The true story of Lydia Rackham…

“Bound for Van Diemen’s land, brave boys,
Far, far across the sea” 

(The story of Lydia Rackham and her family was originally published in three separate parts in 2018 and 2019. I have decided to put all three together as one long narrative for ease of access.)

Part 1


If you have lived in the Trimley area for any length of time you may be aware of a well-known historical women, a certain Margaret Catchpole, whose story was told by the Rev. Richard Cobbold in 1845, some 40 odd years after her transportation to Australia. Transportation as a method of punishing criminal activities originated in the early 1600s and involved the deportation of criminals to one of the emerging British colonies. Initially, the convicts were despatched to America until it became an independent country in 1776.  As a consequence of America’s new sovereignty, Great Britain was no longer able to send its prisoners there and instead the focus switched to the vast continent of Australia and neighbouring Van Diemen’s Land. If you look at a map, Van Diemen’s Land appears as a teardrop to Australia. Between 1803 and 1853 the latter country, now known as Tasmania, became an important destination for convicts.  For fifty years nearly 12, 500 women were punished by being transported to this emerging country in order to complete their penal sentences.

One of these was a Trimley woman by the name of Lydia Rackham, who was subject to all the hard times of Old England as well as the many harsh penalties dispensed to the Convict classes of Van Diemen’s Land. Details of her life would probably be unobtainable and forgotten but for the fact the administrators of the penal system kept diligent records. These are accessible today through digitisation. Initially, it was these and contemporary newspapers which were the sources of the information.  Later, other resources came into play.

This is Lydia’s story.


It is often impossible to find out information about ordinary working people beyond the bookmarks which define the lives of us all.  Birth or Baptism, marriage and death are usually the only skeletal details we can discover about the long dead. Were it not for her actions, Lydia Rackham would be barely visible. All we might discover is that she was born on February 13th 1810 and baptised by the Wesleyan Minister, Mr. P. Jameson on January 10th 1813 in Bawdsey. The small seaside village was part of his circuit. Some short time later, the family moved to Trimley St. Martin. Her mother was called Sarah and her father was called Francis Lewis Where exactly she lived in St. Martins is yet to be discovered.  It is reasonable to speculate it was here she met James Rackham who was to be her future husband. He also was originally from Trimley, having been baptised in St. Mary’s church on 28th November 1802, the son of William and Rose Rackham.

In the early photographic age, images of ordinary working people were rarely produced and usually there is no clue individuals’ appearance.  If there were any photographs of Lydia and James, they have yet to surface. However, despite this we do have some notion of their appearances as mature adults. Lydia was 5 feet 3½, with blue eyes, dark brown hair and eyebrows.  In 1848, she was described as, “lady-like” in appearance, albeit with a slightly pock marked face[i]. James was a slightly taller at 5 feet 6½, with brown hair and dark hazel eyes.  In 1848 he was described as, “middling stout” but this was nearly twenty years after his wedding day and a slight gain in weight is not perhaps unexpected. By the time of their marriage James was living and working in Dovercourt and we can make an intelligent guess that his courtship of Lydia was conducted in Trimley. Their wedding took place on the 27th July 1829 in St. Martin’s church. They would probably have entered through the west door of the church and taken their marriage vows in front of the altar where, according to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, they each promised, “…to love and to cherish, till death do us part…”.  After the service, then as now, the register was signed. One of the witnesses, John Lewis, signed his own name but the other, Lucy Chapman, as well as Lydia and James simply made their own marks “X”.  It is unlikely there was much more to the wedding day other than to set off to Lydia’s new marital home. Trimley to Dovercourt by road is 30 miles but only a short passage by boat across the confluence of the Stour and Orwell. At the time a ferry ran close by to the place we know as Fagbury Point and was used by passengers from the ships docked in Harwich as well as the local population. It is interesting to note, James had a brother Cyrus, who in 1862[ii] gave evidence concerning a right of way at Walton Ferry. It is also worthy of comment that the adult Cyrus was sometimes in Trimley and sometimes in Harwich.

I like to imagine James and Lydia crossing the water together anticipating children, happiness and a degree of prosperity. Maybe Lydia’s only regrets centred upon her departure from family and friends, although as they had proved it was not difficult to retain their family connections in the Trimleys. The birth of their first child, Charles Rackham too place on November 24th 1829 and on November 29th he was baptised by the Wesleyan Minister, William Rouch[iii]. Lydia and James’s abode was given as Trimley St. Martin, suggesting she had returned to her mother’s for the birth of her first child.

It is impossible to know how the marriage progressed as a relationship but when I located Lydia and James in Dovercourt in the 1841 Census, it had obviously been fruitful. They had four children: Charles, James, Francis and Lydia. Three more were to follow and by 1848 they had seven children around the table including William, Emmeline and Eliza. Their father, James was working as an agricultural labourer in 1841 and although no occupation is recorded for Lydia, it is clear much of her time would have revolved around the house, the washing and children.  Any paid work by her may not have been recorded as James would have been viewed as the principle bread winner. However, by the start of 1848, Lydia was supposedly involved in additional employment as a farm servant, with all the back-breaking drudgery this entailed.  In whatever manner she was occupied, her life would have been one of relentless domestic work.  But in the blink of an eye and the misappropriation of a pair of boot stockings, all this changed irrevocably and forever.


