At last, a convict in the family
Having broken through a stubborn brick wall with my Irish paternal grandmother, I was delighted to find her great uncle Mathew Mahide was transported to Van Diemen’s Land. Finally, a convict in the family tree! But why was he transported and what happened to him? Fortunately, many records have survived from Australia’s convict era. [Sponsored]
Above: An identikit picture of Mathew Mahide.
On a cold March morning in 1841, Mathew Mahide was led from the cells to Clonmel’s crowded and noisy courtroom. He stood accused of highway robbery and stealing a double-barrelled gun and powder horn from Rev. Nicholas Herbert who had been out snipe shooting. It was unfortunate that off-duty Constable Cotter accompanied Rev. Herbert.
Mathew had been languishing in Clonmel’s gaol since his arrest in January. His case generated considerable interest and the front page of The Tipperary Free Press reported the trial at length. Mathew’s brother, Timothy, and his colleague provided an alibi and swore under oath that he could not have committed the crime because he was in the field digging potatoes on the day in question. Despite Rev. Herbert being unable to swear it was Mathew who robbed him, the 25 year old farm labourer was found guilty as charged.
Above: The start of an extensive report of Mathew’s trial at Clonmel Assizes in The Tipperary Free Press. Courtesy of Findmypast’s Irish newspaper collection.
Judge Perrin sentenced Mathew to seven years transportation to Van Diemen’s Land (VDL). From Clonmel Gaol he was sent 170 km north from his native Tipperary to Dublin’s notorious Kilmainham Prison. There he awaited a convict ship which would remove him from his family and everything he had ever known and transport him to the other side of the world and an uncertain future.
Above: Left hand side of Mathew Mahide's 1841 entry in Kilmainham Prison's Transportation Register. Courtesy of Findmypast.
Above: Right hand side of Mathew Mahide's 1841 entry in Kilmainham Prison's Transportation Register. Courtesy of Findmypast.
From information in Mathew’s Kilmainham Prison register at Findmypast, I know he was an illiterate, 5ft 5in tall (165 cm) Roman Catholic with blue eyes, dark black hair, and a fresh complexion. Based on his Convict Conduct Record, I also know Mathew had a large head, oval face, high forehead, and long nose; dark, thin whiskers, medium mouth, broad dimpled chin and pock-marked skin with freckles.
Thanks to the detailed descriptions in these records, I was able to use the Founders and Survivors Storylines “Mugsheets – Make-a-Face” tool to develop Mathew’s identikit mugshot. Now I could put a face (of sorts) to my convict.
Above: Mathew's Convict Conduct Record. Note the conditions of his Conditional Pardon in the right hand column. Courtesy of Findmypast.
Just a month after his sentencing in Tipperary, Mathew was "disposed of" (a regrettable term meaning he was allocated) to the convict vessel Waverley in April 1841. Her Master was James Morgan and the Surgeon Superintendent was Dr Thomas Dunn. The convicts on board were guarded by two Army officers and 40 rank and file members of the 80th and 96th Regiments.
Although he was doubtless unaware of his luck, Mathew was fortunate in being transported at a time when Surgeon Superintendents were appointed to all voyages which reduced the number of deaths en-route. During Mathew’s voyage only two convicts died - possibly due to Dr Dunn’s active role in managing the Waverley’s convicts. Dr Dunn is a story for another day.
Mathew arrived in VDL in September 1841 after 140 days at sea with only one stop in Bahia, Brazil. He had five shillings to his name, but convicts were not permitted to hold any cash. It was confiscated and deposited in the Convicts’ Savings Bank on Mathew's behalf until granted his Ticket of Leave.
Above: Report of Mathew's ship departing Ireland. Courtesy of Findmypast's Irish Newspaper Collection.
Life in Van Diemen’s Land
Mathew was processed under the Probation system which was much harsher than the imperfect Allocation system originally employed to assign convicts to government and colonial employers. As a newly arrived convict, Mathew was categorized as a third-class probation pass holder and had to spend his first year in the colony with the work gangs doing hard labour. Initially he was assigned to the Jericho party and seven months later he was transferred to the Fingal gang where he cleared the virgin bush and built roads.
Above: Mathew's transfer to the Fingal Party. Courtesy of Findmypast.
While living at the Jericho prisoner barracks in 1842, Mathew’s conduct was reported as “Mild-good” on each of his monthly probation reports. By January 1843, with his probation year over, he was moved to Perth. Sometime during the next six months he was placed with Mr Mackie in Sorell where, six months later he was charged with “Neglect of Duty” and returned to the government.
Punishment was harsh for convicts returned by their colonial employers due to their bad conduct and he received one month’s confinement with hard labour on public works at Brown’s River. Then followed attachments to government work gangs again in Perth and Fingal. By 1844 Mathew had redeemed himself and he was placed with John Burt in Adelphi.
After five years in VDL, Mathew received his Ticket of Leave in March 1845 and he was then able to live and work independently in the community and earn an income on his own account. The Ticket of Leave register recorded:
"Having completed five years and a quarter of a seven year sentence and his conduct having been good with one trifling exception."
Clearly Mathew's return to the government for neglecting his duty did not prevent his receiving a Ticket of Leave roughly when it was due five years after his arrival in the colony. His Conditional Pardon followed in September 1847. Very few convicts received a full pardon and, like most of his fellow ex-convicts, the Conditional Pardon meant he could never return to Ireland even if he had the funds to do so.
