Handley Stories

John Weeks - The Poacher

John Weeks was born in Sixpenny Handley in 1775 and was baptised in the North Dorset village on 5 April 1779.

His parents were James and Mary, formerly Clarke, who had married at Donhead St. Andrews, Wiltshire on 26 November 1775. Soon after their marriage they moved over the county border to the village of Handley.

James was a 'keeper of deer'' in the Handley forest area. A family descendant was told that James was employed by King George III who ruled from 1760-1820. The King was a frequent visitor to Handley where he hunted deer in the nearby forest. King George employed local men as the protectors of deer from poachers which, in view of the times, made a valuable prize. It is significant that John Weeks was not christened until around four years after his birth which was necessary at the time to qualify for local welfare.

John had three sisters and six brothers. These included William who was baptised in Handley in May 1783. He had joined the army in 1798 and had served in India under the Duke of Wellington. His regiment was the 24th Light Dragoons and when he left as a sergeant in 1819 he became a Chelsea Pensioner. In May 1810, he had been stationed at Bulford Army Camp in Wiltshire where he married Joanna Paine. They had a son, Edward who sadly died three days after he was christened on 2 September 1810. It is not known when Joanna died. There are records of his regiment serving in India in 1803 (Mahratta War), 1806 and 1817 (Pindara War). In 1819 the 24th Light Dragoons returned to England when they were disbanded and William left the army. By 1851 he was living with second wife, Ann, formerly Whiffen, whom he had married in the small Dorset village of Shapwick on 17 November 1836. However by then he was blind. Ann was a widow and passed away on 18 October 1855. William died in 1857, having moved back to his home village of Handley no doubt seeking family support because of his disability.

On 23 September 1802, John Weeks had married Diana Hayter in Handley. Unusually for the times, Diana could both read and write. Married life for Diana would not be easy. They had three daughters – Maria (1803), Mary Ann (1805) and Jane (1809) and three sons – William (1807), John (1811) and Benjamin (1813). The three youngest were to emigrate to Australia in 1837, under an early Assisted Passage/'Bounty'Scheme. Ironically 'down under'', would be father John's later destination – but in the custody of His Majesty!

In the first half of the 19th century, Handley had gained something of a wild-west reputation. It was described as a 'singular place as to the character and its inhabitants. It had a wild and disparate population of poachers, smugglers and deer stealers'– according to a D A O Okeden of More Critchel, Dorset. On one occasion, local landowners Farquarson, Portman and Smith led a party of 250 mounted men from the nearby town of Blandford to put down a riot among Handley locals. In a letter to the Home Office a magistrate wrote: 'Had we committed for participating in and aiding the burning of machinery we might have committed two thirds of the population of the district.'

Despite being someway from the sea, Handley was also a centre for smuggling with the local availability of deer providing the opportunity for business diversification. For a while, the village was the home of Isaac Gulliver – a notorious Dorset smuggling king.

A typical North Dorset agricultural labourer would have earned on average six shillings and eleven pence a week. He would have lived hand to mouth having received remnants of wheat in lieu of wages and often stealing and poaching to feed his family.

In October 1803, John was convicted of deer stealing at Dorchester Assizes. He was described as five foot four inches tall with a lusty complexion. He was sentenced to a year's imprisonment or a £50 fine. John's conduct was described as 'disorderly'.

He was back in court in March 1815 at Dorchester accused of 'beating a keeper in the execution of his duty'. Described as a 'married labourer' John was found guilty and sentenced to seven years' transportation. As so far no record has been found of his transportation, it appears likely he served his time in an English offshore prison hulk and/or shore based prison establishment.

No doubt exhausted by bringing up a large, young family on her own, Diana Weeks died in March 1821. It is unlikely that the prison authorities would have been aware of Diana's death which would have been an unwelcome surprise when John returned to Handley.

Unfortunately, John was soon back in court at Dorchester in 1824 but was found not guilty of deer stealing. However the following year he served a shorter sentence for poaching. In 1828, he was again found guilty in Dorchester but this time for assault and sentenced to six months' hard labour.

