Frances Furner


I have written much of Frances’ life story alongside her husband, Thomas Gilham, so quite a lot of what follows will be repetitive if you have read Thomas’ story.  However, there is information here about the search for Frances’ family that I haven’t covered elsewhere.

Finding Frances’ family

For many years my database indicated that the Frances Furner who married Thomas Gilham was likely to have been the daughter of Thomas Turner and Fanny Ann Curd and that she was christened at Lympne, not far from Aldington on 11 August 1799.  This reference came from the International Genealogical Index and is still shown in the family trees of numerous researchers.  However, with the help of  a professional researcher in Kent and a couple of other researchers interested in the Aldington Gang and its various family connections, I now think that Frances’ story is quite different.

At the time that I was piecing together this information, the facts I had about Frances were, firstly, that she married Thomas Gilham at Bilsington Church on 13 September 1823 and, secondly, that she had three children prior to that marriage, none of whom were fathered by Thomas.   I also knew that the children, Delia, James and William, accompanied Frances to Van Diemen’s Land in 1829, so despite some anomalies in the records I could be reasonably confident that I had the right children attached to the right mother!

Bilsington Church

Frances’ first child, Delia, was baptised on 8 October 1815.  Her parents were listed as William and Frances Furner and the record indicated that William was a labourer from Bilsington parish.  Unlike the Aldington parish registers, the priest didn’t seem to think it necessary to spell out that the child was ‘illegitimate’.  Indeed, looking at the registration the obvious next step was to look for a record of marriage between William Furner and a Frances whose maiden name was as yet unknown.  But the Bilsington register has no marriage for a William Furner, nor does the East Ashford marriage index which covers much of the surrounding area. Nor are there any other records at Bilsington of children born to this couple.

There are, however, records of baptisms for two more children born to Frances Furner before she married Thomas Gilham.  When Delia was just a few months shy of her third birthday, Frances delivered a baby brother.  James Richard Furner was baptised at Bilsington on 5 July 1818.  All the record said was that James was the son of Frances Furner of this parish. There is no reference to a father nor to the ‘legitimacy’ of the baby’s birth.  Similarly, on 7 May 1820 the parish register simply records the baptism of William Newman, son of Frances Furner of this parish.

The use of the middle name ‘Newman’ for the third child may have been a clue to the baby’s father as it was not uncommon for a young mother to signify her child’s paternity by using the father’s surname as a middle name.   There was a William Newman baptised at Aldington in 1796, the son of Thomas and Mary Newman but no parish chest records available to search for evidence of support arrangements or other confirming information.  It could also be that William was given the name Newman in honour of Frances’ maternal grandmother whose maiden name was Mary Newman.

The next new piece of information came not from the church registers but from the  Criminal Register.  Delia and Frances Furner faced the January 1822 Sessions in Kent, charged with larceny.  While Frances was acquitted, Delia was sentenced to three month’s imprisonment.  This seemed rather harsh for a child of seven years so I immediately speculated this Delia was not Frances’ young child, but perhaps a sister or even her mother.

Some professional help tracked down further detail, revealing that Delia was aged 48 and Frances 26 — suggesting a mother and daughter relationship.  Apparently the pair were charged, on the oath of a James Worger of Bilsington, with having stolen a ham from his house on the evening of 1 January 1822.

More digging around the parish records eventually produced a possible match for Delia Furner who, according to the criminal register, was born about 1774.  In the Boxley parish records there is a marriage of a Delia Richards to William Furner on 19 December 1794 and a baptism for Delia Richards on 16 May 1773.  Quite a neat fit, particularly as the name ‘Delia’ seems to be uncommon.

William and Delia Furner had four children – although it is not easy to find Frances as the index entries for Maidstone list her as Frances ‘Farmer’ – and a copy of the register reads more like ‘Furmer’.  Nevertheless, the register from Maidstone’s All Saints Church indicates that Frances was born on 20 April and christened on 22 May 1796.  A sister, Louisa, was baptised at Boxley on 28 December 1799; followed by brothers William (27 June 1802 at Boxley) and George (13 May 1807 at Maidstone but born at Bilsington on 8 April).

Frances also had an older sister, Catherine, born before Delia married William Furner. Catherine was baptised at Boxley on 15 September 1793.  Like Frances, Catherine married a member of the Aldington Gang and she too ended her days in Tasmania.  Catherine Richards married John Bailey at Mersham on 12 October 1812.  John and Catherine had a daughter, Emily, who named one of her daughters ‘Louise Delia’ perhaps indicating the connection both to her aunt and to her grandmother – although Emily would have been barely old enough to remember her grandmother when she left England for Van Diemen’s Land in 1829, aged about five.