One wintry night, on the 10th January 1848, a knock upon Lydia and James’s door caused it to be opened. In front of them stood a Policeman, Superintendent George Colman, demanding admission for himself and other men. The house was searched; goods were seized; Lydia and James were seized.  On the same night, according to newspaper reports, they were both cast into the local gaol and imprisoned in “durance vile” before both being committed to Colchester Gaol the following day, pending their appearance before the local Magistrates’ Court. Did James and Lydia have any sleep on this long and desperate night? For Lydia it was doubtless a tearful, sleepless and fearful one.  It is harder to assess how James must have felt, as will become apparent. Maybe he was incredulous, angry or terrified. At the very least, both of them would have experienced shame and disgrace.  What was to become of them? Did they both deserve to be there? How shocked were the neighbours by this turn of events?  Five days later, on January 15th, the story of the crime and arrest became public property appearing as it did in the ‘Suffolk Chronicle[iv]’:

“Harwich, Jan. 13.

For some time many tradesmen here have had their suspicions that their shops have been daily robbed.  Mr Trundle, shopkeeper, in Market-street, took Superintendent Colman to the lodgings of a Mrs. Lydia Rackham, where they commenced a search, and found brooches, rings, shoes, clogs, gown pieces, dresses, hats, caps, wearing apparel, &. The police took charge of the goods and that night, January 10th. committed Mr. and Mrs. Rackham to durance vile; on the 11th, the Magistrates committed the parties to Colchester Castle, there to await the next Quarter Sessions at Chelmsford. The first charge was brought by Mr. Trundle, who identified three brooches, one mug, clogs, shoes, a tassel and slides. The next charge was by Mr. Grice, a draper, &, who identified a pair of boot stockings and a pair of trowsers. The next charge was by Mr. Wm. Nalborough, draper, who identified a gown piece. The next charge by Mr. Bellamy, tailor, who identified two caps. The next charge by Mr. Waights, draper, who could not identify some umbrellas, etc., but fully believed they were stolen from his shop, having recently detected the female prisoner of purloining a 21s. boa. The utmost vigilance will be prosecuted by the police force to detect the various receivers of property which have been stolen for many months past: one tradesman has had some articles, but the receivers have intreated the same to take them, fearing the consequence. The female prisoner seems to be the guilty party, and to have carried on for some long time this wholesale peculation unknown to her husband, he not knowing such goods were concealed in his house. They leave six children chargeable to the parish.”

It was swiftly followed a week later on 21st January by a similar article in the Chelmsford Chronicle. Bad news tends to travel quickly and the story appeared in several newspapers. The astonishment of the neighbours would have been nothing to the dismay felt by the families. As for the children, “…chargeable to the parish…”, they were sent to the Tendring Union Workhouse, at Great Clacton[v]. Their distress amidst the harsh conditions does not bear contemplation.

Lydia and James remained incarcerated for about a month until 15th February 1848 when they were brought to trial in front of the Magistrates; the Chairman of the Board was a Mr. Round. It was he who was to direct and inform the Jurors.  Since their arrest, the authorities had been vigorous in interviewing the injured parties and obtaining evidence. The newspaper report[vi] of the Trial in the ‘Chelmsford Chronicle’ gives the names of five shopkeepers whose goods had been stolen.  Charles Trundle, a dealer in fancy goods; Mr. Grice, a draper; Mr. Nalborough; Mr. Waights. The cases of two of these people, Mr.  Bellamy and Mr. Waights, were not pursued and therefore both suspects stood accused of three crimes.  Mr. Waights, Charles Trundle and Mr. Grice will return at a later point in this story.

Both Lydia and James were undefended, which is hardly surprising as they lacked the wherewithal for a lawyer. Lydia was accused of shoplifting, James was indicted for receiving stolen goods. Mr. Grice stated he knew the female prisoner and had found goods with his mark on them in her house. Neither he or his assistant, Mr. Lee had sold these goods. Mr. Lee identified the socks because of the peculiar colour of the worsted wool. Superintendent George Coleman had similarly searched the house and reported James as denying he had anything to do with these goods. In court, Lydia denied stealing the socks, which she said she had knitted them herself. She had “found” trousers by the door or under the window.  The Chairman intervened after James gave evidence and said that James was likely to have knowledge of the goods as they were seized in his house.

The second charge concerned the theft of a gown piece from Mr. Nalborough. He too had searched the house and found his property in a box in the bedroom.  When he gave evidence, he recounted how the prisoner, Lydia, had come into his shop many times a day. Lydia fudged her reply by repeating the excuse she had previously declared concerning Mr. Grice’s goods. She had found the item under Mr. Nalborough’s window.  On this charge, James was declared ‘Not Guilty’.

The third charge related to the goods of Charles Trundle, the dealer in Fancy Goods.  In this newspaper report the goods included a glass and a quart jug.  When it came to Superintendent George Colman’s turn to give evidence for this charge, he said Lydia had confessed to taking the mug, shoes, slides and tassels whilst imprisoned.

