of the two Thomases, practice must have diverged quite significantly from the ideal. If a clerk had questioned the Thomas who boarded the John Barry and compared the man to the paperwork it would have been pretty obvious that something was not right. He was 17 years younger than he was supposed to be, had been convicted at a different time and for a different offence, and lacked any of the older man’s family and work history. There were some superficial physical similarities between the two Thomases – brown hair, 5 ft 4-5 ins in height, dark complexion – but in addition to the age gap, Thomas A had lost two upper front teeth, which sounds quite hard to overlook.

Surely the mistake had been discovered by the time Thomas A embarked for New South Wales, and yet none of the British-based records were ever corrected. And some of the confusion lingered in their Australian records long afterwards. The NSW records for Thomas A, from his convict indent right through to his certificate of freedom in December 1840 (also on Ancestry), continued to repeat the wrong Old Bailey trial date. Thomas B’s conduct record also retains the wrong trial date, and it also makes him both married and single, and a thief of both lead pipe and gowns (an interesting combination). The conduct registers were created partly from the indents and partly by examining the convict; the clerks seemingly decided to simply leave in all of the conflicting data they had been given.

The British penal system sent thousands of convicts to Australia every year for decades; it would be surprising if even the most well-oiled machine didn’t occasionally slip under those circumstances. It still happens, after all: as recently as July 2015, a prisoner was released ‘by mistake’ from Wandsworth Prison. If it had been anything other than a rarity, there would be far more frequent records of similar errors in the Australian records.

As such, it’s less of an issue for big data approaches than for efforts to trace individuals in depth (and we got there in the end!). Even so, it’s one of those instances where the stories of individual convicts open up wider questions: they force us to think about the problems and limitations of the available evidence. For a start, the case warns against presuming that information is more reliable simply because it’s repeated in several (even official) sources. Secondly, it provides a reminder that keeping track of people who shared the same name was not just a problem for historians today. Maybe it even offers one answer to the question posed by Bob Shoemaker: why was so much information about criminals being collected for no obvious purpose?

[1] TNA HO 11, searchable at the  transportation registers database
[2] Tas CON 31/1/40 and CON 18/1/11, both accessible via Thomas Smith’s record at the Tasmania Archives website.
[3] We are using the convict indents data created by Deb Oxley, which we’ll be including in DP; also searchable with images on Ancestry.
[4] HO9/2, available (as low quality pdf) via TNA’s digital microfilm service (at fol. 77) and searchable with better images at AncestryHO 8/38-40, at FMP; and see also ADM 6/421 (f.215) also on FMP.
[5] Oxley, Convict Maids, pp 18-27.


[This post is one of a series of Convict Tales, in which we post about individual convicts whose lives the project has begun to link together. It may be updated as we learn more.]

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