One fine Saturday morning in September 1809, twenty-one-year-old Thomas Ashley of Hythe rode into Canterbury cattle market leading ‘four fine heifers, about half fat ‘and offered them for sale to Edward Norwood, a slaughterhouse owner, for eighty guineas. Some haggling took place, as was usual, and Thomas agreed on £60 and went to the nearby Flying Horse inn to await payment.
The Flying Horse Inn in Canterbury, still trading today
Edward Norwood took a closer look at his new beasts. They were sweating and had clearly been brought to market in a hurry. He was suspicious of Thomas’s ready acceptance of a price well below their value, which was about £72. He took him into custody – presumably with the help of some others, and had him brought before the mayor, who also acted as a magistrate. Thomas explained that on the previous day, he had been fishing near Dymchurch when a well-dressed man approached him and asked him to take four heifers to Canterbury market the next morning. He was told to meet another man at the Drum inn at Stanford or on nearby Hampton Hill (near Farthing Common) early in the morning. Thomas duly found the man, called only John, on a hog-maned chestnut pony at Hampton Hill. He was given the mount and the beasts and set off as instructed.
Hampton Hill, now called Hempton Hill
The mayor did not believe him, and given the presence in the story of not one but two mysterious strangers, that is not surprising. Further enquiries revealed that the heifers were in fact the property of Mr Quihampton of Pedlinge, near Hythe and that they had been stolen on Friday night. As the offence was committed within the liberty of Hythe, Thomas was sent for trial there and also accused of stealing the hog-maned pony from George Pilcher’s stable in Hythe and a pair of boots belonging to John Brazier from another stable, as well as some other items of clothing. Presumably he wanted to look the part when he went to market.
He was incarcerated in Hythe gaol to await trial at the next Sessions, which would be in January. He did himself no favours while in gaol by boasting that he had committed other crimes which he had got away with. Once in court, on 6 January 1810, evidence showed that he was guilty.
Horse theft was a common crime, but carried the death penalty and Thomas had stolen valuable livestock, too. The bench sentenced him to death, but still felt uneasy, as they had not been obliged to pass a death sentence for many years. The recorder, Mr Boteler, wrote to the Home Secretary asking whether the ‘limited jurisdiction’ of Hythe would afford any grounds for mercy. He elaborated, as required, on Thomas’s background: he was strong and healthy but ‘he has always borne a bad character’; his parents were still alive and still in Hythe and while his mother, Mary, was of good character, his father, another Thomas, was of ‘indifferent’ reputation.The King, George IV, decided to extend his ‘Grace and Mercy’ on condition of Thomas ‘being transported to the coast of New South Wales for the term of his natural life’.
On 24 February 1810, Thomas arrived on board the ss Zealand, a prison hulk moored at Sheerness. It accommodated over four hundred and fifty convicts. He was recorded there as being five feet five inches tall with blue eyes which were weak – presumably he had poor eyesight. He was given a set of coarse ‘slop clothing’: a jacket, waistcoat and canvas breeches; two shirts; a pair of shoes; a handkerchief, belt and two blankets. To set off the ensemble he was locked into a set of leg irons.
He was there for over a year and did not sail until 11 April 1811 on board the ss Admiral Gambier to New South Wales. The voyage was now quicker than it had been in the earliest days of transportation, as ships did not need to carry supplies for their destination and he probably sailed to Rio and then round Cape Horn. The food was coarse but sufficient, except for the lack of greens and the convicts were given a mixture of lime juice, sugar and vinegar to ward off scurvy. The ship reached its destination, New South Wales, on 29 Sept 1811, almost exactly two years after Thomas’s crime was committed.
We know nothing about his early days in the new colony, but sometime after 1823 he became a miller at Carters’ Barracks in Sydney.The barracks was built in 1819 to house convict carters working on the brickfields. As there were no beasts of burden, chain gangs of twelve convicts drew the brick carts (weighing three quarters of a tonne) over a kilometre to the settlement in Sydney Cove, nine times as day. Perhaps Thomas did this work – he was, after all, strong and healthy and still young. In 1823, two treadmills were installed at Carters’ Barracks and used for the next twenty-five years. One was worked by thirty-six men, the other by twenty.
Carter’s Barracks in Sydney, front view…
…and the yard at the back
Treadmills in English prisons were rarely productive and used solely for the purpose of providing ‘hard labour’. These, however, were actually used for grinding corn, and produced forty bushels a day. Sydney’s sandstone was too soft to use for millstones, so they were imported from England and became one of the most valuable pieces of equipment in the colony. Presumably, since the hard work of grinding was done by other convicts, it was Thomas’s job to maintain the machinery and process the ground meal. He worked for a master named Lyndsay.
The treadmill at Carter’s Barracks
Thomas got his ticket of leave in 1835 (1) and was now allowed to live where he wished, but was required to remain in the employment of Carters’ Barracks treadmill. His new-found relative freedom was hard for him to deal with and his Ticket was revoked in December 1839 for ‘repeated drunkenness’ (2). He cleaned up his act and got it back again in 1841 and then seems to have kept out of trouble, as he was allowed to live and work in Yass , three hundred kilometres from Sydney, on 17 Sept 1845 (3). A steam mill had opened there in 1842. Five years later, he moved on to Queanbayam and it was here that he got his Conditional Pardon on 31 Dec 1847 (4). Convicts with a life sentence could never get a Free Pardon.
He had not long to relish his long-awaited freedom and died on 26 Sep 1848 after nearly forty years servitude (5).
- New South Wales Archives 4/4100; Reel 923
- New South Wales Archives 4/4111; Reel 927
- New South Wales Archives 4/4128; Reel 932
- New South Wales Archives 4/4454; Reel 785
- New South Wales Archives 4/4549; Reel 690
With thanks to Mike de la Mare for the map