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Thomas Cannum, one of 180 convicts transported on the Norfolk, 15 April 1825
Name, Aliases & Gender
Birth, Occupation & Death
|Date of Birth:
|Date of Death:
life span was 55 years*
* Median life span based on contributions
Conviction & Transportation
Sentenced to 14 years
||Australian Joint Copying Project. Microfilm Roll 88, Class and Piece Number HO11/5, Page Number 258
||This record is one of the entries in the British convict transportation registers 1787-1867 database compiled by State Library of Queensland from British Home Office (HO) records which are available on microfilm as part of the Australian Joint Copying Project.
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Chris Blenkarn on 8th October, 2018 wrote:
Who’s the victim here? The sorry life of Thomas Cannam
The May edition of ‘Footprints’ News from the Record Office cited the case of Thomas Cannum of Middleton, sentenced to death at Northampton Assizes in 1824 for a failed burglary at John Aldwinckle’s house. It asked what happened next. By coincidence I’d recently been researching Aldwinckles and I couldn’t resist abandoning them temporarily to shoot off down this enticing tangent.
First, a bit of background. Middleton is a township within the parish of Cottingham in the north east of Northamptonshire on the border with Leicestershire. The Cannam and Aldwinckle families were among the oldest recorded in the village; the 1524 Tax Assessment lists six Aldwinckles and one Cannam.
Like many long-established families the fortunes of different branches varied. By the nineteenth century some Cottingham Aldwinckles were farm labourers (the line I belong too, naturally) but others remained the substantial yeoman farmers they had been in Tudor and Stuart times. They were millers and bakers as well as farmers and Cottingham mill had been theirs from at least 1720. In the nineteenth century they still owned a great deal of farm land and other property in and round the village including many cottages. The John Aldwinckle who featured in the 1824 court case was a prosperous forty seven year old farmer living with his wife and children on Middleton Hill, probably in the recently built three storey Hill House.
The Cannam family had also enjoyed mixed fortunes over the centuries. Seventeenth century probate records show Cannams holding land in various parishes and in 1697 a dispute over land ownership between John and William Cannam ended up in the Court of Chancery in London. Cannam House, formerly Burgess House on Middleton Main Street is a splendid eighteenth century mansion, a listed building admired by Pevsner. These were wealthy people. But other Cannams were living in penury.
Thomas Cannam (name variants include Cannum, Cannon, Canham etc.) was baptised in Cottingham Church in December 1798, son of Robert and Mary. He was the eighth of their nine children born between1780 and 1801, of whom several died in infancy. The seventh son had been baptised Thomas but he was buried on Christmas Eve 1797. Robert was a farm labourer who was probably descended from an illegitimate line from the early1700s. Thomas’s mother was Mary Bamford, descended from a family of Middleton bakers who had gone down in the world and were mostly employed as handloom weavers and farm labourers.
The 1790s / 1800s were bad times for poorer people, weavers especially, and there were many such in the villages near Kettering. The 1777 Militia list records twenty three weavers working in Cottingham and Middleton, all of whom saw their livelihood destroyed with the emergence of industrial textile mills, poor harvests and trade disruption during the Napoleonic Wars. Food shortages and the high price of wheat lead to bread riots in Kettering and indeed across Britain in 1795. The country was on the verge of famine.
The Cottingham burial register for 1783 contains two designated pauper burials, 1784 has six from a total of sixteen including a William Cannam. In 1786 it was ten out of twenty nine and in 1790 - 1791 there were seventeen pauper burials. A Sarah Cannam was among paupers interred in December 1793.
Life for the Cottingham’s poor did not improve in the decades following. The years from 1810 to 1819 were England’s coldest since the 1690s. A long drawn out battle to enclose Cottingham and Middleton’s common fields by Act of Parliament had been going on for years but ultimately ended in victory for the wealthier landowners. Broadly, while enclosure benefitted the rich and those smaller landowners who wanted to sell off their land to them, it was devastating for the poor. Common land that had been available to everyone for centuries was now partitioned off and out of bounds. This meant landless villagers had nowhere to graze an animal, and could no longer go there to collect wood for fuel.
