While many other juvenile offenders who were transported to Australia went on to have social and economic lives outside of crime, James McAllister by contrast went on to commit murder, for which he was executed.
Born in 1828 in London, little is known of James in his early years. What is known is James was admitted to the workhouse twice in the couple of years prior to his Old Bailey appearance and was described as having “no home”. His conduct record confirms what this phrase suggests, while he did have two brothers and two aunts in London, he had no parents at this time. He did have employment as a mariner and/or labourer at some point, but clearly he had a difficult start. As such he could neither read nor write, he was also hesitant in his speech. Even at the time of his death he was described as being able to read and write very imperfectly.
James was brought to trial in 1842 for stealing sixty pence, aged 14. He was sentenced to seven years’ transportation while his accomplice, aged 16, was sentenced to two months’ imprisonment. There were no former convictions mentioned in his trial, however his conduct record states that he stole loaves for which he received three weeks’ confinement, and a waistcoat for which he spent another fourteen days in the house of correction.
With regards to behaviour he was described as “orderly” on board the Euryalus and “good” by the ships surgeon-superintendent during the voyage. James only waited five months until he sailed on board the Asiatic. Arriving in Hobart in 1843, James was put on probation for two years at Point Puer. While some juveniles have filled pages and pages with their offences while under sentence, James committed one offence. His offence was “Misconduct in being concealed in the enclosed yard of Mr. Johnson for some unlawful purpose”, in 1849, whilst a ticket of leave holder. This was six years after his arrival. This ticket of leave had only been earned that year. He was given three months’ hard labour and ordered not to reside in Hobart town. He finally received his certificate of freedom in 1850. With few offences to his name, James began life in the colonies relatively free from crime compared with other juvenile offenders. However, just five years later he found himself in Melbourne Gaol awaiting execution for the murder of Jane Jones.
James had made his way to Melbourne in this time working as a labourer and also a carpenter. The papers also stated he had adopted the “most disreputable means of getting a living since he has been in this colony”. He was at that time running a lodging house – but the newspapers comments would suggest that this lodging house was a house of ill-fame (this is later confirmed by the dying words of Jane Jones). He was not married and had no known children. He had, however, cohabited for two years with Jane Jones prior to shooting her. Jane was shot at the Exchange Hotel in March 1855 and later died in hospital of her injuries. The deceased made a statement before she died and it stressed that the prisoner was not the father of her child and that the prisoner had shot her because she refused to live with him. In fact, a month prior to the evening of the shooting, Jane had left James to live with another man named Thomas Chisholm, an article clerk. Jane had informed Chisholm that James had ill-used and threatened her. Jane and Thomas Chisholm had to move lodgings because they saw James watching Jane. On one occasion he stopped her in the street and took her child from her and struck her. Consequently, James was summoned before the City Police Court and he was ordered to give the child back to the mother.
On the night of the incident Thomas Chisholm was out and on returning he saw James who levelled a pistol at him – and fired. Fortunately for him the bullet merely grazed his temple, sending him falling backwards. At this point Thomas begun to get up when he heard the retort of another pistol. James had shot Jane. James at first tried to run, but a waiter stopped him and he then surrendered himself declaring “I am the murderer”. It was noted that Jane was shot in her shoulder, but a bullet lodged in her spinal cord was missed and this caused paralysis and death. Jane was only 22 years old and described as “of plain appearance” while James was described as “respectable looking”. At trial the defence admitted the act but stated it was only manslaughter because he could not be held responsible for his actions because he was provoked. The provocation being that he was made furious because the deceased was in all intents and purposes his wife and had eloped. Then in seeing the man who had taken her, he was not able to control his actions. The judge disagreed – pointing out that he could see no provocation for manslaughter and there was nothing to suppose they were as good as married. The jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against James McAllister and he was executed at Melbourne Gaol aged 26.
Approximately 500 persons were present outside the gaol to witness the execution. Nobody but the officials were allowed to be present in the walls at the time of the execution. He apparently approached his death with resignation, in consonance with his general behaviour since his condemnation. He was said to have conducted himself with humility and apparent penitence, and expressed no hope of pardon in this world. There was reported to have been a cast of his head after death taken by an artist – Mr. Pardoe.
James McAllister was one of only 113 persons hanged at this site.
James, like many other male convicts transported to Van Diemen's Land, migrated to the mainland in search of employment. However, James' story is not typical. James’ story is interesting, but importantly, it is exceptional. While James went on to commit a very serious offence which resulted in his execution, many juvenile convicts transported to Australia made new lives for themselves in the colonies outside of crime. It is because of his sensational crime that we are able to uncover information about James' life in Melbourne. He may have otherwise remained out of official records and hidden in history.
Larceny, Murder, Hanging, Transportation, Imprisonment, Hard Labour, Ticket of Leave, Juvenile
This page was written by Emma Watkins with additional contributions by other members of the Digital Panopticon project team.