Comfortable with convict ancestors?

Sydney was originally established as a convict settlement, with the first boat-loads of prisoners arriving in 1788. English prisons were bursting at the seams, so transportation was seen as a solution to the problem and also as an effective deterrent due to the harsh conditions of servitude, not to mention the long and dangerous sea voyage.

It didn’t quite turn out that way. Most convicts remained in Australia after serving their term, and many wrote to relatives back home telling them of the land of opportunity, and encouraging them to emigrate. A large number of ex-convicts went on to become wealthy landed gentry.

My third great grandmother, Isabella Marie Coulson, was transported to Sydney in 1809 for seven years after being convicted in Yorkshire of petty theft. Her husband, William Tyson, was able to gain passage on the same transport ship and arrived in Sydney as a free settler, along with baby William Junior, their second child. Mysteriously, they left behind their first child, Margaret, then aged about three.

So began a remarkable story.

It was common for female convicts to be assigned as maids to free settlers. Somehow it was arranged for Isabella to be assigned to her husband William. He was granted a small parcel of land, and they had another seven children, for a total of nine.

In 1819 James Tyson was born, their seventh child and my 2nd great-grand uncle. His success story began in 1845 on the west bank of the Lachlan near its junction with the Murrumbidgee River in south-western New South Wales. There he raised sheep and cattle, and by 1855 had amassed considerable wealth supplying meat to the Bendigo goldfields.

He used these proceeds to acquire land, both leases and freehold, throughout NSW and Queensland. By his death in 1898 his holdings totalled 5,329,214 acres! That’s 2,156,680 hectares or 21,566 square kilometres.

James was a member of the Queensland Legislative Council from 1893 until his death, and was never known to drink, smoke or swear. He was regarded as a hard but fair man, and died unmarried and without a will. His estate, valued at more than two million pounds (possibly a billionaire in today’s money), was divided amongst his next of kin. There were some unsuccessful claims on the estate from people in the United States who said they were descendants of his sister Margaret, the one left behind in England.

Some of his wealth found its way to my Grandfather, John Frederick Roland Hill, who committed suicide in 1934 following a long illness. He was an inveterate gambler and handed over the deeds of the waterfront Mosman family mansion to his bookmaker to pay off a debt.

The point of all this?

Well, in days past not all descendants of convicts were comfortable with their heritage and would sometimes refer to them using euphemisms. I’ve just read a beauty!

“My forebears were hand-chosen to come to Australia by the best judges in England!”







2 responses to “Comfortable with convict ancestors?”

  1. Greg Avatar

    John Hirst talking about debate in Australia concerning ending transportation, proportional representation and independence from Britain:
    “The confidence of the Australians that an improved social order would result in much less crime came from their own experiences. In their own society they could provide employment for all. This explained why convicts could reform, and it helped to explain why the native-born were free from crime. The colony imported criminals, but it didn’t make its own. This was a source of pride and in this matter the colonists knew themselves to be superior to Britain.”
    Extract from “Freedom On the Fatal Shore” page 196

  2. Greg Avatar

    John Hirst talking about debate in Australia concerning transportation, and the failure of Britain to understand what was happening and why:
    What gave them [the colonists] their clear understanding of the criminal was their unique experience of transportation in action. They had seen the outcasts of one society transform themselves and take on new roles and characters not through the ministrations of religion or of the state, but because of the different social circumstances in which they were placed. This was the discovery the colonists desperately wanted to communicate to the mother country.
    Extract from “Freedom On the Fatal Shore” page 197

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *