The Digital Panopticon is a phenomenal tool but its success is ultimately dependent on the quality of past record-keeping. The eighteenth and nineteenth century data on which the project is based is outstanding in its detail and range, but it does contain some holes. Occasionally, individual convicts can fall through these. Here are a couple of examples of convicts who, in different ways, became ‘lost in transportation’.
On 7th July 1784 William Prudence was tried at the Old Bailey for:
‘burglariously and feloniously breaking and entering the dwelling house of William Penn…’
Prudence was found guilty of stealing several items of clothing, four brass candlesticks and a looking glass, but was not convicted of the break-in itself. This was because the crime took place in darkness and the witnesses could not be certain of the burglar’s identity. In spite of these doubts, Prudence was sentenced to seven years transportation. After his trial Prudence was held for a spell in Newgate Prison (TNA HO77 17/07/1784) but there is no record of him arriving in Australia.
In fact, he never left Britain. William Prudence went on to live as a weaver and had several other run-ins with the law. In 1793 he spent 6 months in Newgate Prison and was publicly whipped for stealing four loaves of bread. A year later, he stole 56lbs of salted butter – as punishment, he spent another 14 days in Newgate and was again whipped in public.
This means that Prudence must have been granted a reprieve in 1784. Unfortunately, no record of this survives and we can only speculate about what happened. For instance, Prudence could have filed a petition for mercy and had it upheld; he could have been pardoned in light of new evidence; or he may have had a medical condition which prevented him travelling. We simply don’t know. The absence of this type of record is not uncommon – the date of Prudence’s trial is particularly early and records from this time often do not survive – however, it is a deeply frustrating reminder that there are missing links within the data.
On 22nd June 1796 Prudence was once more sentenced to seven years transportation for stealing several lengths of muslin cloth. Again he not serve this sentence; he died a natural death at Newgate Prison before he could be transported. William Prudence never set foot in Australia; sadly, despite all of the technology at our disposal, we will never know the exact reason why.
After previously being convicted for grand larceny in 1792, Robert Armstrong was sentenced to death for his role in a burglary in 1794. However, on the recommendation of a Judge, his sentence was respited (HO47/19/16). Instead of facing the hangman, Armstrong was transported to the West Indies to serve as a soldier with the Sixtieth Regiment.
Robert Armstrong was quite literally lost in transportation. In 1797 he reappeared at the Old Bailey accused of returning from transportation before the end of his sentence. The defence he gave to the court was truly extraordinary:
‘In 1795, I was pardoned upon condition of serving his Majesty King George, in the sixtieth regiment of foot, to go in the capacity of a soldier; I embarked the 14th of April, 1795; I had the misfortune to be taken by the French, and carried into Guadaloupe; they wanted to force me to serve against my country, and rather than be a traitor to my country I was determined to get my liberty, or die; here are two shots in my neck that I got as I was making my escape.’
Having been captured by the French and then escaping back to London, Armstrong faced one last hurdle – proving his story. His trial was not going favourably until a record kept by the Sixtieth Regiment themselves was produced. This proved that he had been sent to the West Indies and that his account was truthful. The court was clearly unaware of the existence of this document. A reward was offered for Armstrong’s arrest – he was captured and brought to court by Joseph Nash who was clearly hoping to receive some financial reward. Armstrong was fortunate that a military record existed to prove his story; otherwise he would likely have faced the death penalty.
Robert Armstrong nearly slipped through the net because there was no court record of his transportation. This story is another example of how careless record-keeping could make life difficult for convicts and can still frustrate modern researchers.