James Gardner, William Bright and George Viginton were teenagers when they were convicted of highway robbery. Recommended to mercy by the jury thanks to their previous good character, they escaped the death sentence and were instead transported to Van Diemen’s Land for life.
James, William and George were born between 1803 and 1805. Their exact dates of birth are unclear in the records, but George was probably the eldest, born in 1803 or 1804; William was born in 1804 or 1805; and James, the youngest, was born in 1805. All three boys grew up in the Middlesex area: George and James were from Isleworth, and William from Staines.
At the time of their trial for highway robbery in 1822, James was 17 years old, and William and George were 18. Little is known of their early lives, but the Newgate Register of Prisoners lists James and William as labourers, and George as a waterman. Similarly, testimony at their trial suggests they came from local labouring families. They were certainly not wealthy: on the day of the robbery, they had spent the night in a shed and had resolved to sell their shoes to make cash.
On 8 August 1822, James, William and George, together with another unnamed companion, attacked and robbed a labourer named John Harper at Edgware Fair. They stole one pair of shoes to the value of 1s., and 5 sovereigns and 18 shillings in cash.
The affair began when the young men and Harper found themselves sheltering from a storm together, in a shed outside Edgware fair. James wanted to sell a pair of shoes to Harper, who eventually agreed to buy them for 18d. Once the storm had passed, Harper went into the fair to drink with a friend. The four young men joined them, and asked Harper to treat them to a pot of beer. Harper obliged, but when he took out his purse to pay for the beer, several sovereigns fell out in view of the others. Later that evening, Harper left the booth to relieve himself, at which point the young men rushed upon him, gagging him and robbing him both of his money and of the shoes.
Harper confidently identified the three defendants in their trial at Middlesex Gaol Delivery. He was especially positive about James, whom he claimed had struck him. The defence case was scanty, hinging on an allegation (testified by three witnesses) that Harper had offered to drop the charges in exchange for 2l. payment from James’ father.
James, William and George were found guilty and sentenced to death, but the jury recommended mercy because of good character. In November, the sentence was accordingly reduced to life transportation. The trio petitioned unsuccessfully, at some point before leaving the country.
All three were held at Newgate until 12 December, when they were moved together to a Portsmouth prison hulk. Their behaviour there was described as "orderly". They set off on the five-month journey to Van Diemen’s Land on 20 May 1823, arriving at Hobart in present-day Tasmania on 21 October 1823.
George’s gaol report had described him as "not known before but troublesome", and his record in Van Diemen's Land reveals multiple clashes with the authorities. His offences included not entering his residence with the chief constable, neglect of duty, insolence, assault, theft, absconding, using abusive language to his overseer, disobedience, having tobacco, and trying to obtain tools under false pretences. George’s punishments included lashes, imprisonment, hard labour, the chain gang, being confined to his cell at night, being kept solitary, and the revocation of his ticket of leave. A conditional pardon, granted in 1845, did not deter him from further offences. Yet the final entry in his convict record, dated 1848, praises his "meritorious conduct in extinguishing a fire at Port Arthur".
James' experience of convict life was similarly rocky. He was repeatedly drunk, disorderly, disobedient, out after hours and absent from duty without leave. Other offences included concealing a free man in his hut, encouraging "subordination" among servants, and "feloniously receiving a silver watch". In 1833, he absconded and was recaptured. Punishments for these various offences included fines, lashes, the chain gang, hard labour, solitary confinement and revocation of his ticket of leave. Sometimes, after occasions of suspected criminality or bad behaviour, it would be recommended that James be moved on to a new town.
William's record is less full, although in March 1830 it was reported of him: "Highly improper conduct & being in Bed with a Female Convict". He was also brought to trial for thefts, once for an ox worth £10 which led to a sentence of three years' chain gang labour. In 1856 he absconded and was apprehended, but the next year, he was granted a free pardon.
William and George remained unmarried in Van Diemen’s Land, but James was granted permission in November 1845 to marry Mary Jane Porter, a convict from County Down who had been transported for vagrancy. Curiously, Mary Jane had been given permission to marry a William Ling only the previous year, so it’s unclear whether the wedding was cancelled, or if Ling had perhaps died after a brief marriage. Sixteen years James’s junior, Mary Jane could read (but not write), and was praised in the records for her "very good" character and "well behaved" conduct. It is possible that his marriage to Mary Jane encouraged good behaviour in James too, for the accounts of drunkenness and other offences fade out in the early 1840s, and he was granted a conditional pardon in 1848.
James is recorded simply as a labourer, but we know William worked as a bricklayer’s labourer, and George was a whipmaker. Convict records also show that James and William served as "field police" in the muster of 1830, while George served on "public works". However, these descriptions do not capture the periods of hard labour and time on the chain gang which the men underwent as punishment for various offences at different times.
According to the Newgate Register of Prisoners, James was 5', fair, "stoutish", and had light brown hair and grey eyes. William was 5' 7", but otherwise described in the same way. George was 5' 8½" (or perhaps a little taller at 5' 10", according to Founders and Survivors Convicts), fair, slim, and had light brown hair and hazel or brown eyes.
Nothing is known about the later lives of any of the three men, nor when they died. James disappears from the records after his conditional pardon in July 1848, as does William after his free pardon in 1857. The last we know of George is that he worked to put out a fire in Port Arthur in 1848.
It might seem surprising that James, William and George were charged with highway robbery, as opposed to robbery. However, although it is true that the crime of highway robbery was disappearing from the Old Bailey over the 1820s, highway robbery was defined simply as robbery committed on or near the King's Highway - and, as the trial stated, the assault on Harper took place "in a field and open place near the King's highway". The case helps to illustrate that not all highway robberies fulfilled the popular myth of the gentleman highway robber on horseback.
The case is also a good example of how offenders could have a capital sentence reduced to transportation if they were young and had not offended before. The good local reputation of the young men seems to have contributed strongly to the reduction in sentence. Witnesses in court spoke to James’s previous good character: one officer testified, "[I knew him] from a boy. I never knew any harm of him; he has had very good situations". A constable agreed: "Gardner … bears a good character".
Transportation does not seem to have encouraged the men to stop offending. On the contrary, James and George accumulated long lists of offences in Van Diemen's Land. But James’ eventual marriage to another convict coincided with the end of his criminal career, and his release on licence. This suggests at least the possibility, for some of those transported, of making a fresh start in Van Diemen’s Land - even after many years of convict life.
Transportation, Hulk, Whipping, Hard Labour, Pardon, Robbery, Assault, Receiving Stolen Goods, Larceny, Escape, Ticket of Leave, Juvenile, Imprisonment, Fine
This page was written by Fiona Milne with additional contributions by other members of the Digital Panopticon project team.