I see you Henry, only a squidge, through the fetid Thames fog and the salt crusted cracks of your creaking sea gaol. You’re tacking extreme south, destination the arse end of the world. I’ve got you pegged for a bit by your ‘ring pricked little fingers both hands’ , Henry.
You were an unknown to my family until all the old Scottish tartars had departed and a curious nephew found you firmly embedded in the trial records of the Old Bailey. I wonder though if my late sister was truly happy her son had re-introduced you to the family.
My first encounter with you was seeing your name etched into a red brick in the convict path in Campbelltown, Tasmania, along with thousands of other poor sods who had no choice but to emigrate there. It took me ages to find you, I trekked up and down the main street, popping into the lolly shop or the new homewares shop along the way – my attention span is not so great since I found Facebook. The twins were up a very large pear tree, plucking the unripe pears and lobbing them at dad’s head. My husband was impatient. Eventually, outside a leather goods shop I found you – ‘Henry Milbourne, Thames 1829’ the brick says.
The brick is so matter of fact and so firmly embedded in this thoroughfare, the halfway point between Devonport where I grew up and Hobart where you landed, it made you tangible. It only takes three and a half hours to get from one city to the other now, and cars, trucks and tourist buses with their insect-like overhanging lights fly past spitting up gravel at your memorial. Back in your day Campbelltown was more than a halfway point wee-stop. It was a major settlement, important for travellers trekking the long haul. When you arrived in 1829, a proper road from north to south was still 20 years away. The first overland journey this way was in 1807 and took nine days. Once a route was established, it was common for people to walk it, including mail carriers.
With this my touchstone, I start ferreting for you more and you prove fascinating, albeit in the way those from long ago with average, in your case sub-average, lives are to those of the future who exist only because of you. After being pinched for stealing a silk handkerchief in 1824 (if I hadn’t read it in the Old Bailey records I wouldn’t have believed such a cliché), you spent three years and nine months on a hulk in the Thames, the Dolphin, an exotic name for a fat, leaking human toilet. You received a full pardon in May 1828 and the gaoler describes you as ‘a steady quiet youth’ – a precious glimpse of you. Things were looking up. The prison register lists your occupation as ‘trimming maker’, future records would list you as ‘trim maker’ and ‘valet and military braid maker’. This sounds like a respectable occupation. The Napolenic wars are over now, but the military is always a busy machine and there’s a war being generated somewhere all the time, isn’t there? On the other hand, the British population is growing significantly and the industrial revolution is changing the way trades operate and more people are being pushed into the cities, increasing petty crime. London is overcrowded and unemployed. A fortuitous choice of career is at the whim of intense structural and social upheaval. Nevertheless, I’m sure you’ll get work. I’m rallying for you.
When I next find you in 1828 though, you’re back again at the Old Bailey, this time with a name change. Oh Henry. In 1824 you were Henry Stephen Martin. Now you are Henry Milburn. They said you stole ‘half a sheet of brown paper, value 1/2d. and 30 sheets of other paper, value 1s.6d, the goods of William Waterhouse and others’ from a coach. This time, the steady quiet youth who had passively taken his sentence in 1824 asserts himself in court and interrogates the witnesses. You argued, ‘Does it seem feasible, that if I wanted to steal the parcel I should take the smallest, when I could have others much more handy, and from the shape it is evident it could be on no value.’ Your logic failed, and you were tried and convicted at the Old Bailey in January 1829 and sent to another stinking hulk.
I would know nothing of you if you hadn’t broken the law. Most of your class lived small lives in the anonymity of poverty. Do the wrong thing and officialdom impressively documented your movements. In the modern era of google, I am in awe of the record keeping attention of your day. I don’t know how the public servants knew Henry Milburn was really Henry Martin (maybe those ring pricked fingers gave you away) but the record of your second offence says ‘transported before’ and acquiesces to allow you your new name while stating ‘served 3 years and 7 months in the name of Henry Martin’. I am impressed you tried on an avatar. You must have been terrified a second offence would send you to the gallows. The conduct record – police number 727 – states your version of events is ‘robbery of Manchester Coach once for a Piece of Silk Hander[kerchief]’. Did you try to conflate your two crimes, under different names, in the hope your prior service could reduce your new sentence of seven? The penal system was much too rigid and efficient for this – your ticket of leave would be issued in 1835, nearly seven years later.
Back you go to a hulk on the Thames, the aptly named Captivity. After six months, you sail for Van Diemen’s Land on the convict transport, the Thames, on 31 July 1829.
After 113 days at sea, someone yells ‘Land ho!’ and soon the mouth of a river swallows you up and takes you down the long oesophagus of the Derwent Valley. On either side are gently sloping, corn-yellow hills with sparsely spaced scribbly grey trees. Alien critters hop around and stare from the banks. After far too long for land-starved inmates, you arrive at the settlement of Hobart Town and your leaky tub tips you out, 160 new bacteria to infect the gut of the island, while providing a cleansing colonoscopy for the Mother Country.
