Paul Pierce was convicted, in 1827, for offences against the excise laws of England and transported, along with other members of the Aldington Gang of smugglers, to Van Diemen’s Land. My ancestors Thomas Gilham and Richard Higgins were convicted alongside Pierce and were transported with him aboard the Governor Ready. Pierce was a couple of years older than Richard and about ten years older than Thomas Gilham.
Little is known of Pierce’s early life. His convict records state that his Native Place was the city of Canterbury and his age at time of trial suggests he was born around 1793. Paul’s father, Thomas, was innkeeper at the Blue Anchor, just outside Ruckinge, from 1813 to 1831. It was here that Aldington Gang member James Hogben was arrested in 1826. The gang frequented numerous local inns: the inns and unlicensed ‘blind pigs’ provided places to meet and plan a run as well as food and refreshment after a successful haul. No doubt it helped to be able to call upon family connections.
Paul’s first child, George, was born around 1814 so Paul probably married shortly before or after this event. I have yet to discover much information about his wife Sarah but it seems that her surname was Deblain or something similar. The next child, Mary Ann, was baptised at Bonnington in February 1816, followed by Sarah in March 1818, and Celia or Seeley was baptised at Aldington in 1820 but the records indicate her father was a labourer at Bonnington so perhaps the baptism took place at Aldington because of other family connections. The sons that followed, John and Charles, were baptised at Bonnington in May 1824 and April 1826 respectively. According to Pierce’s convict records there should have been another child – a girl, Dene, born about 1824 – by the time he was transported in 1827. His records state that he was married with seven children and that he had worked for twelve years as a gardener for one of the local gentry of Bilsington. (The name on Pierce’s convict record appears to be Sir George Brepington (possibly meant to be Blechynden) but I have not yet identified this person.) Pierce was apparently skilled at grafting hops, so important for producing the local beer and ale.
Convict records describe Paul as 5 feet and 4 inches tall, with brown hair, grey eyes and scars and tatoos on his arms. The tattoos depicted ‘hearts and darts and laurel and faint heart’ on his right arm (along with a huge scar) and a mermaid and several faint marks on his left.
In the early morning of 17 October 1826, George Ransley, Thomas Gilham and a number of other gang members were arrested and charged with the murder of a blockade quartermaster, Richard Morgan, while running a cargo at Dover on 30 July. They were also charged with carrying fire arms on the Kent coast. Did Paul Pierce think he had been spared? or perhaps he realised it was only a matter of time before the authorities would return for other members of the gang? In any event, on 14 November, Paul Pierce was also arrested, along with Richard Higgins, John Bailey and Edward Pantry. Pantry soon turned King’s evidence, along with Edward Horn, dooming their former partners to at least transportation, if not the noose.
Stories differ but it was said that Paul Pierce lived in an old house at Bonnington and that he avoided capture the first time the troops rounded up gang members by climbing up the wide chimney and escaping onto the roof where he lay quietly until danger had passed. Another version says that Pierce was put into the oven by his wife ‘… and was nearly suffocated when they took him out, after the officers had gone. You see, it was that hot after the baking had been going on in it all day.’ It seems that the night on which he was actually taken was wild and very wet and that Pierce and the other men were surprised at their homes, taken from their beds.
Following their arrest Pierce and his companions were taken aboard the Revenue cutter, under the supervision of Bow Street officer Smith (while the other arresting officer, by the name of Bishop, hurried to London to break the news). The voyage up river to London probably took a day or two of the week that passed before the group was taken before magistrate Sir Richard Birnie for committal.
