Back from Obscurity- Thomas Dawkins, agricultural labourer and convict,1796-1824.


hulkUnnamed prison hulk c 1810. Notice the washing


The late Georgian period was a time of high bread prices and starvation unless you were a horse. Horses were indispensable; a hungry horse would not work, and more importantly during the war with Napoleon, would not fight. Horses were feed mostly on oats- the kind of food that in the 1810s a large number of the lower classes could not afford. It was proposed after Waterloo that that money could be saved by feeding the King’s horses a lower quality of oats, but this was abandoned when it was realised that this would put the King’s horses in direct competition with the King’s subjects for the same food, raising the price for both.

William Waterhouse of the Swan with Two Necks Coaching Inn owned 400 horses, which he used to pull stagecoaches for their first part of the journey out of London. By 1817 he claimed to be spending £2 per horse on food, accommodation, tax .Waterhouse  had distribution centres all over the Home Counties, including a warehouse in South Mimms in Essex. Essentially, he owned one of the biggest stores of food in the country. IIt needed to be defended from the starving and desperate.

It needed to be defended from Thomas Dawkins, an agricultural labourer and carter who was also from Essex- born in Brentford in 1796. We have no idea of his economic circumstances beyond a good guess, but what is absolutely certain that he would have settled for the £2 a week that was making Mr Waterhouse’s horses very comfortable. If he was working in agriculture he might be earning £6 a year- if he was working as a carter it might be 15 shillings a week.

Like many substantial property owners during the Regency, Waterhouse used the law regularly to protect his assets against the crime wave that engulfed Britain after Waterloo. The law was vicious to those who were caught, but the state provided no resources to catch criminals, so they wealthy had to do it themselves. Waterhouse paid money to guard his food; he had already suffered losses as the crime wave continued, so he employed Thomas Young, a chaff cutter (who cut up straw or hay)to hide in the hay all night.. Young deposed ( via Oldbaileyonline);

I had orders to watch, I laid among the straw by the corn in; between twelve and one o’clock at night, the prisoner, and another, man came up and filled five sacks with oats, and took them away to the road-side, I followed after the other man, leaving the prisoner behind in the granary; I told the foreman, after which I went to look for the corn and found it on the road side ready to be put into the cart which was drawing up, loaded with hay, which was going to town that morning; the prisoner had been Mr. Waterhouse’s servant.

Dawkins claimed to have been sleeping in the hay due to homelessness and poverty, a likely scenario and possibly still true, while not contradicting the evidence of Waterhouse’s employers. Thomas was clearly unemployed and desperate.

Dawkins played a high price for the attempted theft . He was transported to Australia for seven years. Technically, this was a correct sentence- the food was worth £5, and this was therefore grand larceny. However, transportation was usually for repeat offenders, people who the magistrates were sick of seeing, but this does not seem to be the case this time. It was a particularly difficult time for law enforcement and availability of food, so a message was being sent out to others who might want to steal.

He was finally sentenced on 17 September 1817 , but he did not arrive in Van Diemen’s Land- modern day Tasmania- until 17 November 1820. In the meantime he had had three experiences that were arguably just as bad as working in Australia- Newgate Prison, a prison hulk and a long journey to Australia.

Newgate was an anarchic, overcrowded hell hole. The condemned cells were full of people awaiting execution or reprieve, the rest of the prison was full of hardened criminals and petty offenders, some doing their time and some awaiting transportation. They shared a kitchen which had been recently opened to prevent prisoners cooking their own food in any corner of the prison with the subsequent mess and dirt that was produced. Prisoners received no bedding or clothes- rich inmates would buy them; the most powerful would steal them and the weaker ones would soon be naked. There was no supply of soap. If you had no money of your own, there was no supply of anything. Thomas is registered there in 1820; he is 5 foot three, with brown hair and eyes. He probably keep his head down.

