James was a man twice accused of highway robbery, and once of wounding, with all of his crimes occurring between 8 and 13 February 1789. His initial death sentence was ultimately commuted, and he was transported to New South Wales later the same year.
Because James lived early in the period, documentary evidence for him is very poor, and although his court trials were well-recorded, his date of birth is not mentioned, and is thus unknown. Although his place of birth is also not recorded, given that he was tried at the Old Bailey it is likely, although not certain, that he was born in London. We also learn from a judge’s report that James had at least one brother called John Joyner Ellis, who at the time of James’ conviction was a major in the 41st Regiment of Foot.
James was tried at the Old Bailey three different times on the same day, on 25 February 1789. During two of these trials, James was accused of committing highway robbery, and at one of them he was accused of wounding. During his first trial of the day, his victim that testified against him was John Wray, who claimed James robbed him at gunpoint in daylight in Ealing on 12 February. After Wray had handed over his possessions, he told James that he was a servant and that if James took everything, he would be impoverished. James then handed half a crown back to Wray, which was a common highwayman courtesy at the time, and shows that James was not totally without compassion. James even claimed that if Wray went to the Angel tavern in about three weeks, his possessions would be returned to him. However, Wray inquired at the Angel following the robbery, and nobody there had heard of the man, and so Wray instead went to the police. Upon James’ arrest, the watch chain was broken in the struggle, but the watch itself was identified as Wray’s. In his defence, James claimed that he bought the watch from a travelling Jew, and claimed “I am entirely innocent of the whole of it”.
During the second trial, James was accused of attempting to wound John Hull, one of the men who tried to apprehend him for his first crime committed the day before, near Isleworth turnpike. Hull testified that James tried to rob him, but Hull told him he had nothing, and as James pulled out his pistol, Hull ran away as fast as he could, at which point James fired the pistol at him, but missed. Thomas Field testified that he had taken the pistol from James and that it had been recently fired. James defended himself by claiming that he simply asked for the time, at which point he was apprehended, and he knew “nothing more about it”.
His third and final trial was for an offence that took place on 8 February. Again, James was accused of robbery at gunpoint, this time by Henry Leverett. Interestingly, just like Wray, Leverett told James that he had no money left other than what he had handed over, and again James gave him half a crown back. In his defence against the accusation made by Leverett, James replied “I have nothing to say in particular, any more than I am innocent”.
For the two charges of highway robbery, James was found guilty and sentenced to death, twice. For the trial where he was accused of wounding, James was found not guilty, possibly because there was no actual theft, Hull was not injured, and he had already received a capital punishment from his first trial. James, however, did not suffer his original punishment, and instead had his sentence commuted to transportation to New South Wales. This sentence was carried out, and James arrived in New South Wales on 9 September 1789 aboard the Scarborough. Unfortunately, the convict records in New South Wales were not particularly detailed, and so from this point onwards we have no records to indicate what happened to James while he was in New South Wales. Nor do we know whether or not he continued his criminal behaviour once in Australia – prior to his three trials in February 1789, he had no prior involvement with the authorities, which could suggest they were isolated events. However, being transported away from his wife and family may have caused him a significant level of distress which may have encouraged his criminal behaviour – in the absence of the documentation, we simply cannot know for certain.
A witness at one of his Old Bailey trials described James as being “a tall thin man”, with a scar on his left cheek. We learn from a judge’s report that he had a wife at the time of his conviction, and the report also talks of his “family” which may be a reference either to his parents or his brother we know that he had, but it is also possible this refers to children. Indeed, given that he was married, one would expect him to have had children. Although because we know so little of James’ personal details it is difficult to link him to census records, there is a marriage record from 1763 that documents a marriage between James Joyner and Jennet Sutherland, but we cannot know with any degree of certainty if this is the James we are interested in – it is just a possibility.
Significantly, we also learn from the judge’s report that eight years prior to his conviction, he had fallen from a horse and fractured his skull. His accident had left him with a “disordered mind and deprived of his senses”. The report also notes that alcohol affected him badly since his fall – and the implication of this was that his accident may have caused him to commit the three crimes he was charged with in a short space of time. We also learn from the judge’s report that “several trades people” were willing to speak on his behalf and attest to his good character, if only they had known the date of the trial. This suggests that James was perhaps well-known and liked in the local area, and this, together with his previous injury, his family who were said to be in “distress” about the situation, and his lack of any previous convictions, were all likely to have contributed to his reduced sentence.
Due to the fact that James lived early in the time period, and that he was sentenced to New South Wales, where little documentation is available, it is almost impossible to say what happened to James in his later years. His sentence to transportation was recorded as being for life, although it is unknown whether or not he received a pardon and returned home – presumably given the chance he would have done that, considering his wife was still living in England as far as we know. There is no death record for available James in New South Wales, and so what happened to him after his transportation, for the moment at least, appears to be something of a mystery.
Although the circumstances that may have led to James’ original sentence to death being commuted to transportation were unusual, the fact that his original sentence was not served in itself was not unusual. In fact, most death sentences from this period were not carried out. Following the passage of the Transportation Act in 1718, transportation became a recognised punishment in its own right, which then led to a decline in executions and an increase in transportation as a punishment instead. Therefore, the fact James’ death sentence was never carried out actually in line with broader patterns and changes in the penal system during this period.
Robbery, Wounding, Transportation
This page was written by Alex Traves with additional contributions by other members of the Digital Panopticon project team.