Anchors aweigh to Botany Bay - the adventures of George Mills, sheep thief
This line from an old Australian folk song reminds us that the saying "might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb" once had a literal meaning. This is the story of George Mills, a labourer from Fawkham.
In July 1799 a spate of sheep thefts had begun, but the authorities were only able to solve the mystery after two sheep were stolen from Henry Killick in Fawkham on 20 April 1801. Three days later a trio of Fawkham men (George Mills, Richard Martin and William Couchman) were committed by local magistrates under Mr Hart Dyke on an array of charges relating to sheep stealing in Fawkham, West Kingsdown, Ash and Hartley. One of the charges George faced was the theft of two sheep that were grazing near his former employer's property. Robert Monk reproached Mills "for robbing him who had employed him in farming business", to which George said "he was very sorry for what he had done and hoped the prosecutor [Monk] would forgive him."
Sheep stealing was a classic crime of desperation, but some people stole them to order for butchers and tallow makers. The carcass of the sheep that George took was left abandoned in a wood, normally the case with tallow thieves, but nobody, even at the time, believed that that was his motive.
George had to wait until the assize judges of the Home Circuit visited Maidstone (the origin of the term "Home Counties") in August 1801. The "grand jury" struck out all the charges against Mills except the one of theft from Robert Monk. The indictment accused Mills and Couchman that "on the 12th day of January in the 41st year of our the reign of our sovereign lord king George the third....with force of arms at the parish aforesaid [took] 2 sheep of the price of £2 of the goods and chattels of Robert Monk then and there being found feloniously did steal, take and drive away against the peace of our said lord the king..." Although the indictment states the crime occurred in Fawkham, the parish was often wrong; Robert Monk owned or rented no land in Fawkham at the time. He was however the tenant of New House Farm in Hartley, where George had once lived.
Mills who had admitted the offence was found guilty, Couchman was cleared for want of evidence - "tho' I have reason to believe he was the most guilty", William Garrow the trial judge later wrote. This was a capital offence then, so George faced the judge in his black cap and listened to the dreaded words of condemnation. At the end of the assizes the judges altered George's sentence to transportation instead. Mr Garrow said "I did not think myself at liberty to pronounce a lighter sentence than that of transportation, in doing which I was informed that I conformed to the general practice of the learned judges." This is the same William Garrow dramatised in the 2009 BBC series.
The sentence caused considerable disquiet locally, especially because the victims Mr Monk and Mr Burberry had given George a good character reference at the trial. Shortly after Mr Hart Dyke and others wrote to the Home Secretary requesting that he be pardoned.
"We are informed that Mills, who has a wife and four small children, has resided all his life in the parish of Fawkham, where his parents now live, and that he bore the character of an industrious and honest man until he was apprehended for the offence of which he was convicted, and it is also represented to us by the principal inhabitants of Fawkham that Mills (who appears to be an Ignorant man) was led to commit his crime more through the act and persuasions of some bad men, into whose company he fell, than by any vicious and depraved habits of his own, and the master with whom he formerly lived has told us, that if Mills was at liberty he would have no objection to take him again and employ him even in a service of trust."
Lord Pelham, the Home Secretary, wrote to Mr Garrow, for his views. He gave a fair summing up of the case and supported the plea for clemency: "I.. shall feel satisfaction if your lordship's judgement shall concur with that of the very respectable magistrates in thinking that he may with propriety be restored to his family." However in his desire to be fair, he mentioned the other charges against George. This fatally destroyed his case, for it gave Lord Pelham grounds for refusal, which he did almost on receipt of Garrow's letter.
Things then took a further turn for the worse for George, as on 9 November he and Richard Martin were two of the 12 prisoners moved by order from Maidstone to the prison hulks at Woolwich. The hulks were ancient Royal Navy ships turned into floating prisons. The Maidstone Journal reported they were "escorted by Mr Watson and a strong guard.." Conditions on the hulks were terrible and disease was rife. New prisoners were scrubbed until they bled, put in uniforms and leg irons and then set to work in the docks.
