James Howcutt – transported to Tasmania


In early 19th century England, over 200 offences were subject to capital punishment. In most of the less serious cases, the death sentence was commuted to transportation overseas. James Howcutt was one of those affected.


James was baptised at Brixworth in 1806, the fourth of ten children of Thomas and Elizabeth (Martin) Howcutt. During James' youth, his family suffered reduced circumstances. When his older children were born, Thomas had been a farmer but by 1815 was described as a butcher. He seems to have sold most of his land by the end of 1825. James himself made a living in various ways. One source describes him as a farmer and ploughman, but his convict record in Tasmania indicates that James had worked as a carrier with his brother and father. As we shall see later, he probably also poached.


Among those convicted at the Northampton Assizes that commenced on 3 March 1827 were Edward Blunt, James Howcutt and William Smith. Their ages were given as 20, 20 and 21 respectively, presumably calculated as at the time of the offences or the initial indictments. The culprits had been charged with breaking into the dwelling house of Edward Walton of Brixworth and stealing some of his property - a silver watch, silk handkerchief, two cotton handkerchiefs, a pocket knife, two curtain rings and two tickets.


The Northampton Mercury contains a detailed report of the case. [1] The three men were charged that they had carried out the crime on Sunday night, 29 October 1826. Edward Walton, a labourer residing at Brixworth, set off for the Methodist chapel at about 5.30 pm, leaving his daughter and her children in the house. They later followed him to the chapel. On his return, Edward saw a hurdle raised to the chamber window and on going upstairs, found the drawers burst open and things scattered about the room and spotted with blood. The window was broken off its hinges and there was blood on the window frame and door tree.


Edward's widowed daughter, Mary Pearson, testified that before leaving the house she had examined the windows and locked the door.


Samuel Clements, a labourer at whose house Blunt lodged, said that he had seen the prisoners together in the morning and afternoon of the day of the robbery. Blunt went home in the evening a few minutes past eight o'clock. After taking his supper, he said that he had cut his finger with a knife. The wound was on top of the knuckle of the right hand and, on the witness expressing surprise that he should have cut it with a knife, he said that he had done it with a crust of bread. Clements went to Walton, who brought a constable to the Clements' house and searched Blunt. Two curtain rings and two pieces of paper were found on him.


On 15 November, Clements met Howcutt - who said he wanted to see him - in Sheep Street, Northampton. Clements enquired about a report that was current of his carrying the hurdle to Walton's window. He replied that, if he got out of this, he would never do the same any more. A constable was sent for and Howcutt was taken into custody. He said that he had left home on the night of the robbery and had not returned.


Mr William Tomalin, Clerk to the Magistrates, was present at the examination of the three prisoners and said that the declarations were made voluntarily.


Sentences of death were recorded but the penalties for all three were commuted to transportation for life.


A petition for his term of transportation to be reduced was submitted to the Home Secretary by James while he was languishing in Northampton Gaol. It speaks poignantly of his plight:

"It having been the unhappy lot of your Lordship's Petitioner to be found guilty of a Crime at which his heart revolts and for which he at this moment is overwhelmed with grief admits his Guilt with the sincerest Contrition and Remorse - Not only on Account of the Punishment and Disgrace that must await himself but also for the Stigma that will indelibly be cast upon his innocent Family and Friends."


James requested that his punishment be mitigated to allow him "at some future Period of Time to return to his afflicted Family and Friends". James signed the petition in a literate hand but such faint pencil that it is not readily reproduced. His plea was supported by the following who stated that they had known James for several years: - Edward Walton (the prosecutor), Joseph Richardson (constable), John Wood, Langton Freeman, John Bradshaw, James Cooke, James Kightley, Thomas Allom, Thomas Allum yong, John Martin, James Gammage, Thomas Burgess, Wm Ward, Robert Holt Baker, Wm Potter and John Knight. Most, if not all, of these were inhabitants of Brixworth and some were fairly close relatives.


The petition does not claim previous good character for James; his convict record in Tasmania states that he had already been convicted for stealing a rabbit. A note on the outside of the document describes his character from the Gaol as "Bad", so it is not surprising that the petition was refused.


