John Best’s first 18 months in Van Diemen’s Land must have been a huge change from his life in Ireland. He was serving a sentence for a crime, but not in a jail as he’d experienced in Trim or Dublin. Here, his jail was this new land, this island, with few British souls and natives that knew how to disappear, almost melt, into the bush. John had work. Lots of it. He had a master, or employer, in Mr Thomas Wells, who was obligated to provide basics for his assigned convicts. John had a reliable supply of food from Mr Wells - tea and sugar in abundance - and meat was available in the way of wild game - kangaroo, wallaby, ducks. And John was entitled to ownership of a third of the natural increase in Mr Wells' flock size under ‘the thirds’ rule. Only recently a desperately poor peasant stockman in County Westmeath, he was now earning a living, with the bonus of accumulating stock to create his own herd. The historian, James Boyce, gives us an idea of how John and fellow convict stockkeepers must have lived during these times:
“The custodian (convict stockkeeper) took the animals to the leased or granted land or, more commonly, to unallocated grasslands, where he watched over the animals, doing the necessary deals to minimise losses from bushrangers and Aborigines while making extra money for flour, tea, sugar, tobacco and rum by selling kangaroo skins.”
But they must have also been crushingly lonely times for John Best, tending and continually counting Mr Wells’ flock of sheep in the grasslands around the Little Dew Rivulet and the Upper Derwent River. John would have known it was possible to apply for his wife and family to immigrate to Van Diemen’s Land. Convicts, who had been in the colony for a period and who did not commit further offences were eligible to apply to have their families brought out at the expense of the Crown. Applications had to show that convicts would be able to support their families upon their arrival and not incur any further expense to the Government. In general, families were not permitted to reunite in Australia unless the convict applying had a Ticket of Leave which allowed convicts to work for themselves, to provide a means of supporting their families.
In Ireland, Mary Best would have been eking out a very tough existence. Wives in her circumstances were often supported to some extent by their church parish. It’s unclear whether John submitted an application for his family to join him or whether Mary applied to the authorities for her and the four children to join John. Either way, the application must have been submitted sometime around mid to late-1820, based on the travel times for mail to and from Hobart (about 6 months one-way). The application was successful. The White family (George White), the Bennett family (Brian Bennett) and the Montgomery family (Patrick Montgomery) were also successful with applications to reunite in Van Diemen’s Land. The husbands were all Minerva men. There must – surely – have been exchanges of correspondence between the men in VDL and their wives in Ireland. The convicts must have been able to assure their wives (the parishes and the authorities as well) they had sufficient means to support them. The applications appear to have been submitted jointly, suggesting either a connection at the parish level in Ireland or a networking among the Minerva convicts in VDL.
On about the 10th of July 1821, Mary Best and Bridget White, with their children, departed Kinnegad for Dublin. They may have met with Mary Bennett and Ann Montgomery and their respective children in Dublin. The women and children boarded the Brig Park in Dublin, a brig that carried 80 convict women and some children. The Brig Park arrived at Cork on 13 July 1821, where the convict transport John Bull was waiting at the docks. None of the convict women or children were permitted to transfer from the Brig Park to the John Bull until all their clothes were washed. Then berths were allocated to the convict women following a recommendation to good behaviour. Transfer of the convict women to the John Bull occurred on 14 July 1821. Blankets and pillows were distributed before the convict women were locked up for the night. Transfer of the 22 free women and children to the John Bull took place on 16 July 1821. This included our group of 18 free immigrants:
- Mary Best and her children: Michael, Eleanor, Thomas and Joseph;
- Bridget White and her children: Catherine, Dennis and Eleanor;
- Mary Bennett and her children: Bridget, Ann, Rose and Bartholomew; and
- Ann Montgomery and her children: William, Patrick and Archibald.
The John Bull sailed out of Cork on 25 July 1821, stopping briefly at St Iago (Cape Verde Islands off west Africa) before eventually arriving at Port Jackson on 18 December 1821. During the voyage, Joseph Best had spent several weeks in ship’s hospital suffering an unknown ailment. He recovered. Patrick Montgomery had fallen overboard in rough weather off the NSW south coast. He was safely recovered! After the John Bull had moored at Sydney Cove, our group of immigrants was transferred by boat to Parramatta, “... a water passage of about 20 miles ...” where they were accommodated at the 'public expense', probably at the newly completed Parramatta Female Factory.
They spent summer and early autumn of 1822 in Parramatta. What a complete change that environment would have been for them! Hot! They were forced to wait in Parramatta until a ship could take them to Hobart. Finally, they were given passage to Hobart aboard the Royal George, which was authorized to be rationed appropriately to cater for the needs of the 18 immigrants.
The Royal George left Sydney 19 March 1822 and arrived in Hobart Town on 28 March 1822. Here, at last, John and his family were reunited.
Go forward to read: The Story of John Best - Part 6
Go back to read: The Story of John Best - Part 4
Go back to read: The Story of John Best - Part 4