John Smeaton of Perthshire


John Smeaton was the great grandfather of Janet Smeaton (second wife of Andrew Greig Wilson) who was to emigrate to Van Diemen’s Land in 1842.

Based on the registration of his first marriage, it is likely that John Smeaton was born, or at least grew up in the Perthshire parish of Dunning.  He was probably born in the first decade of the eighteenth century.


Dunning is a peaceful and attractive Perthshire town nestling in the foothills of the Ochil range and dominated by the impressive Norman tower attached to St. Serf’s church. Dunning and neighbouring Fortieviot (the ancient Pictish capital) have their roots firmly planted in ancient history. This is where the clash of Pictish armies shook these quiet hills as they fought for the kingship at the Battle of Duncrub (965AD), a battle commemorated by a standing stone in a field to the north.  Another monument commemorates the burning of alleged witch, Maggie Wall, in 1657; and the Thorn Tree is a memorial to the burning of the village in 1716 by the retreating Jacobites. If John was born in Dunning, he may well have been around to witness this event.


John Smeaton married Christian Johnston on 19 November 1731 in Forgandenny. The Forgandenny Parish Register, reads ‘November 19, 1731 John Smiton in the parish of Dunning and Christian Johnston in this parish gave up their names for proclamation in order to marriage and were proclaimed in the three ensuing Sabbath days and nothing objects.’  Their marriage was also proclaimed in John’s Parish church of Dunning on the 21st of November.

Marriage of John Smeaton and Christian Johnstone, Dunning

John and Christian had six children from October 1732 to 1744.  Their fourth child, James, born in 1740, was my 5G Grandfather.

Presumably Christian died in 1744, possibly around the time of Janet’s birth, as John married his second wife, Sarah Brown, on 28 April 1745, in Forteviot, also in Perthshire.  John and Sarah had four children.

Some of the birth and marriage registrations for his children provide some clues about where John lived and how he was employed.  However, many of the references seem to be to very localised names and I have found it difficult to discover much about those places via the internet.  When his son James was registered at Dunning in 1740, John was said to have resided at a place that looks to be something like ‘Midlo Keppon’ but I have not been able to identify this place.  In 1746, when Elizabeth’s birth was registered, John was said to be from ‘Midle of Pittcairns’ and the following year, ‘Midle third of Pitcairns’ at son John’s baptism. In 1749 when daughter Margaret was baptised the register describes John at ‘Salter Croft of Pittcairns’ and in 1752 when  his youngest child, Alexander, was baptised, John was of ‘Mains of Pittcairns’.

It is not until 1768 that an occupation is added to the registers (or at least to those that have been located to date).  In 1768 when Isabell (John’s second daughter to his first wife) marries, John is described as ‘Cottar in woodnuck of Condy’.  In 1774, when his daughter Janet marries the description is closer to ‘Wood Noch of Condie’.

A cottar was generally regarded as a poor peasant, the tenant of only a house and a little land, just a small plot on which to subsist. Sometimes there income was supplemented by menial tasks such swine herding or guarding prisoners.

I have not been able to make out ‘woodnuck of Condie’ but as Isabell was married in the Parish of Forgandenny, perhaps it is a reference to some part of the small hamlet known as the Path of Condie.  In the 1790s, when the Statistical Accounts of Scotland were being compiled, the Path of Condie contained ‘… about 22 dwelling-houses, besides a mill, an Antiburgher meeting-house, and a school.’ If John was classified as one of the poor of the parish, the Statistical Accounts tell us that the church supported on average four or five constant pensioners who received monthly between 2s and 5s according to their needs.  Others received occasional support when circumstances required it.

I have not been able to discover a burial record for John, but it seems likely that he would have been regarded as rather elderly for the times, having reached his late sixties and perhaps older.

I would love to hear from anyone who can add more to John’s story, including helping me out with those place names! and perhaps pointing to some further sources of local history.  Please email me if you can help.

Online resources

John Smeaton on my Ancestry tree

After writing the above, I discovered that there is a great deal of information published on the Dunning Parish Historical Society website which I look forward to working my way through!

Some information about cottars and the Lowland clearances.


The Mole Creek Caves

My ancestor, Andrew Greig Wilson, settled near and acted as a guide to Tasmania’s Mole Creek Caves.  The following extract from A D and R K Skinner’s book, The Mole Creek Caves (1978) recounts a traveller’s story, originally published in 1870 in A Guide to Excursionists Between Australia and Tasmania.  The party had become quite lost on its journey from Chudleigh Hotel to the caves, so they were no doubt tired and frustrated when they finally found the Wilson’s cottage around mid-day.

