STORY OF A MOONRAKER
Keith Desmond Reeve
Moonraker: A small sail carried above the skysail
Moonraking: The following of crazy fancies
Moonraker: A Wiltshireman
I was born at Franklin in the Huon district of Tasmania, Australia and in recent years have extensively researched my family history. All my great-grandparents came to Tasmania (then called Van Diemen’s Land) from England and Scotland by sailing-ship in the mid-nineteenth century. My Reeve ancestry is detailed in Ref. 1 and my Norris, Coleman, McIntosh, Ford and Griggs ancestry is detailed in a book entitled “About My Ancestors” (ISBN 0 646 45706 3, Keith Desmond Reeve, March 2006).
In January 2005, my attention was drawn to a recently-published book entitled “A History of the Huon and the Far South”2. This scholarly book (hereinafter referred to as “The Huon History Book”) re-awakened my interest in my family history, particularly in the ancestry of my paternal grandmother.
I already knew that my father’s mother had been born Elizabeth Sarah Norris in 1855 at Franklin and that her parents were Thomas Norris and his wife Maria, née Coleman. A photo of Thomas and Maria aged around 60 appears in Chapter 2 of this Book. My parents had told me that Thomas and Maria had come out from England to Tasmania in the nineteenth century. But that was all I did know until a few months ago.
So what did I read in the Huon History Book that so fascinated me? Well, it started with the statement3 that a James Coleman had been sent out to Van Diemen’s Land as a convict in 1821, having been sentenced to transportation for seven years, leaving behind a wife and two small children in England. But what really amazed me was to read4 that in the 1850s, more than 30 years after James’ transportation, his two children Maria and William and their families joined him in Van Diemen’s Land! Maria was now Maria Norris, married to Thomas Norris. These were my maternal great-grandparents whose photo was in my possession! James Coleman must have kept in very good contact with his son and daughter over the years and must have arranged for someone to write to them very enthusiastically about the opportunities he saw for them in the colony. Almost certainly, their mother in England had died by this time, and perhaps her death (we don’t know when) had been the trigger for their final decision to take the huge step of emigration, knowing that they would never see England again.
So, I thought, perhaps I have convict ancestry! I say perhaps, because I felt that I should independently verify the alleged connection between James Coleman and my ancestors Maria Coleman and Thomas Norris. So I obtained various documents from the Archives Office of Tasmania (AOT) and the Tasmanian Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages (Tas-BDM), which proved beyond doubt that James Coleman was my great-great-grandfather. I also consulted extensively the “Colonial Tasmanian Family Links” database on the AOT Website5, the AOT’s “Tasmanian Pioneer Index” on CD-ROM6, and the “Ancestral File” and IGI databases* on the LDS Family History Website7. (* I acknowledge that these LDS databases are based on family history research by others and should ideally be verified by consulting the original documents – which I did not do. However, I was able to confirm a great deal of the LDS data by cross-checking with definitive “Tasmanian Pioneer Index”).
My research showed that James Coleman was born at North Bradley, Wiltshire sometime during the period 1794-17987. James’ parents were William Coleman and Sarah Rundle. The next fact we know is that two children were born to James and his wife, who may have been called Norah8:
•William Coleman, b. 1818-18195, probably at Rode, Somerset, and
•Maria Coleman, b. at Rode on 23rd September 18207
Maria was christened at North Bradley, Wiltshire soon after her birth, suggesting that the family lived in Rode but attended a church in North Bradley.
Then, less than one year after Maria’s birth, disaster struck! Her father James Coleman was arrested at Rode for highway robbery9! He was tried and sentenced at North Bradley on 31st March 1821 to transportation on the “Lord Hungerford” to Van Diemen’s Land for 7 years, with an emancipation date of 3rd April 1828. At some stage, probably before his trial, he spent some time in a local gaol, from which his report reads “Very bad character – disorderly”. His own statement at the trial says (sic): “Confession – wife and two children at Rhodes, Wilts – father at native place North Bradley”. Then, following his conviction and while awaiting transportation, he was sent to one of the infamous prison hulks that were then moored along the Thames. His report from the hulks reads “orderly”.
James pre-trial occupation is given as “farmer’s labourer and ploughman”. His age is given as 24, which suggests a birth year of 1797. His height was 5ft 3¼ and he was probably stocky and “very powerful”10. He had some kind of mark on his left arm, which was probably a tattoo. The spidery writing on the photocopied Convict Shipping Record looks like “W.C.” Others of his fellow transportees obviously had tattoos on their arms, one of which read “sun, moon, anchor, man and woman”!
