James Jordan – Part I

James Jordan was my sixth-great grandfather. One of the earliest of the Irish convicts banished to Australia, James has many descendants in Tasmania and across the country.

Conviction and transportation

James’ early history is difficult to unravel and there are many inconsistencies. I am going to start with his transportation to New South Wales in 1791 and the facts that we know and then work backwards to try to discover a little of his pre-transportation history.

James arrived in New South Wales in 1791 aboard the first transport to carry convicts from Ireland, the Queen. The colonial convict records tell us that he had been tried in Dublin in March 1789 and that he was twenty-five years old.[1] This means he was born about 1766 if the records reflect his age on arrival. The records are also consistent in adding his alias, Sheridan. Unfortunately, unlike the English and Tasmanian records, they don’t include his native place, information about his family or anything about the crime he was found to have committed.

Unhelpfully, the records of James’ trial were destroyed by fire and there is no document definitively linking James, his transportation and a conviction. Given the little that we do know, the best likely fit we have for James is a report about the Quarter Sessions of 24 March 1789 in the Freeman’s Journal, which reads:

Tuesday, March 24 … James Sheridan, Jane Sheridan, his wife, and Dominick Gaffney, were put to the bar, charged with robbing the house of Mr Parker of Ross Lane, and feloniously taking from him a number of notes, some candlesticks, and other articles of value. Jane Sheridan and Dominick Gaffney were both acquitted, and discharged; and James Sheridan, being found guilty, was sentenced to be transported.[2]

A few weeks later, a report in the same journal suggest that Sheridan was soon to set sail for America:

This morning, at nine o’clock, the transports are to be brought down from the New-prison to take shipping for America. The number of these unfortunate people, whose crimes against the laws have rendered them so obnoxious to the community as to cause their being banished from their native land, amount to 130, among whom are 14 women and several very young boys. When, however, we reflect that all the transports from the different jails of the whole kingdom have been sent up to Dublin, this number of convicts will not appear so very considerable; on the contrary, it furnishes a proof that the frequency of felonious offences has greatly decreased, which may be accounted for from the institution of a police in the capital, and some other parts of Ireland; — an institution which, if made more general, might be productive of still greater and more salutary consequences.[3]

It would seem that some care was taken in the preparations for transportation as the journal also reports that:

When the Right Hon. the Lord Mayor went last Monday on board the transport ship bound for North America, in Dublin Bay, he seized and ordered to be thrown into the sea, several barrels of damaged provisions, in consequence it is said, of an order from the Government, that in future the provisions in every transport vessel shall be narrowly inspected, not only respecting their quality, but also their quantity, and that the regulations that compel those, like other vessels bound upon long voyages, to take a sufficient quantity of victuals, be duly enforced. On this occasion some persons of skill and trust were appointed to assist the Chief Magistrate in this truly humane duty.[4]

And we also learn a little of the various scenes leading up to departure:

The crowd assembled at the New-prison on Saturday last to behold the departure of the convicts, was much affected with the screeches of Patrick Fay’s children, when he was placed in the cart handcuffed to another transport. Many dropt a tear of pity at this circumstance, and for a moment forgot the crimes of the father at the wretched situation of his offspring …

As the convicts were conveying on Saturday last, from the New-gaol to the water side, the cart, in which was Mr Fay, and other decent looking men, was overturned at the end of Little Britain-Street, as it was entering Chapel-Street. The cart, having spikes around the top of it, hurt two or three of the convicts as they tumbled from it into the street — and Fay in particular was hurt in the mouth. Had not the guards been very active, when the cart overturned, some escapes might have taken place. [Indeed, there follow reports of other convicts escaping as they were taken down river to the ship that was to convey them to America.][5]

Destination Newfoundland

Embarked on board the Duke of Leinster, James Sheridan was soon to be party to a diplomatically challenging, and personally perilous, event in Irish transportation history. And, if this James Sheridan is, indeed, the same James Jordan (alias Sheridan) who subsequently sailed to Botany Bay on board the Queen, he has the unfortunate distinction of participating in not one but two poorly managed Irish transportation ventures.