George sent a plea for clemency on his own behalf in November from
the hulk Prudentia. It was supported by Thomas Bradley (curate of Fawkham
and rector of Hartley), the churchwardens and Robert Monk. In it he wrote
"That your petitioner earnestly conjures your lordship, by that mercy
will yourself one day expect, to evince a compassionate regard towards an
unfortunate individual whose cruel destiny, has not been brought on
by extravagance or depravity, but by the pressure of extreme want, as God
knows at the time, the crime which has caused his banishment was perpetrated,
his family were on the point of perishing, not having a morsel of bread
to satisfy the craving of nature." Alas Lord Pelham refused to be
instrument of restoring him to society and to his sorrowful wife and children."
Finally in September 1802 the time came for sentence to be carried out. He and around 400 other male and female convicts were transferred to HMS Glatton at Portsmouth under Captain Colnett. On board were also 30 paying passengers. The ship set sail at 4pm on the 23rd September in light breezes and fair weather. For many on board, when they saw the Lizard on the Cornish Peninsular next day, it would be the last time they would ever see England.
They arrived at Port Jackson (Sydney) on March 13th 1803. Mr Colnett was an enlightened commander for his day and far fewer convicts died on the journey (12) than previous voyages. Nevertheless 100 of them had to be hospitalised on their arrival.
Although the ship had men's and women's prisons, it seems that prisoners were not confined to them all the time and were given work to do. They were even allowed to carry their knives. Security was a concern for the captain, during the voyage he had the ship's carpenters build scuttles on deck for the officers to communicate with each other should the prisoners attack. Discipline was harsh and several crew and prisoners were flogged for things like theft and other infractions of the rules. George appears to have kept his nose clean and does not appear in the punishment log.
Convicts were either put to work on government projects or were assigned to free individuals to work as unpaid labour. In 1805 he was working for a Mr McDougal as a labourer in Paramatta, which was the best farmland in early Sydney. He applied for and got a "ticket of leave" in 1810. This allowed him to work for whom he liked, but he had to stay in a particular area and report to the authorities regularly. He was also expected to attend Church whenever possible. In 1814 he was working as a labourer in the colony, in 1822 he was employed in Sydney as a servant to a Mrs Squires.
George remarried in 1821 to Mary Anne Phillips, a convict who had come out in 1815. He appeared again in the 1828 census of New South Wales, where he and Mary Anne were living at Kissing Point, now an affluent suburb of Sydney. They were certainly better off, they now even had a convict servant, George Brake. We meet George in 1834 when he cultivated his land and orchard, and Mary Anne was a washerwoman. His house was broken into by 3 robbers, who threatened them and stole his 24 shillings of change and a watch he had owned for 25 years. All the same he was relunctant to prosecute and didn't identify the assailant Abraham Maher at the police station, because he didn't want him to hang. However the evidence against Abraham Maher was overwhelming and the jury convicted him (it appears he did not hang because he was convicted again in 1837).
George Mills appears to have died at the age of 76 in 1845 (NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages index).
It's not been possible to trace what happened to Anne Mills and their four children, but there is little doubt that life would have been hard. Already as a result of the court case they were on parish relief, which meant they were living in poverty. It was only in later years that wives were allowed to accompany their convicted husbands to Australia, so sadly it is unlikely they ever met again.
1. Plea for clemency from Dartford Magistrates (PRO HO 47/26/60)
I beg leave to state to your lordship that a man of the name of George Mills was at the last assizes for the county of Kent convicted of sheep stealing, and received sentance of death, but was reprieved before the judges left the town, and now remains in Maidstone gaol under sentance of transportation. We are informed that Mills, who has a wife and four small children, has resided all his life in the parish of Fawkham, where his parents now live, and that he bore the character of an industrious and honest man until he was apprehended for the offence of which he was convicted, and it is also represented to us by the principal inhabitants of Fawkham that Mills (who appears to (...) Ignorant man) was led to commit his crime more through the act and persuasions of some bad men, into whos company he fell, than by any vicious and depraved habits of his own, and the master with whom he formerly lived has told us, that if Mills was at liberty he would have no objection to take him again and employ him even in a service of trust. We, who are the magistrates before whom Mills was brought when he was first apprehended and who have had some opportunities of enquiry into his former way of life, and connections, have no reason to doubt the truth of the informations that have been made to us respecting him and conceive that he is a proper object of mercy and if the royal favour is extended to him that he may hereafter become a good and useful member of society.
