Family History – the Eureka moment

As any family historian knows, we live for these breakthrough moments, but they come along very rarely.

Mary Aull (Johnson) absconded cropped
The Colonist, 6 February 1839

My three times great grandmother was a convict called Mary Moore, transported to New South Wales in 1808 for 7 years for stealing items valued at  £1.15s.6d. A few years after her first husband – my three times great grandfather – died she married again, another convict, Irish this time, called Robert Aull, and took her four children to live with him and his five children in Richmond, where he bought the license for a pub on what they called  the “Yellow Munday’s” (Yarramundi) Lagoon, which he named the General Darling.

As tended to happen in those days once she married Mary disappeared from the records. She had appeared in a previous census as a shopkeeper, but from the date of her marriage in 1829 she vanished off the apparent face of the earth. Two niggles stopped me from thinking she lived happily ever after with her new hubby: the 1841 census – where she did not appear to be living with him – and the fact that she was buried in the name of Mary Johnson, after her first marriage.

I was searching for Robert Aull in Trove – the Australian digitised newspaper website – and had got to the stage where all that was cropping up were the odd Robert and ‘aull’ in place of ‘all’ when Eureka: I came upon the notice, inserted in The Colonist three times and The Sydney Morning Herald once by her hubby, announcing her sudden and obviously unwelcome departure from the family home. I’ve no idea where she went, but the tone of the ‘advertisement’, as that is what it was, makes it very clear Robert was not pleased; worse, he makes her sound like a runaway convict, or even a stolen cow, threatening anyone found ‘harbouring’ her.

The moral of the tale is keep looking: even when you think you’ve exhausted the records there may just be a nugget of gold awaiting you.

When your characters run away from you

In life I’m a bit of a control freak, but when it comes to creating characters in fiction I don’t seem to be able to have any kind of power over anything they do.

Controlling your characters.jpg
(sketch by Anna de Polnay)

This is annoying for a dyed-in-the-wool planner. As an example in my current oeuvre my central character – a woman in her forties whose husband, who was a spy in WW1, died under mysterious circumstances – has just decided that rather than accepting an invitation to visit Lady Ottoline Morrell in her mansion in Garsington (both of which I have researched industriously) she is going to embark on a quest to find out exactly how her husband died.

This not only alters the trajectory of my book, it threatens to turn what was meant to be a cheerful memoir of a free-thinking woman of the 1920s into a spy thriller. Now I have to down tools and make trips to the Imperial War Museum and read up on what spies did in WW1, mindful of the fact that everything to do with the secret service in the war was by definition secret, which means the answer isn’t going to come easily, if at all. (Though one joyful discovery: it turns out they – both spies and spy-masters – really were known by letters rather than names, as in ‘C’ and ‘R’ and so on.)

Imperial War Museum (2)
Imperial War Museum

How does any writer plan a book so he or she knows what’s going to happen in the end? I guess if you’re writing thrillers, or anything where plot is paramount, it’s easier to manipulate your characters to fit the story; though they are still people, with wills and desires and temperaments and a natural human instinct for disobedience. Or if they’re not they probably won’t be that interesting.

This really all came about as a result of NaNoWriMo (for those not in the know, this is an annual scheme to encourage writers to try to write the best part of a novel in one month, November). When you have to get your 2000 words a day down and you simply don’t have time to go back on things or to change your mind, let alone to research something, you find yourself making decisions on the spot that may come back to haunt you later. Hence the fact that my character married a spy. (Where did that come from?)

Writing books with recalcitrant people in them certainly keeps you on your toes, and it teaches you something else. I know a lot more about WW1 than I ever did, and even a fair bit about spying. Maybe my next book will be a spy novel.

Imperial War Museum Somerset Maugham
Did you know Somerset Maugham was a spy in WW1? (photo in Imperial War Museum)

Crimes and Punishments

It didn’t take much for a person to be packed off to Botany Bay in the early days of transportation. In 19th century Britain there were more than 200 crimes that were punishable by death, compared with fewer than twenty 300 years earlier. These included forgery, pickpocketing, being in the company of gipsies for more than a month, blackening the face and impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner.[1]

My great great great grandparents were transported in the early 1800s for 14 and seven years respectively for the crimes of being in possession of forged banknotes, and for stealing ‘a cloak and other goods to the value of £1.13s.6d from the house of Thomas Cunningham, Gatton, Surrey’.

According to the National Archives the local Assize Courts were ‘where the most serious criminal trials were held twice a year by judges appointed by the monarch’.[2]  Since both John Johnson, the receiver of forged goods, and Mary Moore, the cloak-stealer, were tried and convicted at Stafford and Surrey Assizes respectively that gives some impression of the nature of the ‘serious crimes’ that led to transportation in the early 19th century.

We have all heard of people being transported for the crime of stealing a handkerchief, though I gather most of them were not first-time offenders. (And handkerchiefs in those days were not the plain old cotton things some people use now: they were often made of silk and could be worth as much as 4s), but I can’t help noticing further up the page where my ancestress Mary Moore was ‘committed of Felony’ other felons convicted of crimes such as stealing a sheep priced £4, or goods valued at £2.12, are to ‘be severally hanged by the neck until they are dead’.