Remained in Kent

Among the Aldington Gang members that remained in Kent in 1826 (at least for a while) were some who escaped detection, some who were acquitted of the charges brought against them, and others who turned King’s Evidence.

Acquitted: Robert Bailey and Thomas Wheeler

Robert Bailey, brother of Samuel, Elizabeth and Rhoda, was 30 years old when he was arrested. He lived at Mersham with his wife Jane (nee Paine). Having only been charged with the murder of Morgan, and not with offences against the Revenue laws, Robert, together with Thomas Wheeler, was wholly acquitted.

Thomas Wheeler was a blacksmith at Folkestone. Like Robert Bailey, he had only been charged with the murder of Morgan, and not with offences against the Revenue laws, and so was wholly acquitted.

King’s Evidence: John Bushell, Edward Horne, Edward Pantry

John Bushell was the first of the Aldington Gang members to be captured after the death of Quartermaster Morgan. He was captured at Fort Moncrief on 6 August 1826, after being shot in the knee. Records of the Admiralty Law Agent state that ‘Bushell, having then undergone an amputation of the thigh, near the hip, he was reduced to such a state of danger as to be incapable of examination, and not having shown the least inclination to make any disclosure nothing could at the time be effected.’ However, Bushell ultimately proved a valuable witness for the prosecution, and received £100 reward for his evidence.

Edward Horne, known as Harry, and also known as Spratford, lived at Ruckinge. He was described as ‘a good looking young man’ and a labourer. Captured on 2 September 1826, near Walmer, he at first feigned imbecility but later escaped conviction and transportation by turning King’s Evidence. At the trial, he revealed he had known Ransley for nearly ten years and had met him, by appointment, at a public house at Lydden on the night Quartermaster Morgan was shot. Between fifty and sixty people had assembled, of whom somewhere between a dozen and sixteen had fire-arms. Horne carried a fowling-piece which belonged to Samuel Bailey.

Horne received £100 for the information he provided which led to warrants for the apprehension of many of the offenders and support for the charges brought against them.  You can read Horne’ evidence relating to the events of 11 March 1826,16 March 1826,11 May 182610 Jun 18269 July 1826 and 6 August 1826.

Apparently Horne was convicted of horse theft before his former smuggling companions embarked for Van Diemen’s Land.

Edward Pantry lived at Aldington. He was described as ‘a nice, steady, hard-working man, who always did a thing well, if he minded to do it, till he got in along with those smugglers’. Like Horne, Pantry turned King’s Evidence.

Also like Horne, he was arrested for theft, this time of sheep, within a year of the trial. Apparently he stole two sheep from a farm at Bonnington but was caught in the act by a smuggler who reported the theft to the farmer the following day. Arrested by Constable Stokes from ‘the Marsh’, Pantry was tried at Dymchurch and sentenced to transportation.

Edward’s mother, Catherine, was a Higgins, possibly related to Richard. His aunt, Sarah, is thought to have been the wife of Aldington Gang member, Samuel Bailey.

Sentenced to transportation

Fourteen members of the Aldington Gang, including their leader, George Ransley, were sentenced to death at the Maidstone Assizes of 12 January 1827.  However, their sentences were subsequently commuted to transportation for life, and on Monday 5 February, the men were removed from gaol and boarded prison hulks pending their transportation to Van Diemen’s Land.

Ransley, Wilson, Giles, Hogben, Quested and the Wire brothers boarded the Captivity at Portsmouth.  Denard, Gilham, Higgins, Pierce, Smeed and the Baileys boarded the York at Gosport.

The York Hulk, Portsmouth Harbour

With the exception of James Wilson, who died aboard the Captivity, the men sailed aboard the Governor Ready, arriving in Hobart Town in 1827.

The hulks

The story of Ralph Rashleigh provides a vivid picture of life on the convict hulk, Leviathan, as the following edited excerpts reveal.

… the cry of “Lags away” warned those who were transported that the time had now arrived for their removal to the hulk; and shortly afterwards those who … had been respited from death … were placed in two large vans, strongly ironed, handcuffed and chained together, as well as to the van, which drove off at a rapid rate. [After an overnight journey the van made the Portsmouth dockyard and the convicts] were permitted to alight on a wooden wharf, outside of which lay the gloomy bulk of the old Leviathan. 