London newspapers carried news of the arrests, along with descriptions of Aldington Frith that highlighted the place’s suitability for smuggling activity: ‘Aldington Frith, commonly pronounced by the inhabitants of that part of Kent , “Allington Fright”, is a rude, uncultivated tract of broken and unequal ground, difficult for strangers to pass, in consequence of the bogs which fill the hollows, and skirted by thick woods. … From the nature of the Frith, over which a few cottages only are scantily scattered, and its vicinity to the Marsh, a better situation for smugglers could scarcely be found; and it has long been notorious as their haunt …’ (The Morning Post, London, 17 November 1826)
On the 23rd of November the prisoners were brought before Sir Richard Birnie. Pantry is not mentioned in the news reports, presumably because he was performing as King’s Evidence. Pierce and Higgins were charged with being part of the gang of smugglers responsible for the murder of Richard Morgan. John Bailey was charged with carrying firearms and being engaged with others in the running of contraband goods at Dymchurch on the night of 6 August, when a man named Wynne (a seaman from the Ramillies) was shot. Sir Richard Birnie committed the prisoners to Newgate until they could be removed to face trial in Kent.
At the Winter Special Assizes in Maidstone on 12 January 1827 the murder charge was dropped but Paul Pierce and most of the other gang members in court were convicted for being ‘feloniously armed to assist smuggler’. Together with John and Samuel Bailey, Thomas Dennard, Thomas Gilham, Richard Higgins and James Smeed, Pierce was taken from Maidstone Gaol on 6 February 1827 to the York hulk at Portsmouth. Other gang members were taken to the Captivity,(although some reports say that they were taken to the Leviathan).
On the 19th of March, the ship Governor Ready arrived at Portsmouth ready to take on board convicts and provisions for its voyage to Van Diemen’s Land and New South Wales. On the 5th of April, Pierce and his companions bid farewell to the English coast as the ship set sail for Van Diemen’s Land. The ship was only a couple of years old and well maintained. The journey to Hobart Town took 118 days, with the loss of only one man on the way. Arriving on 31 July 1827, the prisoners disembarked on 7 August, ready for assignment to the colony’s settlers.
On the 1st of August the Colonial Secretary issued a notice inviting ‘Settlers and others in want of Assigned Servants’ to apply immediately in writing. The newspaper also reported that ‘The prisoners per the Governor Ready are, we understand, from the country parts of England, and are said to be generally useful men.’ It would seem that everyone had been assigned by the 10th of August when the Agency Office for Assigned Servants advised that a number of letters had been received too late to supply from the Governor Ready and so would be held over until the next arrival.
Unfortunately Pierce does not appear on the list of ‘Farmers and Ploughman’ I have that indicates to whom many of the Aldington gang men were assigned although his convict record seems to suggest that he was assigned to the Colonial Secretary, John Burnett Esquire, when the only misdemeanour recorded against him occurred on 5 February 1828.
Meanwhile, back at home, Sarah Pierce was dealing with the loss of two of the couple’s young children. Young Celia or Seeley died just three days after her father set foot on the soil of Van Diemen’s Land, while baby Charles had died a month earlier while his father was well into the second half of his journey. Eighteen twenty-seven must indeed have seemed a very tragic year for the young mother and her children.
On 5 February 1828, Paul Pierce was reported for ‘indecent and immoral conduct with Elizabeth Frankland in the service of his master’. Elizabeth’s record confirms the offence. The records are difficult to read but it seems that while Paul was reprimanded, Elizabeth was confined in a cell on bread and water for seven days. Elizabeth’s record also notes that she was ‘assignable only in the country’ although I am not sure whether this arose only from her liaison with Pierce or whether there was another offence. Elizabeth had arrived in the colony aboard the Sovereign on 19 November 1827, having been sentenced to life imprisonment for stealing money from someone’s home. She was assigned to John Burnett Esquire on landing on 24 November 1827.
About a year later, still in Burnett’s employ, Paul Pierce applied for his wife and children to join him in Van Diemen’s Land. Burnett certified that Pierce had the means of supporting his wife and family and undertook to ensure that they would pose no expense to the Government after their arrival. The application refers to children George (14), Mary (12), Sarah (10), Dene (4), and John (2). The application also refers to Mr George Bleachenden (presumably another reference to Paul’s former employer), Mr Cheeseman and the parish clergyman, Mr Pope. Governor Arthur approved the application on 24 November 1828, presumably oblivious to the fact that Sarah and her children had set sail aboard the Harmony a month before Paul had even made his application. Also on board were Rhoda Higgins, Mary Giles, Catherine Bailey, Elizabeth Ransley, Frances Gilham and their respective children. The Harmony carried a hundred female convicts in addition to the paying passengers in cabin and steerage classes. The ship departed Gravesend on 13 September 1828, cleared the Downs two days later and arrived in Hobart Town on 14 January 1829.