Four months on that ship: probably stuffed in the hull marinating like olives in your own sweat and urine, and destined for a prison the size of the Mother Country where animals have pouches, the seasons defy God’s patterns, and there is little prospect of ever returning home. Were we to do that now, there’d be a posse of counsellors waiting to deal with your psychological trauma.
No matter, the penal system had plans for you. The convict muster of 1830 (that term speaks volumes about the way you were treated) shows you were assigned to Dr S Westbrook, a medical practitioner who moved north to the Launceston area in 1830. A report of an event in mid-1850 in the Colonial Times suggests Dr Westbrook was a hard taskmaster with his allotted slaves. A pass holder said he was unable to work but Dr Westbrook determined ‘he had no ailment to prevent his working’ and he was “committed to custody, for disobedience of orders, &c. After some days incarceration, on being called up to take his trial, he attempted to put on his clothes, but during the effort he fell back and expired. An inquest was held on the body by Mr Assistant Police Magistrate Forster, but no post mortem examination took place, and the jury returned a verdict of ‘death from natural causes’”. I’m worried for you Henry.
Sure enough, you get into trouble. Your conduct record says on 30 March 1830 Dr Westbrook accused you of having a pair of shoes in your possession ‘for which he cannot satisfactorily account’. You are sentenced to 50 lashes. But the record continues – ‘Dr Westbrook stated in a Letter to the Gov. that Milburn had been found after punishment to be innocent of this Offence.’ After punishment! What I would give to get my hands on Dr Westbrook and wring his entitled neck til his pompous eyes pop out.
Two more indiscretions follow. In December 1832 Dr Westbrook reported you for ‘debauching a young Female in the Service of his Mas[ter]’ and ‘embezzling certain monies entrusted to him. 2 mos. imprist. & hard labor & recommd. to be removed [to] another part of the Island’. You weren’t banished elsewhere but I don’t know if the other punishments were executed.
I’m relieved to find that by 1833 you have been reassigned to Mr P A Mulgrave Esq, still in the Launceston area, and you had a daughter, Mary, with your future wife, Mary Ann Best, the subject of the debauching I’m guessing, given the date of Mary’s birth.
Mr Musgrave Esq seems made of more quality stuff, I’m sure you agree. He was Van Diemen’s Land chief police magistrate, chairman of Quarter Sessions and commissioner of the Court of Requests at Launceston. He held many prestigious appointments in England and the Channel Islands as well, and was the inventor of the Tamar Valley Semaphore system. This of course means nothing: the testament to his character is that you had no convictions while in his employ, you were allowed to marry Mary Ann and awarded your ticket of leave. I thank the Vagaries of Fate Mr Musgrave Esq found you.
Life was looking up again, and you took on a new avatar when you married – Henry Seymour Milbourne. You needed the consent of the government to marry as you were still technically a convict, but no matter, you were on your way to becoming a gentleman you hoped.
It looks like you settled into married life just fine, having eight children, though the eldest, Mary died very young. I wonder if you both questioned if God had brought this on you because she was conceived out of wedlock. Having read your father-in-law’s letters, I’m sure he did (he sounds like a precious old fart to be honest).
You received your certificate of freedom in 1836 and started your own business as a hairdresser and perfumer in Launceston, frequently advertising the local newspaper during 1836 and 1837. Did you add the name ‘Seymour’ to give you some prestige? You handed this name down to your eldest son. I would love to know why you chose this name, and Milbourne too. I now doubt we’re related to Jane Seymour who married King Henry VIII. Damn, they were the only famous people with whom I thought we had a connection. Oh well, you’ll do, you’re interesting enough for me so far.
Valet and military braid maker to hairdresser and perfumer – it seems quite fitting to reinvent yourself in an antipodean version of your former self. Your advertisements sound quaint and pompous from 2017:
‘H. S. Milbourne,
Hair Dresser, Perfumer
and Ornamental Hair Manufacturer,
Begs leave most respectfully to inform the Ladies and Gentlemen of Launceston and its vicinity, that he has received ex Atwick, the following genuine articles, viz. –
Oldridge’s Balm of Columbia, for cleansing the head from scurf
Rowland’s genuine Macamar Oil. From Hatton Garden
Devereaux’s Kalydor Lotion, and Rose Bloom …
Genuine bear’s grease and cold cream
Price and Gosnell’s floating soap
Cream of roses and Circasian cream …
Shaving brushes and tooth ditto
Transparent soap and hair powder
Lavender water and vegetable extracts
Ladies’ tortoise-shell back and side combs
Ditto horn back and side combs …
And a large quantity of patent centre fronts and ringlets for ladies, of all shades.
N.B. – Private rooms for hair cutting, and razors carefully set.
Dec. 24, 1836.