Their misery was compounded after the war ended in 1815. Farming interests in Parliament quickly brought about the 1815 Corn Law. Corn could now only be imported when the price in Britain was more than eighty shillings a quarter, thus maintaining the extremely high price of bread. Then there were the Game Laws of 1816 that limited the hunting of game, even rabbits, to landowners and made the penalty for poaching seven years’ transportation (two men from Cottingham each got fourteen years transportation in 1842 for killing a deer).
In the autumn of 1821 young farm labourer Thomas Cannam of Middleton married Mary Page, a native of Allexton eight miles away in Leicestershire. At this point he appears to be the only son Robert and Mary could look to for support as they entered their sixties. As far as can be judged, their older five sons were either dead or elsewhere. Fourth son John born in 1790 may have been a soldier as were several men of the parish. A John Cannon of Middleton was recorded in the 82nd Foot. Of their daughters, Sarah had married William Darnell, a small farmer in 1816 and lived in Market Harborough while Elizabeth would marry a pensioned off soldier, Richard Rowell, in January 1823.
Thomas and Mary Cannam’s first child Sarah was born in September 1822 and their second, William in December 1823. The winter of 1823 - 1824 was severe, providing few employment opportunities for households dependent on the meagre wages of farm work. So when Thomas Cannam was found in the early hours of 17 May hiding behind sacks in John Aldwinckle’s flour chamber, we can probably deduce his motive. Farmer Aldwinckle was roused by a neighbour who had spotted a ladder propped against an upper window of the house. Upon investigating he noticed a barrel of bacon had been opened and a piece of bacon removed. Thomas was then apprehended and shortly afterwards found himself in Northampton Gaol.
It seems a very minor crime to be tried at the Assizes, but that is what happened. On 26 July he was found guilty of entering with intent to commit a felony or burglary and promptly sentenced to death. Sentencing at that time was notoriously arbitrary. Two years earlier my ancestor Joseph Ralph, also a Middleton labourer, had been given two years in gaol for stealing cheese from the house of farmer John Woodcock, who coincidently was related to John Aldwinckle by marriage.
Four men tried the same day for stealing animals were also given the death penalty, as was soldier Charles Clutton for having sex with another soldier. In contrast, a man convicted of assault and attempted rape on a woman got twelve months. After five days all but Clutton, who was hanged, had their sentences commuted, in Thomas’s case to fourteen years transportation. Horse thieves Thomas Hinton and John Mason got transportation for life.
Newspaper reports in the following week said that while John Aldwinckle was attending the trial, thieves broke in to his house and stole groceries intended for the forthcoming Cottingham Feast. Hopefully some of it found its way to Thomas’s family.
14th September found Thomas immured on the prison hulk Leviathan at Portsmouth. On 15th April 1825 he set sail for Australia, one of one hundred and eighty convicts on the ship Norfolk.
I must say at this point that I’ve failed to locate Thomas in his later life and so don’t know when, where or how he died. However, the next ten years are another matter.
The Norfolk arrived in Sydney Cove on 18 August 1825 and the convicts were mustered aboard the following morning. They were then split up, fifty three going to Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney and the remainder sent to Parramatta, Liverpool, Windsor, Evan and Bathurst for assignment to private settlers. What a disorientating and fearful experience it must have been for serious criminals or unfortunates alike.
Thomas was assigned with nine other convicts to Bathurst, the country’s first inland settlement, about one hundred and twenty five miles from Sydney on the far side of the Blue Mountains. Begun in 1815, it was still a village, with a model farm worked by convicts who lived in barracks. By 1827 the farm was acknowledged to have been an unprofitable failure and it was wound up. However it’s possible that Thomas worked there to begin with, given his occupation back home.
The area’s rapid expansion created a demand for more labour and the convict population tripled between 1822 and 1825. When Thomas arrived it was over eight hundred and fifty. The new arrivals were put to work on privately owned stations and estates in Bathurst’s hinterland, or assigned to public works, including building the ‘Western Mountain road.’ The average landowner was interested only in exploiting his assignees though others took some interest in their welfare.
Many of those sent to remote outstations worked as shepherds and stockmen. Isolated from the rest of Australia and indeed from Bathurst, it was an intimidating, monotonous and soul destroying way of life, with temperatures regularly reaching the mid-nineties in December and January. There was also conflict with the local Wiradjuri Aboriginal groups. In 1830 a group of over eighty convicts famously staged a rebellion and rampaged over the area. They were captured eventually and charged with murder, bush ranging and horse theft. Ten were hanged in November 1830.
