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Convict Voyages: Convict Passengers on the Jonathan

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

Many of the surviving accounts of events involving transported convicts tend to focus on unusual circumstances or notorious criminals. Most of the convicts sent overseas, however, were minor criminals who committed petty acts of crime. These common criminals did not garner the attention that some of the more serious offenders did, so their individual stories did not get written up in the press, and most of them were illiterate, so they did not leave behind journals chronicling their own experiences.

This article profiles some of the convict passengers on board the Jonathan, which left London on February 19, 1723. The Jonathan was a former slave ship and at the time it was the newest addition to Jonathan Forward’s fleet of convict ships. This voyage has a slight advantage over most others when it comes to profiling the convicts it carried, because its passenger records indicate the age, profession, and appearance of each convict. One of the passengers has already appeared in the introduction to this series, James Bell, who was transported to America for stealing a book. Here are the stories of some of the other convicts who accompanied him on his journey.

John Watkins

On December 6, 1722, John Watkins, a 21 year-old carpenter with brown hair, was walking along a wharf on the River Thames not far from where he lived. He came upon a pile of raisins sitting out in the open and made an impulsive, yet fateful, decision. He grabbed a basket of raisins, which was later valued at 8 shillings and continued on his way. He was easily caught, however, and the owners of the raisins, Benjamin Longuet and Mark Weyland, brought him to trial on January 16, 1724 at the Old Bailey.

Theft along the wharves of the Thames was rampant at the time, and the two owners must have been eager to prosecute him. Watkins was found guilty of simple grand larceny, and he was sentenced to transportation to the American colonies for 7 years.

Margaret Hayes

On December 1, 1722, Margaret Hayes walked into a shop and began to bargain with Elizabeth Reynolds, the shop’s owner, over the price of some stockings. Hayes was a 30-year-old widow with a dark complexion, and she lived in the parish of St. Giles-in-the-Fields, a section of London notorious for heavy gin drinking. In the middle of the negotiations, Hayes grabbed a pair of stockings on display that were valued at two shillings and ran out of the shop.

Reynolds quickly called out after her, and several people who heard Reynolds’ cries moved to stop her. Realizing that she was going to be caught, Hayes dropped the stockings on the ground, but they were quickly picked up along with the offender. Hayes was swiftly brought to trial on December 5, and even though she denied ever having gone into the shop, she was found guilty of theft. The jury, however, showed some sympathy for her by devaluing the goods she took to ten pence, thereby ensuring a sentence of transportation to the American colonies for 7 years, as opposed to death by hanging.

Sarah Nutt

On November 25, 1722, Sarah Nutt entered Joseph Manning’s chandler shop and sat down by the fire to have a drink, quite possibly gin. Chandlers often sold more than just candles and specialized in selling basic items, like coal and soap, in small quantities to the poor. They also offered food staples at prices below what they would normally cost at an alehouse. The poor tended to rely on them for their daily allowance of bread, cheese, and small beer, but, as the gin craze increasingly took hold in the eighteenth century, increasingly just bread and gin. Chandlers were generally considered the lowest type of shopkeeper.

Nutt was 22 years old at the time, had brown hair, and was unmarried. She lived in the parish of St. James’s Clerkenwell not far from New Prison. At one point, while Nutt was enjoying her drink, Manning leaned over to stir the fire. Nutt quickly slipped a handkerchief out of his coat pocket and took it with her when she left. Nutt later discovered that a gold ring was wrapped in the handkerchief she took. She decided to give the ring to Mary Herrick, a cook, as repayment for a debt she owed her for some food. Herrick in turn sold the ring to Nutt’s cousin, Mary Mark.

Missing his handkerchief and gold ring, Manning was eventually able to trace the ring back to Mark, and he brought Nutt to trial on December 5. Nutt admitted that she took the handkerchief and the gold ring, which was valued at 5 shillings. She was found guilty of pickpocketing, which carried an automatic death sentence if the goods stolen were valued over one shilling. Sometimes juries would devalue the stolen goods so as to avoid handing down such a severe penalty, as was the case with Margaret Hayes, but in this case they showed Nutt little sympathy. She was sentenced to death. Two months later, however, she received a conditional pardon and was transported to the American colonies for 14 years.

Other Trials

The set of trials that were held on the day that John Watkins was convicted of stealing the basket of raisons was not without its theater. John Dyer, a hatmaker, was accused of stealing 3 hats from a workshop, even though he claimed that they were given to him on the street by a man who was drunk. In a case of hotel theft, John Harris, a 25 year-old baker, was indicted for taking a pair of flaxen sheets from the Windmill-Inn on St. John’s Street after spending the night there. The two were found guilty and sentenced along with Watkins to transportation for 7 years.

Sarah Wells, otherwise known as “Callico Sarah,” also faced trial on that same day in February for returning early from transportation. Two years earlier, she was found guilty of stealing a silver watch, for which she received a sentence of death. After receiving her sentence, she and five other women who also faced death all “pleaded their bellies,” i.e., they claimed to be pregnant in the hope that they could delay their execution. Only one of the six was actually found by a jury of matrons to be pregnant, and it was not Wells. Even though she wasn’t pregnant, Wells was able to avoid execution through a pardon on condition of being transported to America for 14 years.

At her subsequent trial for returning early from transportation, Wells was once again found guilty and sentenced to death, and once again she tried the same tactic of pleading her belly. This time it worked. She was indeed found to be pregnant. This change of events helped her to secure yet another conditional pardon, and she was transported a second time to America under a 14-year sentence. Wells did not travel on the Jonathan, though, perhaps so she could have her baby before being transported, and instead went out on the next ship, the Alexander, in July 1723.

The Voyage

On February 18, 1723, James Bell, John Watkins, Margaret Hayes, Sarah, Nutt, John Dyer, and John Harris, along with 30 other convicted felons, including a brickmaker, a wheelwright, 3 weavers, a painter, and a glass grinder, were paraded through the London streets from Newgate Prison to the docks along the Thames to board the Jonathan.

Jonathan Forward put Darby Lux in place as captain of his new ship. Lux had served as captain of the Gilbert on two previous convict voyages to America. On board Lux’s first voyage in October, 1720, was none other than Sarah Wells, who was on her first trip to America for theft. At the time, she, along with several other convicts, did not appear on the landing certificate for the Gilbert, so she may have escaped and returned to London before or soon after the ship arrived in Maryland, which explains why she appeared back in court for returning early from transportation.

The voyage of the Jonathan was difficult for at least some of the convict passengers. Elizabeth Knight, who was found guilty of stealing two riding hoods valued at 2 shillings, died during the voyage, as did Charles Lynch, who along with his brother ran away with a bag of clothes belonging to a traveler who had stopped to ask them directions.

All of these convicts transported in the Jonathan were fairly typical of those who committed crimes that fell under the Transportation Act. What happened to the Jonathan after it arrived in America, however, was not typical. Sometime after the Jonathan landed in Annapolis, Maryland, the ship caught fire and sank, so Jonathan Forward’s newest member of his fleet made only one voyage to America under his ownership. The authorities suspected that the convicts were responsible for setting the fire.

Darby Lux made many more trips transporting convicts across the ocean before settling in Maryland after his final voyage in 1738 to become Forward’s principal agent in America.

Resources for this article:

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.

Visit Pickpocket Publishing for more details.

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