From his sentence in September 1817 to July 1820, Thomas was on the prison hulk ship Bellerophon in Sheerness harbour. The ship was as old as Thomas himself, had had a exemplary record during the Napoleonic war and once held Napoleon himself. It 1816, it was unromantically stripped down and became a prison for a different type of enemy of the state. It was not the worse of the prison hulks- the Retribution was the worst. That prison is described in my book ‘Dark Days of Georgian Britain

It was a largely privatised prison service; we in the UK today know the problem with this. Like all Regency prisons it was overcrowded. Dawkins would have been stripped and washed in cold water, given a coarse suit to wear and, if refractory, put in irons. A record exists from the hulk showing that Thomas was given shoes and stockings, as were the rest of the prisoners, probably as a basic hygiene measure.
Each ankle would have an iron fetter attached by a chain, attached in the middle to a belt around the waist to stop the chain dragging on the ground. Some men were physically deformed for life by this double chaining, not so much when it was worn as when it was taken off.

Most inmates would be expected to work, mostly at government owned military bases on the mainland. Ten hours a day working was common in summer. They would perform various labouring jobs in groups of twenty overseen by prison wardens who were, in the words of another hulk prisoner, James Vaux ‘most commonly of the lowest class of human beings, wretches devoid of all feeling, ignorant in the extreme, brutal by nature and rendered tyrannical and cruel by the consciousness of the power they possess’

The diet was as cruel as the workload. The hulks were run by private enterprise contractors who bought the cheapest provisions they could find to feed the inmates. Breakfast was boiled barley which was so bad that there was often some left to feed pigs; there was meat four days a week but it was from animals that had died of old age; on days when no meat was served (banyan days in navy parlance) there was a vegetable or corn bread stew called burgoo; when there was cheese it was an inferior type made with skimmed milk.

Dawkins left Britain in July 1820 as one of the 150 convicts on the Caledonia. We know little about the journey. Another transportee, the trade unionist Thomas Holden caught jaundice, nearly starved to death and lamented the fact that the solidarity of the poor that he had witnessed and encouraged in England was destroyed by the long sea journey.

How did Thomas fare in Australia? He settled in Hobart Town and continued his job as a carter, presumably without stealing the property of others. He seemed to have been a law abiding man. Luckily we have the conduct books from the Archives Office of Tasmania, which list the type of bad things the convicts were doing –neglect of duty, drunk and disorderly, sheep taking, abusive language and medical history, including those who died. Thomas’s record is empty, and that was very rare. We know that he was a witness in a government enquiry while he was there- it seems to have been as a source of information rather than as a miscreant, as this would have been on his record. It does not even mention the end of his captivity on 7 October 1824, as his seven year stretch was calculated from his conviction in Britain rather than his arrival in Australia, although he might have had his punishment reduced for exemplary behaviour.

 We lose track of Thomas at this point.  There are plenty of Thomas Dawkins, Agricultural Labourers in the UK censuses but they are unlikely to be him. Only about five percent of transportees ever returned to Britain. Let’s hope it went well for him. He paid a high price for five sacks of oats.

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Before she was famous- Jane Austen in the newspapers.

Jane makes one of her first appearances in the newspapers in on 6th September 1813. In an event only publicised in the local newspaper   the Hampshire Chronicle   Jane donated one of the lower amounts- half a guinea (10 shilling and sixpence, a week’s average wage for a urban worker ) to the newly established Basingstoke and Alton branch of the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge- an organisation which did what it said on the tin. It produced cheap Bibles and tried to encourage moral reformation. To subscribe to it   meant a desire to be respectable. To have your money accepted and publicised in the newspaper was an acknowledgement of your social position.

Jane’s position in   local society can be inferred from the details in the newspaper. All the committee members were male; Jane, like the other women on the list, were not committee members but additional subscribers, who made a donation rather than purchasing a yearly membership. It is highly unlikely that   Jane attended the meeting at the Bolton Arms Inn- and this was an age when many respectable women did attend meetings of charities. Her letters to Cassandra  around that time suggest that she may not have even been in the county

There are two references; a Miss Austen and a Miss Jane Austen. The former would be a form of address for an older sibling.