We are my lord, your lordships most obedient and very humble servants
J Hart Dyke
Dartford Sept 1801
2. Letter from Lord Pelham to William Garrow esq (PRO HO13/14)
Whitehall, 15th September 1801
Inclosed, I transmit you by the king's command a letter on behalf of George Mills, who was tried and convicted before you at the last assizes at Maidstone for sheep stealing and I am etc.
Thomas Pelham (1756-1826) was Home Secretary 1801-1803
3. Reply from William Garrow to Lord Pelham (PRO HO 47/26/60)
Pegwell, 17th September 1801
In answer to your lordship's letter of the 15th instant, which I have this moment received, I have the honour to state for your lordship's information that:
George Mills was indicted (together with William Couchman, who was for want of evidence acquitted of this and several other charges, tho' I have reason to believe he was the most guilty) for stealing 2 sheep the property of Robert Monk. It appeared from the testimony of the prosecutor that in January last, he lost 2 sheep from a field near the road and found the skins in an adjoining wood, that in April following the prisoners were apprehended and on the prosecutor's reproaching Mills for robbing him who had employed him in farming business, he said he was very sorry for what he had done and hoped the prosecutor would forgive him, and acknowledged that he and Couchman had stolen the 2 sheep and put the skins in the wood, but denied having stolen any other of Monks's sheep.
Mr Monk and one Birbury, a constable and reputable farmer, gave Mills a very good character and stated that he had a wife and four small children - as the confession of the prisoner was voluntary the jury found him guilty, and I did not think myself at liberty to pronounce a lighter sentance than that of transportation, in doing which I was informed that I conformed to the general practice of the learned judges.
I ought perhaps to inform your lordship that it appears by the calendar that Couchman and Mills were committed by Mr Dyke, charged with several other felonies.
I have stated to your lordship all that I know respecting the prisoners, whose case your lordship has referred to me, and feel at a loss how to offer any opinion upon the question of the extension of the royal mercy to the convict, but shall feel satisfaction if your lordship's judgement shall concur with that of the very respectable magistrates in thinking that he may with propriety be restored to his family.
I intreat your lordship to have the goodness to excuse anything of inaccuracy or want of form in this answer, as it is the first time I have been called upon to perform this duty, and have not the means of consulting any person of more experience.
I have the honour to be, with great respect, my lord, your lordship's most obedient humble servant,
The Right Honourable Lord Pelham
4. Home Secretary's decision in case (PRO HO13/14)
Whitehall, 18 September 1801
In consequence of your application on behalf of George Mills, his case has been referred to the judge before whom the convict was tried, for his report; and I am sorry I cannot in this instance comply with your recommending the convict for any further extension of the royal mercy, it appearing that the prisoner was charged with several other felonies than that for which he has been convicted.
(to) .... Rashleigh; ... Lambard; ... Dyke
5. Order to move prisoner from Maidstone to Woolwich (PRO HO13/14)
31st October 1801
(to) High Sheriff of Kent
Usual letter to remove 12 male convicts to the hulks in the Thames.
6. Prisoners removed to Prison Hulk at Woolwich (Maidstone Journal 10 November 1801)
Early yesterday morning the following convicts were removed from the county gaol, escorted by Mr Watson and a strong guard, to Woolwich and there put on a hulk, to remain 'til a vessel shall be appointed, by government for their conveyance to New South Wales, viz..... George Mills, Richard Martin..... (12 in all, another batch had been moved on 10 September 1801 - Maidstone Journal 15.9.1801)
7. Petition from George Mills on board Prison Hulk Prudentia
The humble petition of George Mills now under sentance of transportation for the term of his natural life on board his Majesty's hulk Prudentia at Woolwich.
To the Rt Hon Lord Pelham,
That your petitioner was convicted at the assizes for the county of Kent on July last of stealing a sheep valued at 20 shillings, for which serious offence he is impressed with deep contrition.