In the 1780s both the British and Irish governments faced the dilemma of finding suitable places to send their convicts. The English system of transportation to America had ended with the outbreak of the Revolutionary War in 1775 and in 1787 England sent a fleet of ships to Botany Bay to establish a new colony and convict receptacle in the Antipodes. In the meantime, Ireland had experienced significant challenges with its transportation schemes. Convicts had mutinied on board one ship; a group had rioted in prison in Dublin; and seven convicts had died in December 1788 when more than 100 convicts had been forcibly put ashore on Cape Breton Island. As a result, the British Home Secretary informed Ireland that it could only transport convicts to New South Wales. However, the Duke of Leinster had already departed from Dublin.[6]

As the Dublin gaol had filled, newspapers reported that the convicts would be transported to Botany Bay, but the prison inspector claimed this would cost too much. The Lord Mayor had contracted the Duke of Leinster to be fitted out as a prison ship and on 14 June 1789 she set sail with 102 men and boys and 12 women on board.[7] [8]

The Duke of Leinster had no official destination; one crewman later testified that he had no idea where the brig was bound. Once the ship had cleared the Irish Sea it soon became apparent that it was headed for North America. Rumours circulated that the captain had orders to land some of them in Newfoundland and the rest in Nova Scotia. Nonetheless, after a month at sea the ship stood in for the Newfoundland coast, where Harrison searched for a place to dump all his passengers. Why he chose to put in for the Southern Shore remains unknown, but the combination of short provisions, illness among the convicts and simple expediency probably motivated him to get rid of them at the first opportunity. To cover his tracks, Harrison told them to call the vessel the Charming Nancy, a notorious convict ship that had landed in Connecticut the previous year.

On the night of 15 July, 97 convicts were put ashore at Bay Bulls and the next morning the remaining 17 landed at Petty Harbour. No one was forced off the ship, and some provisions were off-loaded at Bay Bulls. A few of the convicts monopolized the food, however, while those at Petty Harbour received none at all. According to a lurid account published in Halifax, “The hungry victims lived for three days in a state of warfare, quarreling about their food: the strongest beat the weak, and over a cask of rank butter, or beef, there was for a time as severe fighting as if a kingdom had been at stake”. Word of the convicts’ arrival soon reached St. John’s, where early reports claimed that they had torched a house in Bay Bulls and were advancing up the coast. Within days they were walking about the town. Thefts were reported, and fears of a crime wave quickly arose…

St John's Newfoundland, by R P Brenton (courtesy British Library)

St John’s Newfoundland, by R P Brenton (courtesy British Library)

The fishing settlement at that time consisted of two straggling streets of about four hundred wooden houses and shops huddled together on a wind-swept hillside above the narrow harbour. Nearby were the large elevated wooden racks or fishing ‘flakes’ for drying the codfish.[9] All would have been destroyed had the fire taken hold. Not surprisingly the locals were alarmed at the prospect of the damage that might be inflicted by this hungry, wild-looking group of Irish convicts about whom virtually nothing was known.

One of the locals wrote to a merchant in Dublin:

Mr Hutching’s house and store were burned last Friday night at Bay Bulls. I fear much we shall, before the fall is over, share the same fate in St John’s, as there have been landed about 120 desperate fellows, convicts, from Dublin, at Petty Harbour and Bay Bulls.

Since the above, there has been an attempt to set fire to an house in the centre of St John’s. The inhabitants have been obliged to form themselves into a nightly patrol for the protection of their property. We hope some means may be devised to punish the master of the ship …[10]

Within days local authorities and the judiciary began to investigate who the Irish arrivals were and how they came to be on the island. Affidavits were taken and a list compiled, with the details of 65 of the male convicts indicating that they were a fairly typical sample of the offenders transported during the 18th Century. They were overwhelmingly young, most were convicted for various forms of larceny, and while they came from various counties more than a third were from Dublin. Newfoundland already had its own Irish-derived population; many were from Waterford and it is thought that the 37 men not listed by the magistrates may have been from this county.

The local merchants and ‘principal inhabitants’ petitioned the magistrates, fearing that their property was endangered and that the crowds of ‘idle persons’ threatened to disturb the peace. They were also concerned that some of the convicts appeared ‘much diseased’ and asked that they be placed under guard. It seems that some of the convicts were suffering from the highly contagious typhus, known as gaol fever.

Eighty of the male convicts were confined to an estate on the wind-swept barrens, a mile inland from St Johns. The convicts referred to it as a ‘plantation’. Supplies quickly ran out and they were subsequently fed from army garrison provisions – much of which had already been condemned as unfit for consumption. Of the other men, at least one remained in hospital, another died, two escaped and twenty were never accounted for. The twelve female convicts, ‘more abandoned than you can conceive of’, apparently fended for themselves.[11]

Bannister and Reece provide numerous examples of unruly behaviour, breaches of the pass system that was introduced to allow the convicts to enter the town, escapes and even an attempt to set fire to the town! Sheridan’s name does not appear amongst them, although names are not provided for every incident. Bannister and Reece also describe the fear the locals held that the island’s Irish population would support the convicts against the government.[12] [13]

Eventually, 74 men and six women were shipped to England while 33 either settled in Newfoundland or escaped elsewhere. [14] [15]

Sojourn at Portsmouth

On 24 October the Elizabeth and Claire sailed from St John’s harbour. The Atlantic crossing to Portsmouth was made in less than four weeks after which the prisoners presumably remained on board the leaking vessel, unfit to continue the journey to Dublin, while the British and Irish governments engaged in vigorous legal and political debate about how to deal with them.