Above: Mathew's entry in the Ticket of Leave register. Courtesy of Findmypast.
Life as an ex-convict
No longer a convict, Mathew had to find some way to support himself. In the 1847 Tasmanian census, he was working as a farm labourer in Westbury where he lived in a wooden house with two fellow Catholics, his employer Rev. R.R. Davies (a free person) and Jeremiah Crowe (a convict Ticket of Leave holder).
Perhaps living as a pardoned convict was difficult for Mathew (as it was for many people who were shunned by the free settlers) or maybe he became a hardened criminal during his harsh convict years. Whatever the reason, he returned to his old ways because in June 1848, while living at Emu Plains, he was accused of “black-faced” robbery of the Eagle's Return Inn and indicted for “robbery armed with a gun”.
Despite proclaiming his innocence, Mathew was found guilty by a Supreme Court jury in October that year. Armed robbery was a capital offence and he was sentenced to death by hanging. This was despite being convicted on only circumstantial evidence and the Jury’s request for mercy given no violence was used during the robbery.
Mathew’s death sentence received widespread newspaper coverage and several editorials criticised the colony’s Executive. Launceston’s Cornwall Chronicle claimed 99% of the population did not support Mathew's execution. The local populace resented the government’s injustice and oppression in disregarding the Jury’s specific request for mercy. One newspaper went so far as to describe Mathew’s execution as “an exhibition of butchering by authority which did not raise the Executive in the esteem of the people nor create respect for the law and a horror of crime."
A week before his hanging, the Launceston Examiner reported Mathew was “astounded and completely overcome when told the law would be carried out”. His death sentence notwithstanding, Mathew had relied on the Jury's recommendation of mercy which was not to be.
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Despite public opinion, Mathew was hanged outside the Launceston gaol. The Cornwall Chronicle reported many women and children were present among the unusually large crowd of 2,000 people watching the proceedings. The newspaper also reported “the utmost decorum was observed by all parties throughout” - probably due to the presence of the 96th Regiment guard and line of police constables in front of the scaffold.
The newspaper described a tense and pathetic scene with the gaol’s bell tolling until 8 am when Mathew, his arms pinioned behind him and barely able to walk, was led to the gallows. The journalist added that he looked “more dead than alive while the priest tried to hide him from public view”.
Mathew received the last rites of the Catholic Church and, unlike his companion on the gallows that day, was spared his body being dissected by the local hospital for science – a common fate which most criminals feared. Instead, Mathew’s friends, including his co-accused who had been acquitted, took his body in a casket to the Crown Hotel for a typical Irish wake. He was buried in the Catholic cemetery the next day where 30 people attended his funeral.
Such was the level of interest in Mathew’s execution, the Cornwall Chronicle was unable to meet demand and reprinted its account again the following Saturday with additional details.
Above: An early sketch of Launceston’s Crown Hotel where Mathew's wake was held. Courtesy of Tasmanian Archives.
Mercy in commuting death sentences was inconsistent in the colony and many people guilty of far worse crimes, including murder, escaped the hangman’s noose. Mathew, as an unmarried former convict without family or connections to advocate for him, did not receive Lieutenant Governor Denison’s favourable consideration despite public opinion and newspaper editorials.
Mathew produced no descendants through whom his memory would live on. Nevertheless, he is not forgotten to history because his case was mentioned in a University of Tasmania Law Review article in 2014.
I am delighted to have discovered my 4xGreat Uncle and follow him through the British justice, transportation, and convict systems. Having served his seven year sentence as a convict and obtained his freedom, his untimely execution was a sad and unfortunate end to what might otherwise have been a long and prosperous life achieved by many ex-felons in Australia. For his sake, I hope Mathew was guilty of his crimes as accused in Ireland and VDL. The alternative of transporting then eventually hanging a twice innocent man would have been a great travesty of justice. R.I.P. Uncle Mathew.
The breadth and depth of surviving records makes detailed research into convict ancestors a rewarding experience. There are generally more records in Australia than in the convict’s home country. But never forget to check newspaper reports in the home country which often reported the convict’s trial leading to their sentence. Departure details for the convict ships were also reported in the press. It is also worth searching the UK National Archives for the Surgeon Superintendent’s diary of the voyage.
Do you have convicts in your family tree? If yes, I would love to hear from you in the Comments box below. What are your favourite convict sources? Mine is the convict's Conduct Record which is full of valuable information. I found Mathew's at Findmypast. If you have any questions about researching convicts, don’t hesitate to ask me. I would be very happy to answer them.
Until next time, happy convict ancestor hunting.
Your Family Genealogist
Irish Prison Registers 1790-1924. Dublin-Kilmainham Prison General Register 1840-1850;
The Clonmel General Register 1840-42;
Irish newspaper collection;
Convict Conduct Record;
Tasmania Convict Records;
Tasmania Police Gazettes;
New South Wales and Tasmania: Settlers and Convicts 1787-1859
Founders and Survivors Storylines – Mugsheets
Log of Logs by Ian H Nicholson in association with the Australian Association for Maritime History;
Hamish Maxwell-Stuart, “The Voyage”. University of Tasmania video, 2016;
National Archives of Ireland transportation records;
Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office;
UK National Archives - Royal Navy Medical Journals.
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Pictures courtesy of:
Founders and Survivors Storylines - Mugsheets
Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office