Writing this on a computer in the 21st Century, the distance between me and my convict ancestors seems immense. But taking a closer look at my family tree I realise with something of a jolt that the old man who, in my childhood, sometimes used to sit in Nanna Gillam’s kitchen, stroking the shiny haired black-and-tan terrier-cross on his lap, was in fact raised by a convict. What did he know of his father’s past? Who else in the family knew that our convict past was in fact so close? People said he was grumpy. I dare say he wouldn’t have told me much even had I known to ask. ‘Jimmy’ was Grandma’s husband but they hadn’t lived together for a long time. Grandma was really my great grandmother and she lived with Nan for as long as I can recall, until shortly before she died, at the age of 95. Jimmy, or James Michael Sheehan, was born on New Year’s Day in 1880. He was the youngest of four children born to Elizabeth Deverille and her former convict husband, Jeremiah Sheehan.
Jeremiah was my Great Great Grandfather. I have discovered virtually nothing of his early life. All we know is that, at the age of 23, on 26 March 1849, Jeremiah was tried and convicted, in County Cork, for stealing a pig belonging to a Mr Michael Duff. Jeremiah was sentenced to seven years transportation. On 20 December 1850, nine months after his conviction, Jeremiah left his homeland from the Port of Kingston, Dublin, sailing aboard the London on her second trip to the colonies. Three months later, on 19 March 1851, the London arrived in Hobart, where she landed 285 Irish convict men.
Jeremiah’s convict records tell us very little about his early life or his family. According to the records he was single and 25 years of age, suggesting he was born about 1826. Three brothers are listed in his convict papers, but only the names of John and Patrick are legible. A sister, Kathleen is also listed, but there is no reference to Jeremiah’s parents. County Cork is listed under ‘Native Place’, but there is no further detail about where he might have been born and raised. His trade is described as ‘Labourer and Imperfect Carpenter’ and the records also tell us that he could read and write a little.
I have to confess to having some difficulty interpreting convict records. It seems that Jeremiah was assigned to a probation gang on arrival, where he remained until 9 September 1851. There is a comment suggesting that this date is related to the ‘C De Graves Case’, but I have yet to locate any further information about this. Jeremiah was granted a Ticket of Leave on 5 October 1852 and was recommended for a Conditional Pardon a fortnight later. It was approved in November 1853. His convict record is largely unblemished – the prison report from Cork is good and the Surgeon’s report is ‘very good’. There is only one offence recorded in the colony, on 24 January 1853, when he is found guilty of misconduct having been out after hours. This earned him a hefty punishment of one month’s hard labour.
There is nothing in the records I have seen to tell us where Jeremiah was living or what he was doing to support himself at this time. But five years later, on 15 November 1858, Jeremiah Sheehan (this time spelt ‘Shean’) again appears in the convict records. This time he is convicted of stealing three sheep, valued at £6, from Joseph Nixon. It seems that he was sentenced to eight years at Port Arthur. Presumably he sought a reduction in the sentence but the details are sketchy, there is simply a note to indicate that the Governor in Council declined to intervene in May 1860. On 11 December 1863 Jeremiah was sentenced to six months hard labour for unspecified misconduct. At some point Jeremiah was granted a remission of three months from his original sentence, bringing his release date to 8 August 1865. The records are certainly scant for what must have been a difficult eight years of his life!
Marriage and children
Another gap in the records is followed, on 3 August 1874, by the record of a much happier event (hopefully!) when we learn of Jeremiah’s marriage to the young Elizabeth Deverille. They were married in the Catholic Church at Deloraine. Jeremiah described himself as a farmer and Eliza a farmer’s daughter. Born in 1855, Eliza was only nineteen years old, but she had suffered a difficult upbringing. Her Irish convict mother, in particular, had a string of convictions in the colony for drunkenness, idleness and general misconduct. In 1870 Eliza was awarded a pension to help care for her brothers while her father was in hospital and her mother was serving time for larceny. Marriage to Jeremiah may have offered a welcome escape from that life. While Jeremiah gives his age as just 40 (still double that of his young bride) it is difficult to believe that nearly eight years at Port Arthur would have done much to conceal his nearly fifty years!