Family Life

We can only imagine the circumstances that may have brought the smuggler and young mother together, but judging by the timing of baby Louisa’s birth, on 11 April 1824, it seems likely that when Frances found herself pregnant again in late 1823 she made sure that this time the father was not going to escape his responsibilities.  Accordingly, on 23 September 1823, Frances and Thomas married in Frances’ local church at Bilsington. They both signed the register with their mark and John Bailey, fellow smuggler and now brother-in-law was one of the witnesses. A John Chapman also witnessed the register.  While I haven’t placed him yet, the Chapman name was also connected with smuggling and Charles Giles, who was also sent to Van Diemen’s Land, had married Mary Chapman in Bilsington in 1818.  I have not been able to identify or find a connection with the third witness, J Flint.

It seems likely that Thomas was already combining his labouring hours with dark nights on the beaches and in the woodlands and marshes, conveying smuggled goods from shore to hide.  With three young children to support and another on the way, the extra cash would certainly have made things more comfortable and probably allowed Thomas to escape to the local inns and ‘blind pigs’ or unlicensed premises where good French brandy and other spirits could be had duty-free!

Thomas and Frances’ first daughter, Louisa, was baptised on 11 April 1824 at Aldington.  Two years later, a son, Thomas, was also baptised there.  Eight months later their little world would be shattered when Thomas and his smuggling companions, including the Gang’s formidable leader, George Ransley, were arrested for the murder of Quarter Master Richard Morgan as well as for various offences under the excise laws.

Family Life shattered

Tense times must have followed as Frances talked to friends and neighbours to piece together what had happened.  Seven gang members were arrested early one Tuesday morning, before Ransley was even out of bed, if the stories were true.  Whisked off to London there was no opportunity to say goodbye or for any of their daring comrades to plan an escape.

Then, a fortnight later, more gang members were arrested and taken to London.  And at some point they would also have learnt that some of the Gang’s former members had turned Kings Evidence.  Things looked grim.

And indeed, the committal trial brought no comfort and a considerable wait followed before Thomas and his companions faced Justice Park at the Maidstone Assize Court on 6 January 1827.  Was Frances in the court room that day or did she have to wait to hear from neighbours? How long did she have to wait to learn that the sentence of death passed on her husband had been commuted to transportation for life? And how would she cope with that? We can only barely begin to guess the answer to these questions, and so many more.  What did she tell her children?  Did the wives of her husband’s colleagues band together or were there recriminations and blame?

We don’t even know whether Frances and the children were able to farewell their husband and father when he sailed, with other Aldington Gang members, aboard the Governor Ready for Van Diemen’s Land on 5 April 1827.  It seems unlikely that there was much opportunity for goodbyes.  Soon after the trial Thomas and his companions were taken to the hulks at Gosport and there was probably little chance for Frances and the children to travel to London.

In any event we know very little more about Frances until 1829 when she boarded the Harmony to reunite with her husband in Van Diemen’s Land.  We can, perhaps, surmise that this reunion was something of a surprise for Frances because, along with the five children she had when Thomas left their native land, Frances also carried on board a baby daughter, Frances Ann.

Harmony and Reunion

It seems that there was some coordination in facilitating the reunion of not just Thomas and his family, but other Aldington Gang families as well.  Families of the Gang members travelled to Van Diemen’s Land on two ships.  The first, the Harmony, departed Gravesend on 13 September 1828  and the second, the Mellish, sailed two years later.

The Harmony carried 100 female convicts, thirteen cabin passengers and another nine in steerage.  Eight of the steerage passengers were prisoners’ wives, travelling with their 33 children.  The families of Aldington Gang members took up five of the passenger places and 26 of the 33 children on board.

Frances Gilham travelled with her six children, then raging in age from thirteen years to five months.  George Ransley’s wife, Elizabeth, sailed with ten children but one died at sea.  Catherine Bailey, wife of John, had six children and Paul Pierce’s wife, Sarah, had five. Mary Giles travelled with three children.  Another of my ancestors, Rhoda Higgins, travelled with seven year old Jane and toddler Mary.  A number of the school age children were kept occupied by attending tuition on board with a Mrs Bromley.  While there was some illness on board neither Frances or her children appear in the Surgeon Superintendent’s records, indicating that they enjoyed good health during the voyage.

