John Bancroft’s 7 Year Transportation to Van Diemen’s Land

The 'Neptune' ship

Here is a story which just goes to show how punishment has changed since the mid-19th century. It concerns a John Bancroft from Ovenden near Halifax in Yorkshire, who appeared in court at the York Assizes on 18th October 1845 charged with the theft of a lock and  key from one person and two handkerchiefs from another and was sentenced in court to seven years   transportation !

No further details were given about the offences, or about the defendant’s previous record of convictions, but even by standards at the time this must have seemed an unusually harsh sentence when compared with sentences given out the same day to people who were also guilty of various thefts and were given short prison sentences.

John Bancroft was born and brought up in the area known as Ovenden, the son of Thomas and Jane Bancroft and the 1841 census shows the family of Thomas and Jane living at Park Lane with their six children, John being 14 years old at the time. His father is listed as a Surveyor [shown as ‘Surveyor of roads’ on the later census]. Oddly none of the children as shown as working, which must have been an omission by the census enumerator.

1841 census

This got me wondering about what a sentence of Transportation actual entailed, and how people coped with this dramatic change in their life. us thefts and were given short prison

Between 1788 and 1868, approximately 162,000 convicts were transported to the various Australian penal colonies by the British government. The British government began transporting criminals to overseas colonies in the 17th century, and when transportation to the American colonies declined with the move towards American independence in the 1770s, an alternative site was needed to avoid further overcrowding of British prisons and hulks[ floating prisons]. In 1770, James Cook charted and claimed possession of the east coast of Australia for Britain. Due to the continent's isolation, it was considered ideal for a penal colony, and in 1787 the First Fleet of eleven convict ships set sail for Botany Bay, arriving on 20 January 1788 to found Sydney, the first European settlement in Australia. Other penal colonies were later established in Van Diemen's Land [Tasmania], Queensland and Western Australia.  Penal transportation to Australia peaked in the 1830s and dropped off significantly in the following decade. The last convict ship arrived in Western Australia on 10 January 1868.
Many of the convicts were transported for petty crimes such as theft. More serious crimes, such as rape and murder, were not transportable offences. After their prison terms were served most stayed in Australia and joined the other settlers, with some rising to prominent positions in Australian society. Approximately 20% of modern Australians are descended from transported convicts. Once deemed the "convict stain", it is now considered by many Australians to be a cause for celebration to have a convict in one's lineage.
Although John was convicted in York on 18th October 1845, it was almost four years later before he was actually put on a Transportation Ship. It seems likely that he was held in the south of England for all this time in what was known as a ‘Hulk’, which was a decommissioned ship, no longer capable of going to sea. The Industrial Revolution had led to an increase in petty crime due to the economic displacement of much of the population, putting pressure on the government to find an alternative to confinement in overcrowded gaols, at one stage holding over 80% of criminals who had been convicted of theft. The overcrowding situation was so dire that hulks left over from the Seven Years’ War were used as makeshift floating prisons. This practice was gradually rescinded in the 1800’s because Judges and Juries considered its punishment too harsh, but since lawmakers still wanted punishment to deter potential criminals, they increasingly applied transportation as a more humane alternative to imprisonment or execution.

A Hulk [Prison Ship] moored on the Thames
The hulks, which retained only their ability to float, were typically located in harbours, with many on the river Thames in and around London. This made them convenient temporary holding quarters for convicts awaiting transportation to Australia and other penal colonies within the British Empire. At the beginning of the 19th century the hulks held more than 1400 out of about 1900 people waiting for transportation to Australia.
John was one of 305 convicts who left their homeland, on 18th April 1849 on a ship called ‘Neptune’ for the perilous journey which took virtually 12 months to arrive in Hobart, Tasmania on 5th April 1850. By the time of arrival only 282 out of the 305 original convicts had survived the journey. A complete list of all the convicts on the ship can be viewed here, and it can be seen that they came from all walks of life and from all parts of the country, including many from Ireland.
The reason the voyage took so long was that the Neptune was originally destined to transport the convicts to South Africa, where the authorities intended to establish a new penal colony, and on 19 September 1849 The Neptune entered and anchored in Simon's Bay (now Simonstown) in the Cape, after being met earlier with a furious city population in Table Bay. However, the residents of the Cape were also outraged at this proposal, and a resistance movement called the Anti-Convict Committee was established, and this resistance movement eventually succeeded, with the English Parliament cancelling this plan, leaving the Ship’s Captain with little alternative but to set sail again and make for Tasmania.

In the early days of transportation, conditions on board ship were terrible and many died on the journey, which normally took between four and six months. Towards the mid-19th century, things had improved and examination of the transportation records indicates that the number who perished on the voyage had reduced.

