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From Derbyshire to Down Under - What became of some of Derbyshire’s first convict colonists

PUBLISHED: 14:26 20 August 2018 | UPDATED: 14:27 20 August 2018

Port Arthur Penitentiary today, Tasman Peninsula, south-eastern Tasmania, Australia (photo by Ben Molloy)

Port Arthur Penitentiary today, Tasman Peninsula, south-eastern Tasmania, Australia (photo by Ben Molloy)

as supplied

John Wright reveals what became of some of the county’s first convict colonists

Born in Ticknall, George Armytage became a farmer in Tasmania who married Eliabeth Peters, the daughter of convict Thomas Peters (Wikimedia Commons)Born in Ticknall, George Armytage became a farmer in Tasmania who married Eliabeth Peters, the daughter of convict Thomas Peters (Wikimedia Commons)

Derbyshire provided its fair share of the 136,000 men and 25,000 women transported to Australia since the First Fleet left in 1787 with people like 21-year-old Ann Beardsley on board. Sentenced to five years transportation at the Derby Assizes in August 1786 for stealing ‘a black satin coat and other goods’, Beardsley and her shipmates are considered Australian royalty by descendants today for being the first Europeans to settle this strange new land in the sun.

Sailing on the Friendship, Beardsley enjoyed ‘the distinction of having the lightest sentence of all the Fleet’, Cheryl Timbury wrote in a First Fleet Fellowship Victoria article. Beardsley also met Irish Royal marine private John McCarthy on board and in 1789 they would have a child in Sydney – Timbury’s great-great-grandmother.

Calling at Rio de Janeiro, Lieutenant Ralph Clark had written in his journal that ‘he supervised the transfer of six women convicts (including Beardsley) from the Friendship to the Charlotte as a reward for being so well-behaved and in return received six of the worst from the Charlotte.’ At the Cape of Good Hope, when the rest of the women convicts were transferred to other ships and the Friendship took sheep on board instead, Clark noted: ‘Thank God... the sheep are a lot less trouble.’

In Australia, convict women such as fabric thief Elizabeth Clark from Ashbourne, were assigned as servants while men often worked on farms. What distinguishes some Derbyshire convicts was their ability to disappear or land on their feet. William Bannister was gaoled at Derby and transported in HMS Calcutta in 1802 for stealing bacon, Marjorie Tipping writing in Convicts Unbound... that his ‘name does not appear on the Commissariat return of prisoners of 1803-4’, suggesting that he ‘died on the voyage out without it being recorded.’ Could he have changed his identity in Sydney and stowed away to Norfolk Island in the Pacific, where one William Russell (convicted in Derby on the same date) was at large as a bushranger?

Como House, the mansion built by George Armytage and his wife Elizabeth, the daughter of silver-stealing convict Thomas Peters (State Library of Victoria)Como House, the mansion built by George Armytage and his wife Elizabeth, the daughter of silver-stealing convict Thomas Peters (State Library of Victoria)

Derby man Thomas Higgins was transported in the infamous Second Fleet, dubbed ‘the Death Fleet’. Convicts were treated so cruelly with bad food and sanitation in cramped conditions below deck that 278 of them died. Wrote the Sydney Cove Chronicle in June 1790: ‘As they came on shore, these wretched people were hardly able to move. Such as could not carry themselves crawled upon all fours. Those unable to move were thrown over the side, as sacks of flour, into the small boats. Some expired in the boats; others as they reached the shore.’

Higgins had faced the Derby Assizes in 1788 for ‘the theft of a black mare’, Michael Flynn wrote in The Second Fleet: Britain’s Grim Convict Armada of 1790, his Londoner girlfriend Eleanor Killpack, having stolen ‘four linen sheets, was arrested trying to pawn them while drunk.’ By 1806 they were settled with children on a 30-acre farm near Sydney when they found themselves on the receiving end of burglary when, on 8th September, four men broke into their house and grabbed 30 shillings in copper coins. ‘Higgins, 60 years of age, assisted by a boy 7 years old [their son, Thomas] put up a vigorous resistance,’ the Sydney Gazette reported. ‘Two stepdaughters escaped through a window and raised the alarm, forcing the robbers to flee. The old man was much bruised by the villains, who unfortunately made their escape.’ Higgins was granted a further 100 acres in his son’s name, the young Thomas Higgins later becoming Hornsby’s first settler, pioneering timber and fruit industries. Today a monument stands there for him.