This vessel, an ancient 74, after having for many years borne the victorious banner of Britain in every sea from pole to pole, was at last condemned to the vile purpose of a convict hulk.  …. In a few minutes the newly arrived criminals were paraded upon the quarterdeck of this old hooker, mustered, and received by the captain of the hulk, after which the irons they had brought with them were taken off and given back to the gaol authorities, who now departed. the convicts in the mean time were all marched to the forecastle and ushered into a washing-room, where each man was obliged to strip, get into a large tub of water, and cleanse himself thoroughly.  Each then received a suit of coarse grey clothing consisting of a jacket, waistcoat and breeches.  A very rough twilled cotton shirt, striped with blue and white, a round-crowned broad-brimmed felt hat, and a pair of heavily-nailed shoes completed this unique costume; and when they had been divested of their whiskers and got their hair closely cropped, the metamorphosis was … complete … Here, too, each man was double-ironed with a pair of heavy fetters, and after this they again emerged on deck, where a hammock and two blankets, with a straw bed, were supplied every new prisoner, and they were now ordered to go below.

They followed one of the guards down what seemed … an endless succession of step-ladders.  When they reached the bottom, a perfect chaos of sounds saluted their ears. The first glimpse of the lower deck of this convict hulk showed a long pasage bordered by iron palisading, with lamps hung at regular intervals.  Within these rows of palisades were wooden partitions, which subdivided the deck into upwards of a score of apartments.  In each of these about fifteen or twenty convicts slept and ate. 

The author (James Tucker) goes on to tell how the old chums played pranks on the new so that they ‘slept but little’ on their first night, waking to the stench of a wooden tub containing breakfast, a ‘food composed of a very coarse kind of barley boiled up with the soup made from the meat which was allowed to the convicts every alternate day. …The dietary of the hulk, exclusive of meat and barley soup, was, three days in each week, a portion of a mysterious semi-petrification, very much akin to chalk both in taste and durability.  Nay, it was even much harder; but by the courtesy of the contractors dubbed for the nonce cheese … ‘too big to swallow and too hard to bite’… For breakfast and supper, when meat was not allowed, each man received a pint of the barley before named, plain boiled in water… Besides the above articles, a pound of very black unpalatable bread formed the daily allowance of each man, with a pint of very bad vinegar, here dignified with the name of table beer.’

The whole of the convicts, save those employed on board in cleaning the hulk, cooking, and attending on the officers, were sent every morning to labour in the dockyard, where they were employed in large parties, most appropriately designated gangs, at various works. Ralph was placed in a timber gang, and was quickly yoked to a large truck with twenty others, each man having a broad hempen band or collar put over one shoulder and beneath the other arm, so that in pulling, his weight pressed against it across his breast.  Each gang was under the orders of a veteran sailor of the Royal Navy, some of whom were glad to repay upon the wretched convicts they tyranny with which they had been treated by their officers in former times, while others were more occupied in screwing out money from those under their charge, to enable them to pay frequent visits to the Tap where they solaced themselves with repeated libations of Heavy Wet.

Death on board the hulks

As mentioned above, Aldington gang smuggler, James Wilson was to die on board the Captivity and Ralph’s story also tells us about the rather unceremonious end of those unfortunate enough to end their days on board a hulk:

One day three of the patients died, and as deceased convicts were then usually buried in a graveyard near a number of ruined buildings on the Gosport side which were among the prisoners called ‘Rat’s Castle’, some of the convalescent patients … were selected to go there and dig the graves.  Accordingly, over the water they went, under the care of one of the old sailors … in a boat manned by the convicts. 

The soil was very light, and their task an easy one.  When it was done the guard made a signal by waving a handkerchief upon a stick.  While they were awaiting the return of their boat … [the convicts] lay or sat … among the nameless, shapeless grassy mounds which filled the convicts’ graveyard, each marking the narrow resting-place of one who had died degraded, forgotten and unknown, his last moments uncheered by the voice of affection or the soothing sympathies of kindred, and whose remains were scarcely cold ere he was hurried into the rude shell, hustled off in the boat, amid jokes or oaths, as the prevailing mood of the boatmen might be, and finally thrust in the ground, without a prayer, scarcely six inches below the surface of the earth.

The trial

The prisoners faced court again on 6 January 1827. In addition to the original line up of George Ransley, Thomas Dennard, Thomas Gilham, Robert Bailey, Samuel Bailey, Richard Wire, and Charles Giles those tried also included James Hogben, James Smeed, Thomas Wheeler and William Wire.

The indictment charged the prisoners with assembling with up to 80 people, armed with firearms, at the parish of St James the Apostle of the Port of Dover on 30 July 1827. Richard Wire was charged with ‘maliciously and feloniously’ shooting Richard Morgan, a person lawfully employed to prevent smuggling, inflicting three mortal wounds to his breast from which he languished for an hour before dieing. The other prisoners were charged with being present, aiding, assisting and comporting Richard Wire in the commission of the murder. All pleaded not guilty.

