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William Powton

William Powton, one of 270 convicts transported on the Bengal Merchant, 27 September 1834

Name, Aliases & Gender

Name: William Powton
Aliases: none
Gender: m

Birth, Occupation & Death

Date of Birth: 1812
Occupation: Labourer
Date of Death: 8th January, 1847
Age: 35 years

Life Span

Life span

Male median life span was 60 years*

* Median life span based on contributions

Conviction & Transportation

Sentence Severity

Sentence Severity

Sentenced to 7 years

Crime: Highway robbery
Convicted at: Durham Quarter Session
Sentence term: 7 years
Ship: Bengal Merchant
Departure date: 27th September, 1834
Arrival date: 30th January, 1835
Place of arrival New South Wales
Passenger manifest Travelled with 269 other convicts


Primary source: Australian Joint Copying Project. Microfilm Roll 90, Class and Piece Number HO11/9, Page Number 434
Source description: 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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David Beardsall on 16th December, 2013 wrote:

RALPH MARLEY (1804 - 1850
BRIDGET POWTON (1811 - 1889)

Ralph Marley was born on the 10th February, 1804 and baptised on the 20th May in the same year at All Saints Church, Penshaw, County Durham. He was the third child of twelve children (3 girls and 9 boys), and also the third son, of Ralph Marley (1776-1850), a Pitman, native of Houghton-le-Spring, Co. Durham and his wife Ann, nee Bainbridge (c1771-1846), a native of Staindrop, Co Durham. He was also the great-grandson of the famous ‘Elsie Marley’.

In 1832 Ralph had a daughter, Ann, by Bridget Powton. Bridget had been born on the 11th June, 1811 in Alston, Cumberland, the eighth child of thirteen children (3 girls and 10 boys), and eighth daughter, of William Powton (c1775-1851), a Pitman/Labourer, and his wife Hannah, nee Hutchinson (c1778-1854). Ann was born in Bishop Auckland, Co Durham and baptised on the 7th May, 1832 at the church of St. Andrew, Auckland. Her baptism record shows her parents as Ralph and Bridget Marley, but in fact they weren’t married at that time. Unfortunately, Ann died shortly after she was baptised and was buried in St. Andrew’s Church, Auckland on the 9th May, 1832.

On Saturday the 9th March, 1833 the Newcastle Courant, (Page 2) reported that at Durham Assizes, Crown Side, before Mr. Justice Alderson on Friday 1st March 1833, Thomas Newton (aged 26), James Allen (aged 20), and Ralph Marley (aged 28), were charged with stealing a cask of rum, the property of Thos. Thompson, publican, at Bishop-Auckland, on the 17th of December last; and Thomas Embleton (aged 58), Hannah Embleton (aged 56), and Elizabeth Embleton (aged 21), were charged with receiving the property, knowing it to have been stolen. The jury returned a verdict of “Guilty” against Newton, Allen, and the two female prisoners and pronounced Marley and Thomas Embleton “Not Guilty”. Hannah Embleton was sentenced to six months imprisonment and hard labour, and the other three to the same punishment for the term of three months.
Shortly after his brush with the law, Ralph made an honest woman of Bridget by marrying her at St. Andrew’s church, Auckland on the 8th May, 1833. They are both shown as ‘of this parish’, i.e. St. Andrew’s, Auckland, and were married following the publishing of banns. The witnesses were James Burnell and James Hutchinson, the latter probably a relative of Bridget’s mother.

However, Ralph didn’t stay out of trouble for very long as the Newcastle Journal reported on Saturday 30th November 1833 that William Powton and Ralph Marley, late of Bishop-Auckland, were charged with assaulting Robert Briggs and robbing him of five shillings and threepence, and a pair of half-boots. They were committed to Durham Gaol to await trial.

William Powton was Ralph’s brother-in-law, the brother of his wife Bridget. At the time Ralph was committed to gaol to await trial Bridget was about five months pregnant with their second child.

At the Durham Quarter Sessions (Epiphany Session) on the 30th December, 1833 Ralph Marley and William Powton were convicted of Highway Robbery (Larcency from a person) and sentenced to a term of 7 years transportation.

By 1934 Bridget was living at Ratten Row, Houghton-le-Spring, Co. Durham where her second daughter, who was also named Ann, was born. Ann was baptised at St. Michael & All Angels, Houghton-le-Spring on the 20th April, 1834. On the baptism record for Ann her parents are shown as Bridget and Ralph Marley, Pitman. One wonders if Bridget ever visited Ralph in gaol and if Ralph ever saw his daughter as before Ann was six months old he and William Powton were transported to Australia to serve out their seven year sentence.

