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Have you Lost an Ancestor? Go to Jail!

by Henry Walter Townsend


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What can be more exasperating than losing a direct-line ancestor when your researches are going well?

You may try looking in all the surrounding parishes to no avail. You may ask yourself whether he joined the army, or was pressed into navy service, or had he died and his demise somehow been missed from all the records? Or could your pillar of society have ended up in jail?

Faced with such a dilemma, I searched high and low when my four-times great- grandfather, Henry Townsend, a day-labourer in the Oxfordshire village of Shipton-under-Wychwood, disappeared from the Parish Records.

I found his Baptism, his Marriage and the Baptisms of his six children, then - nothing. His wife, Sarah, died and was buried in the village in 1826, at the age of 79, but Henry did not appear to be mentioned again after the Christening of his youngest son, my three-times great- grandfather, Limborough Townsend, in January 1790.

Then, quite by chance, a fellow researcher’s casual remark pointed me in the direction of the Calendar of Prisoners for Oxford Gaol.

I looked and found:

3 MAR 1790 - LENT ASSIZES. David Fell, High Sheriff.
Committed by F. Penyton and Edward Witts Esqs.
HENRY TOWNSEND 40, JOHN WILKES 36, WILLIAM PERKINS 34, Charged on confession of Henry Burson (now in Gloucester Gaol) with having committed in the night of 9 Jan 1790 in company with said Henry Burson, a burglary and felony in the house of Mr. Benjamin Haynes, grocer of Burford.

What an exciting paper-chase that discovery started, leading me eventually to The National Archives at Kew which turned up trumps, allowing me to follow the short life of Henry Townsend to his death and burial. After establishing that this was indeed my Henry, I found the papers relating to his trial and uncovered a tale of armed robbery, betrayal by one of the gang, a speedy arrest and appearance in court within four days.

After Henry’s arrest and incarceration in Oxford Gaol, the aggrieved victim of the robbery, which involved silver plate to the value of some forty pounds, signed a recognizance that he would forfeit £100 if he failed to prosecute the culprits.

At the same time a Female Servant who was in the house at the time of the burglary was made to sign a recognizance for £50 that she would give evidence.

Considering wage-rates at that time these were huge sums of money, perhaps equating to £20,000 and £10,000 today, so there was little chance of the prosecution not going ahead.

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"In court, the maid told a harrowing story of her ordeal."

In court the maid told a harrowing story of her ordeal at the hands of the burglars and, in doing so, gave a brief description of my ancestor:

"Damn your soul if you won't hold your tongue I will blow your brains out"

“…….The little Man then turned himself towards this informant & said “Damn your soul if you won’t hold your tongue I will blow your brains out”, and as he turned and swore, this informant had a sight of one side of his face, and by the size of his Person, seeing his face and by his voice (she, this informant having as she believed heard him often speak before that time), she says that this little man was Henry Townsend of Shipton under Wychwood in the County of Oxford labourer.”

It appears that the maid did not let on that she knew the burglar until after he had been arrested, which probably means that she was well acquainted with Henry Townsend and was fearful of the consequences if she spoke up.

The result was that, after a very quick trial, Henry Townsend was sentenced to death along with one of his accomplices, William Perkins.

There followed a reprieve and then a Royal Pardon with the condition that he was transported to New South Wales for seven years.

After languishing in Oxford Gaol for over a year he was put on board the Britannia transport ship, anchored in the Thames, and began a seven-month voyage to the other side of the world as one of 2,000 convicts on the Third Fleet of ten ships sent out to help establish the new colony.

After seven months of unimaginable suffering, starving, thirsty, disease ridden, in chains, kept below decks for almost the whole voyage, the storm-tossed Henry Townsend, who had never even seen the sea before he boarded the Britannia, arrived at Sydney Cove.

The Chaplain to the newly formed and struggling colony, the Rev. Richard Johnson, wrote to a friend at home:

“The landing of these people was truly affecting and shocking - great numbers were not able to walk, nor move hand or foot - such were slung over the ship side in the same manner as they would sling a cask, a box or anything of that nature - upon their being brought up to the open air, some fainted - some died upon Deck and others in the boat before they reached the Shore.

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When come on shore many were not able to walk, to stand, or to stir themselves in the least - hence some were led by others, some creeped upon their hands and knees, and some were carried upon the Backs of others.

The Misery I saw amongst them is unexpressible - many were not able to turn or even to stir themselves and in this situation were covered over almost with their own nastiness - their heads, bodies, cloths, blanket, all full of filth and Lice.

Scurvy was not the only, nor the worst disease that prevailed amongst them (one man I visited this morning I think I may say safely had 10,000 lice upon his body and bed) - some were exercised with violent fevers and others with a no less violent purging and flux - the complaints they had to make were no less affecting to the ear than their outward condition was to the eye.”

Poor Henry died in December 1791 as the result of the appalling treatment received at the hands of the private ship owners, who treated the convicts worse than those slaves they had previously carried. Slaves were valuable, convicts had no value.

He lived for just seven weeks after he arrived in Australia, and his burial was recorded in the church register of St. Phillip’s Church in Sydney. He was one of many. Of the 152 convicts that sailed on the Britannia, 69 were dead within the year.

Those Henry left behind at home must have suffered too. Did Henry’s wife Sarah ever learn of his fate, or did she die 35 years later still wondering what had happened to him, still expecting him to return?

She probably didn’t know that once he had been transported there was little chance of her ever seeing him again.

The British Government, not wishing to deplete the Colony’s manpower, deliberately made no arrangements for bringing the convicts home when they had served their sentences, in fact returning was actively discouraged.

Henry Townsend, labourer, husband, father, pauper turned criminal, died 14,000 miles from Shipton-under-Wychwood leaving Sarah to raise his children.

Had he survived he would have enjoyed more than twenty grandchildren, who kept his line going forward until the present day when his descendants are scattered over the globe.

It may affect the sensibilities of some to discover that an ancestor was an armed robber, sentenced to death for his crimes, but it cannot be denied that it adds excitement and a bit of spice to researching ones family history, especially when the proceedings are so well documented.

I have heard it said that if you have a wealthy man, a criminal or a pauper in your background, you should find him well documented. And so it turned out.

My family history research started in the East Riding village of Burton Fleming, my father’s birthplace, but quickly led me south to Oxfordshire, where my Townsend line flourished for centuries, and then, in this case, to the other side of the world following an exciting but sad tale of my namesake, Henry Townsend (1749 – 1791).

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12 Month subcription to Discover Your Ancestors Online MagazineAlong with providing access to Census, BMDs, Non-Conformist Records, Wills and more, the Diamond subscription gives you access to record collections that make it easy to find so much more about your ancestors.

You'll also enjoy a free 12 month subscription to Discover Your Ancestors online magazine worth £24.95, saving you a total of £44.95!

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