Monday, January 7, 2013

The Story of John Best – Part 1

The year was 1817. A description of Irish society at that time noted how it was comprised of wealthy people and poor people; unlike England there were no middle classes. John Best was a labourer and herdsman (shepherd) of about 34 years of age. It's safe to assume he fell into the poor group of Irish people. John was a native of the small town called Kinnegad in Westmeath County, Ireland. As the crow flies, Kinnegad is 23 kilometres south-west of Trim and 57 kilometres west of Dublin.

John was married to Mary (maiden name unknown) and by 1817 they had four children:
  • Michael (born 1807),
  • Eleanor (born 1810),
  • Thomas (born 1813) and
  • Joseph (born 1815).
Life in the early 1800s must have been something of a struggle for Kinnegad townsfolk. Like most other small Irish towns, commerce revolved around agricultural pursuits.  No real wealth flowed to those who toiled on the land.  Unlike England, which at that time was experiencing industrialisation, Ireland lacked iron and coal resources and so remained a land of agriculture. Most Kinnegad residents leased a small plot of land from a landowner (usually an absent English landowner).  On this plot, a family could live in a dwelling of their own construction – often a stone cottage – and they had the right to grow their own personal supply of vegetables and keep an animal of two.  But the majority of the land was given over to raising potatoes as a cash crop.  With the income raised from selling their potatoes, a family could then meet their rent obligation to their landlord.

The town’s cottages were largely constructed of field stones, with pitched, grass-thatched roofs and a stone chimney at one, or sometimes both, ends.  Small clusters of cottages had been built close to each other, with fields surrounding them, fenced by low, field stone walls.  The town centre had grown where the main roads to Dublin, Galway and Sligo intersected. Buildings in Kinnegad town centre were more substantial – a number of two storey stone buildings, often with a shop at ground level and the proprietor’s residence on the first floor.  Here also was the Catholic Church, St Mary's, built in 1793 but now a mere ruin sitting behind the modern-day St Mary's Church.  The old St Mary's was a fine stone building for its time and John and his family would have regularly attended.  By 1817, the muddy streets in the town centre were covered with gravel to give the Dublin to Galway stagecoaches a firmer surface, thus faster and more reliable passage in wet weather.

 By spring time 1817, a long wet spell had become a very serious problem across most of Ireland.  For some farmers, their potato crop was destined to be a complete failure.  Others were lucky enough to grow a crop that reached harvest and so made themselves a financial return.  In Kinnegad, John Best was perhaps among the not-so-lucky ones.  His potato crop probably did fail. If so, he would have faced a year until the next harvest with virtually no income whatsoever.  The need for farm labourers had largely evaporated, because many tenant farmers couldn’t pay for help. John faced a dilemma - how would he and Mary feed and clothe their family? Things took a turn for the worse sometime during the spring or early summer of 1817.  John was arrested for ‘burglary and robbery’ (what we today might describe as breaking and entering).

 John was probably motivated by need, not greed. But he was, nevertheless, arrested and locked up. There is a possibility that he committed the crime purposely, with the intent of being sentenced to transportation.  Others were certainly doing that, because life in Australia as a convict was, in 1817, already recognised as being better than the difficult conditions endured by poor folk in Ireland.

Kinnegad did not have its own gaol.  So John would have been quickly transported to the Trim Gaol, about 23 kilometres to the east (longer by road).

Trim was a walled town; its walls had been built over 150 years earlier to defend it against Oliver Cromwell’s English forces, but the town had surrendered before the walls could be put to any test.  Amongst its public buildings were a church, two Roman Catholic chapels, a market house and a court house for holding the assizes (periodic criminal courts held around England and Wales).  A gaol adjoined the court house and it contained a tread mill that prisoners were forced to operate to supply water to the prison. When Mr William Smart, the Governor of the Trim county gaol, locked John away, John would have recognised two other prisoners in the cell – George White and 28 year old Patrick Grenan (or Grehan), also of Kinnegad. Both White and Grenan had also been arrested for ‘burglary and robbery’ – perhaps the three of them were involved in the same crime?  Also locked up in the Trim gaol was a Brian Bennett, native to County Cavan, charged with mail robbery. All faced trial at the summer assizes.