Queensland State Archives show that in 1831 Thomas was working as a general farm servant, having formerly been a ploughman at Maitland on the Hunter River, well over a hundred miles from Bathurst. Maitland was founded in 1820 and served as a distribution point for goods brought upriver for the prosperous Hunter Valley. Until the 1850s Gold Rush it was Australia’s second largest city. Thomas may have worked near his assigned homestead as bullocks and horses were kept close to home. The unfortunates who were sent out to tend sheep miles into the bush had an unimaginably tough time.
On 15 September 1831 Thomas was accused of stealing ‘iron’ (the court record is scrawled so ‘iron’ may be incorrect). He was given a colonial conviction of three years. New South Wales convict records could probably give details but can be consulted in full only at the state archives. There’s a brief description of him (number 2457 in the Queensland convict register): aged thirty (he was actually approaching thirty three), five foot six, fair complexion, brown hair and hazel eyes. Next stop, Moreton Bay.
Convicts considered hardened criminals or recidivists usually ended up in the notorious Moreton Bay Convict Settlement along the Brisbane River, some eight miles from Brisbane itself. The Bay was charted in 1799 by Sir Matthew Flinders, the first European known to have arrived there, and the penal settlement was begun in 1824.
In 1831 convict numbers peaked at nine hundred and forty seven but had shrunk to three hundred and seventy four when it shut down in 1835. The regime there was at its most vicious under the universally loathed Captain Logan. Many absconded but their chances of survival in the bush were slender. Logan was killed in October 1831 shortly before Thomas’s arrival. One of the inmates celebrated by writing a ballad about it, ‘Moreton Bay’. Life under his replacement however was still harsh.
The Official Regulations for Penal Settlements, issued in 1829, stated:
‘As an aversion to honest Industry and Labour has been the Chief Cause of most of the Convicts incurring the penalties of the Law, they shall be employed at some species of Labour which they cannot evade. The Convicts are to be employed exclusively in Agricultural operations, when Public Buildings or other Works of the Settlement do not absolutely require their Labour.
‘It has consequently been directed that the Spade and Hoe shall be substituted for the Plough, which will greatly diminish the demand for Horses and Oxen, and be the means of keeping the Convicts constantly and usefully employed. Convicts under Colonial Sentence shall be steadily and constantly employed at Hard Labour from Sunrise till Sunset, One Hour being allowed for Breakfast and One Hour for Dinner during the Winter Six Months; but Two Hours will be allotted for Dinner during the Summer.’
Convicts were clothed in a jacket adorned with the word ‘Felon’ and mostly worked in chain gangs. According to visiting Quaker missionaries in 1836, the irons could be removed after nine months unless the convict had misbehaved or his sentence stated otherwise. They wore leg irons, with a leather cuff fitted to each ankle to prevent chaffing. A length of chain was attached to each leg iron; together they weighed about eight kilos.
The chain gangs were supervised by convict overseers considered sufficiently brutal to maintain discipline, their reward being a reduced sentence. Overseers could and did request flogging for chain gang members who ‘misbehaved’ or didn’t fulfil their work quota. Unsurprisingly overseers were housed outside the main convict barracks to avoid their being murdered by fellow convicts. The same missionaries spoke of chain gangs of twenty-five men at work on the tread-wheel to produce power and calculated that each man was required to lift his foot 3,840 times in continued succession.
Thomas survived Moreton Bay. On 24 January1835 his name appears on the manifest of forty five prisoners and guards on board HM Col. Schooner Isabella bound from Moreton Bay for Sydney. Four of the prisoners were due to give evidence in the murder trial of fellow convict Giuseppe Laberbeira, but the destination of the rest is not stated.
And that, sadly, is as far as I have been able to trace him. Was he transferred to another gaol, or was he due for a conditional discharge or ticket of leave? If freed, did he stay in Australia or try to return to England? One of the men convicted with him in Northampton, Thomas Hinton, was awarded a ticket of leave, and a Rothwell shoemaker named James Maids was given a conditional pardon in 1841. Maybe he joined in the Australian Gold Rush which ironically began with the discovery in 1851 of gold at Bathurst.
