01935 429609
Somerset & Dorset
Family History Society

Crime – or was it poverty? – and punishment

Crime (or poverty?) and punishment

Imagine that you had lived in a Somerset or Dorset village or town your entire life. You had perhaps never seen the sea or ventured further than the immediate environs of your home. Then you commit what was deemed a crime and are transported to the other side of the world. It must have seemed terrifying and almost beyond comprehension.

Transportation was not at all uncommon in England from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. Amazingly to us, the penalty was at first considered an act of mercy. Many petty crimes were punished by execution, transportation was an alternative for less severe offences. Forgery, for example was a capital crime until 1820. 

Transportation had advantages to the government, it was cheaper than lengthy prison terms, it populated areas of the growing British Empire, and Penal Colonies could be established in faraway lands. Depending on the crime, the sentence could be imposed for life or for a period of years. Destinations were usually North America before 1776 and then Australia until 1868.

Many Society members will have family members who were transported. In my case there is Mary PITFIELD. Mary COUSINS was born in about 1774, in 1817, she married, as his second wife, Samuel Pitfield (1782 -1840) a labourer living in Fordington. The couple had three sons and three daughters. Samuel died in 1840 by which time all but the youngest daughter Hannah (b 1832) were grown up, though living at home.

In the 1841 Census, Mary is listed as a widow, living in Mill Street, Fordington with her children. Many members will know that Mill Street at this time was an area of extreme poverty, squalor and criminality. It is the Mixen Lane so graphically described by Thomas Hardy in ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ set at this time.

Until the death of her husband there is no record of Mary having led other than a normal life. It is not hard to imagine that with the loss of the family’s breadwinner, Mary and her children faced very difficult times. The sons were casual labourers and no occupations are known for Mary or her daughters – though very many women in Mill Street were laundresses, taking in washing from the gaol for example.

On the 18 October 1842 Mary, and her three sons, Samuel, Stephen, and James appeared before Dorchester Quarter Session. They were accused of receiving and being in possession of stolen goods – boxes of clothes and material – the property of Thomas BENNETT from whom the goods had been stolen some months previously.

Ironically the Pitfield home had only been searched because in August 1842 a sharp-eyed police officer P.C RUSSELL had noticed a lad in town suspiciously carrying a small bag of oats. He admitted to taking them from the stable of a Mr W. L. HENNING on the instruction of James Pitfield. This led P. C. Russell to examine the Pitfield property and find the larger haul. As a result of this accidental discovery Mary and her sons Samuel and James were arrested and committed to trial. The sons were bailed but Mary was not.

At the trial, the defence lawyer, Mr WILDE, argued that as seven months had elapsed since possession was proved, it would be unreasonable to find Mary guilty because she couldn’t say how she came by the items. This cut no ice with the Jury and Mary was found guilty and sentenced to ‘seven years transportation beyond the seas.’ Her sons were acquitted on the grounds of ‘No Bill’ (ie no cause for arrest).

The destination of those to be transported was decided by the government, and in Mary’s case she was destined for the Penal Colony at Van Dieman’s Land (present-day Tasmania).

Mary, listed as a widow aged 58, and accompanied by her youngest daughter Hannah (aged 11), was taken to London which she left aboard the ship ‘Margaret’ on 5th February 1843. The captain of the ship was John F. DYE and the Surgeons were John Arnold MOULD and ‘McAVOY’. 156 female convicts were carried, of whom 152 survived the journey. The dead included two children. 59 of those on board experienced various illnesses during the voyage – in Mary’s case catarrh lasting three weeks. Like Hannah, several of the children were not convicts themselves but being dependents were accompanying their mothers. Mary was described by the Surgeon as ‘dirty and troublesome,’ though she could read and write. She was 5’2” in height, with hazel eyes and grey hair and a slight speech defect.

The ‘Margaret’ arrived in Hobart on 19 July 1843 after a journey of 164 days. Like other women, Mary was assigned as a servant to a free settler, initially a Mr SMITH and later a Mr DE TOUS. Hannah was sent to the Queens’ Orphan School where she stayed until 1846 when she was assigned to Mr KNIGHT of Launceston.

Mary did not settle well to her circumstances and committed many offences including – disorderly conduct, disobedience, insolence, and on one occasion, ‘having a man in bed with her for an improper purpose.’ She also absconded once. She was twice sentenced to one month’s hard labour in the Hobart Female House of Correction and served two months hard labour in the Female Factory in Launceston.

On 30 September 1847 Mary was granted her ‘Ticket of Leave’ (Parole) and on 25 October 1849 she received her Certificate of Freedom having completed her seven-year sentence.

While on parole, Mary was granted permission to marry on 15th September 1848. The wedding to John CONSTABLE took place on 20th September 1848 conducted by Mr TANER. She never returned to England or saw her family again.

Hannah seems to have had a happier life. She too remained in Tasmania and in 1858 married William AMER (b 1835), also a freed convict from Bromham, Wiltshire. They set up home in Launceston and had three sons and four daughters. Mary died in 1894 and William in 1892 in Tredegar, NSW. I wonder if any of their descendants in Australia are amongst the Society’s membership.

Returning to the title of this piece, I reflect on this sorry tale and am bound to wonder whether Mary was a true criminal deserving of her severe fate or was she a wife thrown into poverty by the death of her husband who made a mistake for which she paid a very heavy price. What do you think?

Michael Pitfield

October 2020

If you would like, please send us your comment.


  • Dorset County Chronicle & Somerset Gazette, 04 August 1842
  • Dorset Quarter Session Order Book, 18 October 1842
  • Dorset County Chronicle & Somerset, 27 October 1842
  • Detailed Research in Tasmania by Trish SYMONDS (with gratitude)
  • 1841 Census
  • Parish Registers


3 November 2020
Mary’s story may have been mine or similar, as my 2nd Great Grandmother, Ruth Anna Huish, was married to Thomas William Skelton of the Queens 9th Lancers, who fought in at least three campaigns in India and died of wounds in England on June 17th 1864, receiving no pension because he was just shy of the service-time needed to be awarded one. At the time Ruth Anna was pregnant with their second child, Henrietta Skelton (my Great Grandmother). Their first child Arthur Skelton had been born in 1862. So these must have been very difficult times for Ruth Anna, who later moved to London, married a man named Charles Samuel and added to her existing family.

Thanks for your article,
Nancy Gould
Prince Rupert, BC

Member and Guest Blogs Welcome

We welcome guest and member blog posts on any topic with a family history connection and invite you to send your contributions, which should include photo/photos, to the editor Barbara Elsmore