Tasmania’s convict records are well preserved and readily accessible. They provide a great starting point for researching the lives of many of our ancestors. Unfortunately, sometimes they represent pretty well all we know about some of our ancestors! And that is how I feel as I set out to write up what little I know of my GGGG Grandfather, George Chappel.
George’s convict records tell us that he was born about 1782 and that his native place was the grandly-named village of Houghton Conquest in Bedfordshire.
Apparently the village name is derived from the Old English words ‘hoh’ and ‘tun’ and means ‘a farmstead on or near a ridge or spur of a hill’. The Conquest part of the name derives from an important local family who held the manor and lands in the area from the thirteenth to the eighteenth centuries. The village church, All Saints, is the largest parish church in the county.
During the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries Houghton Conquest was a thriving and important country village. It declined in importance during the eighteenth century but in the 1820s and 1830s its population soared. From around 500 people in 1800, the parish grew to nearly 800 by the time of the 1831 census. This sudden growth, far higher than the county as a whole, led many to view the place with suspicion. According to the Reverend Burgon, there was a popular saying that ‘Bedford gaol would fall when it did not contain a Houghton man’. The streets were considered unsafe after dark and they were impassable during winter. According to Burgon, things began to improve with the appointment of the Reverend Thomas Barber in 1821.
Barber enforced order in the church ‘by the power of his lungs’ and on the streets ‘by the weight of his arm’. He carried a stick, and sometimes used it; and, as a magistrate, … he succeeded in getting some of the worst offenders transported.
Interestingly, a parliamentary committee taking evidence on amendments to the Poor Law heard that by 1837 much of the crime had disappeared, attributed in large part to farmers employing more labourers and paying them better wages. A letter from a Mr Francis of Houghton Conquest informed the committee that:
Before the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act, I recollect the vast quantities of labourers lying on the road-side in idleness, paid by the overseer, used to frequent the ale-houses and beer-shops in the evening, and from thence to night-poaching, setting fire, cutting and maiming of cattle and like depredations. All that appears to be abated; the farmer and labourer having more confidence in each other than ever known by the present generation, and I hear of no one complaining but ale-house and beer-shop keeper; I recollect in 1834 hearing an agent complaining of the difficulty of getting cottage-rents; I am well-informed that in 1837 he has no difficulty.
Mr Liddell went on to confirm that the ‘offences which formerly disgraced that county have now nearly ceased’.
Unfortunately for George, he was not to benefit from the changes in the poor law and the improved conditions for labourers. Indeed, whether by Barber’s hand or another, it was the sentence of death, commuted to transportation for life, that tells us most of what we know about George Chappel.
Marriage and children
However, before we get to that, the parish records do provide at least a scant picture of George’s early life. Given the age indicated on his convict records, it seems that he was the baby baptised in the imposing All Saints Church on 6 January 1782. I haven’t seen the register but other researchers advise that his parents are listed as Thomas and Elizabeth. Online searches tell me nothing more about George’s parents, nor do they reveal any siblings. Clearly there is more research to do here.
When George was twenty-one, he married local girl, Elizabeth Elmer. Born on 18 July 1784, Elizabeth was the daughter of Richard Elmer and Elizabeth (nee Penright). George and Elizabeth married on 15 November 1803 and just two months later, on 29 January 1804, their son, William, was born. Then followed John (in December 1805), Amelia (1809), Eliza (1811), Henry (1813), Samuel (1813), Abiatha (1814), Charlotte (1816), Zilpha (1818), Edward (1824), Ann (1824) and Thomas (1827).
With so many mouths to feed, the household finances were presumably fairly tight. George’s wages as an agricultural labourer, ploughman and shepherd would have been modest at best and population pressure in the village may well have made employment uncertain.
Crimes and misdemeanors
It seems that as early as 1817, when George was in his mid-thirties, he was under suspicion, at least, of involvement in the reasonably regular pattern of livestock theft in and around the village. On the 28th of October George was committed for sheep stealing and held at the Bedford County gaol for some five or six months until he was eventually found not guilty at the Lent Assizes the following year. Tough on George, but the rest of the family would also have suffered as Elizabeth looked after her eight children with no money coming into the home apart, perhaps, from some charitable contributions and extended family.
The gaol records tell us that George was orderly and well behaved during his time inside. They also reveal that he was five feet seven inches tall with brown hair and a fresh complexion and that he had lost his right eye.
The Bedford County Gaol had opened in 1801, after the more ancient building, which held John Bunyan two centuries earlier while he wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress, was closed following many years of concern about the harshness of its conditions. In 1802 the prison register recorded 65 inmates. By the time George was incarcerated in 1817 the number had climbed to 242. Indeed, the following year a decision was made to construct a new House of Correction to accommodate the less serious offenders and to alleviate over-crowding at the county gaol.
It seems that George was committed, again, in 1820, for larceny. In January 1821 he was sentenced to three months imprisonment.