The Jurors were despatched to make their decision and having made it, they returned their verdict.

 The Chairman summed up by saying,

“Lydia Rackham, you stand convicted of three charges on which you have been found guilty  on the evidence of which no man could doubt; You, James Rackham are convicted on two charges of receiving and in another the case the Jury brought a different verdict…it is next…to impossible to suppose that…(you)…know nothing about them…the sentence is that each of you be transported for 14 years”

The nature of this sentence was harsh and brutal, both culprits receiving two 7-year sentences back to back. Husband and wife were despatched to Millbank in London next to the Thames. Crime and conviction were now done. What awaited them next was the act of Transportation. But this story is not yet played out and at this point you may be asking yourself several questions.

Why had Lydia taken to shoplifting? Was it financial necessity? Was her shoplifting the symptom of a wider malaise? Was she suffering from an undiagnosed and unrecognised mental illness?

Was James aware of his wife’s pilfering? Had he coerced her into criminal activity? Was James innocent “not knowing such goods were concealed in his house”? And why did Lydia shoplift?

And significantly, what happened to the children?


Part 2

“They chained us two by two and whipped and lashed along
They cut off our provisions if we did the least thing wrong
They march us in the burning sun until our feet are sore
So hard’s our lot now we are got to Van Diemen’s shore”

From: Lament…Upon Van Diemen’s Shore by Sarah Collins

Hard by Vauxhall Bridge on the north side of the Thames stands the site of a beautiful art gallery, Tate Britain. Now visited by five or six million people a year, few people pause to reflect on which building preceded the Tate. Those who visited this site in the 19th century would not have done so for pleasure, as it is the former site of Millbank Penitentiary[vii] and in 1848 it was regarded as a dark and fearful place. Dank from its close proximity to the river, it was a building offering little but confinement, sensory deprivation and hardship.  Millbank was the convict transit point for all Antipodean destinations and Prisoners were held there while they were assessed by staff as to where they should be sent for their punishment. The design of the building allowed the guards to view the prisoners from the upper part of the prison, whilst they remained unseen. After assessment, many prisoners may then have been transferred to a Hulk, most likely an unseaworthy ship converted into a river-borne prison. From there, at a time appropriate time to the authorities, they were sent down the river, perhaps to Gravesend or Woolwich, where they would board a convict ship for the long sea journey to Australia.

During the course of their lives, Lydia and James Rackham had already travelled far from Trimley to Dovercourt, Harwich, Chelmsford and Millbank but the full extent of their journeys had scarcely begun after their conviction as Shoplifter and Receiver of Stolen Goods respectively. In Lydia’s case, she was sent from Chelmsford Gaol to Millbank[viii] on 15th July 1848, some five months after her trial. There Lydia appears to have remained until she was transferred on 4th November 1848 to the ‘Cadet’[ix] which was berthed at Woolwich and bound for Van Diemen’s land. The ship set sail on or around the 5th November, first stopping at Dover and Plymouth Sound, where it seems as if her sister or possibly more likely, her daughter Anna met her although the records are rather ambiguous at this point. Lydia’s daughter Lydia was known as Anna and she was in service at the time. The oldest child, Charles aged 18 does not appear to have seen his mother.   However, what is clear is that she had been joined by five of her seven children after an absence of about 9 months. Lydia could read and I think it is probable her daughter may have remained in contact with her. Certainly, there must have been some communication for Anna is to re-enter the story later. The remaining children, James,10, Francis,8, William,6, Emmeline,4, and Eliza, the 18-month-old baby, had been removed from Tendring Union Workhouse and taken to be re-united with their mother.  At a certain point along the line it had been decided they would accompany their mother to Van Diemen’s Land as well, thereby relieving the Tendring Rate Payers of the costly burden of maintaining the children in the Workhouse.   They, together with Lydia and 169 other female convicts, left English shores on a sea passage which was to last over five months. No male convicts joined the ship. James remained in England; he and Lydia were even further apart.


Why was James still in England? Although he would not have been included on this women-only vessel, why wasn’t he transported at the same time? I believe the answer rests in a legal procedure he chose to pursue. He had protested innocence or lack of knowledge concerning his wife’s activities throughout their arrest, imprisonment and trial. He had been acquitted on one charge of receiving stolen goods, although found guilty of two other charges.  The record of his time in Millbank notes he received a visit from four unnamed friends by permission of the Governor. The names of the friends were not documented and no record survives as to the content of any discussion during this visit but it may have related to the organisation of a Petition[x], which was completed on October 21st 1848. Petitions were the only option open to the convicted during the 19th century if they wished to appeal against their sentence. No further evidence was presented in James Rackham’s petition, which said:

“To the Right Honorable the Secretary of State for the Home Department. The Petition of James Rackham late of Harwich in the County of Essex Labourer now in prison in her Majesty’s Gaol at Springfield in the County of Essex now under Sentence of 14 years Transportation. Sheweth that your Petitioner was tried and convicted at the Adjourned Quarter Sessions holden at Chelmsford on the 15th February last before Charles Ford Round Esquire with having feloniously received a quantity of Shoes and other articles from his wife Lydia Rackham. Now under sentence of 14 years transportation for the like offence, the property of Charles Trundle and Charles Thomas Waights and others knowing them to be stolen.

