Hunter Valley Convict

Discovery at Deptford ... an example of a convict hulk

Discovery at Deptford … an example of a convict hulk (public domain)

Thomas Henry Fuller is my 3rd great grandfather.  Initially he was shrouded in darkness and all I knew about him was that he had married (although since I can not find a proof of marriage this is still up for debate) my 3rd great grandmother in 1850 in Sydney, NSW.  They had at least ten children and I am descended through their daughter Ellen.

I began to suspect that Thomas was a convict when I couldn’t find him on any of the shipping records.  I had found other descendants that had begun tracing the family tree and they claimed that he had been born in Camridgeshire or Suffolk, England and his father’s name was William.  No idea when he was born.  His death certificate stated that his mother’s name was Susan.  Off I went with my bits and pieces to find him. With dead ends occurring whenever I looked at passenger ships, I turned to the convict trail.

My grandmother had found a convict on her side so I asked her how I would know with all certainty that the Thomas Fuller I had begun to find in the records held on Ancestry was the same Thomas Fuller who had contributed to my DNA.  Her answer was, you can’t.  However, there is enough documentation that has survived to make me reasonably sure that they are one and the same.

Thomas Henry Fuller was the son of William Fuller and Ann (possibly Taylor). He was christened on 14 January 1816 in Lakenheath, Suffolk. It is to be assumed that the family were not prosperous. William was a agricultural labourer living in Mildenhall and his eldest son, Thomas, was forever stealing from the local farmer, William Carpenter, in 1834 and 1835. For stealing ducks in 1834, he was sentenced to solitary confinement and a whipping. January 1835 must have been quite hard as Thomas was arrested twice for stealing tame rabbits. He was committed to gaol on 7th January but it must have been a short stay. By the 21st, he has stolen more rabbits and been sentenced to a two month stay and a whipping.

A year later, in 1836, Thomas and his father, William, are arrested for stealing the coat of Robert Sharman of Eriswell. William is aquitted. Thomas is sentenced to seven years prison and ultimately transportation to New South Wales.  He is initially committed to the Bury Gaol in the beginning of May (which he seems to have known quite well) but is moved to the prison hulk, HMS Fortitude, in July. He stays there till 6 December when the Prince George departs for NSW.

The Fortitude was originally named the HMS Cumberland. She was used during the Napoleonic Wars to transport King William I of the Netherlands from London (amazing what you find out on Wikipedia). She was converted to a prison ship in 1830 and renamed in 1833. Life on board the hulks was harsh. The convicts worked the wharves during the day and were chained in close quarters at night. Disease was rife and many died on board.

The Prince George, built in 1830 in Bristol, left England from Torbay on 14 January 1837. On board were 244 male convicts under the superintendence of the surgeon, Thomas Bell. Six were to die on the voyage. David Porter, the author of ‘Leaving Lincolnshire – In Chains’ has transcribed a list of those who sought medical assistance from the doctor during the voyage. Thomas’s name does not appear so it is possible that he did not suffer any illness during the voyage.

I have yet to find proof but it is my belief that Thomas was sent to the Port Stephens area to work for the Australian Agricultural Company. Both his Ticket of Leave and Certificate of Freedom were issued from Port Stephens in 1841 and 1846 respectively.

The question I have faced when confronted with my convict ancestry is how immoral were these two men. (To read about the other, head over here).  In both cases, I believe that they were behaving out of desperation. In 1830, Robert Dawson, the Chief Agent for the Australian Agricultural Company, wrote in his book, ‘The Present State of Australia’ :

“An opinion prevails too generally in England, that men who have been sent to gaol, convicted and transported, generally remain felons in disposition, and therefore are not to be trusted. This I can assert, of my own knowledge, is a mistaken notion. The majority of them, in my opinion, are disposed to reform and to better their condition where opportunities are afforded. … Men who are not utterly abandoned, but who feel themselves cast off and have little hopes of ever being considered respectable, eagerly lay hold of any immediate opportunities which promise to raise them from such a state of degradation, and they are therefore disposed to repay any acts of kindness shown to them with a feeling of gratitude and warmth of attachment which could not probably have been excited under other circumstances.”