If John Weeks had any luck it ran out on 17 October 1837 when he was tried at Dorchester Assizes accused of stealing six bushels of wheat. The case was brought by no other than the Earl of Shaftesbury. John was described as grey haired with hazel eyes and it was reported he had served several times in prison for poaching and assault. It was also stated his previous imprisonments included a seven year period which included four years in Gosport. John's versatility was confirmed by being described as 'coachman, groom, farm labourer and ploughman'. It is possible that as Gosport convicts were used as labourers in the nearby naval dockyard that this versatility had saved him from transportation after his first seven year conviction.  After appointment as Superintendent of Prisons and Hulk Establishments, John Capper had introduced a system of convict classification. This included the possibility of pardon for good behaviour and may also have been a reason why he had not been previously transported.

At the age of 62 years, John Weeks was sentenced again to seven years' hard labour and transportation. As three of his children had left for Australia in April 1837, and as a widower, is it a coincidence that John was to leave for the same destination a year later? Indeed, by the 1830s, news had reached North Dorset that life for the agricultural labouring classes was better in Australia. Sir John Franklyn, Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen's Land wrote in October 1837:

'A solitary case or two may have possibly have occurred in which wretched men have committed offences expressly for the purposes of obtaining a passage to the Australian colonies.'

On 13 November 1837, John left Dorchester Prison in company with other prisoners and began the 70 mile walk to Gosport. First overnight stop would probably have been at Anderson, between Bere Regis and Wimborne Minster. The accompanying guards would have looked out for a brightly painted red post. This is reckoned to have been an indicator for illiterate guards as to the location of a nearby barn where prisoners could be safely held overnight

Picture: /images/w288/prison-hulk.jpgUpon arrival in Gosport, John was placed in the prison hulk York. Prison hulks were decommissioned warships stripped of their masts, rigging and sails. They were introduced in 1776, as a temporary two year measure, to solve a problem of prison overcrowding. However, this almost permanent 'temporary' arrangement continued until 1857. HMS York was a 74 gun ship of the line which had been converted into a prison hulk in 1819.

John would have mustered on York's quarterdeck, given a thorough bath and issued with a coarse grey jacket, waistcoat and trousers, broad-rimmed felt hat and heavily nailed shoes. His hair then would have been shaved and cropped by the ship's barber.

Awaiting transportation, convicts at Gosport were used as cheap labour in the nearby Portsmouth dockyard. Old and infirm convicts would stay behind to cook, clean and repair worn shoes and clothes. Over in the dockyard healthier men worked unloading timber and ballast, moving rubble and dredging channels. All convicts were required to wear a heavy chain on one or both ankles. Uniforms were important to distinguish the convicts from the ordinary 'dockyard mateys'. Escape attempts were feared and convicts were frequently searched. Terrible injuries were incurred when safety was compromised and the falling of timber and stone caused broken limbs and amputations. They were frequent deaths that were covered up by dockyard/prison hulk officials.

Guards were generally 'of the lowest class of human being, brutal by nature and cruel of the consciousness of the power they possessed.' A London magistrate described prison hulks as 'seminaries of profligacy and vice'. The quality and quantities of food depended on the honesty or otherwise of the supplier and corruption was widespread. The convicts, their clothes, beds and the walls of the vessels were infested with vermin. Consumption and scurvy were commonplace and there were epidemics of cholera. Officials made life on the hulks as difficult as possible.

Convicts who died on the York would have been buried on tidal Burrow Island, off Gosport, known as 'Rat Island'. John Weeks' entry can be found in the York Convict Hulk Register of Prisoners with the comment: 'Several times in prison and transported before'. Fortunately, despite all the hazards and also his age, John does not appear to have developed health problems. His conduct was described as 'good'.

In April 1838, John crossed Portsmouth Harbour to join the convict ship Lord William Bentinck II for the long voyage to Van Diemen's Land. This destination was regarded by many as a most severe destination and with some dread. The ship's master, William Stockley received 120 convicts from the York and a further 180 from another hulk, the Leviathan berthed across the harbour in Portsmouth. Prison quarters aboard were foul, gloomy and the stench was indescribable. Food was adequate and two thirds of navy rations. However, convicts were often cheated of their entitlement.