Another ancestor (my step great x three grandfather, an Irishman named Robert Aull) was given a death sentence, commuted to transportation, for ‘uttering forged stamps’. (‘Uttering’ means knowingly being in possession of stolen or forged goods with the intention of passing them on.) Margaret Catchpole, one of Australia’s most famous convicts, who featured in my first book The Worst Country in the World, was given two death sentences, for horse stealing and then for breaking out of gaol, commuted again to transportation because people stood up for her good character.

Robert Aull conviction-page-001 (1)
Robert Aul [sic] conviction, Londonderry Assizes 1813

Now I need to find out why John Johnson, a potter from Staffordshire, was apprehended on the streets of Leek with three forged banknotes on his person, and why his wife-to-be Mary Moore was convicted of stealing from the family she worked for. It’s possible she was intending to sell the goods on, as many people did, to a ‘fence’ – which suggests she had criminal contacts – or, more likely, she was planning to pawn them. Local newspapers are my only hope.

But meanwhile, back in Australia …

[1] Bound for Botany Bay by Alan Brooke & David Brandon, (National Archives, London, 2005)
[3] ASSI 94/1616.

Family history book 2: Convicts

It’s been a very long time since I blogged about anything. (I still find it difficult to find the time to research and/or write and keep up a blog.) But as I embark on another family history adventure I thought it might be useful and/or entertaining for any others out there doing the same to file the odd report . Some of these items date back to late last year but I hope now to keep posting regularly-ish.


The first thing I’m realising as I embark on book 2 of the family saga is, as with childbirth, if you risk leaving it too long between babies and/or books you risk forgetting how to do it.

These are my thoughts as I wend my way to the National Archives here in Kew in south London: how do you do this? Where do you start? Which way round does the nappy go/how do you apply for a reader’s ticket? Why can’t I remember anything?

National Archives
National Archives, Kew, London

This time round I’m starting with my Australian convict ancestors, who were hidden from view until a couple of generations ago. I have some information about them thanks to previous family genealogists but no references. What’s more they have difficult names (difficult as in common) – John Johnson and Mary Moore. Do you know how many John Johnsons were transported to New South Wales in the 19th century? (No, nor do I, but there are pages of them.)

As you register for a reader’s ticket you are taken through a five-minute video of how to handle ancient and precious documents which I pay scant attention to as I don’t think they’re going to apply. (I am very wrong.) Then with the help of the friendly staff at the NA I am taken on a guided tour of the relevant parts of their website, I find the documents I am looking for, order them up, go down to the cafe for a break and half an hour later there they are in my allocated locker: two ancient tomes with handwritten records of trials that happened over 200 hundred years ago; and later on in a different room, parchment scrolls detailing the crimes and punishments meted out to convicts at – in my case – Staffordshire and Sussex Assizes in 1808. At which point a light bulb clicks on inside my ailing brain and it all comes back to me: this is why family history is so fascinating – these ancient documents, some of them so unwieldy they have to be held down by weights, these are what bring my ancestors to life. (And in some instances ‘life’ means something else entirely).[1]

John indictment scroll
Staffordshire Assizes scroll (John Johnson)

I learn that my great x three grandfather John Johnson, a potter from Staffordshire, was along with another ‘… at this assizes severally convicted by their own confession of feloniously and without lawful excuse having in their custody Bank of England notes knowing the same to be forged and counterfeited for which they were sentenced to be transported to parts beyond the seas for the term of 14 years.’

John Johnson conviction and sentence
John Johnson conviction and sentence

I discover that my great x three grandmother Mary Moore was at the same time but at different Assizes ‘Committed the 19th October 1807 by the Right Honourable Lord Leslie charged on the oath of Elizabeth Cunningham with feloniously stealing at Gatton, one red cloth cloak, two muslin aprons, and divers other articles of wearing apparel [valued at £1.13s.6d] the property of Jane Cunningham …  jury says not guilty of breaking and entering the ‘Dw. Ho’ [dwelling house] say guilty of stealing the goods …To be transported beyond the seas for the term of seven years to such place.’

Mary Moore conviction and sentence
Mary Moore conviction and sentence

So there we have it – the what, if not the why. Why did a potter from Staffordshire knowingly have forged banknotes in his possession? Why did a 19-year-old girl from Surrey steal items belonging to what I assume was her employer’s daughter, when the sentence for others who were found guilty of stealing goods worth £2.2s. was ‘let them be severally hanged by the neck until they are dead’?

In the end I have to be virtually thrown out of the Archives at closing time at 5pm. Deeply tired but deeply happy.

Welcome back to the world of family research. Like having babies you don’t really forget how to do it, but you do forget the pleasure it brings.


[1] For reference if you are researching convict ancestors this is what you do: on the National Archives website click on Discovery/Person/Criminals/Criminals and Convicts. Scroll down to English Criminal trials 1559-1971 key to Assize courts – – scroll down again to find out the relevant ASSI. There are three records for each trial: Crown and gaol books which list names, charges, pleas, verdicts and sentences. Indictments – the unwieldy scrolls containing more details of the crimes including, in my case, facsimiles of the forged notes my great x three grandfather was found in possession of.