Many of the convicts in the early years of transportation were already disease ridden and many died from typhoid and cholera in the dreadful conditions on the ships. Those that survived were severely weakened by scurvy, dysentery and fever.
Below deck during Transportation

of transportationew South
In early transportation, convicts were taken aboard in chains and shackles. Once aboard these were unlocked. A hatch was opened and the convicts went below to the prison deck and the hatch was locked. Sometimes, however, they were kept in chains and behind bars even on board.

The convict quarters had ventilators to let in light and air. The port end would be reasonably light but the bows dark and gloomy. On some ships, in the early days, convicts were kept below most of the time. In many cases they were restrained in chains and were only allowed on deck for fresh air and exercise.

The cramped, unhygienic conditions on the early convict ships were very difficult. As the 19th century progressed, the conditions began to improve. By the 1840s, the routine was more enlightened. Surgeons were no longer in the pay of the ship's master and their sole responsibility was the well-being of the convicts. Daily life even included a Religious Instructor who could both educate the convicts and look after their spiritual needs. Importantly, a bonus was paid to the ship charterers for the safe landing of the prisoners.

The filthy conditions gave way to a more ordered layout, as described by John Acton Wroth, a literate young man who was transported in the 1840's. He describes an area with bunks along either side of the deck, each separated from its neighbour by a ten inch high board. Four berths of the lower and upper tiers formed a mess, constructed so that four men could sit round a table. Those men occupying mid ship slept in hammocks, slung up each night over the tables. Younger men had these. Each bed had a mattress, pillow and two blankets. The hammock had two blankets only.

The continuation of transportation to Van Diemen's Land saw the rise of a well-coordinated anti-transportation movement, especially following a severe economic depression in the early 1840s. Transportation was temporarily suspended in 1846 but soon revived with overcrowding of British jails and clamour for the availability of transportation as a deterrent. By the late 1840s most convicts being sent to Van Diemen's Land, plus some still to Australia, and were designated as "exiles" who were free to work for pay while under sentence. In 1850 the Australasian Anti-Transportation League was formed to lobby for the permanent cessation of transportation, its aims being furthered by the commencement of the Australian gold rushes the following year. The last convict ship to be sent from England, the St. Vincent, arrived in 1853, and on 10 August 1853 Jubilee festivals in Hobart and Launceston celebrated 50 years of European settlement with the official end of transportation.

Little is known about John Bancroft after he arrived in Tasmania, other than the fact that, along with virtually every other convict on the ship, he was given a ‘Conditional Pardon’, which may well have been due to the fact that he had spent his sentence largely in a Hulk Ship in England and then spend a further 12 months at sea in transit. A Conditional Pardon freed convicts, and was granted on the condition that the convict did not return to England or Ireland, meaning they could never return to their homeland. Many freed convicts often took off for the Victorian gold fields, as this was one of the few places in the colonies where an ex-convict could find work. It seems likely that he did not re-offend, as he does not show up on any further records after his arrival in 1850, although it is possible that John may have altered his name, so as not to appear on any records, as many convicts did, in order to try and make a new start in their new country.

There is also evidence of a different and unrelated 'John Bancroft', born in Manchester around 1840, who travelled legitimately from Liverpool to Melbourne in Australia, landing in February 1862, and then marrying an Elizabeth Griffin in 1866 at Sydney. He may also have been the same person who worked as a Commercial Traveller and died in a place called Woonana, New South Wales, although I have not been able to confirm all this.

Here is a register of Conditional Pardons from the time, together with a copy of a Conditional Pardon from New South Wales. Neither refer to John Bancroft unfortunately 

Conditional Pardon register
Conditional Pardon - New South Wales.

And finally, here is an extract from the local newspaper, the Hobart Courier, commenting on the arrival of the Neptune and it's cargo of convicts, which does not show any real hostility to them, even holding out the hand of friendship to the new arrivals:

"....were the arrival of this vessel an incident by itself, we should say nothing against it. If the men on board that vessel have the slightest moral sense, they have bitterly felt the penalty of their crimes. Among them some may be found whose very offences are almost justified by their appearance on our shores. They were convicted of hostility to the English Government, but there is not a man in Van Diemen's Land with whom the magnitude of that offence is not lessened, when he finds that official truculence and perfidy are the deeds which make office sure. We do not counsel the smallest injury to the freight of the Neptune, they are men, not chests of tea, or we should appeal to the warm blood of the Mohawks, and to the example of Boston. We shall not forget that these men are our countrymen, that they are neither worse nor better than the twenty thousand prisoners within the last ten years poured on these shores, and that they are the bearers to this colony of a final justification of whatever attitude it may assume hereafter."

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