We often get an influx of our antipodean cousins in the early summer here at the history centre. Many of our internet and postal research requests hail from Australia and New Zealand. Do you ever wonder if your ancestors ever left Blighty for sunnier climes or were forced to leave these shores as punishment?
The transportation of prisoners to Australia rose to a climax during the late 18th century after a statute was passed during the reign of King George III. The standard sentence for transportation was for seven years but in more serious cases for life. Many escaped the gallows and suffered the inhumane conditions on board the prison ships. Not unlike those poor slaves that also had to endure months at sea in cramped and unsanitary ship hulks.
The first wave of the colonisation of Australia aptly named the ‘First Fleet’, took place in 1788. The 11 ships containing around 1500 men, women and children left Portsmouth in 1787 also laden with food supplies, clothing and livestock. The people on board were to be the founding fathers and mothers of the new colony, albeit a penal one.
The colony was established at a location now known as Port Jackson, further inland in Sydney Harbour than originally planned. Transported convicts were shipped in, in their thousands. The transportation of prisoners was abolished in 1868; by then a staggering 162,000 men and women had arrived on 806 ships.
Whilst exploring the archives at the History Centre on the subject of transportation, I discovered that we held some ‘Bonds and Contracts for the transportation of felons to the American colonies and plantations and elsewhere 1728-1789.’ Within these documents there are names of the Ships’ captains and felons; very useful information for those researching their convict ancestors.
I picked up the trail of a convicted thief, Sarah Varriner, in 1788. She was originally from Painswick, Gloucestershire but arrested, tried and sentenced in Wiltshire for the theft of gold and silver coins. The calendar of prisoners (shown below), lists her offence and committal in 1788.
Sarah Varriner was sentenced to 7 years transportation to the ‘Eastern Coast of New South Wales or some one or other of the islands adjacent’. She was bound for the ship ‘The Lady Juliana’ which was to be the first all female convict ship to leave for the new colony in Australia.
We’ve recently been enjoying the company of our Antipodean cousins visiting over the summer, here to explore back in time and research the histories of their families before emigration to the colonies. Wiltshire people have been making a new life overseas for many years and for many reasons, and I thought it was the ideal time to take a quick look at just some of them here.
In Australia the 19th century began with transportation to the colonies as an outlet for Britain’s prisons, and also for its asylums and workhouses, but it has been realised that these people had not made the most suitable workers for colonising and developing a country. In response an immigration policy tried to temp British people to Australia but it offered little financial support. In the early part of the 19th century, the decision to emigrate was either made for someone due to forced transportation, or it was a last resort, ‘the only escape from an intolerable situation’. As the years passed and communities became better established, the decision had more likely become one of a way to a better life with fewer worries over poverty. The British government had a policy of offering no financial aid except for some occasions of assisting the parish poor, and it meant the colonies were free to choose their potential emigrees. The British government were discussing a state aided scheme in both 1870 and 1886 but at least one province, Queensland, were adamant against losing control of their choice of settler. Private organisations also tried to set up schemes with little success and those who were trying to settle aided by guardians of the poor or public charities were also often refused at this time. By the end of the 19th century, the ‘quality’ of emigrants had much improved.
In the first part of the 19th century migration to America was from farmers; the Swing Riots of 1830 and fear of mechanisation may have affected this trend. It was during this period more than any other which saw the movement of people with other members of their families. The late 1820s had already seen a short-term rise in the number of workers from industry such as textile workers emigrating to America during the depression in the cotton industry. The majority of those emigrating at this time appear to have enough assets to sell to help them on their way, and for many it was not economic hardship, but a sense of concern over the changing economy and worries over their children’s standing and position in that society which affected their choices.
The 2014 Winter Olympics will soon be upon us, and as we'll be cheering on Pewsey’s very own Shelley Rudman, I thought I would bring to light another of Wiltshire’s pioneering sportswomen. Fanny Williams played for Swindon Town ladies football team in the 1920s. Ladies football developed during World War I when the employees of munitions factories formed teams to play each other. The Football Association banned ladies football on their grounds but the English Ladies Football Association was formed in 1921. A national Challenge Cup competition was begun in 1925. Fanny’s boots are kept at the Swindon Museum and Art Gallery.
Wiltshire can also be said to possess some famous athletics stars of the past. Walter George was reported to be the finest runner of the Victorian era, with a ‘phenomenal’ performance in 1886. He became a ‘national institution’ and was the sporting world’s very first superstar. His method of training involved brine baths and a ‘100-up’ exercise. He also enjoyed beer drinking and smoking, but still managed to produce a new ‘miracle mile’ that lasted for 29years. He was born in 1858 and suffered from asthma, croup and St. Vitus’ dance as a child. He lived in Calne; his father was a pharmacist whose clients came from many parts of Wiltshire. As a child he was encouraged to get lots of fresh air and went off running for an hour or two, especially around the area from Cherhill to Morgan’s Hill with the white horse and newly erected Lansdowne Monument. It was at Lillie Bridge on August 23rd, 1886 where Walter smashed the mile record by four seconds. One spectator stated that silence prevailed whilst waiting for the time to be displayed onto the board. Then a roar went up ‘Such a roar thrills me now as I write this... thousands broke loose from every quarter and rushed madly across the ground towards the victor’. It was the fastest mile in history at four minutes twelve and three quarters. Walter’s brother Alfred was also a title winning athlete who later managed the British team at the 1924 Olympics.