While George’s record remained clean for the next decade, in 1822 his second son, John, was brought before the court, charged with stealing wood. The gaol record tells us that John was sixteen, five feet and two inches tall, with brown hair, dark hazel eyes and a fair but freckled complexion. He had a scar over his right eye. John was sentenced to one month’s hard labour at the new House of Correction.
Various family events punctuated the decade to 1830. George’s three youngest children were born – Edward and Ann were baptised on 24 October 1824 and Thomas on 20 May 1827. In July 1829 eldest son William married Harriet Riddy and George became a grandfather for the first time soon afterwards when William and Harriet produced a daughter, Fanny. Eldest daughter Amelia married William Whiteman, another local agricultural labourer, in November 1829.
Things took a turn for the worse in February 1830 when George was arrested for stealing a sheep. Shortly before the Lent Assizes were to begin the Huntingdon, Bedford and Peterborough Gazette reported that:
Since our last returns, we grieve to say, there have been no less than fifteen commitments to the Bedford Gaol, two of which are for sheep stealing. There also have been nine commitments to the Penitentiary …
Amongst the list of those to face trial at the Assizes commencing on the following Saturday is ‘George Chapel, of Houghton Conquest, for sheep stealing …’. Fellow villagers, Edmund Simpkins and William Carter, were also on the list, charged respectively with stealing wood and obtaining money under false pretences. Other crimes included housebreaking, setting fire to a hay stack, an unnatural offence and assault. Most of the charges were for theft, with a number of men tried for sheep stealing and for fowl stealing, and others for stealing stockings, oats, hay, wood, silver spoons, straw and even shoemaker’s lasts.
A few weeks later, the paper reported the outcomes:
GEORGE CHAPPEL (48) was charged with having, in the night of 13th of February last, stolen one shearhog sheep, the property of Wm Lynn. Wm Lynn: I am a farmer at Elstow; on the 10th of February I counted 49 shearhogs, 35 theaves, and 8 tups; on the 13th one was missing, which I traced near the prisoner’s house at Houghton; I went to Ampthill and overtook a waggon; the prisoner had sent by waggon two hind quarters and a shoulder of wether sheep. I found the prisoner at a public house on my return to Ampthill, and asked him where the remainder of the carcase was; he said “you know all about it.” Went to Houghton, and in his shop found two necks, two breasts, a shoulder, and some suet; have no doubt it was my sheep, as all the joints when put together and placed on the skin, exactly fitted. — S. Eyles corroborated Mr Lynn’s statement. The prisoner said he had bought two sheep at Christmas of Mr Quinely, and that this was one of them. John Quinley sold the prisoner two sheep, but this was fatter than what he had sold him. — George Croot found a sheep skin in a hedge near the prisoner’s premises, which had Mr Lynn’s brand upon it. Sentence of death recorded.
William Wales [Waters], Benjamin Bunyon and John Soxall also faced the death penalty for stealing sheep. The fowl-stealers were sentenced to three or four months, sometimes with hard labour, in one of the Houses of Correction, although the theft of some thirty fowls earnt Joseph Hardwick and James Clarke seven years transportation.
Transported for life
Fortunately for George, his sentence was commuted to transportation for life. On the 16th of April George was taken from Bedford Gaol and delivered to the Dolphin Hulk at Chatham, a journey of some 80 miles. Hopefully Elizabeth and the children were able to visit George before his departure, as there would be no other opportunity before he left for Van Diemen’s Land. The Dolphin was busy with regular arrivals and departures and generally held more then 730 convicts on board.
On 23 April, just a few days later, George was taken on board the David Lyon, to be transported away from his home for life. Also on board were William Waters, Benjamin Bunyon and John Soxall, each of whom had been sentenced to death on the same day as George.
The David Lyon set sail from Sheerness on the second of May and arrived at Hobart Town on the 19th of August. She carried 220 male convicts but three died during the journey.
George’s convict records provide a fairly sketchy picture of his life in Van Diemen’s Land. They also confirm a few details about his life in Bedfordshire. Interestingly, while all the English records indicated that George was well behaved and ‘orderly’ in confinement, the more detailed CON31 gaol report says ‘character is very bad – convicted before – has been in the trade of a Butcher as a Cloak to receive stolen sheep’. Indeed, his occupation is listed as ploughman and butcher as well as shepherd. We also learn that his once dark brown hair has greyed and that his forehead is now wrinkled. At the age of 48 George is certainly older than many of those transported with him. The record also tell us that George has a wife and ten children, the eldest of whom is 25, at his native place of Houghton Conquest. Eliminating those children for whom I’ve discovered marriage or census records, this information suggests that two of Henry, Charlotte and Thomas died before George’s transportation.
