Charles Claxton and Catherine Hart

Charles Claxton was born in 1814 in Middlesex, when his father James was 14 and his mother, Elizabeth was 19. He was baptised on 1 April 1821 at St Dunstan and All Saints Church, Stepney, in the Borough of Tower Hamlets, London. His father died and his mother then married Elihoenai Newbold who was a tailor, on 1st January 1818. On 12th April 1831, when he was 16, he was charged for theft of 2 coats, a cloak, and 3 silk handkerchiefs from his stepfather. The transcript of the trial states that he was stopped by a policeman, after exchanging these goods for cash at a pawnbroker’s shop. Mr Newbold recommended to the court that he should be treated with mercy, so he was fined 1 shilling and sent home. It seems that his stepfather was trying to teach him a lesson but on 26th May 1831, Charles was charged again with theft on two counts - stealing some black cloth and stealing a loaf of bread - not from his stepfather. He was described as a tailor and was found guilty and sentenced to 3 months imprisonment and twice whipped. On 27 June 1831 he was sentenced to seven years transportation, probably because of his several offences.

When Charles was sentenced to transportation, he was transferred on 31 August 1831 to the prison hulk Hardy, a former Royal Navy warship, moored in Portsmouth harbour. He was then listed on the muster roll for the Asia 1, the next convict ship to leave England. He was 5-foot 9 inches tall, pale and freckled complexion with light hair and hazel eyes and with an anchor and cross on his left arm. The Asia was a three masted brig of 532 tonnage, built at Aberdeen in 1819 and she was chartered as a merchant ship by the East India Company. She also made regular voyages to New South Wales with convicts. She was due to depart on 29th September 1831 but was reported lying wind bound off Portsmouth from 11th October 1831 until 16th October 1831. The captain was Thomas F Stead and the ship’s surgeon was Andrew D Wilson. The ship arrived in Sydney, New South Wales on 13 February 1832, so the voyage lasted 4 months and Charles was 17 by then. There were no fatalities on the voyage, and the ship may have stopped for supplies at Gibraltar, the West Indies, South America and Cape Town in South Africa.

Two hundred men from throughout England were transported on the ship and most would never see their homeland again. They had been held in prison hulks prior to embarking on the Asia, and many were petty thieves like Charles. We have learned from a descendant of Charles that when he arrived in Sydney, he was assigned to John McLaughlin, a storekeeper of York St., Sydney. There is no record of a Ticket of Leave granted to Charles, but on Dec 3rd, 1839, he was given his Certificate of Freedom at Maitland, so he served his full term of seven years.

Further information about Charles is recorded on a New South Wales historical website which notes his arrival on HMS Asia in 1832 and gives the following detail: - “Aged 17, tailor from London. Tried 27 June 1831 and sentenced to 7 year’s transportation for stealing cloth. Note - Later sentenced to 12 months in an iron gang by Maitland Bench.” Maitland is a town in an agricultural area in New South Wales about 100 miles north of Sydney. Convicts who re-offended after arriving in the colony could be assigned to punishment gangs and the hard labour of building and repairing roads and bridges. Although Charles received his Certificate of Freedom in December 1839, another record dated 1st July 1840, confirms an entry in the Newcastle Gaol Entrance Book: - “Charles Claxton, tailor from London. Admitted to Newcastle gaol from Maitland.” It is not clear that this was related to his sentence to working in an iron gang, but a further note confirms that he was acquitted and discharged at Quarter Sessions, November 1840.

Charles married Catherine Hart in 1844 at Yass near Canberra, they had seven children, and their eldest daughter Elizabeth Claxton was born in 1845. She became part of the Marchesi family when she married Federico Marchesi in Australia in 1867. There were three more girls and three boys in the family. Quite often, people who were transported were able to make better lives than they might have had if they had remained in England. Charles died in 1869 at the age of 55, at Balranald in New South Wales.

Catherine Hart – sometimes spelt Catharine in the records - was born in Nottingham in about 1824. She was found guilty at Nottingham Assizes of stealing some cow’s tongue on 22nd October 1835, which is a very nourishing food. It was noted that she could neither read nor write and perhaps she stole this food because she was hungry? She was eleven years old and was sentenced to imprisonment for 3 months, which shows how tough were the penalties in those days. The punishment for grand larceny was death and was based on the value of the goods stolen, so in view of the short sentence, Catherine’s offence was regarded as relatively minor. However, on 2nd January 1837, she was sentenced, again at Nottingham Assizes, to 14 years transportation for “larceny, before committed of felony,” an extremely harsh penalty for a 13-year-old. One girl aged 20, was transported for seven years for stealing a handkerchief and there are many tales of women stealing food or money to buy it.

