James Davey

James Davey – a first settler

I don’t know much about the character of my Great Great Great Great Grandfather, James Davey, but I like to think he had – or developed – something of a pioneering spirit given that he spent years of his early life in this nation’s ‘first settlements’ – at Port Phillip, Hobart Town and Norfolk Island before settling down at the newly found Norfolk Plains. Not that he had much choice in the matter!

James Davey, was tried at the Essex Summer Assizes in Chelmsford, on 28 July 1802, for breaking into the shop and dwelling of Joseph Presland at Debden. James and his accomplices, Robert Davey and William Mills, were accused of stealing six yards of Irish cloth worth 10 shillings, a silk handkerchief and a pair of worsted stockings valued at two shillings each. They were also accused of taking £10 cash and four banknotes worth a pound each. Each of the three young men pleaded not guilty and were acquitted. However, the jurors found that James was also responsible for the theft of three sacks, each valued at ten pence, on three separate occasions (stolen from ‘Charles Bunting the Elder’ on 6 October 1799 and 4 March 1801 and from William Thurgood, on 15 June 1802). It seems that these offences, or the recidivism they represented, sealed James’ fate, leading Justice Baron Hotham to sentence the young labourer ‘for the security of the country’ to seven years transportation.

James was apparently held in the gaol at Chelmsford before being transferred to the Prudentia hulk at Woolwich and then to HMS Calcutta for the historic journey to Port Phillip. Unfortunately I have not been able to establish the details of these movements so can only speculate about the opportunity James’ family may have had to visit and support him prior to his departure.

It seems likely, based on his age at the time of his trial and his residence in the small village of Debden, that James was the son of Thomas and Sarah Davey of Debden Parish. If I am correct about this, James was baptised in the parish church of St Mary on 4 March 1781, the eighth of twelve baptisms recorded for children of this couple between 1769 and 1792. There is a burial record for Sarah Davey, wife of Thomas senior, on 15 July 1799, suggesting that James’ mother, at least, was spared the sorrow of seeing her young son transported beyond any prospect of reunion. Beyond these sparse facts I have established nothing further about James’ early life.

James arrived in Hobart Town in Van Diemen’s Land in February 1804 and so counts amongst the colony’s founding members. However, before reaching his destination he was to sail aboard the modified naval transport, HMS Calcutta, to Port Phillip where a new settlement was to be established. Together with the storeship HMS Ocean, the Calcutta was to convey some 366 male prisoners to the new settlement, along with 15 officers, 46 marines, 15 settlers, 33 wives, a widow, 14 girls and 19 boys. Nearly all the convicts had, like James, been convicted of theft of one type or another. Of the 252 convicted of theft (and whose records survive), 42 stole handkerchiefs, 31 stole money and 18 stole cloth. Only 17 had used force and arms in their crimes. Nine were convicted of embezzlement and 16 of forgery or counterfeit.

The story of the voyage of the Calcutta and Ocean and of the establishment and abandonment of the first colony at Port Phillip has been told in many places so I will cover only briefly here. Unfortunately none of the sources I have seen make specific reference to James so I can only draw inferences about his experience from what is generally known about the treatment and behaviour of the convicts at this new settlement.

The Journey

The Calcutta and Ocean cleared the English Channel, in very rough weather, on 29 April 1803. The high winds, hail and squalls meant that nine days passed before the convicts could be mustered for Divine Service on the quarter deck. The first port of call was Santa Cruz where a two day stay provided welcome relief and an opportunity to obtain fresh provisions. The Equator was crossed on the 10th of June and the following day the sighting of the slave ship, Rio Nova, provided a welcome diversion from the monotony of the voyage.

The next port was Rio and the town of St. Sebastian, overlooking the harbour. Nearly half the population were slaves from Guinea. The slaves washed linen in stone fountains while others, almost naked, worked in chains under the lash of an overseer.

The ships left Rio on the 6th of July and became separated battling stormy seas during the night. The Calcutta was damaged when a sail was lost but was able to be repaired by the ship’s carpenters. The convicts spent their time in semi-darkness, often gambling while others kept watch. They were also required to scrub the decks with wooden blocks and sand. Sixteen convicts were employed as servants to the officers and another 19 were taken on as sailors.

A number of incidents throughout the voyage resulted in harsh disciplinary action. Mrs Riley received 12 lashes on her bare back for stealing a cap from another prisoner’s wife. William Bryant was flogged for drunkenness; John Cole was double ironed on suspicion of theft. John Cashman, a convict servant to the sailing master, stole a number of items and then drowned attempting to escape while the ship took on provisions at Simon’s Bay. Rumours circulated about a plan to capture the ship, put the crew off on an island and sail for America. However, once the supposed ringleaders were caught, an investigation revealed that the rumours were spread by one convict hoping to incriminate another.

