Camplin, John, b. c.1801

Recidivist Juvenile Thief

Following his second trial at the Old Bailey for property crime, John Camplin was transported to Australia, where his history of stealing continued, along with regular acts of drunkenness and insurbodination.

Link to the Digital Panopticon life archive.

Early Life

The exact year of John’s birth differs from document to document (which was not uncommon during this period), but his birth year appears to have been somewhere between 1801 and 1805. A description list states that he came from Tottenham, and so it is possible that this was also the place of his birth. His prison records also report that prior to his conviction, he worked as a brick-maker and a labourer.

Crimes and Trials

John appears to have been tried at the Old Bailey on two occasions, both in 1818, first for the crime of housebreaking, and second for attempting to steal a silver watch. His first trial, conducted on 18 February, was for allegedly stealing a box of books through an open window of a public house in Tottenham. John’s defence of “I know nothing about it”, together with the only witness, William Males, admitting it was too dark to see what the person stole, probably meant that the prosecution had insufficient evidence to prove John was the culprit, and as a result he was found not guilty.

His second Old Bailey trial, on 17 June, ended rather differently. He was accused of attempting to steal a silver watch, a key and a piece of ribbon from a watchmaker’s shop. He had been discovered by the watchmaker’s wife in the shop, with the watch in his hand. In his defence, he claimed he had found the watch on the floor of the shop and was going to alert the owner, but during the trial the watchmaker’s wife claimed that she remembered clearly the watch being on a hook in the window, and that nobody else had entered the shop before John. On this occasion, it was clearly felt that there was enough evidence against John, and so he was found guilty by the court and sentenced to death.

Punishment and Outcomes

John’s initial sentence of execution was later commuted to transportation, perhaps because of his young age and the fact that he had no prior convictions, although he was of course previously suspected of stealing a box of books, but was found not guilty.

Having had his sentence reduced, John departed England aboard the Surrey on 17 October 1818, and arrived in Van Dieman’s Land (now known as Tasmania) on 18 March 1819. Far from correcting his past behaviour, from this point onwards John’s behaviour deteriorated further, including many different instances over the years. As an example, a year after he arrived, he was punished for "neglect of duty" with 25 lashes, and in 1821 he was punished for stealing a log of wood with 50 lashes. He also later stole a washing tub, was regularly accused of showing insolence, and one of his masters claimed that John took “every opportunity of wantonly destroying [his master’s] property”. His record claims that he was a “confirmed thief”, was sometimes forced to be part of a chain gang, and in 1834 he also received 25 lashes for being drunk. Because of his behaviour, he was also sentenced to six months of hard labour in addition to his existing punishment. His records state that whilst serving his sentence, he worked as a brick field worker.

John was granted a ticket of leave in 1828, which was subsequently revoked when John absconded and travelled to Brune Island without permission. His conduct record runs until 1839, and so he remained in Tasmania until at least then, but given his poor behaviour and criminal track record from his time in Australia, it is possible that he remained there for even longer. A report in the Cornwall Chronicle in Tasmania states that John Camplin had his sentence extended by three years for absconding, and his convict records confirm this, stating that in 1840 he absconded from Campbell Town Station, taking with him a broad axe. This therefore places John in Tasmania until at least 1843, which would make him about 40 years old.

Personal Details and Life Events

His description list upon arrival in Tasmania states that John had grey eyes and brown hair, was 5' 3" inches tall and aged 14 (although different documents provide slightly different ages). Given that he was sentenced to six months' hard labour in 1839, it may also be assumed that he was still in good enough physical condition at that point for the authorities to believe he was capable of completing that sentence. His convict description also states that he had a large scar on the back of his right hand, and a scar above his right eyebrow. There are no records indicating whether or not John ever got married or had children, although we do know from a love token left by John that he had a living mother and father at the time he was sentenced in 1818.