In September 1875 a son was born. Christened Jeremiah Dennis, Paddy, as he was generally known was born at Reedy Marsh. In July 1877, Ellen, known as Nell, was born. There was also another daughter, Mary Ann, but I have yet to establish when she was born.
It seems the young family was finding things tough. Indeed, Maureen Bennett, in her history of Deloraine, tells us that the Irish families who settled around Deloraine had very difficult lives. She says that Jeremiah was one of a number of men who bought 50 acre blocks in the area known as Tongataboo (and is, apparently, today known as Weetah, East Parkham and the back area of High Plains). The land was more marginal than that taken up in the larger holdings by free settlers. There was no transport and many Catholics, like the Sheehans, walked miles to Mass on Sundays usually carrying a young baby. Families were large, infant mortality was high, and many women died in childbirth. Once schools were established, children walked to school regardless of the weather and most had plenty of chores to do before and after school.
In trouble again
When baby Nell was barely three months old, the family’s future was suddenly very insecure. Jeremiah and another local man, William Fitzgerald, were charged with stealing two sheep at Deloraine on the 18th of September and of feloniously having the carcasses of two sheep in their possession. The sheep belonged to farmer and butcher, Jonathan Best. During the course of the hearings at the Deloraine Police Court on 24 and 25 September, Best said that he was surprised to see Sheehan in court and that he had always paid for what he had. At the same time though, Sheehan had not had any meat from Best’s shop for four or five weeks. Fitzgerald was discharged when evidence was given that his meat had been purchased from Atwell’s butchery but Jeremiah was committed to trial by the Supreme Court. I have not seen a report of the Supreme Court hearing but a record of prisoners appearing before the Court on 18 and 19 October 1877 shows that Jeremiah was sentenced to three years in Launceston’s House of Correction for receiving stolen meat.
Some time later, Eliza petitioned the Governor on behalf of her husband. The petition was also signed and supported by Best and Atwell, key players in Jeremiah’s trial, as well as a number of other locals. The petition calls for remission of the remainder of Jeremiah’s sentence, noting that he was previously a ‘… hardworking honest man’ and that he would be again if restored to his wife and three children, the eldest of whom was only six (possibly this was Mary Ann?). The petition states that the family suffered ‘much privation’ and that they had lost the small section of land that Jeremiah has laboured to purchase from government and clear. Jonathan Best, the prosecutor in Jeremiah’s case, added a note supporting the petition, ‘… taking into consideration the length of time he has been imprisoned, his pecuniary loss by the sentence, the privation of his wife and family and the probable evil effects of a longer absence from them … [as well as] the good character he bears in gaol.’ The Governor approved a special remission of six months, conditional upon good conduct. In October 1879 the gaoler confirmed that Jeremiah’s conduct had been ‘very good’ and, presumably, he was released around April 1880.
I haven’t been able to confirm the timing of Jeremiah’s release from the House of Correction, but it certainly raises some questions about the paternity of my Great Grandfather, James Michael Sheehan, as he was born at Reedy Marsh some four months earlier, on New Years Day, 1880. The registration of his birth gives only his first name and the columns for father’s name and occupation are blank. Eliza registered the birth.
I don’t have any further information about Jeremiah until his death on 27 October 1901. He died in hospital at Launceston. He was about 75 years old.
Grandpa and Granny Sheean (James and Mary Jane) married in 1903 and lived initially in Alberta Street in Latrobe where Grandpa had built a house. Elizabeth lived until she was 82, dying on 24 May 1938 in Latrobe. Auntie Laurice remembered staying with her when she was a child. She said that Elizabeth was very old, dressed in black stockings and dress and that she smoked a clay pipe. She lived in a little shack in James Street in Latrobe.
There are certainly plenty of gaps, unanswered questions and room for speculation in this story! If you have any additional information I would love to hear from you – please email.
[Updated 11 June 2012]
Tasmanian Archives: Jeremiah’s convict conduct record
Tamanian Archives: Jeremiah’s convict indent
Tasmanian Archives: Jeremiah on convict description list
Jeremiah Sheehan on my Ancestry tree
Jeremiah Sheehan on Founders and Survivors