The “Lord Hungerford” arrived at Hobart Town on 26th December 1821. James’ movements over the following decade are uncertain. The first known fact from this period is that in February 1831 he applied for permission to marry11. This was necessary because his wife-to-be, Margaret Thomson, was a convict still within her period of sentence. James’ home parish is given as “Macquarie” and Margaret’s as “New Norfolk”. They were duly married12 at New Norfolk on 4th April 1831.
Margaret Thomson (also known as McKenzie), aged 35, had arrived as a convict in 1829 on the “Harmony”13. The IGI gives her father as John Thomson and records a marriage on 11 January 1811 to Alexander McKinzie (sic) at Canongate, Edinburgh. She was convicted at Edinburgh on 12th July 1828 and transported for seven years for theft13,14. She had been in gaol before, from which her gaol report reads “bad character, artful disposition, convicted and in prison before, connections decent, former course of life very irregular, married with 4 children”. Her own statement of offence at the trial reads (sic) “Housebreaking, once 30 days for bad company, mother and two brothers at Cannon gate Street, McKenzie Husband dead 7 years ago, my children are at service, was married, 4 children”. In her transportation record she is described as a “servant of all work and plain cook”. She had also been a nurse in a fever hospital and had two (unspecified) certificates with her. She seems not to have been sent to the hulks as James Coleman had been.
Unfortunately, Margaret’s exploits seem to have continued for a while in Van Diemen’s Land14. On 23rd January 1830 she was reported for “Smoking tobacco and neglect of duty”. Then on 9th November 1831 she was tried for “Keeping a Disorderly House” and sentenced to (sic): “3 months Crime Classification House of Correction and returned to her husband”. This was probably a suspended sentence. But then on 20th August 1832 she was again convicted, receiving a 12 months Crime Classification for “Drunk and Disorderly and Keeping a Very Disorderly House”. There is no mention of a return to her husband, so perhaps her sentence was not suspended this time. These records do not state the place of her trial or where they lived at the time.
On December 9th 1831, James had also fallen foul of the law again, albeit in a minor way. He was convicted9 for “wilfully trespassing on the crops and fences of Mr W. Dean” (probably at Macquarie Plains3) and ordered to pay damages and costs of 4/6d. This was surely a minor crime – maybe not even a crime at all by today’s standards - compared with those of his wife.
Did James and Margaret stay together after this disastrous beginning? Census data for the years 1842, 1843 and 1851 reveal8 that throughout this period James was living with a woman as his wife. While this is not definitive, as the ‘wife’ could have been a de facto for some or all of these years, in 1842 and 1851 the wife’s religion is listed as the Church of Scotland, so it is likely that this was indeed James’ true wife Margaret. A slight complication is that in 1843 the wife’s religion is listed as the Church of England! Was this an entry error in the Census or did Margaret leave James with a de facto in 1843 and return to him sometime between 1843 and 1851? I think it was probably an entry error, but we cannot be sure and some doubt must linger.
Margaret Coleman died6 at age 65 on 26th January 1855. An inquest into her death was held at Franklin, strongly suggesting that she and James were living there, probably together, at the time of her death. The Coroner found21 that she was ‘labouring under disease of the heart and that her death was caused by excessive drinking’. So while it seems likely that James and Margaret stayed together for most if not all of their marriage, we do not know to what extent Margaret had reformed. A charitable speculation is that she had tried to reform but her health had been irreparably damaged by her earlier ways.
Going back a little, in the 1830s James Coleman’s life had taken a dramatic and most welcome upturn. In 1838 Lady Franklin, wife of the newly-arrived Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Franklin, began the development on a tenant-farmer basis of what was to become the Huon township of Franklin but was originally called “Fernlands”15. In 1841, Lady Franklin wrote16: “Mr Price looked in and recommended me to employ Coleman to plant and gather my crops at the Huon, at a salary of £50 per year, and let him clear 5 acres for himself, to be given over to me at the end of 5 years”. This apparently happened.
