Sunday, December 9, 2012

A Skeleton in the Family Closet

     It doesn't do for an Australian to dig around the roots of his family tree if he is afraid of what might be unearthed.
     When my paternal grandparents, H. F. Smith and Amelia Skelson were married, the bride's father was recorded as Samuel Skelson, miller. Since the wedding took place in 1890, the assumption might be that, like my maternal great-grandparents, they arrived during the great migration boom in the middle of the nineteenth century. But assumptions can be - well - presumptuous. It turned out that my grandmother never actually knew her father, as she was the daughter of his (relative) old age, and she was still only a baby when he died.
     Samuel Skelson was born in Loughborough, Leicestershire in England in 1816, and in 1839 married Elizabeth Robson (b 1814) at St Margaret's Church, Leicestershire. Their daughter, Mary Ann was born the following year. He was a Protestant, a stocking maker by trade, and able to read and write.
     Then, in 1841, he and his 19-year-old accomplice, Joseph Hurst were brought up before the Leicestershire Quarter Sessions and found guilty of highway robbery, with the theft of a 5 shilling pocket book and pen knife. Sentence: 15 years' transportation.
     Fifteen years for stealing five shillings! The law was tough in those days. Even 100 years ago, you would still go straight to gaol for crimes which would most likely lead to being "bound over" these days. Perhaps we have gone too far in the opposite direction. But let's apply a bit of perspective. The classic pay for a soldier used to be "a shilling a day". Five shillings used to buy more than 50c does today. But, in any case, it was highway robbery. Assailing people on the Queen's highway and demanding money with menaces is not a mere peccadillo, no matter how slight the pickings. However, it does illustrate something which is still true today: crime is a mug's game - in economic terms, a high risk, low yield venture. Not long ago it was reported that only one in six house break-ins in Brisbane were solved. This, I'll agree, is pretty tough on the victims. But look at it from the point of view of the thief: he has one chance in six of being caught every time he does a "job" - and anything he gets must be "fenced" at a fraction of its real price. He'd be better off getting a proper job.
     But to return to the story: after the chaos of the First Fleet, transportation was normally restricted to repeat offenders. British justice operated a two-strikes-and-you're-out policy; first offence: you went to gaol at home, second offence: you joined the great colonial empire-building program on an involuntary basis. In this case, Mr Hurst had received his first strike when he stole a pork pie. Great-grandfather Skelson had already notched up a month for a misdemeanour, another month for assault, and two or three fines for other assaults. It is a telling record. Stealing a pocket book might have been an act of desperation, but assault? He was clearly on the road to a life of petty crime, if he hadn't already reached the destination.
     On 6 April, 1841 he departed from Sheerness on the Layton II, along with other 249 involuntary colonisers. Past Tenerife, and around the Cape of Good Hope they sailed, arriving at Van Diemen's Land on 6 December, 1841. The ship's surgeon recorded his height as 5ft 5½ inches, and his character as "good". In a double tragedy, his little daughter, born the previous year, passed away the same year of his conviction. It was also effectively the end of the Skelson marriage; husband and wife never saw each other again. Elizabeth remained in England, neither widow, mother, or maid, until her early death in 1854 - two lives ruined by a thoughtless deed.
     The prison system in Van Diemen's Land, and in Australia in general, was brutal, but also efficient and fair. As Coultman Smith (no relation) pointed out in Shadow Over Tasmania, it formed one of the world's great criminal rehabilitation programs. If you bucked the system, you went down - to the whipping post, the chain gang, the outer hells of Port Arthur and Macquarie Harbour, and finally the gallows. But if you behaved yourself, you went up - to lighter work, ticket of leave (ie parole), early release, and finally a chance to either return home or (more likely) to start a new life in a new land far away from the slums and evil influences that originally led you there.
     Sam Skelson obviously decided on the second course, because on 3 November 1849 ie just over halfway through his sentence, he was granted ticket of leave. He could now seek work, or start his own business, in the colony, under certain restrictions. And on  28 August 1852, with four years of his sentence still to run, he was recommended for a conditional pardon.