That your petitioner has a large family, consisting of a wife and 4 small children, who are through his misfortune obliged to become burthensome to the parish as they depended entirely on his labour for support.
That your petitioner can confidently assert that he never in his life before commited any schemes of fraud, or injured any man's person or property, but that his days were ever honestly laborious.
That your petitioner can bring all the respectable inhabitants of the parish in which he lived to prove that his character ever was (previous to this unfortunate period) irreproachable and that he never wandered abroad from his settlement, but always conducted himself as a steady and industrious man.
That your petitioner earnestly conjures your lordship, by that mercy you will yourself one day expect, to evince a compassionate regard towards an unfortunate individual whose cruel destiny, has not been brought on by extravagance or depravity, but by the pressure of extreme want, as God knows at the time, the crime which has caused his banishment was perpetrated, his family were on the point of perishing, not having a morsel of bread to satisfy the craving of nature.
That your petitioner most humbly hopes, as this is his first offence, that your lordship will, with your usual humanity, condescend to commiserate his unhappy situation, and become the blessed instrument of restoring him to society and to his sorrowful wife and children.
And he will, as in duty bound, ever pray etc etc etc
T Bradley, curate of Fawkham
Robert Monk, prosecutor
(..) Cooper, churchwarden
(..) Killick, churchwarden
8. List of those transported to NSW on HMS Glatton September 1801 (HO11/1)
(September 1801) Includes George Mills and Richard Martin
9. HMS Glatton Captain's Log 1801-2 (PRO ADM 51/1467)Sept 9th Spithead - 110 male convicts come on board (stores coming on board)
10. Census of convicts in New South Wales post 1815 (HO10/1/2)
George Mills - arrived 1803 on HMS Glatton - convicted
at Maidstone assizes July 1801 - pardoned 1810 - became labourer in the colony.
Richard Martin - arrived 1803 on HMS Glatton - convicted at Maidstone assizes July 1801 - pardoned 1807 - became landholder in the colony
11. Sydney Herald, Thursday 20 November 1834, page 2
Monday [17th] Before his honour Mr Justice Dowling and a civil jury.
Abraham Maher stood indicted for feloniously and burglarously entering the dwelling house of George Mills at Kissing Point on the 14th September last, and taking therefrom one watch, 24 shillings of the current coin of the realm, and sundry artices of wearing apparel. The prisoner pleaded not guilty.
George Mills examined - I live at Kissing Point; I gain a livelihood by cultivating a small piece of ground and an orchard; my wife washes; I remember the 14th September; we retired to rest early that evening; about 7 o'clock the dogs began to bark in an unusual way; when I got up and opened the door, there were 3 men coming towards the hous; the foremost man desired me to go back and lay down on my face on the bed; fearful of violence I returned to the bedroom as desired; I met my wife coming out of the room; the man told her to go back; he then commanded me to tell him where my money was, and not to make any noise, or he would knock my brains out; I begged of him, for God's sake, not to use any violence towards us, as we were very old persons, and said we had no money; he said I was a liar; I swear the prisoner at the bar is the man; my wife is 60 years old, I am 65; I told him there were a few shillings in a box, which I pointed out to him; it was a moonlight night, and I had just lit the lamp; the prisoner went to th ebox and took out 24 shillings and some articles of wearing apparel; the box was not locked; they then went to the safe and took some provisions; when the prisoner first entered he had a small piece fo the upper part of a corn stalk over his face; there is a house at the distance of 50 rods from mine; I had been told that 3 men were coming to rob me, but the time appointed had passed; the watch is mine, I have had it about 25 years, and it cost me when I purchased it £7.
By the Court - I did not swear to the prisoner at the Police Office; I said my sight was bad and I could not swear to him; I did not wish to swear to him; I did not wish to hang him; I have been 32 years in the Colony and never injured any man; I now swear the prisoner is the man, because I fear they may come again to my house if not prevented; I have not been advised by any person to swear to him; he was dressed in an old fustian frock; they were not more than 5 minutes in the house; my wife was very much alarmed.
By the Prisoner - I certainly did not swear to you at the Police Office, but it was not because I doubted whether or not you were the man; I did not wish to hurt you; I swear positively you are the man, I never saw you before.
