Remembering John Ifield

Some criminals transported to Australia seem to us today to have committed relatively minor offences and many were first time offenders. John Ifield was not one of these. In fact, he managed to receive not one but two sentences of transportation for seven years.

John  was the son of Robert, a blacksmith and freeman, and Elizabeth Ifield and was baptised in Hythe on 14 June 1801. He had three younger siblings.   The rest of the family appear to have lead quiet and respectable lives. His brother Robert had the licence of the King’s Head in Hythe for a time (1) and his mother ended her days as an inmate of St John’s Hospital in Hythe, an almshouse which required its inhabitants to be ‘of good character’. (2)

John worked as a labourer but by the time he was twenty-two he was supplementing his income with thieving, although judging by the number of times he was caught, he was not very adept at it . In 1823 he was sentenced to twelve months in prison for larceny. In July 1825, he got nine months for another larceny when he stole a woollen shawl from Richard Boddington. In 1826, he stole three ‘drawers’ from the storehouse of Mackeson’s brewery and nine shilling pieces from Edward Dray. The magistrates’ patience had come to an end, even if he was the son of a freeman. He was sentenced to seven years transportation.

By this time, actual transportation depended on the needs of the receiving colony and on the health and character of the prisoner. Unruly and physically strong men were shipped out as soon as possible; others might, at the discretion of the officers and surgeon, be allowed to serve their sentence on the hulks. This is what happened to John. These sentences were divided into three periods, each decreasing in severity, but all included labour ashore, including loading and unloading vessels, construction and repairs, re-painting ships, cleaning cables and scraping shot.

Conditions were grim. On board the Justitia moored at Woolwich between 1830–1855 prisoners slept in groups in tiered bunks. Each had an average sleeping space of 5 feet 10 inches long by 18 inches wide. Weekly rations consisted of biscuits and pea soup, accompanied once a week by half an ox-cheek and twice a week, by porridge, a lump of bread and cheese. None of the ships had adequate quarantine facilities and there was an ongoing contamination risk caused by the flow of excrement from the sick bays.(2)

A typical prison hulk

John was originally imprisoned on the hulk Retribution at Sheerness, but was transferred to the Ganymede at Chatham on 6 Sept 1826. It had originally been the French frigate Hébé captured in 1809. He served nearly seven years, being released on 10 April 1833 under a free pardon which indicated that the sentence of transportation had lapsed.

He managed to keep out of trouble for the next four years, but in 1837 he was charged with stealing a pig worth twenty shillings, the property of Thomas Laws at Newington-next-Hythe . At the East Kent Quarter Sessions on 3 January 1838, he pleaded guilty and was again sentenced to seven years .

This time, either New South Wales was in need of labour or John was not judged fit to remain on the hulks. He was transported to Australia on board the Bengal Merchant on 24 March 1838. In Australia, he seems to have behaved himself and got his ticket of leave in September 1842, by which time he was described as a collar and harness maker and was living in Illawarra, New South Wales.  The area had been cleared by settlers using convict labour and  used for dairy farming.

Illawarra before it was ‘cleared’…

… and afterwards

Seventeen years later, in May 1859 John was recorded as living in the Electoral District of Narellan.  It was a small, but steadily growing town where plots of land were being sold off. Perhaps John had finally settled down to a regular (and legal) way of life.

Nothing further is known of his life, but…

Ifield is an uncommon name in England, even more so in Australia. It is, of course, best known for being the surname of a yodelling singer from New South Wales, especially popular in the sixties after the success of his single ‘I Remember You’.

Is there a connection?

    1. Kent Archives H1431
    2. Kent Archives EK/2008/2/Book 13 1853
    3. Philip Atherton: Life inside the prison hulks: Staying alive.

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