     Then, on 25 February 1853, he applied for permission to marry another convict, one Mary Donavan of the ship Maria. However, no more is heard of her, so we can deduce what happened next. It was quite common in those days to obtain a "geographic divorce" ie not tell anybody that you were still legally married to someone else on the other side of the world. However, when it came to seeking permission through official channels, the powers that be almost certainly looked up their documentation, and found that he was recorded as being married. Without any evidence of his wife's death, they would have had no option but to decline the request.
       1855 found him in Sydney. As this was the height of the gold rush, no doubt he decided that was the best place to go, even if he declined to join the rush himself. Also, by then he must have been notified about the death of his wife, because in 1856 he remarried.
     Ann ("Annie") Lownds was 13 years younger than Sam, having been born at Pitterton, Cheshire on 2 October 1829. In 1854 she had arrived in Sydney aboard the Plantaganet with her husband, Edward Prosser (b 1830) and their two children, Maryanne (b 1849) and George (b 22 December 1850). Then disaster struck. The following year, her husband died, leaving her widowed and stranded in a strange country with two very small children.
     The very next year, she and Samuel Skelson were married. There were obvious advantages on both sides. The widow now had a breadwinner, and a father for her two children. The rehabilitated convict, pushing middle age, and with life passing him by, now had a young wife and a ready-made family. They went on to add two daughters of their own: Eliza ("Beth") on 19 February 1861 and Amelia on 5 November 1867.
     Then, on Friday 28 August 1868, the Sydney Morning Herald carried the following item:
SUDDEN DEATH. - An inquest was held on Thursday, this instant, at the residence of Mr. P. Bale, Cornwall St., before Mr. Alfred Lardner, J. P., coroner, and a jury of twelve, touching the case of the death of one Samuel Skelson, who had expired suddenly the day previous. The finding, as reported in the Clarence Examiner, is as follows: - John Govett Smith deposed: He was a legally skilled medical practitioner residing at Grafton; he knew the deceased, but he had not been under his medical treatment, though he had supplied him with a box or two of ... pills; he was sent for to see the deceased today, who he was informed had dropped dead; upon his arrival at the deceased's residence, he found life extinct; the circles of the body quite warm and resilient, and lividity of the countenance; from the evidence he had heard, and the appearance of the body, he could be of no opinion as to the cause of death. Mrs. Bale stated that she shent for Dr. Croft yesterday, at the request of Mrs. Skelson, but not being at home, Dr. Smith was summoned, he at once attended, but deceased had expired before he had reached the place. Ann Skelson deposed that her husband told her that when consulting Dr. Purdle, some time back, he (Dr. Purdle) had informed him that he thought his (Skelson's) heart was touched but with care, he might live for years, but that deceased should not undertake hard work, or any heavy lifting, nor had he done any work for that day. Dr. Smith said that the latter evidence went only to show that deceased was troubled with disease of the heart. The jury, without retiring, found - "That the deceased, Samuel Skelson, had died from natural causes, probably heart disease."
     He was only 52 years old, Amelia just 9½ months. And for the second time, Great-grandmother Ann found herself a widow with young children. Fortunately, her son, George was almost a man, and was probably already earning a living. She appears to have taken in washing, because she is described as a laundress in 1871, when she gave evidence at a trial. Finally, after weathering 41 years of widowhood, and almost attaining her 80th birthday, she passed away on 19 July 1909.
     So, what does it mean to find a convict in the family? Not much. For some it is a blemish on their escutcheon; others regard it with a species of pride, as something linking them more closely to the country's history. Perhaps I am in the second boat, or I would not have published this post for the world to see. But ultimately, both pride of ancestry and shame of ancestry are conceits, for you are neither a better or worse person for either.
     My thanks are extended to my cousins, Nev Robertson and Christine Downie, who provided this information. (Christine also has forebears who arrived on convict ships, but they were administrators.)