Northampton goal, where James was held around the time of his trial, was situated on the north side of Angel Lane (now Angel Street). It had been built in 1792-4 and had room for 140 criminals and 30 debtors. In 1815, a report by officials of the City of London on prisons throughout England noted that at Northampton there was plenty of water and good wash-houses and drying ground. Criminal prisoners had a pound and a half of bread and gruel daily, potatoes and broth three times a week and eight pennyworth of meat on Sunday. A similar regime was probably still in place when James was held there. [2]


HMS York with convicts going aboard

by Edward William Cooke, 1829

James Howcutt appears on the muster for 30 June 1827 of convicts on board the hulk "Leviathan" in Portsmouth Harbour. [3] His "bodily state" was then described as good and his behaviour as orderly. Australian records state that he was also kept on the hulk "York" at some stage before leaving England. [4] When he was transported, James was described as 5 feet 3¾ inches tall with brown hair and blue eyes. He had 9 shillings and 2 pence to take with him when he left England.


On 17 August 1827, James and his two accomplices were among 200 convicts who set sail on the Convict Transport "Asia" (523 tons), bound for Van Diemen's Land, as Tasmania was then called. The ship was a wood barque of 523 tons and had been built in Calcutta in 1814. Its Master was Henry Ager and the Surgeon was George Fairfowl.


The Surgeon's journal mistakenly records the ship as "Eliza" but, from other records in the Public Record Office and the schedule of transports in "The Convict Ships 1787-1868" by Charles Bateson, it definitely relates to the "Asia". Fairfowl joined the ship at Deptford on 26 June, the guard embarked on the following day and by 8 August it had reached Spithead where the convicts came on board.


The full complement of the ship was:


Officers & ship's company


Guard (officers & soldiers of the 40th regiment)


Women (6), children (12)


Male convicts 


Surgeon RN  





As one might expect, the convicts were mainly quite young:


below 20 years old


between 20-30


between 30-40


between 40-50


57 years old





Their sentences, marital condition and literacy were as follows:



Marital condition






Read & write


14 years




Read alone


7 years




Neither r/w









George Fairfowl described his charges: -


"They came on board with the general character of being the most desperate and most intractable set of villains that ever left the hulks at Portsmouth, and I received many well meaning but to me needless cautions to be on my guard against their machinations. A few days I knew would suffice to establish order and regularity. The discipline of a ship carried on with firmness and temper soon reduces the spirit of the most turbulent.


.....When received on board they were mustered and inspected a second time, and a bed, pillow and blanket marked with the respective man's number, delivered to each. They were then divided into messes of six, they themselves choosing their comrades, berthed in their sleeping places and suitable mess articles were delivered to each mess....."


The convicts' leg irons were taken off as soon as the ship had fairly cleared the land. For much of the day, the prisoners had to remain on deck - “.... by this means gambling, quarrelling and other irregularities below, where they were out of sight, were prevented." During the night, a patrole of six men had to sit up in four-hour shifts and was responsible for any irregularities during its watch. The sentry at the hatchway saw that it was on the alert. Divine service was performed every Sunday when the weather permitted.


In addition to godliness, arrangements were made for cleanliness. The hands and face were washed every morning. On Sundays and Thursdays, the neck, legs and feet, and when the weather was mild and warm the whole body once a week. The convicts were shaved every Wednesday and Saturday at least. Clean shirts were put on every Sunday and Thursday and stockings when worn; clean trousers every Sunday. Six pints of water per day were allowed out of the tropics and within the tropics an extra pint in the evening.


Hobart in 1832

by John Glover

On 7 December, the "Asia" arrived at Hobart. The guard and 198 surviving convicts were landed one week later, two prisoners having died at sea.


European settlement of Tasmania had begun in 1803. The indigenous population at that time probable numbered around 5,000 to 10,000. During the next few decades they suffered greatly from diseases from which they had no immunity and conflict with far better-armed settlers. It was in the years before and after James’ arrival that the Aboriginal population was driven from their hunting grounds and the few survivors deported to Flinders Island. The bulk of the Europeans who arrived in Tasmania in the first part of the 19th century were prisoners transported from England. As late as 1847, just over 50% of the total population of the island were convicts or former convicts and less than 20% were free emigrants. [5]


James was to remain in Tasmania for at least 24 years. In the convict returns for 1830, he is shown as being assigned to Mr G. Brooks. This person may have been the George Brooks who was allocated 500 acres of land in Abergavenny parish on 4 May 1824. By assignment a convict was given into the care of a particular settler who had to provide food and clothing; in return, the convict had to work for that person. On 5 July 1831, James was still assigned to "G Brookes" when he was admonished for neglect of duty and leaving his master's premises without leave.