That your Petitioner most humbly begs leave to declare leave to declare the innocence of the offences of which he has been convicted of and not having money to employ counsel to enable him to prepare his defence. That your petitioner hath further borne a good character and never been in custody on any charge whatever before.

Your unhappy Petitioner most humbly and earnestly prays that Her Majesty may be recommended to commute the sentence of transportation. And your Petitioner will ever pray etc etc.

We the undersigned beg leave to recommission the prayer of the above named James Rackham

Signed: …”

 There then follows a list of 60 people, including the Mayor of Harwich, the clergy and, “…most of the respectable Inhabitants of the Borough of Harwich…”.

Leading the signatories are the names of Waights, Bellamy, Trundle and Grice. You may recall these were the people from whom Lydia had filched the shoes, stockings, brooches and other “fancy goods”. What had persuaded these sinned-against people to fight for James’s cause? We don’t know but their signatory presence indicates the belief in his innocence.  The petition was forwarded to the Secretary for the Home Department, The Right Honorable Mr George Grey, accompanied by an endorsing letter from the Prison Official, Mr Dennes. It then became a waiting game for James during which he was transferred to Wakefield House of Correction to continue his sentence pending the outcome of his Appeal.


The response, when it came back from the Home Department, was negative. James was to be transported and in February 1850, some two years after his arrest, he was removed from Wakefield and brought to ‘The Scindian’[xi]. The ship set sail on 27th February 1850, stopped at Portsmouth on 4th March and then finally departed for Fremantle, Western Australia. The voyage was to last 89 days, finally reaching the Swan River Colony on 1st June 1850. James was a least two and a half thousand miles from Van Diemen’s Land. Rather like an ill-informed party hotel, the Colony didn’t know the prisoners were coming, had nowhere to put them and resorted to keeping the convicted in a converted warehouse.  Subsequently, the new prison was constructed using the prisoners and locally quarried stone. This exercise may have bypassed James for on Friday 25th October 1850, an article in the Perth Gazette and Independent Journal advertised prisoners who had been granted a ‘Ticket of Leave’. James was included on the list quoting his occupation as a Farm Labourer, suggesting he was of a suitably good character not requiring incarceration.


But to return to Lydia and her children. Her voyage in 1849 resulted in yet more hardship and sorrow. Quite how Lydia managed the care of her children on board the ship, or indeed if she did, is unknown, but there are records of their experience. Sadly, it was not to be a happy one, neither in transit nor when they reached their destination.  A daily Sick Book[xii] was kept on board to record the health of the convicts and other passengers and the Rackham family were to figure quite significantly. These documents appear to record the names and ages of the children in a rather cavalier and casual manner and don’t appear to be written by a reliable or caring witness, so some interpretation has been necessary. But the following short, terse entries require no interpretation as they baldly state;

“…Rackum’s child, aged 4; (this was Emmeline) sick or hurt, scalded legs; put on sick list 14 November 1848, discharged 28 November 1848 cured”

“Emily (Emmeline) Rackum, aged 3; sick or hurt, psora; put on sick list 22 December 1848, discharged 3 January 1849 cured”

“J [James?] Rackum, aged 10; sick or hurt, psora; put on sick list 22 December 1848, discharged 3 January 1849 cured”

 Lydia herself was sent to the Sick Bay with “Colica” at the end of December but had recovered by 29th January, although whether she was fit enough to return to the fray is questionable. Being ill at sea is never comfortable at the best of times and there would have been little respite on offer for the women and children.  The most punishing aspect of the voyage for Lydia and the children is explained in a further note which bleakly declares;

“Eliza Rackum, aged 2, convict’s child, taken ill in Plymouth Sound, sick or hurt, tabes mesenterica, frequent diarrhoea of offensive matter, she was of a very scrofulous rickety appearance and has also malformation of the bones of the chest, the appetite good but the abdomen turmid: put on sick list 1 December 1848, died 6th December 1848.”

Shortly to be followed by another cheerless statement: “Francis Rackum, aged 12, convict’s son, taken ill at sea; sick or hurt, typhus fever, tongue brown and furred, skin dry, pulse very fast, countenance febrile; put on sick list 23rd December 1848, died 27th December 1848”

The ‘Cadet’ finally landed in Van Diemen’s Land on 12th April 1849, reporting the deaths of 7 women during the voyage. The dead children do not appear to be further mentioned.

After disembarkation Lydia would have been taken to a Prison hulk to be trained in the household skills deemed suitable for becoming a Domestic Help. You may think the children had suffered enough but their troubles were incomplete. They were removed from their mother and in April 1849 were placed in an Orphan School. Convicts’ children were deemed to be effectively without parents, although of course, they were not technically Orphans. The fate of such ‘orphans’ was to remain in the school until they were 18 or old enough to become servants themselves. As it was obligatory for all Prisoners to attend Church on a Sunday, this may have been the only opportunity for Lydia to catch a glimpse of James, William and Emmeline but then again, it is quite likely they attended different services. The Orphanages have been described as, “Children’s prisons” and any education they received was below the standard of other local schools.  The children were trained in practical skills; little learning occurred and their levels of literacy did not approach those of their local peer group. They were effectively contained rather than educated.