Seven weeks after rounding the Cape of Good Hope, King Island was sighted. The Calcutta was forced to brave a further storm and sustained considerable damage to her sails. The following day, on 9 October 1803, in calmer seas, the Calcutta sailed through the entrance to Port Phillip to find the Ocean, which had arrived two days earlier, lying at anchor.

The Sullivan Bay settlement

While the ships were riding at anchor, Collins received his first unfavourable impression of Port Phillip in a report from John Mertho, master of the Ocean. Although fresh water was scarce, Collins nevertheless chose Sullivan Bay for his settlement. This proved to be a poor choice. The soil was too sandy to grow food and only poor quality drinking water could be found. Many accounts suggest that Collins had already set his sight on settling in the more promising Van Diemen’s Land and this showed in his half-hearted attempts to properly explore the district.

During the first three weeks, the convicts were employed carrying goods from the Ocean to shore — barrels of biscuit, flour and salt provisions, as well as precious kegs of wine and spirits. Tents were pitched in groups, with prisoners at one end, then the soldiers, the free settlers and officers at the other end of the sandy clearing. Two coppers provided the cooking facilities and half a dozen casks sunk into the ground partially filtered the water that seeped into them.

James Davey probably belonged to one of the various convict gangs that toiled from early morning to sunset, with only an hour’s break for lunch. Some of the convicts were still employed as officer’s servants, others cleared plots of land for gardens. The gangs cut and carted timber, harvested flax for weaving and built huts. The women were kept busy toiling over washtubs and the communal food-boilers.

Shortly after arriving, a party led by James Tuckey explored the Bay, failing to find the Yarra River. He reported back that the land was poor with little fresh water. A party also looked at the site of the future Geelong, but probably because there was good soil and water, there were also numerous Aboriginals who gave no signs of welcoming the newcomers. Scouting parties had little success finding timber for the navy and the dangerous entrance to Port Phillip made the site unsuitable as a whaling base.

Collins decided to abandon the Sullivan Bay site and move to the Derwent in Van Diemen’s Land. On 30 January 1804 most of the convicts and settlers and about half of the marines and civil officers sailed for the Derwent aboard the Ocean and Lady Nelson. The remainder followed on 20 May. One escapee, William Buckley, stayed behind, living with the aborigines for 30 years.

Sullivan’s Cove, 1804

The Ocean arrived in the Derwent on 11 February 1804 but unfavourable winds delayed landing at Bowen’s Risdon Bay camp for another five days. As it happened, Bowen was in Sydney, having taken some soldiers accused of theft for trial. Collins soon declared the Risdon site, which was dry and parched after four months without rain, as unsuitable for settlement. The site was too steep and windy and seemed a poor prospect for agriculture. After a short investigation, surveyor George Harris reported a very promising site across the river. The site of Hobart Town, at Sullivan’s Cove, had a permanent stream of fresh water and nestled at the base of Table Mountain (later renamed Mount Wellington). Collins decided to bring both groups of settlers together in Sullivan’s Cove, although it was not until July that the Risdon settlement was largely abandoned when Bowen and many of his company set sail for Sydney. Even then, a number of early settlers were granted farming land in the area.

On 20 February, convicts and military guards from the Ocean landed at Sullivan’s Cove. They erected tents for the military and civil officers. Convict gangs were set to work felling timber and clearing the land. A high priority was also given to securing the settlement’s stores. A wharf was built from Hunter Island within the first few days to enable stores to be unloaded, along with a hut for storing the goods. The island was connected to shore only at low tide by a long sand spit.

As Autumn was fast approaching, there was an urgent need to construct shelter. At first everyone was housed in tents. Married couples were allocated tents beside the marines’ squared plot of ground. Free settlers were on the western side beyond the marines. The Governor’s marquee was set on rising ground, at the southern end of Elizabeth Street, about where the Town Hall is today.

What of James Davey and the other convicts? A bell rang every morning at 5 o’clock warning them to turn out in their blue kersey jackets and trousers for work. They laboured until six in the evening, with an hour’s break for breakfast and an hour and a half for dinner. An extra hour was granted on Tuesday for the issue of rations. On Saturdays work ceased at eleven. Initially at least, nearly all able-bodied men were engaged in construction — building shelter, storage facilities and other public works.

