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James Dearman 1801-1834  

Australia - convict life

Launceston and New Norfolk 1830-1834

So James went to work for Richard Dry as a ploughman, for that is what he is described as on his indent document.   He must have worked at Elphin Farm, which is where Richard Dry is said to have lived at this time, but he may possibly have also worked at Quamby (another picture of which is below).  Elphin Farm no longer exists and the only picture that the Tasmanian State Library has is of a later building.  Although he was employed as a ploughman I have no doubt that he performed other agricultural tasks as well - just as he did in England.

The quality of the photocopy of his record was such that I had to ask them to have another look and tell me what the bottom line said - which they very kindly did.  So what does it tell us?  It confirms several things, tells us a few new ones, but initially left me with a mystery which I have now solved - well partially anyway.


There are four distinct sections on his convict record, so let’s take them one by one.  The photocopy I received is shown below, and below that is a transcription, puzzled out with the help of the very helpful people at the Tasmanian Archives.

Did he slave away like the guy in the picture below or did he get rest periods like the convicts in the picture below that (looks more like an aristocratic picnic than slave labour).  James Dearman’s record doesn’t tell us that, but it does tell us a few new things and confirms some we knew already.

The top left section gives us his name the boat he arrived on and its date of arrival plus where and when he was tried and for how long he was to be transported.  Thus:  “Dearman, James  William Glen Anderson Nov 1 1831  Middx 9 Dec 1830 7”  Nothing new here but it does confirm the name of the boat.


The top right section gives us rather more background and absolutely confirms that this is our man.  It’s a statement of his crimes and his family and his record so far.  Thus:  “Transported for larceny.  Gaol report Here before and convicted (this refers to Newgate) Hulk report Good.  Stated this offence stealing of wheat, once for stealing potatoes 6 months again for butter tried and acquitted.  Married 3 children.  Wife Catherine at Ponders End.”  The one new thing is the reference to 3 children - John Newman and James would be two of them, but the third?  Maybe Sarah - there is a Sarah in the 1841 census but I haven’t found her birth, or more likely, Robert - though he was probably born after James left England.  James would doubtless have known that he was on his way anyway although he wasn’t baptised until May 1831.  Try as I might I cannot find a birth for a Sarah at about the right time (there is a Sarah Dearman in the workhouse with little James and Robert in 1841).  And Robert is subsequently a a bit of a mystery too, but that’s for a different page on the children.

So what a stupid thing to do - three years into his sentence - almost halfway - and he steals potatoes.  So his relatively cushy life on the farm (I guess I am assuming this - it might have been horrendous) ends and it’s off to the chain gang.  


The leg irons at left are probably similar to those he had to wear - and the picture below is of an Australian chain gang of convicts off to work.

The largest section is actually pretty blank in James’ case.  This is where was recorded the events in a prisoner’s life in Australia. Some prisoners’ records are very full but not our James.  So what does it tell us?  


“ July 1 1834 Dry Launceston stealing 3 bushels of potatoes the property of his master.  12 months imprisonment and hard labor Bridgwater Chain Gang”  Then I think it says “convicted” and is signed with the initials of the magistrate - WL (William Lyttleton I think).  It is possible that what I think is ‘convicted’ could be “commuted” or something else entirely - but convicted is the most likely.  And indeed he was, for I Iater found a newspaper announcement of the crime and sentence in the National Library of Australia’s Trove site.  The note is in the Colonial Times on Tuesday 8th July 1834.  It gives us the extra information that James was not alone - was he the instigator or was he persuaded into it by his fellow convict.  And potatoes again - what is it with potatoes? 

Bridgewater Causeway (shown atright - then and now) was a huge project and Robert Hughes has this to say about it:


“There, convicts in levels 3 through 5 were sweating to create one of Colonel Arthur’s favourite public works - a causeway and bridge over the River Derwent, part of the main trunk road from Hobart to Launceston.  The facilities provided there to reform [the convicts] included cells that were more like animals’ lairs, seven feet long and less than three feet high, the men crawled into them at night and were padlocked there, behind a stout lattice, unable to stand or sit.”


He may be slightly exaggerating here as another history I found, says that they were only put in these cells for extra punishment.  This source describes the project thus:


“Construction commenced in 1829. By any measure the Causeway was a remarkable achievement. 1.3 km long, it was built by a workforce of 200 convicts who had been condemned to secondary punishment. These convicts, using nothing but wheelbarrows, shovels and picks and sheer muscle power, shifted 2 million tonnes of soil, stones and clay. It is said that the punishment for not doing a full day’s work was to be sentenced to solitary confinement in a cell which was only 2 m high and 50 cm square.”

Alas our James was not there long though, because in section 4  which shows the areas to which the convict was assigned is as follows:  “7.6.33 L  5.7.34 PM  15.7.34 NN  Off”

This is the bit I couldn’t read and which the Archives kindly sent me - together with an interpretation.  The numbers are dates of course.  L is Launceston, PM is Police Magistrate and NN is New Norfolk.  In their words “The ‘Off’ usually means the convict is off the books but we have not always been clear on this.”  Initially I had read the nn and off as ‘ran off’ but I now see that it is indeed NN.  So in June 1833 he moved to Launceston.  I find this a bit curious because I have assumed so far that he went to Launceston when he was assigned to Richard Dry.  But maybe he had been working for Richard Dry in Hobart before that.  Obviously I need to look into this a bit more.


Most importantly though, on 5th July 1834 (4 days after his stealing offence) he was signed off by the Police Magistrate and by the 15th of that month he was at New Norfolk, which is not that far from Bridgewater - maybe the convicts were housed there.  


On the convict trail  - A personal blog about Tasmanian convicts.  This page gives a very detailed account of the building of the Bridgewater Causeway, on which project James was working when he died

Trove  - The National Library of Australia’s database of digitised newspapers and other primary sources.  It is indeed a treasure trove and includes some English newspapers as well.

And he didn’t last long.  On 18th October, James died.  The record gives no details as to why, so we can only guess.  An illness, an accident, malnutrition or extreme brutality?  Or all of the above.  He was buried on the 23rd.  I have no idea where.  Did they get a proper burial or were they all thrown into one common grave?  I should find out.  He definitely died in New Norfolk though - a pleasant little place as the 1834 painting above shows.  He was only thirty three. 

So a hard and sad life, although I can’t help thinking that it might have been better had he not been so apparently stupid.  His little brother John in New South Wales eventually made good and led a respectable life as a farmer and horse stud proprietor.  So why didn’t he hang in there and do the same?  We cannot, of course, know the circumstances in which he found himself.  Maybe he had really bad employers who broke his spirit, forcing him into a life of crime.  Maybe he actually died through illness rather than mistreatment - one has to think that life on a chain gang was more likely to make you ill than life on a farm. 


As first generation immigrants to Australia, it was exciting and a little ironic to find that there was a direct ancestor who was a convict - three in fact.  It’s almost a badge of honour for Australians.  And, of course, because of the transportation we know so much more about him - down to the physical description and that scar over the eyebrow.  What’s the story there?  There is obviously a lot more to learn.

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