Life for Lydia does not appear to have been straightforward. Unlike James, she was not immediately granted a Ticket of Leave, which may have been due to her behaviour. On 29th June 1850 she received fourteen days in the cells for transgressing with a man[xiii]. No reason is given for her behaviour and it is impossible to know whether she was motivated by the necessity for money or otherwise.   Eventually in March 1853 Lydia had rallied herself sufficiently to be trusted to work as a domestic servant but in a series of actions which eerily mirrored those of five years earlier she found herself before the Magistrate’s Bench again. On Friday 1st April 1853, The Hobart Courier reported the following case:


“John McKew, a constable, and Lydia Rackham were charged with larceny under £5, in stealing three waistcoat pieces, a coat and some books from Mr. John Guthrie, at Sandy Bay. The woman who was charged with stealing the things pleaded guilty, and McKew, charged with receiving them, not guilty. The evidence showed that the woman was a servant in the house in which Mr. Guthrie lived, and had stolen from time to time many things which she bad presented to her lover, McKew; he had given the waistcoat pieces to a tailor to make up for him. McKew, in his defence, said that the woman had given him the things at various times, stating that she had bought them: and as she had been a considerable time in the country, he thought it probable she might have put by a sum of money and so could afford to purchase the clothes; he had intended marrying her. The Bench sentenced Lydia Rackham to l8 months’ imprisonment and hard labour, and McKew to have his original sentence of transportation increased l8 months; the whole time to be spent on probation.” ‘

John (McKew) McCue[xiv], a 22-year old sweep from England, had been convicted of burglary in 1849 and transported to Van Diemen’s Land in 1850. He appears to have been a transitory relationship in Lydia’s life despite his expressed intention to marry her. Marriage couldn’t and didn’t occur and from here on in he makes no further appearance in her life. This is just as well because at more or less the same time Lydia was subjected to Hard Labour, James applied to be re-united with his wife and three children; an indication he knew of the deaths of Eliza and Francis. Permission being granted he left Fremantle on 21st March 1853.  I have yet to unearth any documentary sources recording what happened to James next, if or when he arrived in Van Diemen’s Land. We can only imagine.

It is safe to say the Rackham family had been through a fractured and distressing time. Parents separated; some children dead; some placed in orphanages. The situation in March 1853 looked dispiriting to say the least. But unexpected help was on its way. Travelling half way across the world, Lydia’s daughter Anna, sped towards Van Diemen’s Land bringing hope with her. Berthing in Fremantle in 1854, she took the opportunity to marry a George Powling, who had been sent to Fremantle as a convict. Together they carried on to Hobart where they landed in October of the same year.  Anna’s spirit was to prevail.  On the 17th October, George and Anna visited the Orphanage and removed the two youngest children, William and Emmeline from its jurisdiction thereby providing the care and love these two benighted children had been deprived of for so long. They were to become part of the Powling household alongside the children of Anna and George. James, Lydia’s eldest child in Van Diemen’s Land, had already left the Orphanage by this time and was working for a Mr. Sharland in New Norfolk. There is no record of him being re-united with his sister but this doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

The story of Lydia Rackham, née Lewis, is nearly complete. The woman from Trimley St. Martin was never to return her place of origin.   She is reported to have received a conditional pardon in July 1856, the same year Van Diemen’s land was renamed Tasmania.   Her sentence officially ended in 1862, fourteen long years after the purloining of a pair of boot stockings. I could find no further details about herself or James other than her death in Hobart on 15th June 1875[xv] when her cause of death was given as “Old age and general debility”. The gruelling conditions and hard labour she endured cannot have enhanced her health.  I’ve yet to discover when James died or where. He seems to have disappeared after leave the Swan River Colony.

Like Lydia, I do not dispute her guilty plea but what motivated her actions remains a subject for debate. James’s case also remains something of an enigma: it seems obvious the “respectable” people of Harwich regarded him as innocent.  In the 21st century U.K.  first offences in shoplifting crimes may be punished with a community order and possibly some investigation into the mental health of the offender.  Imprisonment for the majority of offenders is unlikely.

Part 3 

David Cripps . David Cripps, The Man from Tasmania, Great Great Great Grandchild of James and Lydia Rackham

Jo Hyland

Jo Hyland, from Western Australia, former curator of the Western Australia Museum

The above story was originally published in two separate parts in July 2018, shortly after I started writing a weekly Blog about Trimley St. Martin. In many ways it was a story typical of the mid-nineteenth century, when poverty and crime were often interlinked and the state of the ordinary labourer was frequently notable in its hardship. Lydia’s story was a researcher’s delight, not because of her condition but because of the way the digital records allowed the researcher to follow her story and that of her family. So many aspects of her life unfolded themselves in front of my eyes, enabled through the digitisation of a range of different records.  The difficulties, privations and precarious situations Lydia found herself in make for fascinating reading. It was a comparatively complex story and because it was written in the early days of the Recorder’s Blog, I have no idea how many people read it. It was offered to a wider audience in October 2018 when I added it to my main WordPress site. I didn’t forget about it but it stayed there waiting for any virtual passers-by who might be interested.


