Paying penalty for crime... in far away Australia

THERE are some perennial themes that run through society.

One of these continues to be the nature of crime, criminals themselves, the length of prison sentences, the effectiveness of the judiciary and the human rights angles contained in all of these topics.

Even in the last few months there has been huge debate about prisons in Northern Ireland, with protests at HMP Magheraberry, apparent final political agreement on what to do with the former HMP Maze site and whether or not the funds are there to rebuild County Londonderry's jail at Magilligan.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Police today in Londonderry have adopted a policy of printing images of alleged offenders in local newspapers in a bid to capture them. And, more recently the Policing Board has told the PSNI to reconsider parts of this policy.

Debates on legal arguments these days are normally divided along the right and left wings of the political spectrum. However, there was a time when all things legal were treated in a much more simplistic manner - whether for good or for bad.

Records contained on the Irish National Archive website reveal lists of hundreds of men, women and children who were put on trial, sentenced and deported from Londonderry to Australia, most of whom never returned.

Transportation to Australia

Transportation punished both major and petty crimes in Great Britain and Ireland from the 17th century until well into the 19th century. A sentence could be for life or a specific period. The penal system required the convicts to work, on government projects such as road construction, building works and mining, or assigned to free individuals as unpaid labour. Women were expected to work as domestic servants and farm labourers.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

A convict who had served part of his time might apply for a ticket of leave permitting some prescribed freedoms. This enabled some convicts to resume a more normal life, to marry and raise a family, and a few to develop the colonies while removing them from the society. Exile was an essential component and thought a major deterrent. Transportation was also seen as a humane and productive alternative to execution, which would most likely have been the sentence to many if transportation had not been introduced.

What is clear from Irish National Archive records is that Londonderry in the 1700s and 1800s was a hive for all types of crime. Murder, assault, arson, abduction, rape, theft, 'pocket picking', bigamy, horse stealing and cattle rustling were amongst the offences committed by hundreds of convicts, who then left this city to be transported to the 'bottom of the world.'

'Tough on crime-tough on the causes of crime'

As ever, it is probable that poverty and unemployment played a significant part in the demise or downfall of many of those doomed to traverse the seas aboard prison ships. Those ships that sailed from many parts of Ireland including Londonderry had grand names that most certainly outweighed the 'grandeur' of the berths endured by their forced inhabitants. Some of the names of the Ships are listed on the records as the Duke of Cornwall, Blenheim, Diamond, Hyderabad, Clyde, Lord Auckland, Calcutta, Isabella and Blackfriar.

Doubtlessly these vessels have their own stories to tell, but of more interest are those who had no option but to travel on them.

Does the punishment fit the crime?

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

One of the first offenders recorded is a Nancy McIlhenry, who aged 24 in 1847 was convicted of manslaughter in Londonderry and sentenced to be transported to Australia for life. Only half her age was, 12-year-old Anne Campbell who was transported for seven years in 1841 for larceny - which could have been for just stealing food. In 1837, Denis Hennessey received a life sentence for stealing sheep-he was 22-years-old.

Moving up the scale of seriousness there appears to have been, even in those times, those pre-meditated enough in their thinking that they had constructed aliases for themselves.

Sentenced to seven years transportation for larceny in 1839, was 40-old-year Peggy Scott who was listed as having used the alternative surname Madole. And, Archibald McMaugh, given a similar sentence for the same offence in 1835 was listed as having the alias Archibald McMath.

Highway men and con artists

The exploits of Dick Turpin are still infamous in Britain, but his antics were also duplicated in Ireland and to this end a William Hutchinson was sent to Austraila for a 15 year stretch in 1839 for Highway Robbery.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The 'mercy of the law' also seems to have been a consideration almost two centuries ago when sentences were doled out in Londonderry. For example, 15-years-old William Smith sentenced to transportation for 10 years in the 1800s had his sentence commuted to one year in prison. And, 26-year-old Patrick McDaid, found guilty of murder on March 16, 1836 and sentenced to be hanged on Aril 7, 1836 had his death sentence commuted to life transportation. John McTeague, sentenced to a life sentence in Australia for "uttering forged notes" had his sentence commuted too, to six months in jail. But, 50-year-old John Wright was transported around the same time for "selling base (forged) coins."

Clemency is sought and sometimes granted

The story of 19-year-old Mary McCloy and her father Peter who were sentenced to death in Londonderry for 'setting fire to a house' had their sentences commuted to life transportation. Their documentation notes that they both "resided in the parish of Maghera, Londonderry".

It would also appear the judiciary were not completely immune to pleas of mitigation. Take for example the case of Eleanor Foley, a native of County Tipperary who was convicted in Londonderry of stealing a silver watch valued at 1 10 shillings, who implored clemency because as the records states: "Her father served in the Army for 27 years." Presumably Eleanor thought that her family's service to the Crown would gain leniency in her case. The record does not say what fate came her way in the end.

'Outlandish claims'

Perhaps the most outlandish plea for clemency came from one Robert Lindsay Craford in 1827. Sentenced to life 'down under' for horse stealing his petition read: "The convict states he comes from Scotland and is an heir to 'splendid estates and titles'. He says he was visiting friends in Londonderry where he was arrested for the alleged crime and he had referred to two former petitions which he had submitted."