Following some discussion between the lawyers and Mr Justice Park, other untried prisoners were also brought to the bar: John Bailey, Richard Higgins, Paul Pierce and James Quested. They joined Samuel Bailey, Thomas Dennard, Thomas Gilham, George Ransley, James Smeed and J Wilson and were indicted for assembling with numerous other persons unknown on 16 March 1826 at New Romney, armed with fire arms, to aid and assist in the landing and running of uncustomed goods. They were also charged with willfully and maliciously shooting at customs officers Patrick Doyle and Cluryn Macarthy. Other counts, similar in substance, were also heard.

All the prisoners pleaded guilty. Their offences involved smuggling activities at Dymchurch on 10 May 1826 and involving the shooting of William Wynn; at Woolmer on 10 June involving the shooting of W H Brady; at Deal on 9 July and shooting at John Millings; at Hythe on 1 August and shooting at William Spillane.

At this point, the ten prisoners charged with Morgan’s murder were left at the bar and the Jury was impanelled. However, the Solicitor General stated that as the prisoners’ guilty pleas to the other charges would lead to the forfeiture of their lives he did not intend to present evidence on the murder charge. He could not say that their lives would be saved but they would have the benefit of his recommendation and would probably be transported for life. In this way, Robert Bailey and Thomas Wheeler, who had been indicted only for the murder and not for the other charges, were wholly acquitted.

Mr Justice Park then addressed the fourteen remaining prisoners before passing sentence of death.  The calendar stated that the prisoners were to be executed on 5 February but that it was not expected that any of them would suffer.

Kentish Chronicle

The following report is taken from The Kentish Chronicle of 12 January 1827.

The Trial of the Aldington Smugglers

[extract] … His Lordship said they had pleaded Guilty to an offence of a most heinous nature, the commission of which struck terror into every well disposed mind. They had assembled in numerous bodies to aid in the running of uncustomed goods, and in so doing, aiding, had fired upon persons who were only doing their duty. 

Perhaps from the darkness of the night, it might have been difficult to fix on the ten the crime of murder, but they had confessed being guilty of a very serious offence. Perhaps no human eye saw the hand that actually committed the murder and his Lordship doubted not that, in the decision of the Solicitor-General, he had exercised a sound discretion; but it was very manifest that he had dealt with the prisoners most humanely; for if any of them had been convicted of the murder they most certainly would have been executed on Monday next.

His Lordship disclaimed in any way a party to the course that had been adopted, for he should not feel himself warranted in recommending them to the mercy of the Sovereign, though the Solicitor-General had promised to do so and would doubtless keep his word.

Prisoners had admitted that they assembled in gangs of as many as 80 – a gang numerous enough to overawe the peaceable part of the community. These things could not be suffered to go on with impunity. He trusted that the present proceedings would have a proper effect and convince the offenders that the arm of the law was long enough, and sufficiently powerful to reach and punish even the most distant and desperate.

 It must be made known throughout the country, that if an offence of this nature were again committed, no mercy would be shewn to the offenders. His Lordship would now repeat what he had said to the Grand Jury, that if persons in the higher stations of life were not to purchase smuggled goods, there would be an end to smuggling; but many persons laboured under the delusion that defrauding the Revenue was no crime….

Committal proceedings

The Kentish Chronicle of 31 October 1826 reported on the committal trial of Aldington Gang members brought before Sir R Birnie and Mr Hall on the previous Friday, 27 October 1826.

The prosecution began its case by calling Michael Pickett, a seaman from Ramillies, who was employed in the preventive service on the Kent coast, and who had been present during the operation which resulted in quartermaster Morgan’s death on 30 July. His evidence provides the basis for much of the account of the events of that night. Pickett’s evidence, supported by quartermaster Peter Prendergast, was offered ‘in proof of the murder having been committed on the night in question, by a gang of smugglers’.

It was one of their own, an accomplice, who would provide the evidence that ‘some of the prisoners at the bar were present when that murder took place.’ Edward Horne, a labourer from Ruckinge, swore that he knew all the prisoners and that all but Giles had been with him on the night of the murder. He revealed that the party assembled at the Palm Trees at Wigmore and that the party managed to make off with seventy tubs of uncustomed spirits, and would have landed more had they not been interrupted by the blockade men.

Mr Platt, acting on behalf of the gang members, rose to cross-examine Horne, pointing out that at the very least his evidence failed to make any case at all against Charles Giles, as Horne admitted that he had not been with him that evening.