The narrative ended in Tasmania and when I cast the two stories on to the wider global waters, nothing much happened. They were content to quietly drift along, basking in the Tasman Sea, where the odd reader fished them out of the water and then returned them again.  Then, suddenly, just after Christmas 2018, I received an unexpected communication. A man called David emailed me to say he had been researching the Rackhams for many years and had just discovered the Rackham Blog. His email continued,

‘…both James & Lydia Rackham were my 3rd Great Grandparents, so I can lay claim to a direct descendant line back to them, but I must say researching them over the years has been rather tortuous and painful…’

Such is my naivety, I had not anticipated receiving such a positive response. David lives in Hobart, Tasmania, which is on the east side of the country and where Lydia Rackham died. Some two or three dozen emails later, the story of Lydia and her family has expanded. His enthusiasm and generosity provided further insight into the story.  The emails took on a triangular nature in February 2019, when another email appeared out of the blue. Jo Hyland, a professional genealogist and former Curator of the Western Australian Museum contacted me, because she also was interested in the Rackhams. She told me,

‘These days I am a museum consultant and project historian, most recently for a small volunteer run NFP Museum known as the Museum of Perth, not related in any way to the Western Australian Museum.  I haven’t been in paid employment for the past 12 months as I have been busy focusing on research for the WA Convict Publication Project and travelling. Also, I am editor for the Convict Special Interest Group of the WA Genealogy Society – recently renamed Family History WA. WAGS (or FHWA) have their own newsletter called Western Ancestor’

The society produces a newsletter entitled, ‘Convict Links’ and the story for the March  2019 edition was to be James and Lydia Rackham.

Many emails  flowed backwards and forwards between the three of us and the story of Lydia’s family has expanded. Both David and Jo proved open-spirited and generous in sharing their findings and information. In return I have contributed information from the Parish Records and Quarter Session documents found in Suffolk Record Office as well as some photographs of our area. Through their contributions, two fresh characters emerged, one from Wherstead and the other from Trimley St. Mary. The stories of George Powling, husband of Anna and his father, Samuel Powling revealed themselves. Because their stories reflect the times in which they live, a third blog relating to the life and extended family of Lydia Rackham begged itself to be presented; David and Jo’s contributions expanded my understanding of Lydia’s life.

George Powling of Wherstead and his father Samuel

George was a convict already in Fremantle, when Anna arrived there. Born in Bildeston, he was one of the children of Samuel Powling and Hannah Powling, née Spink. The mid-century Census returns record Hannah’s birth parish to be either Bramford or Holbrook. As they are neighbouring parishes, it may have been her family moved between them when she was a girl; neither parishes are far from Trimley by river and in fact, Holbrook’s near neighbour Shotley is a contiguous parish to Trimley St. Martin. Their mutual boundary meets in the middle of the River Orwell.   Samuel and Hannah married in 3rd February 1817 in Wherstead, Suffolk[xvi].

Throughout their married life, Samuel and Hannah moved between Wherstead, Holbrook and Freston. As you may see by looking at a map these are all neighbouring parishes barely two or three miles apart. The largest landowners in the area were the Berners family in Woolverstone, Suffolk.

George Powling was the first child of Samuel and Hannah Powling born in 1828, but his baptism was delayed until 16th January 1831 in St Mary’s church, Wherstead[xvii], when his sister Sarah, was also christened. Other children were also baptised there; Susanna in 1830, Robert in 1836, Emma in 1838 and Eliza in 1841. Their father Samuel’s occupation was always recorded as a Labourer in the baptismal registers and indeed, that was how he remained until his dying day.

As the oldest child, I imagine George assumed a responsibility for his siblings,  working to support his parents raise their family. The 1840s were hard times for the labouring classes. You could say all times were hard for them but in the depth of winter when there was only spit to eat, a family would be stretched to capacity to sustain themselves.  1848 was one of the wettest years ever recorded; the precipitation for December 1847 and January 1848 was 176.7 millimetres[xviii] and I think this is why George, aged 19, committed the crime of sheep stealing for which he was arrested.  I discovered this fact in the Ipswich Journal, a hundred and seventeen years to the day after his crime was reported. It was a cold, dark, wet night on the 27th January 2019 and I have no reason to suppose the climate was any kinder when George set out to find food for his family. There is a degree of speculation in my thinking, but poaching and sheep stealing to provide food for starving families, were common practices at the time, frequently leading to transportation. Jo Hyland wrote to me that,

‘..I agree with your sentiment about how difficult life was for people in the 1840s especially in rural areas of poverty.  Many of our other ‘Scindian’ (The ship used to transport James Rackham) convict stories have shown that poaching happened around Christmas/New Year in the height of winter and I agree that they were possibly just trying to feed their families and were pushed to theft and poaching to do so. To be honest, what we would today perceive as “real” crimes… were few and far between…’

The sentence for George was no exception to the transportation rule. The entry in the Quarter Sessions book[xix] reinforced by a short mention in the Ipswich Journal informs us he appeared before the bench on 17th March 1848[xx]. The Chair was Sir Augustus Riyder Henniker, Bart. and he determined George was to be,

‘convicted of felony and sheep stealing to be transported for twelve years.’