John Price was an aristocratic free settler who in 1836 had made the first substantial land purchase of 1280 acres at Fernlands, re-selling it to Lady Franklin in 184017. James Coleman may possibly have worked for John Price from some time between 1836 and 1841. We do not know how Mr Price knew James Coleman, but it may even have been through Mr William Dean, the prominent Derwent Valley farmer upon whose crops James had trespassed in 1831. It is nice to speculate that James may have later redeemed himself in Mr Dean’s eyes, sufficient to warrant a favour. Anyway, it was providential for James to have John Price as a contact and referee, as Lady Franklin was known to very particular about the kind of people she employed.
After five years of actively fostering Fernlands, Lady Franklin left the colony in 1843 when her husband’s term as Lieutenant-Governor had expired. Lady Franklin made her farewell visit to Fernlands in November of that year. She refers18 to Mrs Coleman and ‘Coleman’ being present at the farewell Church service and the function afterwards, referring to Coleman as one of her tenants. Before leaving Fernlands for good, she (sic) “visited also the new white-washed cottage of James Coleman, which is the neatest I have seen in the settlement. It consists of three rooms, viz. The entrance one, which is a kitchen, and part on a bedroom, and a 3rd furnished with a table and 2 benches … which Mrs Coleman informed me was used for praying. Geeves comes there with his followers. They pray and sing and he reads a sermon from a book”. Lady Franklin was then rowed to her schooner for her last return to Hobart Town by James Coleman and other oarsmen.
Note the very favourable description of Mrs Coleman. If this is indeed Margaret Coleman, what a transformation from Margaret Thomson, the transported convict, and from Margaret Coleman in the first years of her marriage to James! But, as I said above, some doubt must linger.
As well as being a tenant farmer, James purchased two lots of land at Fernlands in his own right4, one of 5 acres in 1848 and one of 9¾ acres in 1853. He does not seem to have lived on either of them, because in 1858 he is still listed as “a tenant of Lady Franklin’s Trustees”. I believe that for some time James had been planning ahead to apply for his two children, William and Maria, now both married with children of their own, to join him in the Colony as assisted immigrants4. This was apparently why he purchased the two lots of land at Fernlands. To have kept in contact with his son and daughter for over 30 years and to have eventually persuaded them to leave the places of their forefathers in Somerset and Wiltshire for a new life in a virtually unknown country was I think astounding. This is even more remarkable, because on his own admission he could not read10, and so of course he could not write either. He would have needed a good friend indeed to write letters for him. And remember, his children would have had no clear memories of ever having seen their father before! I wonder whether he established contact with them as children or as adults, by which time he was a reformed character?
William Coleman had been born in 1818-9 and was around three years old when his father was snatched away, while Maria Coleman, born on 23rd September 1820, was only six months old. At age 22, William married 17-years-old Charlotte Applegate7 at North Bradley, while at age 20 Maria married Thomas Norris7, aged 23, also at North Bradley. It is possible that Thomas had had a brief marriage before, to a lady called Nellie7, who was four years his junior. If this was so, Nellie would certainly have died within a year or two of their marriage.
Thomas Norris (an ‘agricultural labourer’), his wife Maria and their children were the first to emigrate. Their Shipping Record19 gives James Coleman, father, as the person on whose application they were sent out. They sailed from Southampton on the “Northumberland” on 9th April 1854 and arrived at Hobart Town on 25th July. With them were their six children Anne (12), James (10), Hannah (8), William (5), Jabez (3) and John (an infant).
William Coleman (a ‘farm labourer’) and Charlotte (a ‘general servant’) and their six children followed Thomas and Maria in 1856. The Shipping Record20 again gives James Coleman as the Applicant. They sailed from Liverpool on the “Sir W.F. Williams” on 10th September 1856 and arrived at Hobart Town on 2nd December. Sadly, their infant child John Thomas Coleman died at sea on 29th October, aged 10 months. The older children were George James (10), Eliza Jane (9), Charles (8), Mary Anne (6) and Louisa (2½).
It is impossible to know how William and Maria felt when they eventually met their long-lost father James Coleman. Maria would also have met her then step-mother Margaret upon arrival, while William would have met his new step-mother Catherine (see later).
The Norris and Coleman Jr families presumably settled on the two lots of land that James had purchase at Fernlands/Franklin and remained there for the remainder of their lives. I don’t know where these properties were at Franklin. A son of John Norris, Roy, lived on the adjacent property to my Reeve grandparents on the New Rd, Franklin, but this was probably not one of the original land purchases.