The family’s reunion was completed by Paul’s assignment to his wife. On 10 July 1830, the couple’s next son, Alfred, was baptised in Hobart Town, followed seven or eight years later by youngest son, Henry Deblaine.
In 1833 Paul was granted a Ticket of Leave, followed by a Conditional Pardon in 1840.
By the time of the 1842 Census, Paul owned a wooden house in Hobart where he lived with two young men, probably his youngest children. By this time the older children were married. It is not clear where his wife Sarah was at this time as there are no women included in the return. She died in Hobart six years later, on 9 May 1848, of consumption.
Paul Pierce died on 18 October 1864, aged 80 years. He died at his home in Brisbane Street.
By 1864, Paul and Sarah’s family had grown considerably, settling in both Tasmania and Victoria – George and his wife Ellen Rosendale lived at New Town and had nine children (sadly losing two in infancy in 1863); Mary Ann had seven children to her husband William Wilson; and Sarah and her husband Peter Fyfe had six children; Dene and her husband John Doig appear to have had only two children, and lost one of those in infancy, before John’s early death; John Pierce was living at Bothwell with his wife Sarah Jones; sadly Alfred died just over a year into his marriage to Letitia Paisley, leaving only one son, John, who later took his step-father’s name of Jenkins; and youngest son Henry would marry the following year.
While I haven’t searched very far into Paul and Sarah’s offspring, it is interesting that, so far at least, I haven’t come across references to the children or grand-children of other Aldington gang members as I have with some other families.
I would love to hear more from others who have researched this family more thoroughly and again express my appreciation to Ruth Eschmann, Michael Oates and others who have helped me to get this far. If you can contribute anything further, please contact me by email.
[Updated 10 June 2012]
I was delighted to be contacted by a descendant of Elizabeth Frankland who was able to provide some more information about his ancestor. It seems that poor Elizabeth’s original crime was to take a few pieces of ‘old tat’ clothing and linen and a few pounds in coin in order to provide for her young son Benjamin. Her crime was a common enough one – stealing from the landlord in whose rooming house she had been staying. Tried at the Old Bailey in April 1827, the sentence of death was particularly harsh for a first time offender. Her sentence was commuted to transportation and she soon joined the Sovereign’s voyage to Van Diemen’s Land – the first cargo of female convict to sail directly to that colony (and to begin to redress the population’s significant gender imbalance). Elizabeth’s conduct was ‘exemplary’ according to the Sovereign’s surgeon and the only real offence recorded following her arrival is the incident with Pierce. Perhaps, as her descendant speculates, Elizabeth received the harsher penalty because her master, Colonial Secretary Burnett, wasn’t so keen on having mother and son under his roof. Sadly for Elizabeth and nine year old Benjamin, this harsh penalty meant that they were to be separated for lengthy periods while Elizabeth was assigned and Benjamin consigned to the Queen’s Orphanage. Elizabeth married William Stephens in July 1829 and received a free pardon in 1841. Benjamin became a carpenter in Hobart. He was to marry Elizabeth Williams, nee Wishart, the daughter of convict Elizabeth McLain who had arrived in the colony on the same voyage of the Harmony as Paul Pierce’s wife and family in 1829.
Colonial Secretary Burnett had a somewhat chequered career, characterised by self-interest and incompetence – see, for example, the entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.
Tasmanian Archives: Paul’s convict conduct record
Tasmanian Archives: Elizabeth Frankland’s convict conduct record
Old Bailey Online: Elizabeth Frankland’s trial record
Paul Pierce on my Ancestry tree
Paul Pierce on Founders and Survivors