The love token attributed to John Camplin provides a rare insight into his thoughts and feelings before he was transported to Australia. Engraved on his token is the following:

"Dear Father Mother

A gift to you ~

From me a friend

Whose love for you

Shall never end


On the reverse side, the token continues:

"When this you

See Rembr me when

In som Foreign

Country John


This love token portrays an image of a young teenage boy not only regretful of his actions, but also concerned about leaving his parents behind and having to now live his life without them. Having to leave family behind must have been a daunting prospect for any convict, but especially for a 15-year-old boy who was still growing up and likely still living with his parents at the time of his conviction. The contrast between the emotion expressed by John towards his parents in this token and the many crimes and transgressions he would go on to commit in Australia raises questions about the impact being transported to Australia at such a young age would have had on the future behaviour of juvenile convicts.

Although he had committed theft before being transported, his actions once in Australia suggest that if anything, his punishment encouraged his criminal behaviour to continue and develop, instead of discouraging it. Removing a person of such a young age from all of their familial and friendship support networks would likely not have been beneficial to attempts at reforming their behaviour, and the case of John Camplin suggests that in fact, the use of transportation as a punishment for young teenagers could have made re-offending more likely, not less, due to them being placed in a distant, harsh and unsupportive environment whilst still growing up.

Later Years

What happened to John Camplin after the early 1840s is not entirely clear. There is a departure record for a John Camplin sailing from Tasmania to Melbourne on the Sea Belle dated 18 March 1852, which is likely to be the same John Camplin that was initially transported in 1818. After this, the next record we have of him is in a report in the Melbourne Argus on 2 February 1877, which states that

One of the oldest Australian colonists is at present an inmate of the Dunolly District Hospital, into which institution he was admitted on Friday, 26th ult, with a badly lacerated hand. The Dunolly Express says 'the mans name is John Camplin and he is now 75 years of age. He served for three years on board a man-of-war in the Mediterranean prior to his coming to Tasmania, where he arrived in 1817. He there left his ship and has since sailed on the coast, and worked on shore in the several colonies in the various capacities to which Jack can turn his hand. On being asked what part of the old country he came from, he said a little village about five miles out of London called Tottenham. When told that that place now formed part of London, the old tar replied that he had been told that there was a railway that way now.'

That this is same man as the transported Camplin seems to be confirmed by the fact he is the right age, and came from Totenham. But Camplin seems to have invented the story of his service on board a man of war, which could not have been possible given that he arrived in Tasmania as a teenager.

Wider Context

Since 1718, children between the ages of 15 and 18 had been transported to the colonies, which would place John at the youngest age normally allowed for transportation. Around 20 per cent of the convict population of Van Dieman’s Land were juveniles like John, and around 90 per cent of those juveniles were male, suggesting that not only his age but also his gender contributed to him receiving the sentence of transportation. At the time of John Camplin’s conviction, there was a belief by some that transporting juveniles would have a reforming effect on their behaviour, that it would offer them the chance of "re-birth" or "re-invention", and that it would also remove them from all of the "criminal connections" they were often assumed to have at home.

The conduct record of John Camplin, however, shows that reform of his behaviour was never achieved, and if he was separated from any criminal links he had in London, this had no impact upon his re-offending – in fact, his number of transgressions only increased upon arrival in Tasmania. John was not alone in this - recidivism, anti-social behaviour and the committing of insubordination are a common theme in the conduct records of juveniles who had been transported. These types of behaviours may have been partly due to being separated from familial support networks at a young age, but may also have been because many young boys of this age were unskilled and had a patchy record of employment at home. They were therefore not especially "employable" within colonial life, and thus the colonial authorities may have found it difficult to provide productive work for them, which in turn may have actually encouraged, rather than discouraged, commonly found behaviours such as insubordination and fighting by juveniles.

While Camplin may have stopped offending in later life, it may have been a fight which led to his hospitalisation in 1877, and by that point he was lying about his background as a transported convict. In covering this up Camplin seems to evidence of shame felt by such convicts in the years following the end of transportation.

Further Information


Larceny, burglary, transportation, hard labour, recidivism, ticket of leave, juvenile

Author Credits

This page was written by Alex Traves with additional contributions by Bob Shoemaker and Sue Williams.