Beki Grinter

James Norman: Piecing together a Convict Story

In European Union, research on September 6, 2010 at 12:50 pm really knows how to lure me into a project. I’m a keen-ish family historian, only work sometimes gets in the way. Then an email comes from, which is the business side of the Mormon record keeping activities, telling me that I have an opportunity to search for immigrants.

When I was young, there was talk in our family about a convict. That person would be my Grandmother’s Great Grandfather. The rumours were that he’d stolen bread and my family were divided on whether this was a source of shame or something that was a sign of the times. The only “evidence” we had that he was a convict was that his daughter wrote that he was on her wedding certificate. More accurately, since she did not write herself, someone wrote in convict under father’s occupation on her certificate. She signed with a cross.

(One of the things I like about family history is that it turns a history of England from something that’s normally about Kings and wars into a history of people and their struggles. It humanizes and places me within a history that’s not about affluence and expansion, but about poverty and survival.)

So yesterday was an adventure in learning about James Norman.

So the first thing I had to deal with was the fact that there were two James Nomans sent on the Lady Palmira (Palmyra) out to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). One had been tried and convicted the day before the other, both listed as the same age. How to tell them apart. Fortunately while a few records used James Norman 1 and James Norman 2, many used the fact that one had been tried in Dorchester and the other at a place called the C.C.C. Side investigation #1 learn what that is, Central Criminal Court, (a.k.a.) the Old Bailey, and then discover that they have all their records online. Look up the trial of James Norman, and learn that it was for an offense committed in London. This, along with the fact that the other had been tried in Dorchester, which is in Dorset, which is where all my family come from, made me more confident that my James Norman was the Dorchester one. Genealogy is often about ruling out the alternatives, and frustratingly sometimes the alternatives have a lot more information associated with them.

The Tasmanian authorities at the time kept a sort of census if you will of convicts. It was done every few years and my luck would hold that James Norman would appear in two. In the 1846 census, the year he was transported, he had made it to Tasmania. There’s a comment in the records about Probation, but I can not read the second word. Another common problem with genealogy (it gets far worse with wills and the further back you go, complete mystery of words).

By 1849, the ledger recorded that my James Norman had died, and gave the name of the person who buried him, in Fingal Tasmania. Wikipedia confirms that Fingal was a convict station. (The other James Norman was still alive, he was still at Darlington Station, which you can visit today if you go to Tasmania. I think he may have been freed in 1850, and then took a journey from Tasmania to Adelaide on the Cape Horn).

The British records were going to prove somewhat sparser than those in Tasmania.

I found a record of his crime. Unlike the very detailed Old Bailey records, what I know about the Dorchester sessions was that he’d been found guilty of a crime of larceny before convicted of felony that got him into all that trouble. That means that he’d been found guilty of some type of theft, but had a prior conviction for a felony. I actually still can’t find that conviction, but I certainly found a long record. He had a previous conviction for larceny, that came with a sentence of three months in prison and a whipping. Then he had two subsequent acquittals, more larceny and aiding and abetting in manslaughter. He appeared almost yearly at the Dorchester courts, recidivist…

So now I have a different kind of puzzle on my hands. He was a repeat offender. I’ll never know, probably, whether it was desperation or a predilection for crime. I can try some other research avenues. Chronically poor people often cropped up in other records. For example, they may have been removed from a parish. Removed meant forced relocation to the parish where the husband/father/man was from. It was that parish who was responsible for taking care of the poor person. I have several ancestors who were removed because they were so poor. I can check wills, chronically poor people didn’t typically make them. I might even find records concerning payments, or lack there of, associated with their homes. But nothing really will probably help me answer the question about James Norman’s motivations. And he is a very very small part of me, I am a direct descendent of his.

Another bright side of genealogy is all the other discoveries you make a long the way. As I searched the English criminal records I encountered some other more distant relatives (almost certainly a part of the same family tree but not my direct ancestors). One lady, who had three illegitimate children also had a record for fraud. Another father and son made counterfeit coins, I presume they were from the clip small pieces of actual coins and when you have enough smelt them and make your own school of counterfeiting. And then way back there was the clergyman who appeared in the parish records due to his smuggling operation.

So, I’ve mostly cleared up one family rumour, the one about James Norman (I would still like to know when he died and whether it was bread) but along the way opened up new investigations and discovered more crimes. When I started I recall reading that you shouldn’t do family history if you want to find your direct connection to the aristocracy. How right. On the other hand, I’ve learnt quite a lot about criminal laws (the larceny act was replaced in 1911), how convict record keeping was done in Tasmania, and about reading convict shipping records. I feel more connected to, and aware of the records that reflect the history of England, particularly the criminal history of England.

Oh and, while searching for convicts I learnt that the United States was previously a destination for English convicts, but then a war in 1776 stopped that flow, and it wasn’t until Australia that the English started transporting their criminals again.

— One day is a life time in genealogy.

Update. This post and other pings have generated new leads.

James Norman did not die. He survived and was granted his certificate of freedom.

Aside: The other James Norman’s fate was far more serious, made so by his tendency to run away, for which he was sentenced to things like 18 months of hard labour in chains and ultimately his “stay” of 10 years was extended to include more time in a Hobart jail). Also, clearly this other James Norman did not take a journey in 1850, because he was being written up for a neglect of duty. The Convict records are nothing if not meticulous.

So James survived. The list, the detailed list, well it almost makes me feel a little sorry for him. Just a little.

The record also has details about what he stole that put him on this list. Not bread, as the family had thought, but hay. Hay worth 3 pence. James Norman, designed to test not just my geneaological abilities, indeed, if only it were that simple.

  1. “a history of England from something that’s normally about Kings and wars” – how true.

    It’s rare that the histories of ordinary people survive – they usually couldn’t write to record themselves, and their houses & communitites are long since demolished. Wonderful when some of that can be reconstructed.

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