Life in Van Diemen’s Land
Initially George was assigned to work for a Mr Isaac Hall. This seems to have been very short lived because by December 1830 the records show that George was working for a Mr Scott, with whom he stayed until his ticket of leave was granted in 1841. George’s record is scattered with minor misdemeanors but none of them make the newspapers, not even those that attract time in the stocks or lashes:
- 8 December 1830: sentenced to 25 lashes for being drunk and disorderly and neglecting his duties the previous day
- 19 March 1832: reprimanded for being found in the Longford Hotel ‘for the purpose of Tippling’
- 28 August 1833: severely reprimanded for disobedience
- 22 April 1835: reprimanded at his master’s request for disobedience
- 21 August 1835: sentenced to four hours in the stocks for insolence and neglect of duty
- 2 September 1836: sentenced to twelve lashes for neglect of duty and insolence
- 24 December 1836: another twelve lashes, this time for being absent without leave.
In August 1838 George was granted a ticket of leave and in July 1842 he received a conditional pardon. With the end of his sentence, the official records fell largely silent. The 1846 Muster just tells us that George held a conditional pardon. Some researchers believe that he died that year but neither the official death registers nor the colonial newspaper provide confirmation.
I have tried to discover a little more about the ‘Mr Scott’ who George served for so long. So far I have not found any conclusive evidence. It is possible that he was Mr James Scott, the Scottish surgeon-superintendent of the Castle Forbes, who became the colonial surgeon and controller of medical services in southern Van Diemen’s Land. From 1824 he also served as a magistrate. In 1821, Scott married Lucy Davey, the only child of the Lieutenant-Governor. James and Lucy had land grants at Bothwell, New Norfolk and New Town. No doubt they had a large number of assigned servants, whether George was one of them, I don’t know.
And there, George’s trail goes cold. If anyone can share any further light I’d love to hear from you! It is his son Samuel, to whose story I will turn next. Born in Houghton Conquest in 1813, Samuel was also caught stealing sheep and found his way to Van Diemen’s Land, at his majesty’s pleasure, in 1836. Whether he and his father were reunited remains a mystery, but I hope so.
And what of Elizabeth? Official records are notoriously sparse in relation to the lives of our women ancestors and Elizabeth is no exception. No doubt she missed her husband as she attended the weddings of their children and as their grand-children were born and grew up.
William and Harriet had at least nine children; John married Mary Garner in 1832 and added another five grand-children; Amelia and William seem not to have had any children; Eliza married Richard Redman in 1838; I’ve learnt nothing more about Henry who may have died in infancy or childhood; Abiatha married John Bunker in 1833; I’ve learnt nothing more about Charlotte or the youngest child, Thomas. Zilpha married Daniel Day in 1846 and had four children. Daniel seems to have become a successful farmer, with the family hiring labourers and a female servant. Edward married Betsy Webb in 1847 and the couple migrated to the United States in 1857. And lastly, Ann married William Smart in 1848 and had three known children.
How much, if any, of this, was known to George?
Often the story of a convict ancestor finishes with the comfort of a good family life and relative improvement in material circumstances, bringing something of a happy ending, notwithstanding the incredible loss of family left behind. Unfortunately, in George’s case we can only imagine his last days, and hope they were happy, at least until more records or newspaper reports are uncovered … or that imaginary grail, a detailed family diary!
[Added 16 July 2016]
Postscript I am delighted to be able to share with you these beautiful photos of lacework that was made by George’s daughter Abiatha. Elizabeth and Abiatha were both lacemakers. Indeed, Bedford was well known for this beautiful and difficult work, mainly carried out by women working from their homes. These photos, kindly shared by Abiatha’s descendant, Judy Priest, show just how accomplished Abiatha was.
George Chappel on my Ancestry Tree
George Chappel’s convict Conduct Record
George Chappel’s convict Description Record
 Clive Emsley, Crime and Society in England: 1750-1900, preview on Google books, accessed July 2016
 Clive Emsley
 Evidence to the parliamentary committee on the Poor Law Amendment Act (1838), accessed via Google books, July 2016
 According to George Cully’s Observations on live stock: containing hints for choosing and improving the best breeds of the most useful kinds of domestic animals, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, http://quod.lib.umich.edu, a shearhog is a male sheep from the time of its first shearing. A theave is a female sheep.
 The UK Prison Hulk registers on Ancestry suggest that George was held on the Dolphin. However, the Bedford Gaol register says he was disposed to the Cumberland: ‘UK, Prison Hulk Registers and Letter Books, 1802-1849,’ Ancestry.com.au; Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service, ‘Bedfordshire Gaol Register,’ http://apps.bedfordshire.gov.uk.
 ‘Papers Relating to the Convict Establishments,’ House of Lords Sessional Papers: 1801-1833, accessed via Google Books, July 2016
 Another possible ‘Mr Scott’ is Thomas Scott, surveyor and landowner. He lived in the north of the state from 1832 but he also returned to Scotland for two years in the mid-1830s, during which time his brother, James, deputised for him. While it is possible that George was assigned to this Mr Scott, it seems likely that his record would have differentiated between the two brothers. Further information at http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/scott-thomas-2643.