Following their conviction, Ralph Marley and William Powton were held on the Prison Hulk Gamymede at Woolwich. Ganymede was a French frigate named Hébé which was captured on the 5th January 1809. She was converted into a prison hulk in 1819 but capsized and was broken up in 1838. In Greek myth Hébé was the female cup-bearer to Jupiter before being replaced by the beautiful young man Ganymede.

From the early 18th century until the American Revolution, Britain transported convicts each year to Maryland and Virginia.  When the North American colonies declared their independence in 1776 and closed their ports to British prison ships a crisis arose in the British criminal justice system. To address this, Britain started converting old sailing ships, decommissioned merchant and naval vessels, into floating prisons known as hulks. This was intended to be a temporary measure to relieve overcrowded prisons but their use continued for 80 years even though some MPs were concerned about the inhumane conditions.

Converting the ships to prison hulks involved removal of the rudders, masts, rigging and various other features required for sailing. Some hulks retained some of these features, but all were rendered inoperable or unseaworthy in some way. The internal structure was also reconfigured with various features, including gaol cells, in order to accommodate convicted criminals or occasionally prisoners of war. The hulks, which retained only their ability to float, were typically located in harbours, most of which were moored on the River Thames and in Plymouth Harbour. This made them convenient temporary holding quarters to house convicts awaiting transportation to Australia and other penal colonies within the British Empire.
In 1798 the hulks held more than 1400 out of about 1900 people waiting for transportation to Australia, the new destination for Britain’s criminals. During the period they were in use these floating prisons held over 200,000 convicts. Most British prison hulks were decommissioned in the 19th century, although suspected and convicted criminals are still confined aboard ships on occasion for various reasons.

Typically, each hulk held between 200 and 300 convicts in dire conditions but on board the Ganymede in Woolwich the average daily number of convicts was 393. Conditions on board were harsh and squalid and prisoners on these ‘Floating Hells’ endured filth, violence and disease, which was rife and spread quickly as there was no way to separate the sick from the healthy in the cramped conditions. This meant mortality rates were very high. Many prisoners served their entire sentence in the hulks, others were housed there only until a space could be found on a transport ship to Australia, and others didn’t survive their incarceration or the outbreaks of disease with around one in three inmates dying on board.

We don’t know how long it was between Ralph Marley and William Powton being convicted at Durham in December 1833 and them embarking on the Ganymede at Woolwich, but the journey itself from Durham to Woolwich must have been long and uncomfortable and they probably suffered months of ordeal onboard the Ganymede before embarking on a Convict Vessel for transportation to Australia.

‘the black Hulk lying out a little way from the mud of the shore, like a wicked Noah’s ark, cribbed and barred and moored by massive rusty chains’
The convict hulk as seen by Pip in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Entrees in Ganymede’s ‘Register and Letter Book’ for both Ralph Marley and William Pouton (sic) show their “Character from Gaol”  as “very bad, been in prison four times” and “How disposed of” as “NSW 19th Sep 1834”. Other than the previously mentioned charge against Ralph Marley for stealing a cask of rum, for which he was found not guilty, no record of these earlier terms of imprisonment have been found.

Ralph Marley and William Powton were two of 270 convicts who embarked on the Convict Vessel Bengal Merchant on the 27th September, 1834 for transportation to New South Wales, Australia. Some of the convicts arriving on the Bengal Merchant had been tried and convicted at the Old Bailey and imprisoned at Newgate before being sent to the hulks. Convicts were taken aboard in chains and shackles. Once aboard these were unlocked, a hatch was opened and the convicts went below to the prison deck and the hatch was locked behind them. Sometimes, however, they were kept in chains and behind bars even on board.

The Bengal Merchant, 503 tons, was built in 1812 in Calcutta, India, the Captain was William Campbell and the Surgeon was Superintendent James Ellis. The ship, with Ralph and William onboard, departed Sheerness on 1st October, 1834 and sailed direct to Australia. The Guard consisted of 2 sergeants, 27 rank and file of the 50th Regiment under command of Capt. McDonald and Ensign Cobbin. Passengers - Mrs. McDonald, Miss McDonald, Misses Eliza, Charlotte, Emily, Louisa, Sarah and Elizabeth McDonald, Masters Charles and Richard McDonald, 10 women (soldiers wives) and 13 children.

In the early days of transportation, conditions on board convict ships were terrible and there were numerous deaths on the journey, which took between four and six months. Many of the convicts were disease ridden before they came onboard and died from typhoid and cholera in the dreadful conditions. Those that survived were severely weakened by scurvy, dysentery and fever. Cruel masters, harsh discipline and disease resulted in a huge loss of life. There were many cases of sea sickness and stomach upsets, and occasionally measles. Ships were despatched twice a year, at the end of May and the beginning of September, to avoid the dangerous winters of the southern hemisphere.