Jane had to wait until death to become newsworthy again. Once again, it was a   local event. This notice appeared on the last page of the Hampshire Chronicle as news from July 19th 1817, the day after her death


Perhaps interestingly, this was not a paid for obituary but a piece of local news; her late father was previously a local cleric and it is unlikely that Jane would have received a mention if she had been a daughter of a local shoe maker.

On July 30th, a more or less identical notice appeared in the Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser, with the omission of her home address.

The newspapers are quiet until 1832; on Christmas Day 1832 the national newspaper the Morning Post made a reference to Jane. This was an advertisement- with the heading “Miss Jane Austen’s novels” ( in the plural, so there must have been some understanding that there was more than one.) Richard  Bentley, the publisher was presenting Sense and Sensibility as part of a series called The Standard Novels and Romances; there were two more identical advertisements, both in London papers, in the week before publication.

The Spectator magazine must have got hold of an early copy, as it has reviewed it by December 31st. The Morning Post reported on its findings. The paper noted their length of time since her death  “  the public took time to make up its mind”. It also hints that the general reader was engaged before the critics

The response to Sense and Sensibility meant that 1833 was Jane’s best year in the papers. By January the Hampshire Chronicle was rediscovering one of their own; “the novel affords diversified scenery of real life, and abounds in moral sentiment, conveyed in the most amusing incidents”.


By March the Morning Post had reached its own, mostly favourable opinion. It took a few pages of reading, but the paper was impressed by her “natural fluency and unsophisticated earnestness”   Her novels rang true- they had “vraisemblance” and knowledge of human character. The was, the reviewer suggested, the ”new novelist of domestic truth”.

In April 1833, Volume 25 of Standard Novels and Romances included Emma. In July, Volume 27 included Mansfield Park and Bentley had sold over 100,000 copies of his series and Austen was clearly his star. The Scotsman liked Mansfield Park – “an admirable domestic tale…at which Miss Austen was has been long acknowledge as unrivalled”-clearly her books were being read in the 1820s by the public before the reviewers in the newspapers.

By August, Pride and Prejudice was the published in Volume 30. In October, all six novels were published in a cheap edition by Bentley, placing Jane on a par with some very well know Regency writers and poets….


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Israel Chapman- Body Snatcher

Israel Chapman was born in about  1794, in Chelsea, London and died in the Jewish poor house in Australia on 4th July 1868. Little can be worked out from his early life- the lack of compulsory state records and the fact that his Jewish background put him outside the normal system makes that difficult. However, he had a young brother, Noel, born 1809 in Chelsea, and Israel was a coach driver- a job that could put you in contact with body snatchers. At some point he married a women called Catherine.

Israel Chapman was well known to the legal establishment. In the mid 1810s he was living first in Haymarket, and later at Vine Street, Covent Garden. The Morning Post of 27 August 1816 reported that the “well known character Israel Chapman” had been indicted for stealing a watch at Hatton Garden magistrates’ court. In April of the same year, it was reported by the papers that the “Jew resurrection man” was accused of carrying of a wounded man from a site of attempted murder in Newton’s Court, Queens Court. He clearly was not doing this to administer first aid.

He was exceptionally well known to the magistrate John Nares. Nares worked at both Bow Street and Covent Garden as a judge. It seems that Chapman once told him that, should Nares die first, he would be after his dead body. Indeed this happened- the esteemed magistrate died on 16 December 1816, and the Bow Street Patrole guarded his body for three weeks. There was no sign of Israel at this time- he was at war with the London anatomy hospitals at the time, who he believed that they were employing non gang members to procure bodies and reduce the price- there are more details here.