The Harmony arrived at Hobart Town on 14 January 1829.  No doubt all on board were keen to disembark.  Unfortunately for Frances and for Rhoda Higgins the records show that they were still both on board as late as 24 January as their husbands had not arrived to collect them.  It must have been a long and worrying wait.  On February 7 the Surgeon Superintendent wrote to the Colonial Secretary advising that the last passengers, the wife and family of Thomas Gilham had disembarked only that morning ‘Owing to his not having arrived from the Interior and inability to procure a conveyance for them to his master’s place of resident [sic] …’.  Whether Thomas met his family on the 7th or whether other arrangements were made is not entirely clear.

Extract from the Return of Free Women and Children on board the Harmony

Family Reunion

I wonder how Thomas explained his delay? Perhaps the delay was simply beyond his control.  We do know that his master, Lieutenant William Lyttleton, had enthusiastically supported the family’s reunion when he wrote to support Thomas’ application in April 1828.  Perhaps delays in communication or simply the logistics of travel between the north and south of the colony accounted for the delay.  In any event, Thomas’ explanations were probably a little easier to make than Frances’ need to account for her eight month old daughter.   Like his other step-children, baby Frances took Thomas’ surname but, like the three elder children, she was ultimately excluded from her step-father’s will.

Family Life in Van Diemen’s Land

However Thomas may have felt about his wife’s infidelity (and perhaps there was ready acceptance and forgiveness given the great uncertainty that both had been living with) he was now formally assigned to her as her servant.  They returned to the district that Thomas knew and took up farming on the Norfolk Plains.

In April 1830 Frances gave birth to another girl who they named Mary.  Sadly she was to die before she reached six months and she was buried in Longford on 7 September 1830.

In February the following year, Frances was attending her eldest daughter’s wedding.  At the age of only sixteen, Delia married George McDonald, a ticket of leave holder from Wiltshire.  He had arrived in the colony aboard the Dromedary in 1820 and had very recently applied to purchase land in the town of Longford.

Nine months later, Frances gave birth to my Great Great Great Great Grandfather, Joseph, and his twin, Israel.  They were born on 7 November 1831 and baptised on 8 April the following year at Norfolk Plains.  Before they had reached their first birthday, Frances was also a grandmother.  Delia’s first child, George, was born on 15 October 1832.  Hopefully Frances and Delia had a strong relationship and were able to help each other as more children and grandchildren were born each year.  Pioneering life was challenging at the best of times but with so many young children requiring a watchful eye Frances must have been busy indeed.

Frances was 47 years old when her last child, Elizabeth Susan, was born on 21 May 1843.  In between, she had Catherine, on 8 November 1833, Edward, on 25 December 1835 and Maria, on 9 February 1838.  How exhausting!  And of course Delia was regularly producing grandchildren.  In 1840 there was another marriage to celebrate when Louisa married another Wiltshire-man, William Snooks.

Sadly, family life wasn’t all about births, baptisms and marriages.  In 1848 daughter Louisa died of fever at the age of 23.  And four years later Louisa’s husband died leaving three young boys to be provided for.   Sadly too, Frances’ bachelor son, Thomas, died of Bilious Fever at the age of 27, in 1854.

Two years later Frances was dealing with another death in the family – this time the news of her sister Catherine’s tragic death in New Town.  At the end of January 1856 Catherine was driving into Hobart and when her chaise collided with another vehicle.  She fell from the cart and a short time later died from the resultant ruptured spleen.

Smuggling connections rekindled

There is very little information in available records to know whether Thomas and his former smuggling companions stayed in touch with each other or whether the wives who had shared their worries and hopes on board the Harmony continued to support each other in the colony.  Geography and the logistics of colonial travel were probably influential factors in the maintenance or otherwise of pre-transportation relationships.

We do know that the Gilhams were in touch with the Hogbens because in 1845 Frances Ann, the young girl who had arrived on the Harmony as a baby, married James Hogben Jnr, son of Aldington Gang smuggler James Hogben and his Kentish-born wife, Ann (nee Kember).  James had travelled to Van Diemen’s Land with his mother and siblings aboard the Mellish in 1830.  He would have been eleven years old at the time so no doubt remembered something of his native land and life on the marshes.  Perhaps he could even recall the night his father was arrested and learning that he had been sent away. Sadly James and Frances were to lose two of their four children in infancy and it seems that James struggled to make ends meet, being declared insolvent in 1860 before moving with his family to the newly developing Ulverstone district.