Thomas settled in Lochinvar in the Hunter Valley where he raised his family. He married Phebe Hutchby in 1850 (although I have yet to find this record) and they had ten children: Rachel (1852), Susan (1856), Emma (1859), Harriett (1862), Alice (1865), Ellen (1867 – my great great grandmother), Henry (1867), Walter (1871) and Anna (1875). 

In 1857, his brother, James and his family arrived in New South Wales and made their way to the Hunter Valley. They stayed with Thomas for a time before settling in East Maitland and later Nundle.

Do not begin to think that Thomas just disappears into obscurity and dull, boring birth and death records. He does not.

In 1862, Thomas appears before the Insolvency Court. He has 38 pounds of debt outstanding that he is unable to meet. His estate was handed to the trustee on 18 January.

In 1866, Thomas is before the courts on charges of stealing nine sheep. The article describing the court case (The Maitland Mercury, 13 Sep 1866) states that he lived ‘on the old line of road at Dunnering near the Lochinvar Railway Station’ and was a wine seller. He is recorded as saying to his wife, Phebe, “Don’t you be dealing in sheep until I come back, if ever I come back.” Two witnesses testified to his character. Mr J F Doyle had known Thomas seven years and declared him a hard working honest man as did Densi Coleman who had known Thomas twelve years. He was acquitted and the court returned the goods they had taken from his house.

While I do not believe that Thomas began to eptiomise all that was virtuous, I do believe that he did strive to obey the law once he arrived in NSW and the statements to character above to tend to bear this out.

In 1888, Thomas is the witness in a trial against John Bristow and Daniel Gronow who were accused by the constable of leaving a fire and not extinguishing it properly. “Thomas Fuller, on oath, states: On 29th last month I walked into Dunnering paddock, near Lochinvar; I heard some chopping, and proceeded to where the noise was, and found the defendents there; they had a fire alight and were bees-nesting; they said they did not think they were doing any harm; they said they would put the fire out; it was timber, not grass, that was burning; I told them they could not put it out; defendant gave the fire a kick with his boot; I had to watch that fire for a week; I told them they had better get up their things and clear out; they did not go away at once, but eventually went away leaving the fire alight; it was burning tree they left, not a log.” His testimony was corroborated by his son, Walter. The accused were fined 40 pounds. (source: Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, 4 Dec 1888 pg 3.)

On 5 December 1900, tragedy struck the family, when a mine at the Greta Colliery caught fire. In the mine at the time of the explosion was Thomas’s son, Walter and his son-in-law, Edwin Buck.  On 7 Dec, the mine was shut down. In the Singleton Argus the next day, the air near the shaft is described as “so bad that no living thing could exist for a minute or two on the outside, the fumes and smoke being most deadly..”. Due to this, it was decided that it would not be possible to recover the bodies of the men before the fire is extinguished and the mine was sealed off. In April 1901, the fire was still burning and the bodies still not recovered. The bodies were bought to the surface in February 1902 and were seen floating in water issuing from the mine. It was believed that the men had suffocated instantly at the time of the explosion. Two years later, in February 1904, an investigation claimed that the manager of the mine, James Ralston, was guilty of neglect and he was deprived of his certificate of manager for a twelve month period.

On 10 January 1907, Thomas died.


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3 Responses to Hunter Valley Convict

  1. Judith Carroll says:

    Thank you for this. Thomas is my great, great grandfather. His daughter Susan married George Carroll. George was the son of Thomas Carroll an Irish, Catholic convict so their marriage would have been frowned upon. If you are a fan of “Who do you think you are?” you need to watch the episode on Kerry O’Brien. His ancestor came out on the same boat as Thomas Carroll. George Rutherford was the surgeon on this ship and Thomas Carroll went to work for him. Other convicts from the same ship were sent to Armidale to work for the Dangar family. These same men were later in the news for participating in the Myall Creek massacre. So many stories but so many left untold.

    • Laney says:

      Hi Judith.

      So glad you found my blog. I will try to catch the Kerry O’Brien episode – I love WDYTYA. My next goal with Thomas is to find out where he was sent to work upon arrival in Australia. Phoebe also.


  2. Pingback: Don’t You Know Who I Am !! | Laney's Past

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