Setting sail the Lord William Bentinck II was greeted by eight days of heavy storms in the English Channel resulting in prisoners and crew suffering from heavy sea sickness. There were more storms crossing the Bay of Biscay and several cases of scurvy were reported by the ship surgeon, John Rankine. Three convicts died before reaching the Cape of Good Hope all displaying symptoms of scurvy. With better diet, health standards improved upon reaching the Cape but scurvy reappeared in the last two weeks of the voyage to Hobart.

The convicts were accompanied on board by soldiers of the 51st Regiment led by Captain Fisher whose wife and servant travelled also.

The Lord William Bentinck II docked in Hobart, Van Diemen's Land, now Tasmania, on 26 August 1838. At no time during the voyage did the health of John Weeks warrant an entry in Surgeon John Rankin's medical journal of the voyage.

The vessel delivered newspapers from England whose news was five months old. The Hobart Town Gazette then reported that a House of Commons Committee was prepared to recommend the abolition of convict transportation. However, it continued until 1868.

Hobart TownAfter arrival in Hobart, John would have remained on board for about a week until convicts were allowed to come ashore by the Port Health Officer. So after a voyage lasting almost five months, John set foot on the quayside and to an eventual better life. Yet first, at the age of 62, he had to endure seven years' hard labour.

Tasmanian/Van Diemen's Land convict records provide a description of John Weeks.

Trade: Coachman, Groom, Farm Labourer and Ploughman. Age detailed as 62 and five foot four inches in height

John had grey hair and eyebrows but no whiskers. He had a dark complexion, hazel eyes, long nose & chin and high forehead.

The Government had the first choice of the best workmen for public works such as road and bridge building. Government officials had next best with the remainder allocated to farmers and other private employers. It mattered little where the convicts were assigned as conditions almost everywhere were arduous. There were few fair masters and punishment was frequently brutal and unjust. Allocation of convicts was a lottery with the convict's crime unrelated to the severity of the master.

John Weeks became Convict No. 2459. He must have still been in good health as, despite his age, he was despatched 'by order of Secretary of State to labour on public works'. Chain gangs worked on big public projects such as the wharves at Hobart. New sandstone warehouses were built during the period on the quayside which was later to be filled with wool, wheat and whale oil. There is one case of 'disorderly behaviour' recorded against John that occurred in March 1839.

Convicts who seemed able to support themselves were awarded a 'Ticket of Leave'. This permitted the holder to seek employment within a particular district but not leave it without permission. A convict, such as John, given a seven year sentence might obtain a 'Ticket of Leave' from a minimum period of four years' captivity. When the original sentence had been completed, a 'Certificate of Freedom' could be issued upon application.

Having completed his seven years' hard labour, and at 69 years, John left Hobart travelling to the mainland 'steerage class' on the vessel Water Lilly. He arrived in Sydney on 17 December 1844. Aware that three of his children were now settled in New South Wales he, no doubt, was looking forward to a family reunion.

Reviewing 1844 the Maitland Mercury wrote:

'(We) congratulate our readers on the very decided improvement in the condition of the colony during the past year. The great rise that has taken place in the price of our staple export and the creation of a second export has materially altered the circumstances and prospects of our wool growers and graziers for the better.''(4th January 1845)

Benjamin Weeks 1813-1885John's arrival in New South Wales coincided with a major need for workers – particularly agricultural labourers and craftsmen. The colony was developing but progress had been slowed by the shortage of such workers.

John Weeks appears to have prospered in New South Wales and there are no known records of any further criminal misdemeanours being committed. The extreme poverty of Handley contrasted with the better opportunities enjoyed 'down under'.  It is ironic that a released convict, such as John, was able to enjoy a better lifestyle in New South Wales than a more law abiding counterpart struggling to survive in his Dorset birthplace.

On Thursday 8 November 1857, the following appeared in the Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General Advertiser:

'Campbells Hills CemeteryDeath Notice

At Maitland, upon the 4th instant, Mr. John Weeks, aged 82 years, father of John and Benjamin Weeks of Camden, after a severe and protracted illness, which he bore with the utmost Christian patience.'

At the time, Maitland was the second largest town in Australia and the point which serviced the prosperous Hunter Valley.

John Weeks had died at Fishery Creek, near West Maitland and is buried in the Church of England Campbell's Hill Cemetery, Maitland, New South Wales.

The above newspaper cutting does evidence that when coming towards the end of a highly eventful life John Weeks was able finally to reunite with his family.