Four more children were born6 to Thomas and Maria Norris at Franklin, the first of whom was Elizabeth Sarah Norris, my grandmother-to-be, born on 24th October 1855. The others were Maria (1857) (who was later known to my father as “Auntie My”), Joseph (1857), and Thomas (1859). Sadly, Thomas died in 1861, aged 1. And two more children were born6 to William and Charlotte, namely Martha Mary (1858) and William (1861). Also sadly, Charlotte died6 at only 43 years of age on 10th July 1866.
On 23rd July 1855, six months after Margaret Coleman’s death, James married a lady named Catherine Croak6,7 at Hobart. Thomas and Maria Norris were witnesses8 to the marriage. I have found no record of a previous marriage for Catherine. She died at Franklin at age 68 on 25th January 1860. This time, James waited longer to re-marry. His fourth and last wife was Elizabeth Small, whom he married6,7 at Franklin on 25th December (Christmas Day!) 1866. Elizabeth’s age is given as 55. This record of marriages may seem unlikely were it not for his own admission (or was it a boast?) that he had been married four times (see below).
James Coleman (‘carpenter’) died of old age6,7,22 at Franklin on 6th July 1883. From his probable birth year range of 1794-1798 he would have been 85-89. However, he seems to have believed that he was considerably older. At the time of his marriage to Elizabeth Small in 1866, he gave his age as 86, suggesting a birth year of 1780! And in the following fascinating newspaper item10 from 1878, he gives his age as 100, suggesting a birth year of 1778. But, five years earlier, in 1873, he had emphatically stated23 his age as 104 and claimed to remember the Battle of Waterloo at an age of over 40, having heard of the victory “when driving my team home”. This suggests a birth year of ~1770! Yes, he was a ploughman in Wiltshire in 1815, but aged only around 20, not 40.
At the time of the 1878 article I think James Coleman was no older than 84. Note that he also overstates his son William Coleman’s age as nearly 80, when he was in fact around 60!
But enough of this speculation - now let us give James Coleman the chance to speak for himself!
From the Tasmanian Mail, 23 March 1878, page 14
A CENTENARIAN. – In the township of the Franklin there lives an old man who has far exceeded the three score years and ten allotted to man as his servitude on earth. Mr James Coleman, a native¬ of Wiltshire, is in his 101st year. He has during¬ the past two years lost the use of his legs, which now refuse to do their functions; and though, with the exception named, in the full use of bodily and mental faculties, is now compelled to keep to his couch. His sight is as keen as ever, and his narration of his youthful reminiscences is most amusing. The old man suffers temporarily from deafness, and when so afflicted will converse very little with strangers, as he cannot hear their replies. He humorously styles himself as a “moonraker”. As a young man he was very powerful, and most useful in the district in which he has spent the greater portion of the 51 years he has been in the colony. It is only within the last few years he has been unable to move about freely, and his declining years are perhaps rendered somewhat melancholy from his inability to read. He delights in looking over the various illustrated papers which sympathisers frequently send him, and there is large family of children, step-children, and grandchildren, for the centenarian has four times ventured on the matrimonial sea. The father of Coleman was also a century man, and one of his own sons who lives with him is nearly eighty years of age. The old man is tenderly cared for by his grandson and his wife.
Yes, James Coleman seems to have been a ‘moonraker’ in every sense. A Wiltshireman and very proud of it. A teller of fantastic and not always strictly true tales. A man of action who not always acted wisely. A man not afraid of the ‘matrimonial sea’. A humourist. And, even in the face of increasing infirmity, a man still interested in life!
Some final facts;
The son who lived with James Coleman in 1878 was certainly his widowed son William, and James’ wife was no doubt Elizabeth. His grandson was almost certainly William Coleman’s son Charles, who reported James’ death22. Charles would then have been aged 35 and was probably single.
Elizabeth Coleman seems to have outlived her husband by a few months. In the Tasmanian Pioneer Index6, there is no death recorded for her at Franklin up to 1899, but there is a death for an Elizabeth Coleman in Hobart on 5th August 1883, aged 72, which is the right age for her.
I have found no birth records in the Tasmanian Pioneer Index relating to any of James’ wives Margaret, Catherine or Elizabeth, so who were the ‘step-children’ mentioned in the newspaper article? I have found only one possibility so far. On 14th November 1886, a Jessie McKenzie, aged 71, died6 at Franklin. Jessie was not born in Tasmania6 and I could find no obvious Tasmanian relatives for her. So could she have been an unmarried daughter of Margaret Thomson/McKenzie/Coleman who had perhaps come out from Edinburgh to join her mother? Jessie would have been the right age to be a daughter of Margaret. However, this is pure speculation, and I must now let the matter rest.
