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In episode two, Len Goodman finds out the next chapter in the story of his great‐great uncle Henry who was jailed for attacking his father, Michelle Collins is horrified by the Dickensian conditions her ancestor experienced in a debtors prison and Daisy McAndrew follows the incredible story of her great‐great‐great‐great‐great grandmother who dodged the hangman’s noose and was transported to Australia where her fortunes changed.
Michelle Collins visits Monmouth Street in Covent Garden and is surprised to discover that when her ancestor, Thomas Bright, had his umbrella‐making workshop there, it was on the edge of one of the worst slums in London.
In the late 1840s, a trade depression and inflation caused many small businesses to fail and Thomas’s was one of them. Debtors could be thrown into prison without trial and Thomas was sent to Whitecross Street debtors prison in 1848. Even though debtors had no money, they had to pay “garnish” for their lodging in the prison. Michelle is upset to find that even in a debtors’ prison, Thomas was getting himself into more debt and his predicament was made worse as his wife Susanna was pregnant. Michelle discovers that Thomas’ imprisonment could have continued for years if he was unable to find the money to pay off his debts.
Michelle says: “It’s terrible, he’s a victim of his circumstances, of being working class really. You think prison is a place for people who have committed a crime, generally for people who are dangerous to us, or a danger to themselves. He’s not a danger to anybody. It’s not a crime, he’s just trying to make a living.“
Thomas Bright’s only chance of release from prison was to appeal to the Court of Relief for Insolvent Debtors at London’s Lincolns Inn. He had to convince the judges that his debt was wasn’t fraudulent, was caused by misfortune and promise to repay his creditors. Thomas would have to sell his entire business, including the tools of his trade, and start again from scratch.
Michelle says: “It’s terrible isn’t it to think that you do your time in prison and you suddenly come out and it’s just as bad as it could possibly be.”
But Michelle is pleased to discover that in 1861, 13 years after leaving debtors’ prison, Thomas is registered in a trade directory in Upper Street which shows he was back on his feet again.
Michelle says: “It makes me feel really proud to be working class and to know how he suffered and what he did and how supportive and much he cared for his family and how important they were to him.”
By 1868, Britain had transported 168,000 criminals away from British shores and among them was Daisy McAndrew’s ancestor Mary, transported in 1792 to Australia. Mary had been orphaned, and when her grandmother also died, had to find work as a servant. Desperately unhappy, 14 year old Mary ran away disguised as a boy and was caught stealing a horse. Horse stealing was a capital crime and Daisy discovers her ancestor was sentenced to death.
Daisy says: “I’ve always been passionately anti‐capital punishment anyway, but to know that a member of my family was sentenced to hanging, aged 14. God, it’s grim.”
Fortunately for Mary, a judge changed the sentence to transportation. Prior to being deported to Australia she spent 10 months in a corrupt and filthy jail. It then took five‐months to sail to Australia and the on‐board conditions were very poor. Male convicts were shackled below decks and 12 people on Mary’s ship died during the journey
For Mary, transportation was life changing. In Australia she married free settler Thomas Reibey and they set up a trading empire, importing goods to sell to the growing colony. When Thomas died young in 1811, Mary took over running the business. Mary’s business acumen and charitable work earned her a special place in Australian history, and she is now commemorated on the Australian $20 note.
Daisy says: “To have that as part of my family legacy, to have some of her DNA, some of her genetics, is an incredible honour and something I can tell my daughter about. And say, ‘look what Mary did?’ There are no boundaries in your life, there is nothing you can’t overcome. It’s fantastic.”
Len Goodman’s ancestor Henry was found guilty of assaulting his father at the Old Bailey and sentenced to five years penal servitude. After nine months in solitary confinement he was moved to Portland, a remote prison on the Dorset coast. Back then inmates at Portland were forced to quarry stone six days a week for eight hours a day. Illness and injury were rife, but prisoners were able to earn marks for their work resulting in early release. They would also lose marks for bad behaviour and Len discovers that Henry was once fined 84 marks and locked in a dark cell for three days with just bread and water.
Len said: “It don’t bear thinking about. One thing’s for sure, after five years of this sort of conditions, you’re not going to hurry back if you’ve got any sense whatsoever. The conditions in those prisons were atrocious.”
Henry was released from Portland nine months early but his licence was revoked and he was jailed again. It is unclear why Henry’s license was revoked, but the terms were so strict that living in the notorious Old Nichol area of London, they would have been easy to contravene. Sadly the next record of Henry is from London Fever Hospital recording his death at the age of 27. After years of hard labour he would have been susceptible to illness.
Len says: “I feel so terrible for Henry and it’s as though everything conspired against him. Everyone was against those people, you know, society was against them. They weren’t nurturing them and trying to make their lives better, they were just trying to kick ‘em down more and more. And, you know, how can you survive all that?”