31 May 2012
Debts to the past
There is a tunnel beneath the old assize court in Oxford, leading from the old gaol to the court room. Steps at the end of the tunnel lead up into the dock. My great-great-grandfather, Thomas Castle, walked up those steps on the 27th February 1841, charged with theft, and, a few minutes later, walked back down, sent down, the appropriate words, convicted, and sentenced to be transported for 15 years. The tunnel hasn’t changed in all that time, dreary, damp, enough in itself to blight a man’s hopes.
We all of us have a past. I share this past with Thomas Castle, he is part of me, just as another Thomas Castle, my grandfather is part of me.
I talked to my grandfather about his parents, his brothers and sisters, their hard life as farm workers. Their life in rural Warwickshire in the 1870s and 1880s can’t have been very different to the life of Thomas the convict in the 1830s. The struggle to survive was recounted by my grandmother: how she took on the role of mother when her own mother became ill and bed-ridden.
‘My father was a drunkard,’ she said. ‘If I didn’t get to the brickyard gate on Fridays to get some of his earnings, it would all be spent on drink, and we would have nowt to eat but what kind neighbours would spare us.’ The shadow of the workhouse was always there, her frequent refrain: ‘We shall all be in the workhouse if we go on like this.’
My grandfather spoke of his father and mother, and his brothers and sisters. ‘There were fourteen of us,’ he said. ‘I was born in the middle of the family, the older children were like grown-ups to me, I never really knew them. Many of them went to Canada, I never saw them again.’
This was in the agricultural depression of the 1870s. My grandfather began as a ploughboy, progressed to life as a carter, working with horses for a farmer, serving in an artillery regiment in the First World War, caring for the horses that pulled the guns. He was always a man around horses, his last job driving the cart that a brewer used as publicity. When he retired, the horses went with him. I took him to an Agricultural Show one day, witnessed his delight when he saw the shire horses, was embarrassed when he walked into the ring, to a filly who was misbehaving, her owner hardly able to keep control of her.
‘Whoah, stand still,’ he said, and she did, heard the voice of command.
I need not have been embarrassed, the owner thanked him, and between them they got her harness straight, the owner led her round the ring, but she was looking at my grandfather, walking beside them.
‘Trouble with her is, she’s not been made to work. Just a toy for a rich man,’ he said.
My grandfather was reticent about his own grandfather and grandmother, spoke of them briefly, and it was not until I later started searching the parish registers that I found out the reason for this reticence. By the time I did this, my grandparents were dead, and I was glad that I had not pressed them further. Illumination came with an entry in the register of baptisms. It read:
1850 Dec 1st Number 730 in the register, Castle, Elizabeth Catherine Under parent is written: Eleanor Castle Married Woman (Husband Transported).
It was usual to record the father’s name, but this was not given. For the previous two children the entry had been Eleanor Castle, Married Woman, but the clergyman’s conscience must have stirred this time.
In Jackson’s Oxford Chronicle I read the account of the trial of my great-great-grandfather.
“Thomas Castle, indicted for stealing a cheese and a cloth, the property of James Page, pleaded not guilty. James Page of Swalcliffe, farmer, found on the morning of July 22nd last that the iron bar in the window of the dairy adjoining his house was forced, and six or seven panes of glass broken and several holes bored in the frame with a centre bit and missed two cheeses 67 lbs of butter, two quarters of mutton a butcher’s cloth and several other articles. Charles Gillis, of Gloucester, Policeman, went to search the prisoner’s house at Whitchurch on the 10th of August, in expectation of finding other things, and found nearly a whole cheese and a quantity of butter. Mrs Page identified the cheese produced as one of the cheeses her husband lost from the diary. Verdict, guilty; sentenced to be transported for 15 years.”
A terse account. What must he have thought? I don’t know, of course, I can only imagine what I would have felt. The newspaper report does not relate why Thomas was singled out. Perhaps he was one of the usual suspects. The policeman’s testimony is eloquent: “in expectation of finding other things.” That he was one of the usual suspects was not too surprising, his wife had served a term of imprisonment in Warwick Jail for being concerned with the theft of some items of silver. She got off lightly, hard labour for three months, the value of the silver goods, including a crucifix, must have been more than the value of the cheese. Thomas was held at Sheerness in a prison hulk, those rotting vessels no longer fit to be sailed, but good enough for Thomas the convict. The prison hulks that Dickens describes were still in use, and men died in them from privation. Thomas sailed in the convict ship Westmoreland on 15 May 1841. Men died on the convict ships as well, but Thomas survived the hulks and the convict ship, he must have been a tough man.
We know very little about what our ancestors looked like before the advent of photography, unless they were well-to-do and portraits survive. Or unless our ancestor was a transported convict, and then the appearance is recorded in the minutest detail.
The reports of the convict ship’s surgeon tell me what he was like. Brown hair, like mine, blue eyes, like mine. 5 foot five in height, I’m taller, I’ve probably been better fed. The surgeon recorded that he could read: we seldom know whether a man born in 1812 could read or not. Strange that when he married his bride, Eleanor Hornsby, in 1834, he made his mark in the register, a man who could read would usually be able to write his name. Eleanor signed her name, and her handwriting is clear and neat. A woman who could write as well as that could probably also read. Perhaps she taught her Thomas to read. If she taught him to read, and he learned, there must have been something about them. If there had been grammar schools and free places at universities, as there were for me, what might they have done?
Thomas sailed for van Diemen’s Land, now Tasmania, in 1841, sent to a penal colony at Brown’s River, near Hobart. There are photographs, sepia, that distance it from today. When I get there myself, a pilgrimage of grace, I find the colony in ruins, the buildings roofless, the walls tumbled heaps of stone. There are graves in the churchyard, the church itself derelict, but no headstones, no crosses, they were wooden in the photographs, they have gone long ago.
Thomas did well. The man to whom he was assigned wrote that he was a good worker, reliable, the records in the Tasmania Record Office speak of his progress, and, in time he earned a conditional discharge. And then he disappears. Where did he go? Many convicts, on earning their discharge, left where they had worked out their time, and made their way in a new country. Some went from Tasmania to the Australian mainland, to Victoria or Western Australia, where the gold rushes beckoned. Some went to California, to another gold rush. Few transported men returned to England, they seized the chance to start a new life. There is a record of a Thomas Castle of about the right age, who married Elizabeth Tomkiss in Melbourne the year after my man’s conditional discharge. Many men did so, conveniently forgetting the wife left behind. I would have done so, I know that. A man needs a woman. Then he disappears. I do not know where this man went, this man that is some part of me. Every man should know where his ancestors are buried.
Thomas left his wife behind with three small children, she went on to have five more children, obviously a woman who enjoyed what the flesh can give. She is part of me as well. The oldest child, my great-grandfather, John, one of the legitimate children, married his wife, Mary Anne Welch, who bore him fourteen children, every two or three years from eighteen when she married him, and their children were all upright, god-fearing, men and women, not for them the sins of their grandparents. One was an organiser for the Warwickshire Agricultural Workers Union, and lost his job as a result, but emigrated to Canada and became a big farmer on the Manitoba grain fields. My grandfather left the rural home, went to Birmingham, with his wife, met at Stratford Fair. These country fairs were so often the places where our forebears met and mated. They paved the way for me, for the small successes and the many failures that are my life.
I look back at my ancestors. I share Miranda’s wonder:
“How many goodly creatures are there here
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in it.”