Maria Norris died6,7 at age 66 on 13th March 1887. Her death, from old age and bronchitis, was reported24 by her son John, who was then around 34. John had married6 Louise Voss at Franklin in 1880. William Coleman died6 at age 75 on 5th June 1893. Thomas Norris (‘farmer’) outlived them all, living until 21 June 1899. His death6,7, from old age and blood poisoning, was also reported by his and Maria’s son John 22. But this was not before Thomas Norris had married again6,7, on 28th January 1888 at the (for then) ripe old age of 71. His third wife was Alice Minchin, born in 1828 probably in Ireland. Alice died7 in 1910.
My grandmother, Elizabeth Sarah Norris, became a governess in Hobart and in 1878 she married Clement Reeve Jr, my paternal grandfather, in Hobart. Clement Jr was a son of Clement Reeve Sr, who had come out from Norfolk with his family in 1855 to be a Local Preacher in the young but growing Methodist Church Circuit based on Franklin. Clement Jr had been a baby of 6 months during the family’s outward voyage on the “Marco Polo”. He went on to follow his father as a Local Preacher in the Franklin Methodist Church. So the grand-daughter of a reformed convict married a prominent Methodist preacher. Perhaps this could only happen in Australia
EPILOGUE: THE MOONRAKER LEGEND
People from Wiltshire are often known as Moonrakers and the term is a source of great pride for natives of that County. There are a number of variations to the legend that spawned this name but it is generally thought to be about a band of smugglers. On a bright moonlit night, they were transporting some casks of contraband (probably kegs of French Brandy) past a pond. Suddenly, the donkey carrying the casks was startled and the casks fell into the pond. The smugglers grabbed some hay rakes they found nearby and tried to hook them onto the casks underneath the water to retrieve the valuable goods. An Exciseman passing by on his horse saw them raking the pond, with the full moon reflected in the water. When he questioned them about their strange behaviour, their quick-witted response was that they were raking out the cheese they could see in the water. The Exciseman laughed himself silly and told everybody about the stupid country folk – but he never knew that, in fact, they were the ones who had fooled him!
1. Reeve, Keith Desmond, “My Collected Reeve Family History Research”, 2004,
2. Woolley, Richie and Smith, Wayne, “A History of the Huon and the Far South, Volume 1:
Before the Orchards Grew”, 2004, ISBN 0 9856053 0 5
3. p.84 in Ref. 2
4. p.96 in Ref. 2
5. Archives Office of Tasmania (AOT) Website http://www.archives.tas.gov.au
6. Tasmanian Pioneer Index 1803-1899 (CD-ROM), Archives Office of Tasmania and Macbeth
Genealogical Services Pty Ltd, September 2003, ISBN 1 920 757 03 1
7. IGI and Ancestral Files on the LDS Website http://familysearch.org
8. Richie Woolley, private communication
9. AOT CON 31/6, No. 431; AOT CON 23/1 No. 431
10. p.14 in: ‘Tasmanian Mail’, 23 March 1878 (copy kindly supplied by Richie Woolley). A similar article had appeared in the ‘Mercury’ on 19th March 1878
11. AOT CON 45/1, Nos 431 and 53
12. Marriage Certificate copy held by the Author; also RC&D 36/2, 1831/1707, New Norfolk
13. AOT MM 33/1, No. 53 p. 284; AOT CON 19/13, p.46
14. AOT CON 40/9, p.175
15. pp 74ff in Ref. 2
16. pp 83-84 in Ref. 2
17. pp 63 and 75 in Ref. 2
18. pp 87-88 in Ref. 2
19. AOT Shipping Record for the Northumberland, sailed 9th April 1854, pp 128-9
20. AOT CB7/12/6, pp. 296-7
21. Richie Woolley, private communication, quoting from AOT SC 195/35, No. 3427
22. Death Certificate held by the Author
23. Richie Woolley, private communication, citing a letter in the ‘Mercury’ on 19th March 1878
from a correspondent named Bressland House who had talked with James Coleman in 1873.
24. p.8 in The Weekly Courier, 8th June 1908 – Article on Franklin by J.W. Beattie (copy kindly supplied by
my cousin Dorothy Crocker).
Keith Desmond Reeve
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