The marines were rostered around the clock to perform sentry duty; they regularly attended drill, ceremonial parade and Divine Service. As the numbers were small, Collins also reinstituted a night watch of trusted convicts and civil officers to protect the valuable food supplies. Convicts and marines alike were required to attend Knopwood’s Anglican service on Sundays. There was no church so the services were generally conducted outdoors.

On 25 June, the Ocean returned to Hobart Town carrying those who remained of the white population at Port Phillip. The population now grew to 433 people – 358 men, 39 women and 36 children. By July there were 19 children under the age of ten. Before the first poor crops could be harvested, two ships from Port Jackson brought more hungry mouths. As the settlement faced its first winter, frosts destroyed the vegetables in the ground, snow appeared on the mountain, rain fell steadily and the cold invaded the poor accommodation, contributing to the ill-health of the under-fed and poorly clothed population. Many were struck by scurvy.

By the end of 1806 food shortages had reached such a critical state that the convicts were too weak to work long hours. While the officers retained a small ration most of the colony’s inhabitants received nothing. The storehouses were largely empty. Kangaroos (foresters, wallabies and kangaroo rats) and other native fauna made important contributions to the diet. Their skins were also used for clothing and footwear.

Norfolk Island

At some point James Davey left the fledgling town for the convict settlement on Norfolk Island. This seems rather unusual given that the authorities were already planning for the settlement’s demise. Nevertheless, James appears as resident on Norfolk Island in the 1811 “Returns of Men who have been convicts and are at present at Hobart Town, Norfolk Island and Port Dalrymple”. The 1811 Muster says that he had five acres under cultivation and that he owned six swine.

With the closure of the settlement, James found himself sailing again for Van Diemen’s Land, one of the last of those to be removed from the first British settlement on Norfolk Island. On 20 January 1813, James Davey sailed aboard the Lady Nelson for Port Dalrymple, arriving there on the 1st of February. James was the only man classed as being ‘free’, all the others were classed according to their convict status at the time of their arrival on the island. Travelling with James were 19 men, seven women and sixteen children. Six of the men and three of the women had arrived with the First Fleet.

Three days after the Lady Nelson’s departure from Norfolk Island, the Minstrel set sail with 42 passengers, including James’ future bride, Catherine Jordan. The Minstrel carried three men and a woman who had arrived with the First Fleet. The evacuation of Norfolk Island had begun in 1805, gathering pace around 1808 and was essentially completed with the passage of these two vessels.

Having spent many years clearing and cultivating the fertile land of Norfolk Island, many felt themselves to be ‘too old and too tired to start pioneering’ again. As an inducement they were offered apparently generous grants of land in Van Diemen’s Land, as well as access to convict labour for the construction of homes and outbuildings and provision of food and clothing from 12 months to two years depending upon the ‘class’ of settler. In practice some of the settlers received more than they appeared to be entitled to and others received far less.

Back in Van Diemen’s Land

James Davey received a grant of 40 acres at Norfolk Plains. Government records show that within a few years he was supplying meat and wheat to the Government stores.

By 1816 James was living with sixteen year old Catherine Jordan, daughter of Irish convict James Jordan (who had arrived at Sydney Cove aboard the notorious Queen in September 1791) and Second Fleet convict, Mary Butler. Sadly Mary died on Norfolk Island when Catherine was only twelve or thirteen and just a few months before the family’s evacuation.

Catherine gave birth to a son, Robert, on 26 November 1816 and then to James, on 9 September 1818. Both boys were baptised at St John’s in Launceston on the 18th of January 1819, on the same day that James and Catherine married.

In 1829 James applied for a convict servant to help nurse his children and to undertake general housework. By this time, the household held six children (having lost two sons, both named James, in infancy). They were Robert, 13, Catherine, 9, Alicia, 5, Thomas, 4, Sarah, 2 and baby Mary. James’ application stated that he resided at Norfolk Plains where he had been granted 45 acres of land in 1813, another 40 acres in 1813 and a further 50 acres granted in 1825. Of this land, 80 acres were under cultivation and James had 80 cattle, eight horses, and employed a free workman and two convict servants.

The family continued to grow, with the birth of Cecilia in 1831, Richard in 1833 and Anne in 1835. There are few records of this time but occasional references to James appear in the colonial papers. In 1829 and 1835 advertisements appear offering the services of Davey’s stallions, Pomegranate and ‘sure foal getter’ Plough-boy. The following year James published a notice warning off any trespassers, and specifically a Mr Thomas Parker Junior, promising to bring to bear the full extent of the law for anyone driving cattle or breaking down fences on his farm.