John Clark (age 33), sentenced at the Derby Assizes in 1802, ironically for sheep stealing, ended up in Tasmania as the legal owner of 1,000 sheep on 1,500 acres by 1825. He was so respected for his ability to farm efficiently in a colony often facing starvation that Land Commissioners ‘stayed for four nights on the farm’.

Clark also had the honour of being robbed by the Brady gang ‘over Christmas 1825.’ Matthew Brady, known as ‘the gentleman bushranger’, was adored by the public for pulling off amazing stunts to evade capture. Once with soldiers out looking for him, the gang rode into Sorell, near Hobart, and virtually captured the whole township. They robbed and rounded up the local dignitaries who were having dinner, shut them in the lock-up with the constables, and rode off.

Poster at Wortley Hall, Yorkshire. Owned by the Labour Party, it is still known as 'the Workers' Stately Home' (2011 photo by Ian Sutton)Poster at Wortley Hall, Yorkshire. Owned by the Labour Party, it is still known as 'the Workers' Stately Home' (2011 photo by Ian Sutton)

Horse thief Joseph Johnson, 26, from Tissington, was transported for life to Tasmania in 1802 but was pardoned after seven years because he was so good at farming. By 1834 his initial 30-acre grant became 5,000 acres where he had two horses, 20 cattle, 1,800 sheep, and employed three government servants. His relatives came out from Derbyshire to join him and live in the house he built at Green Ponds, which he called Tissington.

Johnson married an Irish convict who taught him to read and write. When his wife was ‘old and failing’, he hired Scottish convict Jane Hadden as a housekeeper servant. In the 1840s she had stood up to a famous bushranger, Martin Cash, and his gang by barricading the house of a captain she was assigned to as a servant. Johnson married Hadden after his wife died, but discovered she was already married. ‘William Hadden arrived in Van Diemen’s Land to claim his wife,’ writes Tipping. ‘She deserted Johnson and he had to reclaim her debts.’

When convicts knew how to create wealth, their whole family could shake off the ignominy of transportation. George Armytage was born in Ticknall and trained as an engineer in London. At the age of 20, in 1815, he emigrated as a well-off free settler to Sydney. He moved to Tasmania, where 500 acres were added to his initial small grant of land at ‘Bagdad’, and married Elizabeth, the daughter of an ex-Calcutta convict from Yorkshire called Thomas Peters. Peters was even richer than Armytage, having become the owner of a successful smithy and two pubs.

Helped by Peters, Armytage bought 1,000 more acres and used his skill as a wheelwright to build the colony’s first water-mill. Here, as PL Brown wrote in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, ‘he could receive wheat in sheaf and return it as flour the same day. He held government posts as division constable and district poundkeeper, then transformed himself into the landlord of the local Saracen’s Head.’

He and Elizabeth extended their empire to Victoria where they ran sheep and had seven sons and at least three daughters. In 1851 they bought a large house in Geelong, 47 miles SW of Melbourne, called The Hermitage. This became the Geelong Church of England Girls’ Grammar School, now part of Geelong Grammar School whose rural outpost, Timbertop, was attended by Prince Charles as a teenager.

However, convicts in Tasmania were not always so lucky. Reoffenders and those committing serious crimes were sent to the infamous Port Arthur Penitentiary on its south-eastern peninsula, separated from its mainland by a narrow neck of land guarded by a line of vicious dogs. Offences here were often odd or even ridiculous. Caught in the Act by Phillip Hilton and Susan Hood cites John Glanville as committing 55 offences over 10 years, including ‘having turnips improperly’. One convict was reprimanded for ‘washing his shirt during Divine Service’, another for ‘baking light bread’.

The list of crimes goes on – although these weren’t all by Derbyshire convicts – and includes: ‘having lollipops in his possession… setting fire to his bedding… threatening to split the overseer’s skull with his spade… wilfully breaking his wooden leg… apprehending Godfrey Moore and biting his nose off…and groaning at the Lieutenant-Governor when he entered Government House.’

Best of all, though, was George ‘Billy’ Hunt. Transported for stealing a handkerchief, his crime was ‘absconding’; nothing unusual about that, except that Billy was ‘dressed as a kangaroo at the time and was attempting to hop to freedom, only to be shot at by rationed soldiers, who had grown accustomed to hearty kangaroo stews.’

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