Family Names

Monday, 8 May 2017

The Crime, the Arrest, the Sentencing

Article 1 - Convict Ancestors & Relations 

William Carbis Senior/The Older
It was just before Christmas on 13th December 1812 in the small town of Penzance in Cornwall, that two sheep were stolen from Miss Borlase’s herd.[i] The evidence found in the three suspect’s homes had been unequivocal, leaving little doubt in everyone's mind of their guilt. William was arrested along with his son William and his son-in-law Francis Bassett, they were all family men, related to each other by blood and marriage. None of them were present at the time of the constable's raids on their homes, together they had absconded to sea leaving their womenfolk behind. They had returned home after 2 years in 1815 soon after Hoskin the Hind, the main witness had died. Miss Borlase, however, was still intent on pursuing the matter; sheep stealing was a serious capital offence.
Chris Downer (2005). Launceston: castle over rooftops SX3384 Geograph(CC BY-SA 2.0)

After arrest, they were held for almost 5 months before their case could be heard in the Launceston Assizes, on the 27th of March 1815.  During the court case, no-one was particularly sympathetic or cared to hear their version of the events and all three men were sentenced to death.[ii]  Once sentenced the trio were held in Launceston Jail. The Jail had been built in the grounds of what had once been the Grand Castle of Launceston.  An ignominious place described 20 years earlier as follows - “The Prison is a room or passage twenty three feet and a half by seven and a half, with only one window two feet by one and a half:  and three Dungeons or Cages on the side opposite the window : there are about six and half feet deep; one nine feet long; one about eight; one not five: this last for women. They are all very offensive. No chimney: no drains: no water: damp earth floors: no Infirmary. The yard not secure; and Prisoners seldom permitted to go out to it. Indeed the whole Prison is out of repair”.[iii]
Anon, 'Postscript', Trewman's Exeter Flying Post or Plymouth and Cornish Advertiser, Thursday, February 23, 1815; Issue 2581. Column 1
They were held here jail until 7 Aug 1815, almost 5 months after their death sentence was awarded. During this time their punishment was reduced to a life sentence in New South Wales. [iv] Their case had been heard in the western assize circuit, a court which heard an usually high number of animal thefts cases compared to the rest of England, in fact a “fifth of all those transported from the western circuit were accused of various kinds of animal theft“.[v] 
The Hulk
Prison Hulk [Picture]. 2016. Nla.Gov.Au. Accessed June 15 2016. 'National Library of Australia'

William was one of 5 prisoners who had been convicted before the 1816 Lent court session together they were transferred to the Portland Hulk. The conditions on the Hulk were not much better than they had been in Launceston jail, the Hulk was very old and dilapidated, so bad that it was decommissioned in 1817.[vi]    It was usual for Hulk prisoners to work on the shore during the day, work that would provide them with meagre savings that could be used to ease their conditions.  However, in Langstone Harbour where the Portland was moored, there was not enough employment for all the convicts.  The authorities were only able to place one-third of prisoners on shore at Fort Cumberland the rest needed to stay on board the Hulk.[vii]  It was indeed difficult for inmates.  Prisoners were confined to the Hulk during most of the day however they ate on shore in specially provided sheds for that purpose. At night they were confined to one of four decks with no lighting although some had private lights to read and work by at night. In total, they spent 53 long days and nights on the Hulk in less than optimal conditions before being discharged to the government contracted transport ship the Ocean on the 22 August 1815 in preparation for their journey to Australia.[viii]  

Dighton, Robert. 1781, A fleet of transports under convoy Printed for & sold by Carrington Bowles, London viewed 28 June 2017 
The Ocean & Arrival in Australia
William was on board the Ocean when it finally began its journey from England in August 1815, with 220 passengers on board.   Of the 219 convicts who arrived in Australia, 98 of them had life sentences, the only free passenger on board the ship was Rev. John Youl from the British and Foreign Bible Society. [ix] 
 “The Bible prized by Convicts” Christian Herald and Seaman's Magazine, Volume 4 1816  Page 218
Rev. Youl ran classes every day based on the scriptures,  resulting in a number learning to read despite the initial opposition of some of the convicts.[x]
The journey itself took just under six months and included a seven-day layover in Rio as the ship picked up cargo to be added to the human cargo of convicts already on board. The additional cargo included imported goods that were to be sold on arrival in Australia and included alcohol, confectionery, hardware, clothing and other household goods, all which would help improve the profits for the ship owners.[xi]
Only one convict died during the journey, due to a gale of wind causing him to accidentally fall down the hatchway from the deck above. The accident was not surprising as the men wore leg irons for the first part of the journey and there were lots of small casualties from people falling about the decks.[xii]  The men spent 10 hours out of 24 below decks; the heat below must have been unbearable as the ship crossed the equator.  Relief from the oppressive heat below would only have been possible on the open deck above.  The reasons to be on deck included participating in Rev. Youl's classes or performing allocated duties such as cleaning or assisting with the cooking or other ship chores.
Henry Brewer, View of the entrance into Port Jackson taken from a boat lying under the North Head [picture] 1790. National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an4910576. Accessed June 15 2016. 
 Port Jackson must have been a welcome sight when they arrived on 30th  January 1816.[xiii] 

Edit History

Originally posted on the 7 May 2017
Updated and revised on 26 June 2017

Click here to see References


  1. "27 of March, 1816" probably should be 1815. I read this several times trying to get the chronology. Blame it in fat fingers when typing. I do it all the time.

    1. Thanks Denise! It's wonderful to have your feedback. It's little mistakes like these that are so difficult to pick up. All updated now. Excellent catch.


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