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Convict Voyages: James Dalton and the Escape to Vigo

Note: This post is part of a series on Convict Transportation to the American colonies.

James Dalton vividly experienced the strong arm of the law at a young age when he sat between the knees of his father, who was riding in a cart that was taking him to the gallows to be hanged for robbery. Crime evidently ran strong in the Dalton family. His father was originally a tailor from Dublin, Ireland, who fought in the wars in Flanders and rose to become a sergeant before going to London, where he became a notorious card cheat. He was executed for robbing one of his marks. After his death, Dalton’s mother married a butcher, but was soon caught committing a felony and was transported. His sister was also said to be transported to the American colonies for a separate crime. Yet, the examples set by watching each member of his family punished for their crimes failed to deter him from following in their footsteps.


Starting at a young age, Dalton committed all kinds of robberies, burglaries, and other crimes in and around London, and he soon started working for Jonathan Wild’s criminal organization. On March 3, 1720, Dalton found himself in court, however, charged with stealing some aprons. He was convicted on the evidence of William Field, one of the leaders of Wild’s gang, and was sentenced to transportation. In May, he was loaded on to the Honour, a convict ship commanded by Capt. Richard Langley. Wild must have been doing some housecleaning in his organization around this time, because several other members of his gang appeared on board the convict ship along with Dalton, including William Bond, Charles Hinchman, Martin Grey, and James Holliday.

The Honour set sail for Virginia, but it quickly hit a storm off the coast of Spain and began taking on water. Short on sailors, Capt. Langley was forced to let some of the convicts on board out of their irons so that they could help keep the ship afloat. Dalton took the opportunity to form a conspiracy, and when he gave the signal, the convicts grabbed some arms, bound the captain, and took possession of the ship. They forced the captain to drop them off at Cape Finisterre in Spain and, after robbing the ship, set it free. James Holliday later claimed that he had to pay 5 shillings to go to shore with the rebellious group.

To Vigo

After landing, sixteen of the convicts, including Dalton and the other members of Wild’s gang, made their way across the mountains to Vigo. Soon after they arrived in town, they ran into their old captain, who captured and brought them to the mayor. To the frustration of Langley, the mayor refused to prosecute them and even issued them passes to travel through the country. When the convicts realized, though, that the passes said “English thieves” on them, they decided to burn them and take their chances by avoiding towns as they traveled through the countryside.

The group eventually reached the north coast, boarded a Dutch ship, and made their way back to England via Amsterdam. Despite the rebellion, the Honour eventually made it to Virginia, although under the command of a different captain, Robert Russell. Some reports indicated that the group killed the captain during the affair, but William Bond denied it, claiming that Langley traveled safely to the West Indies and died in Virginia.


Slowly but surely, the convicts who escaped to Vigo and returned to England were captured and convicted for returning early from transportation or for other crimes. Dalton was discovered in Bristol after committing a burglary, and Wild had him transferred back to London where he faced trial on March 1, 1721 for returning early from transportation. He was joined at the stand by Charles Hinchman, Martin Grey, and Jasper Andrews, who had also escaped to Vigo, along with four other returned convicts who also faced the same charge.

Even though they were all found guilty, Hinchman and Grey were the only ones from the Honour who were hanged for the crime. Inexplicably, both Dalton and Andrews escaped the gallows, despite being found guilty and disturbing the prisoners while awaiting execution. So egregious was their behavior while in prison that the Ordinary of Newgate described how those who went on to be executed singled Dalton and Andrews out during their last speeches:

At the Moment of their Deaths, they were loud in their Exclamations to God, declared they died in Charity towards all Men; but said they should have been more prepared for Death, had they not been disturbed by two Boys, Jasper Andrews and James Dalton, who interrupted their Devotions; and even as they slept play’d vile Tricks, burning their Feet, and pouring Water, &c

We do not know how Dalton and Andrews escaped execution, but Gerald Howson, Wild’s biographer, speculates that Wild was responsible for at least getting Dalton off. Both of them were transported instead, so they must have received some kind of conditional pardon.

Later Years

After spending several years in America kidnapping slaves and then selling them, Dalton returned to England but was almost immediately pressed into naval service. After fighting in the siege of Gibraltar in 1727, Dalton was back in London where he continued his life of crime. He was eventually caught in a robbery and was sentenced to death on evidence given by a professional false witness named John Waller.

A Harlot's Progress3
Image via Wikipedia

Before his execution, Dalton confessed to the Ordinary of Newgate that while in America he “debauch’d and ruin’d some Widows and Girls.” Several of his wives in London together visited him while he was in prison, and he claimed that he had many others, some of whom were transported or were left by him in America. His reputation of being a ladies’ man certainly must have played into the appearance of his name in Plate 3 of Hogarth’s The Harlot’s Progess, where over Moll Hackabout’s bed is a box labeled, “James Dalton his Wigg Box.”

At his death on May 12, 1730, Dalton was a well-known criminal, and his name was used to headline many collected accounts of notorious criminals for a long time afterward.

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Learn More About Convict Transportation

Learn more about convict transportation to colonial America by reading my book, Bound with an Iron Chain: The Untold Story of How the British Transported 50,000 Convicts to Colonial America. Paperback ($16.99) and Kindle ($4.99).

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Most people know that England shipped thousands of convicts to Australia, but few are aware that colonial America was the original destination for Britain’s unwanted criminals. In the 18th century, thousands of British convicts were separated from their families, chained together in the hold of a ship, and carried off to America, sometimes for the theft of a mere handkerchief.

What happened to these convicts once they arrived in America? Did they prosper in an environment of unlimited opportunity, or were they ostracized by the other colonists? Anthony Vaver tells the stories of the petty thieves and professional criminals who were punished by being sent across the ocean to work on plantations. In bringing to life this forgotten chapter in American history, he challenges the way we think about immigration to early America.

The book also includes an appendix with helpful tips for researching individual convicts who were transported to America.

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