By November 1817 the Borough Street Gang seems to be led by Chapman rather than Ben Couch.The Morning Post reported that a “ T Vaughan” had been apprehended at St Luke’s burial ground stealing dead bodies and was recognised as one of Israel’s man. Unusually, there were no sureties available for the arrested man- usually there would be somebody from the medical schools to help extricate the grave robbers. It was very much a joint enterprise.

There is an interesting but problematical reference to Chapman in “Blackwoods Magazine”, Volume 17, in 1825. In the text he is referred to as “ Izzy” or” Easy” but at the beginning he is referred to as “ J Chapman”. It correctly gives his location as Haymarket/ Covent Garden and gives apparently accurate details of his modus operandi- in a similar manner to the way he ran off with an injured person at Newton’s Court in 1816, he seems to have tried to escape with a live specimen “ a dozen years ago”- i.e. about 1813. They seem to be different incidents; however some of the later details are wrong. As will be shown later, he was not convicted of burglary and did not die in 1819, as the article suggests. Despite the errors this seems to be an accurate portrayal of Israel.



Some historians have claimed that Chapman only stole Jewish bodies.The evidence is weak; and we have to be careful that an anti Semitic element does not creep in. Joseph Naples makes two references to Jews in the resurrection trade on two consecutive days in August 1811. This may have been the same person and may have been Chapman; Chapman was very much known to Naples by c 1815 but there is no hard evidence that it might be him, although some commentators have claimed that it had to be Chapman-however, if it had to be a particular person, this hardly suggests a massive Jewish presence in the body snatching trade.

There is other (very) circumstantial evidence. Ben Couch gate crashed a Jewish wedding reception in January 1810 at the London Hospital public house, assaulting a Jewish man. This may be linked with an individual taking his trade, and could even be Chapman. However it is not evidence of a massive Jewish involvement –it may just be anti-Semitism and general resentment. So, when the press refer to “Jew resurrection men” – they seem to be making two comments rather than one.

Chapman also specifically denied that he had been involved in the robbery of Jewish bodies. The Inverness Courier 9 April 1818 and many other papers reported that Chapman had told the Jewish religious figure Dr Herschel that he had a hand in the removal of one Jewish body and had not laid his hands on it. He particularly refuted the accusation that he had looted the Jewish cemetery at Mile End. These denials sound convincing. Chapman goes on to say that he has stolen up to 40 bodies a week; and that the Borough Gang had reached up to 30 members under his leadership. He also told the rabbi that part of his efficient operations was to bribe grave diggers to produce shallow graves that could be pillaged easily; although Jewish corpses would always be fresh- believers are ordered by Deuteronomy to bury their dead on the same day- it seems unlikely that it was a major part of Chapman’s work; he did not need to do this even if his morals are deeply suspect. There were enough easy pickings, and relatively few Jewish corpses.

In December 1817, Israel’s life changed forever. Chapman and his partner George Scott were accused of the Highway Robbery of James Palmer of a half sovereign and four shillings in silver . Palmer was from Southall, had been drinking in the Seven Stars public house in Star Court, Whitechapel and had been violently beaten and robbed by a gang, of whom only Scott and Chapman were captured by the Watchmen. Scott- a “tall athletic type”, probably in contradistinction to the “Jew Chapman” was also convicted of a similar crime committed the same day- waiting around in pubs for people to leave drunk, although Chapman’s victim claimed to have only had two pints of porter and some tea. This was the turning point of Chapman’s life in England; this attack on the property of a gentlemen was much more serious than taking dead bodies

Scott and Chapman were given the death penalty on January 14th 1818. Previous to this he was incarcerated on the prison Hulk “Retribution” moored either Sheerness or Greenwich.

He arrived in New South Wales on September 14th 1818. His life improved almost immediately-he became a poacher turned gamekeeper in a very profound way. His success is a ringing condemnation of the life of the poor in Regency England. For details, see

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