Convicts were housed below decks on the prison deck and on some ships, in the early days, they were kept below most of the time and often further confined behind bars. In many cases they were restrained in chains and were only allowed on deck for fresh air and exercise. Conditions were cramped and they slept in hammocks. The cramped, unhygienic conditions on the convict ships were very difficult but as the 19th century progressed, the conditions began to improve. By the 1840s, the routine was more enlightened. Surgeons were no longer in the pay of the ship’s master and their sole responsibility was the well being of the convicts. Daily life even included a Religious Instructor who could both educate the convicts and look after their spiritual needs. Importantly, a bonus was paid to the ship charterers for the safe landing of the prisoners.

The filthy conditions gave way to a more ordered layout with bunks along either side of the deck, each separated from its neighbour by a ten inch high board. Four berths of the lower and upper tiers formed a mess, constructed so that four men could sit round a table. Those men occupying mid ship still slept in hammocks, slung up each night over the tables. Younger men had these. Each bed had a mattress, pillow and two blankets. The hammock had two blankets only. Convicts were divided into messes of 8 men. They were provided with cooking and eating utensils, tin pint mugs, spoons and one wooden 8 pint tin called a hub. A knife and fork was issued each meal and collected afterwards. The hospital on board was just 15ft by 10ft 8in by 6ft high, with three iron bedsteads placed on bunks.
In the early days discipline was brutal, with regular use of the lash. In later days, if the convicts misbehaved they would get ‘boxed’ - put in a small confined space in the bows, in which a man could neither lie down nor stand.

James Ellis, the Surgeon on the Bengal Merchant, kept a Medical and Surgical Journal from 6th September, 1834 to the 20th February, 1835, covering the period of the voyage on which Ralph Marley and William Powton were transported. He found that catarrh and bowel complaints appeared almost immediately the convicts came on board and the sick list increased while at sea with many and various complaints, among them several cases of inflammatory fever, of which one prisoner died. On the 17th December, 1834 scurvy made its appearance and rapidly increased so much so that seventy seven cases of the disease were under treatment, the principal features of the disease were a debilitated state of body, sallow complexion, spongy and bleeding gums, stiffness and swellings of the joints, particularly the knees, and sometimes yellow and greenish blotches on the trunk and extremities. The surgeon’s recourse was the vegetable acids and also the solution of nitre in vinegar lately so strongly recommended, to one portion of cases. Lime juice alone was administered in doses of two ounces, three, four or five times in the day to others.

After a voyage lasting 121 days the Bengal Merchant arrived at Port Jackson, Sydney, New south Wales on the 30th January, 1835 with 267 male prisoners, three having died during the voyage. The prisoners on the Bengal Merchant were to be landed in the week beginning the 8th February, however the Sydney Monitor reported on the 14th and the 21st that the Bengal Merchant was still lying in the stream with prisoners on board.

The convicts transported to Australia were probably the best documented working-class citizens of the nineteenth-century British empire. From indictment to eventual freedom, a convict’s progress was meticulously recorded. Convicts were handed over to the ship’s master at the beginning of the voyage and formally transferred into the custody of the Governor of the colony receiving them at the end of the voyage.

Of all the material in this paper trail the Indent, or Indenture, documents produced for each vessel on its arrival in the colony and used to record the transfer of prisoners has proved the most useful. For each named individual the indent detailed, across a double-page, their age, literacy, religious persuasion, marital status, number of children, occupation, native place, offence, place and date of trial, sentence, previous convictions, height, complexion and hair and eye colour. The final entry completed on arrival contained observations on physical injuries, distinguishing marks and scars, and notes on other family members already in the colonies. The illuminating descriptive entries which give a human reality to these catalogues of misery were recorded so that identification, detection and arrest would be made easy if a convict absconded. The remaining columns of the indent were available to chart the convict’s colonial history and the dates of the ticket of leave, pardon, certificate of freedom and death or departure.
The Indent produced on arrival for the Bengal Merchant records that:

