Times Past: Barnstaple boy, nine, sentenced to transportation

Prison hulks such as this one were used to keep prisoners until a ship was available to transport th

Prison hulks such as this one were used to keep prisoners until a ship was available to transport them to Australia and the colonies in the 19th century. - Credit: Archant

We often talk of the ‘good old days’ but often they were anything but. Public hangings, unsolved murders, child slavery and disgusting living conditions do not paint a pretty picture of nineteenth century England.

One local case is appalling even by our ancestors’ standards.

On Friday, December 23, 1836, a farmer’s wife set up her stall in Barnstaple market – then held in the streets around St Peter’s church.

She did fairly well and had £6.8.6 (£6.42) in her purse but in a forgetful moment put it down – and it disappeared.

Reporting it to the town authorities, enquiries led to 13-year-old Robert Ellis and his brother-in-law Robert Passmore, also aged 13.


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On the day in question, they had met nine-year-old George Thorne and walked around the market. Here, George spotted the purse, snatched it up and ran off, closely followed by the other two boys.

They ran up Bear Street into the open fields that then existed there and divided up the money in the purse between them.

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Later in the day, hearing that the authorities were searching for them, they panicked and threw the money away.

They were located and taken in for questioning and soon broke down, admitting the theft.

Three weeks later, they appeared in court before a judge. After a short trial, the jury showed no hesitation in finding George guilty of the theft.

The judge then passed sentence with ‘the greatest tenderness and humanity’ – a quite unbelievable phrase in the light of his actual decision.

He said that he was concerned that if George was allowed back on the streets of Barnstaple with his companions he would ‘be led on to further crimes, till he came to an ignominious end’.

Therefore in order to save him from this fate, the judge sentenced the nine-year-old to be transported to Australia for seven years, adding that the Secretary of State might just change the sentence to one to be spent ‘in an asylum in England’.

I have searched the convict transportation records, and George does not appear, so perhaps an ‘asylum’ is where he ended up.

Ah yes, those ‘good old days’...

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