In May 1838 James and Catherine had the pleasure (and no doubt the cost) of celebrating the marriage of their eldest daughter, Catherine, to John Smith at Longford’s Christ Church. And just under a year later, their first grandchild, James, was born. In November 1839 they were celebrating the marriage of their eldest son, Robert, a wheelwright, to a young English girl, Mary Ann Newton.

Sadly, little over a month later, on 21 December 1839, the Cornwall Chronicle carried the news of Catherine’s death. Only 39 years old, the Chronicle reports that she died at home giving birth to her sixteenth child.  It is difficult to know where the extra five children fit in as records have only been found for eleven, and they were born in quick succession! Of course infant mortality was high at the time and it seems that the baby who brought about Catherine’s death also died. Catherine was buried on the 17th of December, with ‘upwards of twenty couple of friends and relatives’ following her remains to the grave at Longford Cemetery.

A few years later, the 1842 Census describes James as the owner of an unfinished brick house in the parish of Longford. The records suggest that daughters Anne, Cecilia, Mary, Sarah and Alicia were still at home, along with the two younger sons Richard and Thomas. The household also included a married couple and two single men holding tickets-of-leave. The men were employed in agriculture but the married woman appears not to be employed as a domestic servant or in any other capacity. Indeed, the married woman is probably James’ second wife.

I have not yet researched this latter part of James’ life as thoroughly as I would like, so I would welcome any additional information, evidence and corrections that readers may be able to offer. By this time there are a number of James Daveys in the north of the colony with many of the records providing insufficient detail to determine one from the other.

It seems though, that my ancestor, the James Davey who was living at and later buried at Longford, married ticket-of-leave holder, Elizabeth Livermore, at Christ Church on 21 July 1841. Elizabeth was a widow, aged 41 at the time, with quite an unhappy past. She had been transported to New South Wales, as Elizabeth Dewsnap, in 1818, having been convicted for larceny. Shortly after arrival she was transferred to George Town where she was later assigned to Thomas Livermore. The couple married in September 1827 but sadly Thomas drowned soon after. In 1833 Elizabeth was convicted of feloniously receiving six sheep and was sentenced to fourteen years transportation. A number of misdemeanors followed, including absenting herself from service, drunkenness and prostitution and in 1834 she was sentenced to six months in the crime class at the Female House of Correction in Hobart Town.

While I have discovered very little information about James and Elizabeth’s time together, the relationship broke down very publicly in 1854 when James published a notice in the Cornwall Chronicle cautioning as follows: ‘Caution to the Public – Whereas my wife, Elizabeth Davey, but better known in town as Elizabeth Livermore, has left me without any just cause since the 31st of August last, I now caution all persons from trusting and harbouring her after this notice, as I will not be answerable for any debts she may contract, and any person employing her will be prosecuted as the law directs in such cases. James Davey, Sept 23 Longford.’

James died on 26 June 1865 of ‘extreme age’. The death registration says he was 88 (slightly older than his convict records would suggest). He was buried at Christ Church Cemetery in Longford beside his first wife, Catherine. His tombstone mistakenly puts his year of death as 1864.

While I have not been able to locate a copy of James’ will, advertisements in the local newspapers tell us a little more about the property and goods his executors put up for auction. In 1865 livestock and farming goods were auctioned, including a grey cart horse, a cow near carving, harnesses, a water cart, a winnowing machine, a plough, harrow and sundry farm implements. Two years later James’ substantial property holdings were put up for auction in a number of lots – small farms and building allotments. The first, fronting onto the main road and bounded by the properties of Messrs Green, King and Murphet and the South Esk River was about 29 acres; another lot of more than 96 acres, well fenced and subdivided, was bounded by the properties of John Wilmore, George Ritchie and Alexander Stewart. Other properties fronted the main road and seem to be residential sized blocks. One contained a brick cottage and a garden well stocked with trees, others were described as valuable building allotments.

From poor labouring beginnings in a rural Essex village James Davey’s life was certainly shaped by the decisions of government – to transport petty thieves beyond the seas; to establish a settlement at Port Phillip; to move that settlement to Van Diemen’s Land; and to evacuate the first European settlers on Norfolk Island to Norfolk Plains. Despite personal tragedies and hardships along the way, James seems to have ended his long life in relatively prosperous circumstances – one more convict made good!

If you have any additional information I would love to hear from you – please email.

Online resources

James Davey on my Ancestry tree

[Updated 21 April 2013]



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