William Powton was aged 22, he could read but not write, his religion was Protestant, he was a Labourer and was single with no children. He was convicted of Highway Robbery at Durham Quarter Sessions on 30th December, 1835 and sentenced to 7 years. He had a former conviction of 3 months. He was 5 ft. 7¼ ins. in height, had a ruddy complexion, brown eyes, and hazel hair. He had the following particular marks and scars: two scars on the right side of his forehead, seven red stars on his breasts, pugilist, RM, on upper, woman, EBW, Poulton, WPJ WAWTW and Masonic emblems, lower right arm ; IWTW, back of right hand, lost top of fore and middle fingers of same, woman and child on upper, two mermaids, fish, HHJHAPHP, and other letters, lower left arm, IP back of left hand

and that

Ralph Marley was aged 30, he could read and write, his religion was Protestant, he was a Coalminer and Wellsinker by trade and was married with one female child. He was convicted of Highway Robbery at Durham Quarter Sessions on 30th December, 1835 and sentenced to 7 years. He had no former convictions. He was 5 ft. 5½ ins. in height, had a sallow complexion, dark brown eyes, and chestnut hair. He had the following particular marks and scars: lost two front upper teeth, three blue scars over left eyebrow, two scars right side of forehead, scar below under lip ; sun, half moon, seven stars, RMFW, woman, and mermaid, lower right arm, ARMAM and star, back of right hand, blue ring middle and fourth finger of same ; woman, EW, 1830, and crucifix, lower left arm, RM and star back of left hand.

Ralph and William don’t sound like the sort of people you would want to meet with when alone on a dark night, but they probably didn’t look anything like their above descriptions when they first went to prison or were transported. It’s likely the tattoos, scars and other indelible marks they arrived with in the colony were obtained in the dreadful conditions existing during the voyage onboard the convict ship. It was probably during the voyage that Ralph also lost his teeth, either due to disease or in a fight. At the beginning of the 19th century one in four convicts were tattooed and of the 3000 or so convicts who were transported to New South Wales in 1831, about 30% of the men and 10% of the women carried tattoos. These skin punctures were etched and stained with ink or the soot and black sediment from lamps.
Although the large variety of tattoos sported by convicts provided the authorities with a method to help identification should they escape, and were recorded for that purpose, for the convicts themselves these tattooed inscriptions showed they were real people with hopes and fears just like the rest of us. For some convicts tattoos were purely decorative, for others they were a way of remembrance or a way to make statements about themselves and recorded their hopes, beliefs and disappointments, the date of their trial, transportation, or date when their sentence would expire. Some tattoos appear to be poignant love tokens and permanent reminders of the life, names of family and loved ones they left behind. Others gave family trees, slogans, symbols, and many more. Although it’s hard for us to fully understand what these may have meant to the individual, some are interesting, even witty comments on convict life. Some are cheeky remonstrations with the officials, such as the words ‘Strike me fair, stand firm and do your duty’. Religious motives and slogans were common, some of them sharing skin with defiant slogans and “obscene marks”.
A crucifix tattooed on a convict’s back would give the impression that Christ himself was being flogged, and angels were standing by with a cup to catch the blood. Some markings such as the owner’s initials are obvious and other small groups of letters can be interpreted as possible initials of a loved one, but larger groups might refer to a biblical phrase or political slogan whose significance and meaning have been lost to time. Five blue dots on the hands were a consistent form of tattoo among convicts, both men and women. The number of dots could vary and there could often be a different number on each hand. There is no known record of the meaning of this tattoo but it has to stand for something, otherwise why place it on such a visible part of the body? A specialist in convict history, Professor Hamish Maxwell-Stewart of the University of Tasmania, has a theory: the five dots tattoo, which persisted into the 1870s, probably means ‘‘I have been inside.’’ The four outer dots are thought to represent the corners of the cell and the central one the prisoner.
Another popular image was an anchor, and interestingly most of the wearers had nothing to do with the sea. It was used as a symbol of hope and constancy and was often attached to a loved one’s initials. The positioning of a tattoo was also seen as a significant factor. The most personal messages appeared to have been reserved for parts of the body that were usually covered up.
On arrival in New South Wales, distribution of Convicts from the Bengal Merchant was as follows: of the 267 landed; 20 were retained for public service; 1 was unfit for assignment; 6 were specials; 15 were in hospital; 29 were sent to work in irons on Goat Island; and 196 were assigned to Private Service. Judging from the following Tickets of Leave, it is assumed that Ralph Marley went into Private Service.

A ‘Ticket of Leave’ (a release on licence like parole) could be given to a convict if he or she was well behaved. Five years after his arriv

D Wong on 28th March, 2017 wrote:

8/1/1847: Convict Death Register: District/Parish: Bond. Cockatoo Island at General Hospital Sydney.

Death not listed on NSW BDM.

Convict Changes History

D Wong on 28th March, 2017 made the following changes:

date of birth: 1812 (prev. 0000), date of death: 8th January, 1847 (prev. 0000), gender: m, occupation, crime

This record was discovered and printed on ConvictRecords.com.au