London’s Public Advertiser reported the story of the Newfoundland convicts on 1 December 1789, rather colourfully revealing something of the prejudice against the Irish:

Here [at the plantation] the Irish Howl was nightly sung in full chorus, and the sentinels were frequently affrighted with the noise on their posts. A bottle or two every half-hour, kept them festive all day, and when the provisions supplied to them by the inhabitants were lessened, they broke away, and laid hold of everything that was eatable, without enquiry whether it had an owner.[16]

The convicts were finally put aboard the Deptford in mid-December and returned to Dublin on 21 January 1790.[17] On the way, stormy weather forced the Deptford, and the accompanying Drake, to take shelter at Cowes on the Isle of Wight. It is from here that the captain wrote to the Admiralty with serious concerns for the health of his passengers. He reported that they were ‘seiz’d with a Fever, that many of them are very bad with the Scurvy and the Flux, with great black blotches breaking out on them, tending to putrefaction.’[18] Surgeons from the Magnificent and the Edgar examined the passengers and reported on 21 December that there were no signs of fever but:

The Convicts are now from want of Clothing, Bedding and every necessary in a small vessel [and] in an inclement Season are obliged to sleep on the bare Deck, which with the want of proper Provisions (their Diet consisting altogether of salted Meat) has produced the Scurvy among some of the number to the most inveterate degree. As this is the case there is reason to apprehend from they have suffered since the first embarkation that the Disease in a few days if not counteracted may become general and fatal.[19]

Consequently, the Deptford was ordered to take shelter in Stoke’s Bay where her passengers were to be cleansed and clothed, under a marine guard required to prevent their escape. The Home Office funded fresh provisions and the citizens of Portsmouth raised funds to provide warm clothing. The Hampshire Chronicle reported that most of the men had no more covering than a biscuit bag, having sold their jackets and trousers in Newfoundland.[20][21] By 6 January they were found fit to travel and ordered to set sail immediately.

Back in Dublin

News of the return of the convicts from Newfoundland guaranteed a crowd of onlookers when the men and women land at the North Wall on 1 February. Handcuffed in pairs, dressed in new blue jackets and worsted nightcaps, they were conveyed to Newgate in six prison carts. Incredibly, the Dublin Chronicle commented that they ‘looked in general, far better than when they left this kingdom’.[22]

Five months later, the Newfoundland convicts played a leading role in an unprecedented riot and attempted mass escape from Newgate prison. Their fate was still unclear and there seemed to have been little progress in making arrangements for their transportation to Botany Bay. Under Irish transportation law these delays were particularly egregious because despite all that had occurred they were taken not to have served any part of their original sentences![23]

In December 1790 the Home Office notified Dublin Castle authorities that the Queen would shortly be dispatched to Cork to transport 200 convicts to New South Wales. The chaplain and gaol inspectors were required to decide which of the prisoners might be reclaimed through hard labour and which of those ‘of an incorrigible description’ should be sent to Botany Bay. Reece believes that at least twelve, and perhaps more, from the group of Newfoundland returnees who were seen as ringleaders in the riot were first amongst those chose to relieve the pressure at Newgate.[24]

According to Barbara Hall, twenty-three of the men transported on the Queen had been to Newfoundland on the Duke of Leinster. They were:

Michael or Nicholas Carpenter, Michael Delaney, Matthew Dempsey, Michael Flynn, John Foley, James Grant, Patrick Hart alias John Penrose, James Jordan alias Sheridan, Thomas Kelly, John Lawler, Patrick Leonard, Patrick Lee, John Mansfield, James Myler, Denis Newenham, Charles O’Bryan, John or Peter Parker, Thomas Regan, Daniel Stuart, Arthur Young and possibly James or Thomas Walsh.[25]

Our James Jordan?

The ‘Return of the convicts’ recorded on Newfoundland on 7 September 1789 included: ‘James Sheridan, 40, Cornegall, Cavan, Stolen Goods found in his House, Trans.’[26] This is not a lot of information to go on and the age given suggests he was born in 1749, some seven years earlier than the age given at the time of his death. It is nearly 15 years earlier than the New South Wales records suggest.