Many years later, another of Frances and Thomas’ daughters, Maria, was also to marry the son of one of Thomas’ smuggling companions.  Tragically Maria’s first husband, John Taylor, was burned to death in 1873.  The following year Maria married William Richard Bailey, the son of John Bailey and Catherine Richards.  Of course, Catherine was Frances’ half sister so William was more than the son of her father’s colleague – he was also a half first cousin.

Town life

Frances spent her early years in the Norfolk Plains district as a tenant on farming property owned by William Bryan.  I would love to know more about the home that they lived in but presume that like many early pioneering bush homes it was fairly rudimentary and probably felt very small with so many growing children and grand-children sharing just a few small rooms.

However, by the early 1850s Thomas began investing in residential property in the district and seemed to become quite prosperous.  From 1853 the family’s residence was at Patterson’s Plains, which later became the Launceston suburb of St Leonards.  After Thomas’ death a property at this location, named ‘Verulam’ was advertised for sale.  If this was the home they had lived in Frances’ circumstances seemed quite comfortable relative to many of those around her (and compared with many of my other ancestors).  In 1870 Verulam comprised 48 acres and contained ‘… a large dwelling house and new school-room, kitchen, stables, sheds, productive garden &c.’

In 1856 Thomas was the licensee of the Jolly Farmer (later the Prince of Wales Inn) at Carrick.  It is not clear how long Thomas owned the Inn or to what extent he and Frances worked in the Inn but the business appears to have been thriving and may well have taken up a lot of the couples’ time.  Again, an advertisement that appeared after Thomas’ death tells us that this was (by 1870 at least) a fairly substantial building ‘…  built of brick, contains sixteen rooms.  There is also a good cellar, 8-stall stone stable with loft, wooden stable with accommodation for 30 horses, large shed, skittle alley, butcher’s shop &c. …At this house the Deloraine coach horses stand, and it is now doing the best ready-money trade of any house in Carrick.’

By the end of the 1850s Thomas seems to have been making a good income principally through his real estate investments, with properties in Carrick and Westbury.  Hopefully he and Frances both had the opportunity in their later years to enjoy their success with their surviving children and grandchildren.


Frances was widowed in 1865 when 62 year old Thomas died of ‘natural decay’.  Frances lived another four years, dying in 1869 at the age of 73.

At the time of her death, nine of Frances’ thirteen children were still alive as were 53 of her 63 grandchildren (but please let me know if you think I’ve mis-counted!).

Please comment below or email me if you have any comments, corrections or additions to offer.

[Updated 17 April 2012]

Online resources

Frances Furner on my Ancestry tree

Helen Anderson’s website, ‘Weep Not for Them


The header image at the top of this page is taken from an old postcard of Clap Hill, Aldington.


7 thoughts on “Frances Furner

  1. My Nan is called Mercy, my Great Nan was Annie Selina jefferies…she then changed name to gilham, her partner was George gilham and I don’t think they marrried, I am not sure if this is all connected.

    • Thanks Nicola, I can’t see a connection based just on the names but if you have any further information – including any dates or places – I may be able to help or to ask others who may know. Feel free to email from the links on the site. Cheers, Lynne

  2. Hi, I got this a bit wrong, my great nan was born Annie selina gilham, in 1895 her birth was registered in blean, doing research to find who her parents were.

  3. What a ripping history. Tracking back through the female side of the Burleigh tree passes Hudson, Fogg, Macdonald en route to Delia Furner. What excellent research. And more evidence that impoverishment drove desperate action. I’ll distil the bare bones to correct my tree and link to your excellent exposition.

  4. What wonderful reading this has been. I come to all of this through Susannah Hogben who married George Lonsdale Gooch in 1831. My 2 great aunts, Rosa and Mary Davis married their 2 sons, George and John Gooch back in 1860 and 1863.I have been looking at G.L. Gooch and my what an interesting man with a chequered career. I know another of my ancestors was a licensee, I think,
    of the Plough Inn at Carrick, namely Mathew Monaghan. The relationships are all so tied together and after having spent the last 6 years following my Tasmanian ancestors, I can now read birth register pages and recognise a lot of names I grew up in N.Z. so this has been a delight to me, after coming here in 1968, but having no idea this is where my roots are Natalie Irvine [nee Davis] Melbourne.

    • How lovely to hear from you Natalie. Thank you so much for taking the time to write – I’ll have to look up Susannah in my own notes – hoping for a little time on Australia day to do some catching up.


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