The prosecution then proposed to bring evidence against Giles for ‘being armed and near Dymchurch, on the coast of Kent, on the 11th of May last, when William Wynn was shot’.

William Wynn was then brought from the Tower to give evidence. Like Pickett, Wynn was a seaman aboard the Ramillies, employed to prevent smuggling. He provided an account of the events of 11th of May 1826, during which he was shot. Edward Horne was recalled to the stand to give his account of that evening. He revealed that Giles had been shot on that occasion and that he had lost his firearm (implying that it was the fowling piece recovered by Wynn). Officer Smith, who had arrested Giles on 17 October, stated that Giles had accounted for a wound on his neck by describing it as the effect of a blister.

Another Ramillies officer, William Spillane, was then called to prove a third case against the prisoners, relating the events of the evening of 6 August 1826. Giving his evidence with some difficulty, it was apparent that Spillane still suffered from the wounds allegedly inflicted by the smugglers on that August night. Lieutentant Johnson gave further evidence on the events of that evening, as did the informant, Horne.

Once the evidence had been given, the prisoners were committed to Newgate to take their trial for the murder of Morgan and on the separate charges of carrying arms on the Kent coast with a view to running smuggled goods.

Investigation and Arrest

On 1 August 1826, Customs House, London offered a reward of £500 to any one who discovered or caused to be discovered the smugglers involved in the death of Richard Morgan and the wounding of Richard Pickett.

It took some time before the offer brought any results – presumably the local inhabitants were too involved, otherwise sympathetic or perhaps too frightened to reveal what they knew. Eventually though, a member of the gang, Edward Horne, was captured and induced to inform on his colleagues.

On 1 August 1826 Customs House offered a £500 reward

Acting on his information, two Bow Street Runners were dispatched from London to Hythe to set up headquarters. They interviewed customs officers and naval officers from HMS Ramilles, and they paid undercover visits to the Walnut Inn.

Their investigations were lead to a major operation in the early morning of Tuesday 17 October 1826 which resulted in the first arrests in the case. A force of around 120 armed Preventive Service officers marched towards Aldington from the coast. They killed a number of dogs with their cutlasses to prevent them raising the alarm, but they were spotted by a woman looking from an upstairs window who called a warning ‘Warhawk’ to those inside.

Seeing the strength of the opposition, George Ransley surrendered without resistance and he and seven others – Thomas Gilham, Charles Giles, Robert and Samuel Bailey, Thomas Dennard and Richard and William Wire – were arrested and marched in handcuffs to Fort Moncrieff where they were embarked on a naval vessel which took them to Deptford via the coast to forestall rescue attempts.

On arrival in London they were questioned individually before being sent on remand to the House of Correction. All, except Giles, had been incriminated on Horne’s evidence.

About a fortnight later, Richard Higgins, Paul Pierce, John Bailey and Edward Pantry were arrested. Before the case was opened, Pantry asked and was allowed to turn King’s Evidence. The other four were committed to go to trial with the gang members arrested earlier. Also arrested were James Hogben, James Smeed, Thomas Wheeler and William Wire.

Kentish Chronicle articles

The following articles appeared in The Kentish Chronicle:

The Kentish Chronicle – 10 October 1826

Dover, October 18th: – Murder of Morgan

This morning intelligence was brought to Town that one of the party concerned in the murder of Morgan, of the Coast Blockade, who, a short time ago, was shot by a band of smugglers, in front of The Marine Parade, had made disclosures implicating, some reports say twenty, others thirty, in the barbarous action; but it is certain that eight persons are now in custody on his information. A reward of £1000 was offered for their apprehension at the time and a reward is said to have prompted the informer, an inhabitant of Deal, to come forward voluntarily and give information, as, up to this time, the slightest clue to discover the perpetrators could never be obtained.

The Kentish Chronicle – 20 October 1826

Canterbury, October 20th

A considerable party of armed seamen was landed from two vessels in Dymchurch Bay, in the night of Monday last, accompanied by their officers and (we are informed) a smuggler who been previously taken by the Coastal Blockade, and who has given important information relative in the “Fighting Party”  who have on several occasions protected the running of contraband goods, on different parts of the coast of this County and Sussex.

On proceeding to Aldington, Bilsington and Ruckinge, they captured in his bed, the “Captain Bats” and several others, whose residences and persons were pointed out by the informer, and immediately conveyed the prisoners on board the vessels, and proceeded to the Downs.

The whole business was managed under the direction of Lieutenant S. Hellard RN and it is hoped may have a good effect in preventing the outrages and defiance of the law, which the approach of winter caused the respectable part of the community to apprehend.”