Catherine is listed on the SS Henry Wellesley muster roll as being transported for 14 years, but this was changed on the record to seven years. This former Royal Navy 74-gun ship of 304 tons was built at Calcutta in 1804, and sailed from Woolwich, London, to New South Wales, Australia, on 17th of July 1837, arriving at Port Jackson, Sydney, via the Cape of Good Hope, on 22nd December 1837. Thus, the voyage took 158 days and there were 140 female convicts on board. We give brief details below of the ship’s surgeon’s account of life on board this small vessel on a voyage of 5 months, passing through the tropics and experiencing some very rough weather. The ship may have stopped for supplies at Gibraltar, the West Indies, South America, and the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa.

HMS Henry Wellesley sailed under the command of Edward Williams and the ship’s surgeon, William Leyson, kept a Medical Journal. There were 140 prisoners and 29 children on board and many of the prisoners were affected by sea sickness, during the whole of the voyage. They were exercised daily on deck when the weather was dry, and the women did patchwork and knitting during the voyage. The children were required to attend classes. The bedding was frequently aired on deck, there was a washing day once a week, and there was a general attention to personal cleanliness and attire. No prisoners died on the voyage and the women spent their first Christmas in Australia on board the ship as they were not disembarked until 3rd January 1838. The Henry Wellesley was one of four convict ships bringing female prisoners to New South Wales in 1837, and a total of 533 female convicts arrived in the colony during that year.

On arrival, Catherine was transferred to the Female factory at Parramata, where some mothers with their children, and young girls who had committed crimes were sent, if they had not been assigned as domestic servants. We have described the bad conditions at these factories, and we do not know how long she remained there. However, we do know that she gained her Ticket of Leave (release on licence) at Parramata on 12th November 1842, and this was a reward for good behaviour towards the end of a convict’s sentence. However, this was cancelled on 16th May 1843, “for drunkenness and immorality.” She obtained her Certificate of Freedom on 6 May 1844, and married Charles Claxton in that year. They had seven children and the eldest was Elizabeth, born in 1845, who became part of the Marchesi family when she married Federico in 1867.

We were told by an Australian family descendant that Catherine died accidently in 1861 at the age of 38. She and Charles were living with their family in a tent on a campsite in the New Chum Gully gold workings near Bendigo. They took in needlework to make ends meet and their daughter Elizabeth left her mother sewing one evening, while the rest of the family slept. Elizabeth aged 15, was awoken by screams, and found her mother engulfed in flames. She had sat near the fire to warm herself and her clothing had caught alight. Some miners put the flames out and at first light, she was put on a cart and taken on the 8-mile journey to Bendigo Hospital. She died that afternoon and Elisabeth told the hospital that her father had died 3 years earlier. This was untrue and it is thought that he was evading the police over licence matters or may have been involved in the Eureka Stockade Rebellion over miners’ licences which occurred in 1854. This is unlikely in view of the time lapse, and the fact that there was great public support for the miners who were released without trial and gained the vote in elections.

On the very day of Catherine's funeral, several of her children were put into the Bendigo Benevolent Asylum, an orphanage/hospital. It is not known who instigated this, and it may have been one of the older girls. Charlotte aged about 11 and the little ones, Mary Ellen, John, and George (about 7, 5, 2) found themselves there. The boys were put under a different surname, but a note was made saying they were Claxton children. The girls have been traced as women, but nothing is known about what happened to the boys subsequently. The other children, Elizabeth, Emma, and James, aged about 15, 13 and 9, did not get put in the home. Elizabeth married Federico Marchesi and came to England with their family, Emma died of typhoid fever in Bendigo 1869, in her early 20s, and we do not know what became of James.

The story illustrates how life was on the goldfields at that time, although many ex-convicts and immigrants probably enjoyed a better future than they would have done if they remained in England, where poverty in the big cities was so severe. Catherine is buried in Bendigo, and the incident would have been a terrible experience for Elizabeth and her siblings.