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

A petition was also entered in the case of Robert Chambers sentenced to death in Londonderry for attempted murder in 1790. Mitigation was entered on Chambers' behalf and the documents record: "The convict was imprisoned in Derry Gaol and later removed to Newgate Prison in Dublin. A petition for clemency included a cover note from R Heyland, Dominick Street, Dublin advising that the petition be considered as the convict was aged between 50 and 60, has a wife and a daughter. He is a weaver by trade."

Stealing cattle

One sentence which was also heavily argued against came in 1823 from Hugh Loughery who was sentenced to life for stealing two "stirks" (heifers). His sister an M Loughery, of Coleraine petitioned on his behalf and there was the following substantial entry on his documents. It said: "There have been three petitions from the convict sent from Londonderry Gaol, Cork Depot, the Hulk (prison ship) Surprise, dated 18 April, 16 June and 24 August 1823 respectively. The convict has a wife and four children. Several character references have come from friends, neighbours and inhabitants of Gortmore Parish, Magilligan, Co Derry."

In 1799, Edward Jolly was sentenced to be detained in Australia for seven years. Whilst his crime is unspecified on the documents it states: "The convict prays permission to enlist in military service. The convict had escaped from prison in 1791. His parents are deceased. One brother is alive and is in the Army."

In 1825, John McIlwain was convicted and sentenced to 14 years transportation for stealing five shirts and a pillow case. His widowed mother entered a plea for clemency because he was her only source of support. His record shows he was a shoe maker by trade but does not record his eventual fate.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Some convicts also apparently accepted their fate. County Londonderry's Alex Boyd's name appears on a list of prisoners in 1828 asking if their wives and children could join them in Australia presumably to begin a new life after their 'bonds' had ended. Whilst the notes do not record his crime, it does state that he had been sentenced in 1822 and that his wife, Margaret Boyd "resided in the Liberties of Coleraine."

Hard times

Vagrancy was of course then a crime. 130 years before the Welfare State, if you couldn't work, you couldn't pay rent or indeed afford to eat. One case of a Londonderry man illustrates this well. In July 1827, William King was sentenced to transportation for being vagrant-pending the payment of an unspecified amount of bail to prevent his deportation.

William's record states: "He was confined to gaol for being a vagrant. He states his parents live in Londonderry City and that he was a coach maker by trade until he was forced to retire as a result of a knee injury. Included is a letter from Governor of Londonderry Gaol on April 24, 1827 that the convict be permitted to remain on the list."

On November 14, 1824 a Mary Haughey, was given a transportation order for possessing stolen cloth. Her record says: "The convict states she is far advanced in pregnancy and has three children, the eldest, seven years."


Hide Ad
Hide Ad

One man obviously thought that currying favour would bring leniency from his captors. In 1824, Denis Conor was convicted to transportation for receiving stolen flax at Londonderry. But, he received a character reference from a 'gaoler' at Derry Jail who noted: "This convict has been instrumental in preventing an escape."

Not so fortunate

However, a Michael McGuirk, was not so fortunate. Sentenced to transportation at Londonderry in 1849 for "stealing cereal articles", he died at Spike Island, Co Cork in 1852 having had his sentence commuted.

Mental health


The case of 36-year-old James McLoughlin sentenced to a ten year term in Australia in 1853 for "felonious assault" illustrates that there was a recognition of mental problems, if not perhaps of treatment for them. He had his sentence commuted to imprisonment at Dundrum Asylum.

'Political crime'-White Boys and Ribbonmen

The White Boys were a secret Irish agrarian organisation that in 18th-century Ireland which used violent tactics to defend tenant farmer land rights for subsistence farming. Their name derives from the white smocks the members wore in their nightly raids.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

They sought to address rack-rents, tithe collection, excessive priests' dues, evictions and other oppressive acts. As a result they targeted landlords and tithe collectors.

A later incarnation of this type of activity found expression within the Ribbonmen. The society was formed in response to the miserable conditions in which the vast majority of tenant farmers and rural workers lived in the early 19th century in Ireland. The agrarian objectives of this society were to prevent landlords from changing or evicting their tenants. They also attacked tithe and process servers, and later evolved the policy of Tenants' Rights.

However, it was clear that this type of activity was still active in the mid-1800's. On October 14, 1846, George Tanner Mullan was sentenced at Londonderry to seven years transportation for 'White Boy offences. Similar sentences for White Boy activity were meted out to George Mullar on May 8, 1847 and to John Feeney on the very same day.

23-year-old Michael Egan was given a seven year trip on February 25, 1842 for "Ribbonism."

End of the road

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

During the late 18th and 19th centuries, large numbers of prisoners were shipped to the various Australian penal colonies by the British Government. One of the main reasons for the British resettlement of Australia was the establishment of a penal colony to alleviate pressure on their overburdened prisons. In the 80 year period up to 1850 over 165,000 were transported. Whilst this number appears enormous the number of convicts paled in comparison to the number of immigrants who arrived in Australia during the gold rush of 1851-1871.

In 1852 alone, 370,000 immigrants arrived. By 1871, the population of Australia had almost quadrupled from 430,000 to 1.7 million. The last convicts to be transported arrived in Western Australia in 1868. Amongst them undoubtedly, were people from this city and county.