Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Convict mystery - the full story

My second Esme Quentin novel, The Indelible Stain, published on 26th September, was inspired by reading an article about researching convict ancestry.
The Indelible Stain
So it seemed appropriate in this post to write about the Percival black sheep and transported felon, to whom I dedicated the book - Moses Percival.

I am indebted to John Priestley, with whom my husband shares a great-great-grandfather, William Percival, as it was he who passed on Moses’ story. William's father James was Moses' elder brother.
Moses’ story starts ordinarily enough. He was born in 1802 in Great Tey, Essex, to parents Edward and Susannah Percival, one of 13 children. He started at the village school at the age of six, learning at least to  write his name, for in 1826 when he married Hannah Rayner he was able to sign the register.
Moses was recorded as being a ploughman and likely came from a family of agricultural workers. By 1831 he and Hannah had baptized three children and it was at this point that Moses disappeared from the parish records. When Hannah remarried in 1844, the assumption was that Moses had died, though there was no record of his burial.
It wasn't until some time later we discovered the truth, that in 1831, Moses was convicted of the theft of a sack of barley. The Chelmsford assizes records of 7th March make particular note of his crime as being the theft of barley… and a sack. Perhaps, I mused, if he’d have brought his own sack along to steal the grain the punishment wouldn’t have been so harsh!

However it turns out that, according to the records in Kew, that the sack had been stolen on a separate occasion, after the barley! So, it being a 'second offence', may explain why Moses was sentenced to fourteen years exile to Van Diemans Land, present day Tasmania.

image courtesy of Ancestry.com

Moses spent the first three months of his sentence on board the hulk ship, Cumberland before being shipped across the world on 11th June on the convict ship the Larkins, arriving in Hobart on 19th October.

An example of a 'hulk' ship
image courtesy of en.wikipedia.org

His description is recorded (for identification purposes, should he abscond) as 5ft 5½ inches tall, brown complexion (possibly tanned from sailing through the tropics on the voyage), small head, brown hair and eyes, small whiskers, a large mouth, thick lips, a long chin and a mole on his cheek.

The book in which Moses' description is recorded
image courtesy of Archive Office of Tasmania

Unless convicted of a violent crime, most convicts were put to work rather than being incarcerated and Moses is recorded as working for Mr Andrew Tolnie or Tolmey. He was granted a free pardon on 31st May 1838, having served only half of his sentence. No doubt his willingness to work hard, coupled with good behaviour were contributory factors in his early release.

Moses continued in the employ of Mr Tolmey after his pardon, as a horseman. His name appears in The Hobart Town Courier newspaper later that year, announcing his rounding up of stray cattle at the public pound in a place called Jerusalem and declaring they would be sold by him if not claimed by their owners.

Business was going well and soon Moses had made enough money to buy 50 acres of land and a quantity of stock.

But sadly, he had little time to enjoy his freedom, as a few months later in early 1839, he was injured when a tree fell on him and crushed his leg. The leg became gangrenous and he died.

Mr Tolmey, clearly an honest man and, it would seem, aware of Moses' family back in England, wrote to Moses' wife Hannah to tell her not only of the death of her husband, but to inform her that she'd inherited the value of the land Moses had bought, worth between £200 and £300. Quite a considerable sum at that time to someone of her modest means.

I wonder whether, had Moses lived, the family planned to join him for a new life in Van Diemans Land. I guess we'll never know.


There’s a postscript to this story which links neatly with the photograph of the "Mystery Mrs Percival", photographed making Coggeshall lace in the 1950s, the subject of an earlier post. But more on that next time.
A useful starting point for researching your own convict ancestors, including those transported to America as well as Australia, is The National Archives website  where you can read various helpful research guides on the subject. 
For information on crime and punishment or to read the details of past trials, go to Old Bailey Online which holds some fascinating stories.

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