 In early August 1817, the Trim summer assizes were held. There was much ado when they began. The Irish patriot, Roger O'Connor faced a charge of robbing the Galway mail coach in December, 1812 in order to capture love-letters incriminating his friend Sir Francis Burdett.  O'Connor had been " ... removed thither, by habeas corpus, from Newgate [prison in Dublin]". O'Connor was tried at the Trim assizes before the Right Hon. Sr. George Daly on Monday and Tuesday, August 4 & 5, 1817. This trial attracted much public interest ...the Newgate Calendar described it as: “The court was crowded to excess, and O'Connor, with his friend Sir Francis Burdett, were allowed to sit within the bar[1].  O’Connor was acquitted. Of much less note were the trials of John Best, George White, Patrick Grenan, Brian Bennett and other men, which probably followed over the next day or so. John, George White, Patrick Grenan and Brian Bennett were all found guilty and each received a sentence of transportation for life.



John, along with White, Grenan, Bennett and any others sentenced to transportation, would have then been transported to the Dublin gaol at the earliest opportunity. Convicts brought to Dublin were housed, along with other offenders, mostly in Newgate and Kilmainham gaols. Dublin's city gaol, Newgate, was under constant criticism from reformers because of its deplorable condition and the fact that all categories of offender were housed together. Kilmainham was Dublin's county gaol, with arrangements for convicts much the same as in Newgate, except that transportees were separated from debtors and petty offenders. It is unknown which gaol John was sent to. But John would have spent several months (August to December?) in a crowded gaol in Dublin. While he waited under difficult conditions, arrangements were underway for transporting him and his cohorts to Port Jackson.

 In Cork, a port city south of Dublin, the transport ship Minerva was being prepared to receive the convicts.  Read about the Minerva here: [].   A ship’s surgeon – Dr James Hunter - had been assigned to the ship and he took up his post on or about 5 September 1817. Soldiers of the 48th Regiment were also quartered aboard the ship during September. Fortuitously, Dr Hunter’s journal survives.

 In about November 1817, John and his fellow transportees were removed from the Dublin gaol and placed aboard a brig in Dublin harbour. Because of delays, transportees sometimes had to wait on board these vessels for extended periods in appalling conditions. Sometimes, convicts had to remain aboard their vessel in dock at Dublin for six weeks awaiting suitable winds. They received neither clothing nor bedding, which were considered an unnecessary expense due to the shortness of the journey to Cork. Because only a few were allowed on deck at once, they spent most of the time in irons in the hold in very unhealthy conditions. The journey from Dublin to Cork only took two days, but it was not uncommon for such vessels to again be detained once they arrived in Cork harbour and before the convicts could be removed to their transport ship.  We get a sense that John Best and fellow Dublin transportees were, in fact, delayed board their Dublin-Cork transport vessel, because,  In Dr Hunter’s journal, Hunter wrote:

 John Cartwright, aged 35, convict; disease or hurt, typhus mitior, having a wife and many children, the anxiety and lowness of spirits coupled with the fatigue experienced in a passage from Dublin has induced the fever which he is now affected; taken ill, 26 December 1817;

 The convicts appear to have been loaded aboard the Minerva on or about 23 December 1817. Once aboard, conditions improved for the convicts.  They were required to wash and had clothing supplied. Once the convicts were properly settled, a routine of chores alternating with confinement to cells would have been introduced. 
At Dublin Castle, on the 30th of December 1817, Charles Chetwynd-Talbot, 2nd Earl Talbot, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, signed his approval for the convicts to be transferred to the Governor of New South Wales.  A copy of the approval was shipped from Dublin to Cork and couriered to the master of the Minerva, Captain John Bell [read about Capt. John Bell at].

Two days later, on a cold, mid-winter’s day – New Year’s Day 1818 –the Minerva pushed away from the wharf and caught a fresh breeze out of Cork harbour and headed south. 

Some convicts were used to help with tasks aboard the ship.  Dr Hunter wrote in his journal:
“William McCormick, convict; disease or hurt, contusion in the right side resulted by heaving at the capstan in weighing the anchor; taken ill, 1 January 1818; well 7 January 1818. “

On board were a number of other convicts with whom John would get to know over the years to come:
·       George White (age 30) of Kinnegad,
·       Brian Bennett (age 30) of County Cavan,
·       Patrick Montgomery (age 41) of County Antrim,
·       William Campbell (age 38) of County Armagh,
·       Leslie Ferguson (age 17 ) of Colerain; and
·       John Bell (convict, age 35) of County Antrim.

 As the Minerva sailed south on a brisk breeze, John would have known he’d never see Ireland again. Mary and the four children were left behind to cope as best they could without him.  How gut-wrenching must that have felt?

Click here to read The Story of John Best - Part 2
Go Back to read John Best - The Prequel 


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