Sunday, July 22, 2012

Fourteen Years Hard Labour

by Prue Batten

If, like me, the generations of one’s family in Tasmania can be traced back to Settlement, then it is a fair enough assumption to believe there exists a convict somewhere in the family tree. My great great grandfather was such a man.

William Owen Millington was born on the 10th June, 1810. Where in England is not known precisely but given that he married his first wife, Mary, in Chipstead in 1836 and that he was tried and found guilty of his crime in Chichester in 1837, one must draw a circle around those areas and assume he and his family lived within that circle.

I rather like the description of Chipstead in the Domesday Book: its assets being three hides, seven ploughs, one mill, and woodland worth five hogs. I’m sure if William had realised that the whole of the Chipstead estate had been worth so little in the Domesday Book that he may not have followed the path he took so many years later. But then we know, don’t we, that value is a relative thing?

Convict carved highway milestone
Starvation is a terrible thing and as a carpenter he was unable to provide as he may have wished. At the age of twenty seven, William stole two sheep for the sustenance of his growing family. Found guilty of the theft, he was tried and sentenced to transportation to the penal island of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), where fourteen years hard labour was to be completed. His marriage with Mary, like that with all transported convicts, was annulled as he left.


Woodwork such as William would have done
He was transported from Southampton on the William Bemtick and after sailing in miserable hulk conditions to the other side of the world, arrived in Hobart on 26th of August, 1838. Tasmania as a penal colony had been in existence for some 30 years at this point and the town of Hobart had been established and outlying settlements were growing with the opening up of valuable agricultural holdings. The town of Bothwell in the Central Highlands of Tasmania was one such and it was William’s good fortune that he was a competent carpenter and was sent there to serve his time, indentured to a resident vicar.

Bothwell was a town that served large pastoral estates of cattle and sheep graziers and in the first two decades of its settlement, churches, a school, soldiers’ barracks and hotels were built, so there was scope for William to tow the line and earn his pardon.

One of the Bothwell houses

No convict could work for money, it was a condition of the sentence. At best he had minimal shelter, clothing and sustenance and could expect no more, so one wonders why my great great grandfather could have been so ill advised as to present an invoice for his work to the vicar. He was of course lashed, how many times we are unable to ascertain, but enough to make sure he trod the straight and narrow through the hot highland summers and freezing winters that Bothwell offered, until he became a free man in 1851.

I always wonder why he didn’t hasten then to the goldfields of Ballarat and Bendigo on the mainland for what is euphemistically called the Great Australian Goldrush. And where it is often claimed, the true Australian identity began to form. Instead, with the desire for major wealth no doubt beaten out of him, he settled in Hobart and married again – to a widow called Elizabeth in Saint David’s Church of England, later Hobart’s Saint David’s Cathedral. He continued his carpentry trade but as often happened with carpenters historically, also became a Hobart undertaker.

Remains of a "humane" cell at Port Arthur
William Owen Millington was lucky to be sent to Bothwell as an indentured convict rather than be shipped to the misnamed ‘model’ (meaning humane) prison of Port Arthur, lucky too that the infamous hell hole of Sarah Island in the far west had ceased operations in 1833. In both instances he may well have been lucky to survive. His trade was a gift, the opening of pastoral lands with towns close by a godsend, and he lived to tell the tale.

As members of the family have tried to track down William’s descendants in England, it has become obvious that many don’t know that ‘lost’ William was in fact a convict. Perhaps there remains the need to ignore such skeletons whereas here in the colonies, one knows one has truly ‘made it’ if one can show such a thing in one’s own ancestry.

What I find most astonishing is that this many years later, William’s great great great grandson, my own son, is a qualified joiner and carpenter but also, ironically, a working member of a family of sheep farmers.


* Prue’s first foray into historical fiction is set in medieval times and was recently #3 behind Jane Austen and Lucinda Brant in Amazon Kindle rankings.
Described as ‘Mesmeric and exact. Spellbinding…’ Gisborne: Book of Pawns is available via


10 comments:

  1. Wonderful historical insight into Tasmania's dark history.

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  2. Thanks, Margaret. I only found out about William last year and was thrilled and have filed the details in that part of my mind where stories might be birthed.

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  3. Wonderful insight into the family, Prue!

    And isn't it just as wonderful that in the 21st Century we Australians can claim our convict ancestors with pride! Remember those days as a child when one never mentioned a convict ancestor for fear of being "tarred with the same brush"? Never was there mention the reasons why men, such as your ancestor, stole sheep, out of necessity for fear of their family starving.

    Now, if I can only get myself transported to Tasmania... plenty of sheep here in NZ! : - )

    Looking forward to joining you!
    Thanks for sharing.

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  4. Wow, what a fascinating history to uncover for your family! It's bizarre to think that he was sentenced to 14 years' hard labour for stealing 2 sheep. These days it would probably be a slap on the wrist. Thanks for sharing such a wonderful story :)

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  5. The story of the 'hell hole of Sarah Island' is indeed an amazing one. I was privileged to visit Tasmania earlier this year - a wonderful, marvellous, place made all the more moving by the knowledge that it was settled by Europeans a mere 200 years ago. The cruelty - towards the indigenous people and towards the convict settlers, is hard to believe and the memorials in the churchyards are ever-poignant. I loved the way that visitors staying at the Henry Jones Hotel in Hobart are given a (free) computer print-out showing the names and arrival dates of all convicts sharing the surname of the visitor. I was especially pleased with this because it revealed far more possible convict ancestors for my wife than for me...

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  6. What struck me as unbelievably cruel was the annulment of the marriage by the State. And this, for a mere matter of stealing sheep!

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  7. Do you know what happened to his first wife? And, I'm assuming child, since there are descendants in England. Did they suffer a shunning or how were they fed? Fascinating story, I always like to know the details! :-)

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  8. Very fascinating. There is a genealogical one name study for the surname of Millington. Visit theGuild of One Name Studies site at www.one-name.org & enter Millington in the search box. The researcher is himself a Millington.

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  9. The cruel annulment of the first marriage surprised me too, but I can see a certain logic in it: it offered the opportunity for the first wife to marry again and thus for herself and the children to be looked after. Otherwise it would have been tremendous hardship for the wives left behind, with no provider and possibly no other means of feeding their families. Except maybe through the "oldest profession in the world"...

    It makes me wonder, though, if marriages were also annulled when a woman was transported, or whether this law existed only to stop the wives remaining in England from "falling into disrepute". A fascinating family history.

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  10. I am to be charged and found guilty for not replying to any comments on this post but at the time, I put myself into semi-purdah to try and finish a novel whose required date of completion is the end of October.

    I do apologise and thank all who commented, particularly Anglers' Rest whose information I shall certainly follow up. And also Mike Wendell, who has had the 'experience' of a place that grew from its convict heritage.

    June A, we do have details of the 'other' family in the UK, but as this story is essentially about the roots from which my own tree grew, I haven't included detail. I also felt they may prefer privacy. They are a lovely group of connections to have.

    Thank you every one for your interest and engagement.

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