At the end of 1832, James was recorded as "Constable"; it is evident from later records that this was his job rather than an employer's name. By the end of 1833, he was engaged on public works. On 11 April 1834, James was accused of neglect of duty in allowing George Hawkins and Daniel Ellis to escape from his custody. He was admonished and returned to his task, "it appearing that the prisoners escaped handcuffed and without any gross carelessness of the part of the Constable".


James' next offence appears on 5 November 1834 when, still employed as a constable, he was accused of being drunk and in neglect of his duty, for which he was fined 20 shillings.


On 28 April 1835, James was one of a group of 32 convicts who were granted a "ticket-of-leave". [6] This was granted at the Lt. Governor's discretion for good behaviour. It freed recipients from most of the restrictions of being a convict; they could own property and work for wages. In the mid-1830s, about 10% of the convicts in Tasmania had a ticket of leave, but this could be withdrawn for misconduct. Presumably because of his new status, James resigned from the Police with effect from 30 June 1835. [7]


On 23 September 1835, James was accused of fraudulently embezzling about three bushels of barley worth 15 shillings, the property of his employer George Dudfield. He was committed for trial at the Quarter Sessions and sentenced on 26 October to four years' hard labour in the “Bridgewater Chain Gang", which was employed north of Hobart in quarrying stone, breaking it and carting it to the causeway across the Derwent River, whilst fettered in iron chains. However, on 12 November, the Lieutenant Governor ordered James to be restored to his ticket of leave with absolute remission of the sentence that had been passed upon him. On 17 November, James was assigned to public works.


James was working for "Morley" when, on 20 June 1839, he was convicted of disorderly conduct and sentenced to one month hard labour and to be removed from the district in which he had been living. On 2 July, he went to Cleveland District and on 22 May 1840 to Norfolk Plains.


In December 1841, James is recorded as being employed in the "Cleveland Party" - perhaps this relates to a small settlement called Cleveland that is about 30 miles to the south of Launceston. Norfolk Plains is on the east and west banks of the South Esk River - also to the south of Launceston.


On 11 November 1842, James was found guilty of a breach of the Police Act and fined ten shillings. Further misconduct resulted in admonishment on 29 December in the same year.


Despite these lapses, James received a conditional pardon on 18 October 1843. The condition attached to such pardons was usually that the person did not return to the United Kingdom. The last entry on James' convict record notes that his conditional pardon was extended on 27 July 1852.


Ballarat’s tent city 1853

by Eugene von Guerard

The first major discovery of gold in Victoria took place in 1851. By mid-1853, about 60,000 gold diggers, plus their families, congregated on the Victorian goldfields, including 23,000 at Bendigo. A petition, complaining about a number of matters including the licence fee of 30 shillings a month, was presented by miners on 1 August 1853. Amongst the 5,000 to 6,000 signatures on the petition was that of James Howcutt. This is the most recent record that has so far been found of James. No evidence has been found of him marrying, fathering children or dying in England or Wales, so James probably spent the rest of his life in Australia. As far as is known, he has no descendants.




[1]     “Northampton Mercury”, 10 March 1827, page 2, column 4.

[2]    “History of the county buildings of Northamptonshire” by Christopher A Markham   (Northampton 1885), pages 19-22.        http://www.archive.org/stream/historycountybu00markgoog#page/n45/mode/2up (accessed 6 September 2016).

[3]    HMS Leviathan was originally a 74-gun vessel, launched in 1790. It took part in the Battle of Trafalgar. In 1816, it was converted into a prison ship and survived until 1848 when it was sold and broken up.

[4]    HMS York was a 74-gun third rate vessel of 1,743 tons that had been launched in 1807, took part in the capture of Martinique and saw service in the Mediterranean before being converted to a prison hulk in 1819. She performed this role, holding up to 500 prisoners at a time, at Gosport and London until it was broken up in 1854.

[5]    “History of Tasmania’s population 1803-2000”, Australian Bureau of Statistics.

[6]    "The Launceston Advertiser", 7 May 1835, page 4, column 2.

[7]    "The Launceston Advertiser", 21 May 1835, page 4, column 5.