Two other prisoners who were being charged at the same time were also to be transported. Their sentence was seven years each; their crimes were simply larceny. Clearly, Sheep stealing trumped such minor offences.

On 28th April 1848 shortly after the trial, George was moved to Millbank[xxi] on the banks of the Thames as had James Rackham and the entry in the Prison Book[xxii] states no previous offences are known. Perhaps this was where he met James for the first time or maybe it was when he was moved to his next punishment centre. He spent eight months in Millbank before being moved to the House of Correction in Wakefield. His final move in England was on 30th October 1849 when he was sent to a prison hulk, probably the ‘Owen Glendower’ at Portland. Subsequently he was transferred to the ‘Hashemy’[xxiii], which sailed from Portland on 22nd July 1850, arriving at Fremantle on 22nd October 1850 after a journey of ninety-five days. This was the same colony James Rackham had arrived at six weeks previously on 1st June. 1850.

George must have been a well-behaved convict for he gained his freedom on 1st May 1853 and a Conditional Pardon in February 1854. On the 30th January 1854, he married (Lydia) Anna Rackham. A few days later and after his pardon was secured, the newly married couple set off for Van Diemen’s Land. As the colony in Western Australia was one that didn’t admit women, George’s marital condition was very fortunate.  I asked Jo Hyland why they didn’t transport female convicts to Western Australia and her answer provided additional insight into the state of the Convicts lives. Through the medium of email, she replied,

‘… convicted women were considered to be morally worse than their male counterparts and the male convicts had been so successful as a labour source (and a guaranteed injection of ongoing British funding into a failing economy!) that they thought the introduction of women would distract the men from their good work…

…they didn’t have any prison facilities that would suit for housing female convicts (one of the main reasons why Lydia Rackham was not permitted to join James in Western Australia). Also, female emigration was ramped up to try and address the problem of the marked gender imbalance – at one point a ratio of 11 men for each woman.

In reality the opinion of one senior member of colonial government held a lot of sway and he didn’t want to invite the ‘depravity’ of female convicts into a colony where he was raising a family of fourteen children.  The colony was completely divided on the issue. The British government twice sought colonial approval on the issue of introducing female convicts to redress the gender imbalance and the second time the colonial government actually agreed. Unfortunately, it coincided with other financial impacts on the Imperial purse such as war in the Crimea and conflict in India (1857) so it was shelved and then transportation officially ended about ten years later (1868)

 In my opinion the convict men who married lived far more settled and prosperous lives and for the men whose wives chose not to join them or they did not marry, they often indulged heavily in drink and died sad, lonely deaths.

 Imagine how different the outcome may have been for the Rackham family if Lydia and the children had been allowed to join James in Western Australia!’

George was described as a carpenter on the marriage certificate, a valuable and transferable skill and I was given additional insight into his later life from my Tasmanian correspondent, David. He informed me George died 30th April 1919, and sent a photograph showing him being cared for by a nurse in Highbury Hospital in Hobart. His wife Anna née Rackham died in 1909 aged 78 also in Hobart. The photography suggests a solidity about George, despite the frailty of old age. I can’t help but think he had created a new and comparatively successful life out of the punishment of transportation, dying in comparative comfort.  This was in marked contrast to his parents who, of course, remained behind in Wherstead. Communication between the two distant Powling households was likely to have been fractured. If letters were sent, then 1863 would have proved a sober year for George…

Samuel Powling of Bildeston and Wherstead.

The story surrounding Samuel Powling focuses entirely on his death. It received considerable reporting, as sadly, it was both sensational and melancholic. It first appeared in The Ipswich Journal on 7th November 1863 but was quickly be found in other regional newspapers[xxiv]. It referred to an incident which had occurred the previous Wednesday on 4th November. It was described as a ‘fatal’ and ‘deplorable’ accident and related the tragic end of Samuel Powling who had worked for Mr Sexton, of Red-Gate Farm for fifty years and possessed[xxv]

‘…the steadiness characteristic of the Suffolk Labourer …’

(Coincidentally, Mr Sexton was the same employer from whom George had stolen the sheep in 1848.) Redgate Farm, in Redgate Lane, is half way up the hill from the Strand. In front of the Farm the wide waters of the River Orwell flow smoothly:

21:03:2019 Redgate Farm 2 Redgate Farm 21st March 2019

21:03:2019 View of the Orwell from the Strand (180 degrees around from Redgate Farm view) View of the Orwell from the Strand exit of Redgate Lane. 21st March 2019

On the day of his death, Samuel was working with Ebenezer Sage, James Peck and Mr. Peck. Mr Peck was driving the Threshing machine, Ebenezer and James were untying sheaves. In addition, James was also feeding the machine, together with Samuel.  The accident took place at about 11 o’clock in the morning.  Ebenezer was to provide a vivid description of what happened when he attended the Coroner’s Inquest[xxvi] into the death of Samuel.

