1a.2 — Fascinated still by (family) history

Recent family history research has William Whitfield aged 10 on arrival in the colony, as indeed he is in the “Thames” passenger list. Also, it appears Jacob Whitfield’s first wife, Mary, was Goss not Gowrie.

Posted originally on November 14, 2013 by Neil.

This series of posts is the most comprehensive I have done on family history. I am doing them backwards here so that in due course they will appear sequentially.

My cousin Ray Hampton Christison has sent his almost final draft of the life of our fascinating, talented, but at times repellent great-grandfather John Hampton Christison. Ray has really done a great job. I am sure it will be of interest to, but also way beyond, John H’s descendants. So colourful and paradoxical a character!

I meanwhile have been sidetracked into my convict Whitfield ancestry, inspired by Tony Moore’s Death Or Liberty: Rebel Exiles in Australia 1788 – 1868. Not that my ancestor was a “political prisoner”. On those who were see an article in The AustralianRebels sent to our shores have a story to tell us.

Researching my book Death or Liberty I learned that in an old cemetery in Dapto bush where we skylarked as teenagers lay a French-Canadian revolutionary named Joseph Marceau, transported as a convict in 1839 for rebellion against the British Empire. The understated resting place of the Canadian rebel disturbs our conventional understanding of the convicts as criminals, and leaves us asking why we don’t learn about such people at school or in our civic remembering. Few Australians realise their homeland was once the British Empire’s Guantanamo Bay, where about 3600 rebels, radicals and protesters were transported as political prisoners in the late 18th and 19th centuries. “Death or Liberty!” was the rallying cry of a stream of political exiles including liberals, democrats and republicans; English machine breakers, trade unionists and Chartists; radical journalists, preachers and intellectuals; and of course Irish, Canadian and even American revolutionaries. While viewed by the British government with the same alarm as today’s terrorists, the political prisoners are now revered in their homelands as freedom fighters. Yet in Australia, the land of their exile, memory of these martyrs has dimmed.

This is surprising, as many of the principles for which they were transported: freedom of speech, publishing and assembly; universal suffrage; and responsible government, animate both the Liberal and Labor sides of politics…

And in the comments a loud harrumph from a fogey, whether old or young I know not:

Romantic Nonsense. We were given our political liberties by the British not because of agitators but because a prosperous, strong, politically-conscious middle class developed very quickly here. It was the safe pair of hands into which the British were willing to place responsible government. It’s this strong middle class which still forces government into the centre and keeps Australia on a steady trajectory. I’m glad we never had a revolution here. The rebels and radicals were a sideshow.

That of course is also Romantic nonsense, even if I am fogey enough to be myself glad we have avoided the tragedies that revolution rather than reform has so often wrought.  But then Tony Moore, while clearly a republican – NOT in the US sense – is hardly advocating revolution either.

But I have found lots of interesting things.

Here is a convict ship, the “Minerva”, leaving Cork Harbour in 1819.

Minerva Leaving Cork Harbour 11

As did my ancestor, Jacob Whitfield, in November 1821.


More detail about the “Isabella 1” is here.

On October 14th forty-seven convicts were received onto the vessel making the total to 200 men. They were divided into messes and sent on deck during each day in two divisions. This routine continued until nearly the end of October when rain set in and the men were kept below. The surgeon reported that the prisoners were orderly and well behaved. The bad weather continued and the men were allowed on deck intermittently. By November they had set sail and most of the convicts, guard and women were all experiencing sea sickness in the boisterous weather.

Over the next four months Surgeon Price kept a daily record of the position of the vessel and weather experienced as well as the various illness of the convicts.

There were light winds on the 10th March when they came to anchor in Sydney Cove. The convicts were mustered on deck and divine service performed. The following day the Colonial Secretary came on board to muster the men.

On the 14th March at daylight the guard and the convicts were all disembarked and at 11am Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane inspected the prisoners in the gaol yard.

As well as two hundred convicts, those arriving on the Isabella included 32 people belonging to the guard including the officer; two soldier’s wives (one died on the passage); passengers 1 man, wife and two children.

Back on the vessel after everyone had landed, a party of men came on board from the dockyard and dismantled the on-board prison in preparation for the return to England.

A list of all the 200 is online.

For a time Jacob was housed in the Convict Barracks, now an attractive tourist spot.


Life at the Hyde Park Barracks

When Governor Macquarie’s convict barracks opened in 1819 it was remarkably the colony’s first facility to house convicts.

After 1815, as convict numbers grew, a shortage of housing resulted in many men being homeless. This caused disorder in the town. Macquarie established the barracks in order to control the living and working arrangements of the convicts.

By accommodating convicts together, Macquarie hoped to keep his workforce sober and well fed, to ensure they turned up for work on time and put in a full day’s labour.

Construction began in 1817. Designed to hold 600 men, at times it housed up to 1,300.

These re-enactment photos taken a the Hyde Park Barracks (example above) may help you imagine what life was like for a convict.

penal colony

See also Family stories 3 — About the Whitfields: from convict days.


Convict ship “Success” off Point Piper.

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