Business was tough and you were declared bankrupt in 1838. You obtained a hawker’s licence in the same year. This wasn’t a great profession I gather and I worry for you, Mary Ann and your six living children. When your brother-in-law, Jabez was considering doing this too, your father-in-law begged him to think twice – ‘I assure you it is among the last of occupations I should choose for myself – In a Colony like yours, you will be exposed to many difficulties, to night airs, to Robbers – to losses, to ill designing men. And above all to such temptations as perhaps you are at this time unacquainted with …. I myself when about 20 years of age was a Hawker and by most people considered an Honest Hawker, but I found the temptation to get as much money as I could for every article led me astray from the Truth & my supposed honesty when looked closely into was only a deception. I became by degrees to be a base Lyar & perhaps the biggest Rogue among the whole of Hawkers of my days ..’ If the god-fearing, bible-quoting James Best could be so swayed, I wonder what kind of hawker you became?
By 1843 you are back in the business of hair dressing and perfuming, but the occupation listed on your death certificate says you were a labourer, that’s a hard slog for someone in their later years and it looks like things got tough again.
Now I have a copy of your father-in-law’s letters and I see a different Henry. I expect you were chalk and cheese; he really doesn’t like you. Here’s a direct quote from a letter to Jabez in 1846, ‘As for Milbourne, he is worse than ever – the most abandoned wretch that I ever knew cannot equal him.’ No explanation than this, I wonder and worry. In another letter James says to Jabez, ‘poor Mary pays dear for her rash act’ and in another, ‘Your Sister Mary is in great distress. I cannot as yet see a way in which I can relieve her. I have taken one Child this 15 months & some times I think of taking her & her whole family – I would do this tomorrow if I could be assured not be troubled with that Brute.’
Suddenly, the shards of history’s light are shining unfavourably on you Henry and I don’t know what to think. Has a ‘steady quiet youth’ become a ‘brute’?
Writing to another son, Thomas, James says ‘Jabez says he has hopes Henry is still a Teetotaller. He is now I think the most abandoned wretch in all Launceston – Never sober if it is possible to be otherwise. Pawning all he can lay his hands on EVEN the poor childrens clothing justice must ere long overtake him & ease poor Mary of a heavy burden at least for a while.’ This was in 1848 and another child was yet to be born, in 1850 James writes ‘Mary is likely to give birth to another child’ (which seems like an odd choice of words, but successful childbirth wasn’t a given I imagine, and it was 18 years since her first child was born). Mary did indeed give birth to Albert Arthur, who only lived to be 15.
In 1852 James writes that his daughter Kitty’s husband isn’t up to scratch (she had 15 children so I tend to agree) but still ‘there is doubt that Milbourne is not the best of the two. Milbourne is open to view but a painted sepulchre is a dangerous thing’. I’m not sure what to make of this. You have competition in the bad son-in-law competition Henry, but you’re still winning.
I find myself perking up to read James’ letter to Miriam later in 1852, that you ‘appear steadier than formerly’ and have now ’gone to the Gold field …’. Knowing your fate I know you didn’t dig up a huge gold nugget, and I reckon the heady atmosphere of recklessness and risk taking at the goldfields would not have supported your continued steadiness. At least Mary was ignorant to whatever you were up to.
In May 1854, your father-in-law writes in detail of your wife’s illness and death, ‘she had several months knowledge of her speedy dissolution and all possible means were resorted to and failed and as her end approached, death seemed disarmed of his sting.’ She was worried for her motherless children but ‘her end was so peaceful and imperceptible that it was with difficulty I could persuade myself that the spirt had escaped its earthly tabernacle’. She was 38.
You obviously didn’t cope – James says he has not seen you since you were committed for one month. He has the four youngest children with him, Albert was only three, Alfred seven, James ten and Harriet twelve, and forbidden you from the house. ‘The Poor Orphans … they are quite well and growing fast – they do not feel their loss. The father has never yet shown to me or even enquired after his children, but lives the same dissipated life as formerly.’
Four years later you were dead at the aged 53 of phthisis (tuberculosis). If James had any thought for you I expect he would have written of your ‘wretched end’ and that God would eke out his vengeance. I wonder if anyone was with you at the end, any of the older children maybe, or had they decided you were dead to them before you really were. Is this why no-one talked about you in my family, you were relegated to the scrapheap of weak character and immoral behaviour. Is this why my paternal family seems so matriarchal and tartarish?
I won’t abandon you Henry. I have the benefit of distance to not be affected by your behaviour, good or bad, though I’m sure I’ve inherited psychological as well as physical traits from you. I think I know you a little now, I know you did it tough, and you can’t come out of Britain’s great penal experiment unscathed, and definitely not as an example of the benefits of positive psychology. The official records tell your tale a little but not how you coped with deprivation and injustice, or hunger and fear. You survived, you pushed through, you had a family and a place of your own. James’ letters paint a much sadder story but your life is a prism of many realities and people’s perspectives and so much harder to catch from a century on. If only I had a glimpse of Mary’s life but of course, women’s history is even more invisible.
Your life was no mean feat and possibly a better one than you may have had on the other side of the world. The arse end might not have been a bummer in comparison.
I, too, am feeling dissipated and abandoned right now, not good enough for my family and wanting to drown in any substance that will take away the pain. Your lesson to me is that history favours the brave, and seeing your story from a century past, I can’t take your path, it’s too sad. I don’t have your tough life as an excuse, and I can’t be wretched, for others’ sake. Thanks for the heads up Henry.