‘I work as a labourer for Mr. Alfred Packer of Woolverston. I was employed at Mr. Sexton’s at the Red-gate Farm yesterday, attending the machine. It was my duty to untie the sheaves for the “feeder”. Deceased was doing the same work. I knew him very well and he has worked for Mr. Sexton for many years. James Peck was the feeder, and it was necessary to have two of us to untie the sheaves in order to keep the feeder supplied. I stood by the feeder’s side and the deceased stood before him. Deceased appeared to be very well able to do his work and was a hale man for his years. We had been shifting the stage and making it wider when the accident occurred, and the speed of the engine was reduced about half. There was nothing in the drum and the feeder had got down to the barn-floor. Deceased was on the stage and I was with him. I was about to lay some sheaves of corn to keep the small corn from falling though the stage, when the deceased got up on his feet and made a false step sideways, and his right foot went into the feeding hole with his back to the drum. As soon as deceased fell in I called out to my mate, the driver and he threw the strap of directly and we drew the concave part of the engine back and got deceased out…deceased lay with his head and shoulders in the drum…head was much injured…’

Death was instantaneous. Samuel’s body was taken to,

“…the first cottage on the left hand side of the road at Freston Brook…”,

where it was subsequently viewed by the Coroner and Jury. After Samuel’s three co-workers had given their evidence, the Jury returned a verdict of ‘accidental death.’  According to the National Burial Register[xxvii] the burial took place the following Sunday 8th November 1863 in Freston Churchyard. Samuel was seventy.

21:03:2019 Freston Church South side Freston Church. 21st March 2019

By 1871 Samuel’s wife ,Hannah, was living alone and according to the Census for that year was, ‘crippled with rheumatism’. I’m inclined to think that if it was mentioned in the Census, it is likely to have been quite acute.  She died aged 77 in 1875, according to the entry in the General Register for Deaths. After the death of Samuel, her life must have been difficult, particularly if she lived alone. At some juncture, she may have been compelled to turn to the cold comfort of the Workhouse at Tattingstone or perhaps there were enough of her family living locally who could make provision for her. Hannah and her family lived the hard life of the nineteenth century labourer, prone to accidents, disasters and near starvation. Anna and George suffered prison and transportation but I am comparatively confident their life may have taken a slight turn for the better after George  married and received his Pardon.

Although I have truncated the stories of George and Samuel Powling I felt it was important to add them to the story of Lydia Rackham. Poverty, hardship and deprivation of basic human resources drive people to commit desperate acts. Sadly, on that front, nothing much appears to have changed since George stole the sheep. However, safety at work has improved since the sad demise of Samuel, whose end was one of many such accidents of the period.

I send much gratitude to David in Hobart for sharing his information about George Powling and for alerting me to the shocking death of Samuel Powling.  My thanks are also due to Jo Hyland in Western Australia and her valuable insights into the conditions and politics surrounding convict life. Both have enabled part of Lydia’s life to return home to Trimley.


If you have any comments or would like to be part of the Trimley St. Martin project, please contact me at:

LR   13/03/2020


If you are interested in Margaret Catchpole or Van Dieman’s Land, you may care to read:

  • Cobbold, Richard & Harris, Pip, editor.    A Picture History of Margaret Catchpole: A Reduced Text Version of the Book with 33 Illustrations by the Author 2009.    (Available from Suffolk Libraries)
  • Birch, Carol.   2008. (A fictionalised account of Margaret Catchpole’s life in England.)
  • Boyce, James   Van Diemen’s Land     Black Inc.   2010    ISBN 9781863954914


[i] Founders and Survivors: Australian life courses in historical contexts 1803-1920,214,116

[ii] Question of Right of Way at Walton Ferry.   The Suffolk Chronicle 22nd March 1862

[iii] RG4/2596 Nonconformist and non-parish births, marriages and deaths 1567-1969


The Suffolk Chronicle: or Weekly General Advertiser 7 County Express. 15th January 1848


[vi] p.3. Chelmsford Chronicle 18th February 1848

[vii] p.161

[viii] HO24 Millbank Prison Registers: Female Prisoners  Volume 1. The National Archives


[x] HO18 Home Office: Criminal Petitions: Series Ii The National Archives


[xii] ADM 101/15/3 1848-1849.  Medical journal of the Cadet, hired female convict ship from 16 October 1848 to 17 April 1849 by J C Bowman, surgeon superintendent, during which time the ship was employed in conveying prisoners to Hobart Town, Van Diemen’s Land.  The National Archives





[xvii] FB79/D1/7 Bildeston Register of Baptisms 1813 – 1865 Suffolk Record Office Bury St Edmunds Branch


[xix] B105/2/90 Quarter Sessions. p.639 Suffolk Record Office, Ipswich Branch

[xx] 17th March 1848 Ipswich Journal


[xxii] PCOM 2/29 Millbank, Middlesex, Register of prisoners 1848-1849 The National Archives.

[xxiii] Details of ship:


p.3 Reading Mercury 21st November 1863

[xxv] Ipswich Journal 7th November 1863

[xxvii] The National Burial Index commenced in 1994 and was first published in 2001. It contains 5.4 million records. The burial records are taken from parish registers, bishop’s transcripts, earlier transcripts or printed registers by local family history society volunteers

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