Dover Society Plaque, just off Market Square, showing where Medieval punishments took place in the Town

Dover Society Plaque, just off Market Square, showing where Medieval punishments took place in the Town

Some years ago the Dover Mercury published a series of articles of mine on the different Dover’s around the world. These can now be seen on the Dover Society web-site accessed from the Home page. One of those stories was about Dover, Tasmania, the name of which has its origins as a penal colony for transported English felons, particularly from East Kent.

During the 17th century the brutal punishment of  the medieval age slowly waned in towns like Dover giving way to gaoling and transportation. Proclamations were issued allowing the transportation from the country of vagrants and rogues and with the mainland Continent only 20-miles away, it was probable that such proclamations were frequently used in the town.

In 1718, the first national major legislation on transportation was passed. This established seven year banishment to North America as a possible punishment for those convicted of lesser felonies or where capital punishment was commuted. The administrative arrangements were placed on the county or borough authorities. The first Dovorian to be transported was Solomon Huffam in 1723 who was sent to America on board the Prince Royale. Of interest, when Huffam arrived he was sold to Thomas Pulleyn to work in servitude for his sentenced time but Huffam ran away and was never seen again!

Discovery 'Transportation' Hulk, Deptford 1828

Discovery ‘Transportation’ Hulk, Deptford 1828

The outbreak of the American War of Independence (1776-1783) closed the American colonies as a place for criminals and to deal with this an Act was passed in 1780 that allowed for sentences of transportation ‘to some parts beyond the seas either America or elsewhere.’ In reality this meant imprisonment on a convict ship moored in the Thames. Convict ships, or ‘hulks’ as they were called, were old warships where the convicts were shackled and everyday taken ashore at daylight. Usually they would break blocks for road mending until nightfall. On the hulks the conditions were overcrowded and the food was just enough to sustain the convicts. The death rate was one in three.

In 1770 Australia had been claimed as British territory so under the 1784 Transportation Act, New South Wales was designated as a place to send convicts. Three years later the first convict fleet arrived after a voyage of approximately six months. The convicts were shackled and locked in iron cages below decks and again the death rate was very high. Once in Australia the convicts lived in barracks and as on the hulks, were given just enough food to sustain them. Their sentence demanded that they were forced to do physical hard work for long hours without a break.

The penal colony in Dover, Tasmania was designed for 451 prisoners. Originally named Port Esperance after one of the ships under the command of the French Admiral Bruni D’Entrecasteaux, who had explored the area. It ceased to be a convict settlement in 1850 but the Commandant’s Office still exists. After that time the town developed as an important port shipping the highly prized strait trunked Huon pine, reputed to have natural durability and ease of use and was used in the construction of the Admiralty Harbour!

The infamous Aldington Gang, who had run smuggling operations from the Romney Marsh were transported to there. They had started operating at the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815), when smuggling had ceased to be seen as a legitimate profession in East Kent. They specialised in illegally importing wines, spirits and luxury items from the Continent, landing the contraband along the coast from Dungeness to Deal.

Adamsons Peak, Dover, Tasmania. Community Liaison Office, Dover, Tasmania

Adamsons Peak, Dover, Tasmania. Community Liaison Office, Dover, Tasmania

In July 1826, under the leadership of George Ransley, they were on Dover beach during the night when an altercation took place with the Coastal Blockade and Midshipman Richard Morgan was shot and killed. The Gang escaped but in October Ransley and gang members Samuel Bailey, Thomas Gilham and James Hogben were arrested on suspicion of murder. The trial took place at Maidstone Assizes in January 1827 and they were found guilty. However, as it was dark when the offence took place giving rise to doubt, the punishment was commuted to transportation to Dover, Tasmania. Ransley’s wife later joined him and following his release in 1838, they stayed and successfully ran a farm until his death in 1856.

Between 1787 and 1857, 162,000 British convicts were transported to Australia reaching a peak in the economically depressed years following the Napoleonic Wars. Typically, in the spring 1819, 47 felons were transported and for the same months in 1826, 116 felons were sent to Australia. The total cost that year to local tax payers, was £79.19.8d. The reasons given as to why the felons were transported varied. Records of the Dover area show that in 1840 Michael Upton age 23 and John Page age 29 were transported for 15 years. They had been found guilty of stealing two sheep and a sack. A year later, John North, age 30 of Hougham was transported for life following serious rape. He had been aided and abetted by Daniel Rigden, James Ridgen, Richard Marsh, John Martin, Stephen Parker and William Smitton who were also transported for life.

In 1845 William Denham, age 17 was found guilty of stealing a coat, a pair of trousers and other articles in Dover and was sentenced to ten years transportation. The next year, John Punch, age 20, and James Howard (alias James Punch), age 36, were found guilty of stealing a silver watch and were sentenced to transportation for 15 years. At the same time John Turner (alias William Davies), age 22 was found guilty of passing a counterfeit half-crown (12½p) at Alkham. He was sent to Australia for ten years. Then James Hounslow, carpenter age 30, was found guilty of feloniously marrying Sarah Jane Houghton widow, his wife being alive, he was sentence to 7 years transportation.

Transportation order by the High Sheriff of Kent, Edward Rice in 1830 - Centre for Kentish Studies

Transportation order by the High Sheriff of Kent, Edward Rice in 1830 – Centre for Kentish Studies

At Maidstone Assizes the judiciary was headed by the High Sheriff of Kent. This is the oldest secular office under the Crown and the High Sheriff, at that time, was the principal law enforcement officer in the County. Of interest John Minet Fector was the High Sheriff in 1805 and Edward Rice in 1830. History shows that John Minet Fector, prior to 1816, ran East Kent’s major smuggling ring and although he was put on trial in 1799, he was cleared. Edward Rice was free from suspicion but at the same time as John Minet Fector was heading illegal activities, Rice’s family were running similar pursuits.

As noted, all those found guilty and transported from east Kent usually were sent to Tasmania and sometimes  Western Australia. In 1840 transportation to New South Wales ended as a result of pressure from the authorities there. South Australia had never been used as a penal colony, although they had transported felons to other Australian colonies. By this time, however, it was beginning to be noticed that after completing their sentence many followed George Ransley’s example and stayed in the new country. This led to a change of attitude in the UK as the public saw transportation as a free passage to build a new life.

The Penal Servitude Act of 1857 abolished sentences of transportation but still allowed those sentenced to penal servitude to be taken overseas to serve part of their sentences. Ten years later this loop-hole was finally closed.

  • Published:
  • Dover Mercury 27 December 2006

About Lorraine

I am a local historian, whose love of Dover has lead to decades of research into some of the lesser known tales that this famous and beautiful town has to tell.
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