To complicate things further James Sheridan does not appear on the list of 74 men embarked upon the Elizabeth and Clare. But neither does Denis Newenham, who is known to have been re-transported to Botany Bay in 1791.[27] Terrence Punch, in his book Erin’s Sons, lists James Sheridan as one of eighteen he believes remained in Newfoundland, but this is based on a comparison of the two lists and a rather vague statement that seventeen of the eighteen are ‘potentially the ancestors of people alive today either in Newfoundland or elsewhere in America’.[28]

Was this our James Jordan? Based on the circumstantial evidence it seems at least plausible that the James Sheridan transported to Newfoundland was the James Jordan transported to New South Wales on the Queen. The most important pieces of evidence are the inclusion of the alias ‘Sheridan’ on the convict records for James Jordan, as well as the timing of his conviction and its proximity to the Duke of Leister’s departure, at which point the gaols were said to be largely rid of all those sentenced to transportation. We also know that another twenty-two men appear to have endured the journey to Newfoundland and then to Botany Bay aboard the Queen in April 1791. Hopefully more documentary evidence will be unearthed as more archives digitise their holdings. In the meantime, the Newfoundland adventure provides a fascinating additional chapter for further exploration.

You can read Part II here.

[Updated 28 August 2016]

Online resources

James Jordan on my Ancestry Tree

Journeys to Van Diemen’s Land


[1] “New South Wales, Australia, Convict Indents, 1788-1842,” Ancestry.com.au.

[2] “Quarter Sessions Intelligence”, Freeman’s Journal, 26-28 March 1789

[3] Freeman’s Journal, 11-13 June 1789

[4] Freeman’s Journal, 11-13 June 1789

[5] Freeman’s Journal, 16-18 June 1789

[6] Jerry Bannister, ‘Convict Transportation and the Colonial State in Newfoundland, 1789’, Acadiensis, Journal of the History of the Atlantic Region, Vol XXVII, No2, Spring, 1998

[7] Jerry Bannister, ‘Convict Transportation and the Colonial State in Newfoundland, 1789’

[8] Jed Martin, ‘Convict Transportation to Newfoundland in 1789’, Acadiensis, Vol V, No 1, Autumn 1975, pp87-88

[9] Bob Reece, ‘”Such a Banditti”: Irish Convicts in Newfoundland, 1789, Part I’, Newfoundland Studies, Vol 13, No 1, 1997, p6

[10] Saunder’s Newsletter, 24 September 1789, British Library Collection

[11] Jerry Bannister, ‘Convict Transportation and the Colonial State in Newfoundland, 1789’

[12] Jerry Bannister, ‘Convict Transportation and the Colonial State in Newfoundland, 1789’; Bob Reece, “Such a Banditti”, Part 1’ provides further detail of the relationship between the authorities and the Irish population of Newfoundland

[13] Bob Reece, ”Such a Banditti”, Part I

[14] Jerry Bannister, ‘Convict Transportation and the Colonial State in Newfoundland, 1789’

[15] Bob Reece, ”Such a Banditti”, Part I

[16] Public Advertiser, London, 1 December 1789

[17] Jerry Bannister, ‘Convict Transportation and the Colonial State in Newfoundland, 1789’

[18] Bob Reece, ‘“Such a Banditti”: Irish Convicts in Newoundland, 1789, Part II’, Vol 13, No 2, 1997, p130

[19] Bob Reece, ”Such a Banditti”, Part II, p130, citing Report by R Sheppard, MD and T Trotter, MD, 21 December 1789, PRO HO 28/6

[20] Hampshire Chronicle, 4 January 1790, accessed from British Newspaper Archive, http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000230/17900104/005/0003

[21] Bob Reece, “Such a Banditti”, Part II, p130

[22] Bob Reece, “Such a Banditti”, Part II, p 139

[23] Bob Reece, “Such a Banditti”, Part II, p 139

[24] Bob Reece, “Such a Banditti”, Part II, p 139

[25] Barbara Hall, The Irish Vanguard, The Convicts of the Queen, Ireland to Botany Bay, 1791, Barbara Hall, 2009, p xv

[26] Bob Reece, “Such a Banditti”, Part I, p 22

[27] Bob Reece, “Such a Banditti”, Part I, pp20, 24

[28] Terrence M Punch, Erin’s Sons: Irish Arrivals in Atlantic Canada 1761-1853, 2008, accessed via Google Books



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