Mary Ann Mills - I am the wife of the last witness; I am 60 years old on New Year's Day next. I remember 3 men coming to my house on the evening of the 14th September; I should know them again; the prisoner at the bar is one of them, he was the first person that entered; I had a full view of his features 3 times over; the lamp was burning at the time, and there was a small fire; we were just going to bed, and my husband was fastening the door on the inside when the dogs began to bark; my husband opened the door, when 3 men entered; I never saw the prisoner before that time; I was in the bedroom, one of the men took the lamp off the table when prisoner called for a light; the prisoner took my husband by the back of the neck, and forced him to lay upon the bed with his face dwonwards, and told him if he either moved or spoke, he would knock his brains out; that was the time he called for a light; I was going out of the bedroom when the prisoner desired one of the men to push me back, which he did, when I was also forced to lay upon the bed with my face downwards; the prisoner said if I stirred he would knock my brains out, and I was much alarmed; the position in which I lay did not prevent my taking particular notice of the prisoner, whom I saw distinctly before I was forced on the bed; my sight is very imperfect; I cannot see without glasses, but I had them on at the time, and it is impossible I can be mistaken in the prisoner.
Prisoner - Look at me Mrs MIlls; how can you make such a statement, when you have not looked upon me since you have been in that box?
Witness turning round and looking at the prisoner with great firmness - Oh I can look at you my good man - I can look at you, I say, with a clear conscience; you are the man.
By the Court - My spectacles did not come off when I was thrown down; if I had not had them on, I certainly would not have seen so well; the foremost many was very tall, and was obliged to take his hat off when he went into my bedroom, and had to stoop on entering; he wore a black hat on that occasion, and I then had a full view of his face; I cannot distinguish the voice, it was like that of an Irishman, I don't think it was much like a man from the north country; my husband's sight is defective, he has lost the sight of one of his eyes.
Summary of remainder of case
Phillip Hyde, boat builder. He met the Maher at Mr Hearn's lodging house (called "The Australian") on the Parramatta Road on 20th September, just before he was competing in a prize fight, Maher was his second. He saw the watch and pledged it for 6s on Maher's behalf, as he was known to the house and Maher was not staying there. Maher said he'd known Hyde for 2 years, and added he had been sent to Norfolk Island for a crime he didn't commit before and would not like to go back. He saw a man called Jenkins executed but didn't know him (before his execution, Jenkins had confessed to robbing George Mills, but the court produced a witness to prove Jenkins was in custody at the time).
Mary Hearn said the prisoner had called himself Johnson. She kept the watch for 3 weeks until her son broke the winding chain, so she sent to Mr Oatley's for repair. Mr Hyde said it belonged to Johnson. She admitted that she couldn't be sure he got the watch from the defendant. However Esther Harris, who lived at Mrs Hearn's said she said Maher give Hyde the watch.
Charles Hearn, son of Mrs Hearn, said that when he took the watch for repair he was told it was stolen.
William Keys - I am foreman to Mr Oatley, my master keeps a register of all watches which come into his hands. I remember the prosecutor Mr Mills calling at the shop, and lodging an information, that his house had been robbed, and his watch stolen; he described the watch, and requested that it might be stopped, together with the person who brought it; I knw the watch by the description given of it, it had been occasionally at the shop for the last 20 years for repairs; I should consider its value to be about 50s.
William Small, wardman for No. 3 ward said Maher was arrested at Mr Thomas Hyndes's at work, he recovered watch from Mr Oatley's.
Defendant Maher represented himself and called Thomas Wright a stonemason on remand on a charge of robbery. He said Hyde gave him the watch at Mr Morris's pub, as payment for going to the fight with him. He told Maher he could use it easily for a bet of 15s or £1. When questioned by the court Wright was unable to describe the watch. Mr Charles Morris was called by the defendant but did not appear. Thomas May was at Hearn's on the 20th and saw Maher take the watch from his pocket, did look like the exhibit in court. Defence case concluded.
Jury found Maher guilty and criticised evidence of Wright. Remanded for sentence (can't find any record of sentence).