His name does not appear on the New South Wales list of convicts 1828-1879 who died while serving their sentence, nor in the lists for tickets of leave and certificates of freedom. Neither is he listed in the Birth, Marriage and Death indices of New South Wales which date from 1856. Two Thomas Cannams who died in 1857 and 1864 respectively are definitely not him. The NSW census of 1841 lists only householders and the next census to survive is 1891.
There are references to Thomas Cannan and Thomas Cannon in the admission and discharge registers of Brisbane Gaol 1851 and afterwards. These may refer to Thomas but two men named Thomas Cannan / Cannon were transported in 1836 and 1849 and these records are more likely to refer to one of them. Later sightings of Thomas Cannum (or variants) for example in the Victoria Directory of 1888, seem very long shots.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch………….How were Thomas’s family coping in his absence?
His mother Mary died in April 1830 aged seventy and his father Robert at Christmas 1840 aged eighty one. Hopefully they had some support from their two surviving daughters. Elizabeth Rowell nee Cannam, widowed in 1837, lived in Dag Lane (later School Lane) Cottingham until her death in 1870 aged eighty three. One of her grandsons still lived in the village in 1939, next door to my grandparents.
Robert and Mary’s other daughter Sarah Darnell nee Cannam had seven children with her husband William in Market Harborough. The Darnell family had lived in Cottingham since the 1690s and once again, some branches had fared better than others.
Two of Sarah and William Darnell’s children in turn were baptised Thomas Cannon Darnall, presumably in honour of her aunfortunate younger brother. Their last son Francis was born in Middleton in 1832; his father was described now as a farm labourer, not a farmer. William Darnell died in 1834 and his widow Sarah, left with five surviving children, married widowed labourer William Groocock in 1839 and continued to live on Middleton Hill.
In 1841 Thomas’s wife Mary was scraping a living as a charwoman, still living on Middleton Hill, a few doors away from the Aldwinckle farmhouse. Her children Sarah and William were with her, but Sarah got married in November the following year to her cousin, farm labourer Henry Darnell. In 1851 Mary described herself as a widow and was living on parish relief with her son and his family on the Hill. William had married a young widow, Mary Perkins in 1849 and they had a daughter, Emily.
In 1861 Mary was with the Darnells, still on Middleton Hill. Sarah and Henry had several children, at least three of whom died when still babies. Their eldest son was named Thomas; he died within a fortnight of being baptised. Mary’s son William, only a few months old when his father was transported, also named his first son Thomas.
Mary Cannam died in January 1869 aged seventy six.
In 1881 Sarah and Henry Darnell’s’ older children had moved on but the younger ones, Sarah and Francis were still with them. They were on parish relief in 1891. Sarah Darnell died in March 1897. Her husband Henry died two years later.
In 1881 William Cannam was now a widower, living in Cox’s Yard off Middleton High Street with his son Thomas, daughter in law Dinah, and grandson James William. Later that year he spent three months at Berrywood Asylum. He died in 1900 at Jesus Hospital (alms houses) in Rothwell.
In 1939 several of convict Thomas Cannam’s descendants could still be found in the village. His great grandson Harry Cannam lived on the Hill and was a publican, presumably of the Red Lion situated there. Another great grandson James Cannam was a small farmer in Church Street and a third, Tom Darnell, was employed as a cowman in neighbouring East Carlton. Norman Perkins, son of Mary Perkins nee Cannam was a stockman working in Church Street for Henry Claypole, next door to James Cannam. Emily Perkins nee Cannam and her family lived at the end of Rockingham Road.
All the information I’ve found about Thomas Cannam’s life in Australia has been drawn from freely available Victoria and New South Wales sources. I don’t have an Ancestry or FMP world membership so couldn’t check their Australian indices. It’s possible there is more to be discovered there. Is there any NFHS member who has such a subscription and would like to pick up the Thomas Cannam baton? Equally, are there any Australian members who might visit the state archives? I once visited the convict settlement at Port Arthur in Tasmania (and have the tee shirt) and was impressed by the detail available on convicts in the visitor centre. Maybe there are equivalents?
Convict Changes History
Chris Blenkarn on 8th October, 2018 made the following changes:
date of birth: 1799 (prev. 0000), occupation, crime