Where did my convict die?

Most convicts lived to finish their sentences or obtain their conditional pardons and continued to live long and productive lives. Some didn’t live productive lives, and some didn’t survive to finish their sentences.

The Register of Convict Deaths lists convicts who were known to have died whilst still serving their sentence.State Records NSW: Chief Superintendent of Convicts; Convict Death Register. NRS 12213, SR Reel 690. It is available on Ancestry.

Many of these deaths do not appear in the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages online indexes. The pre-1856 records held by the Registry were collected from parish registers from around the colony, and so the conclusion has to be made that the convict who died was not given a Christian burial.

Convict Death Register

Perhaps the settler wrote to inform the Superintendent of Convicts that the convict had died and the means of death, and it is worth searching the indexes to the Colonial Secretary’s correspondence to see if such a letter was sent. He may have written to the Chief Superintendent of Convicts, but this correspondence has not survived.

Timothy Baverstock was a blacksmith and carpenter transported in 1832 and arriving in February 1833. According to the Convict Death Register he was assigned to a Mr Cobb at Hunter River and died the same year. You may be able to read his entry in the register above – he is about 3/4 of the way down the left hand page. You may also be able to see that his is the only entry that does not give a full date of death – just the year.

To see if Mr Cobb had written a letter to report the death I searched for correspondence to the Colonial Secretary. There is a name index prepared by Joan Reece over many years on microfiche. With great satisfaction I found the name Timothy Bavenstock for 1833, and I filled out the request form to inspect the letter. I was expecting a short note to explain that the convict had died, and perhaps a request for another one to replace him.

ColSecCorr 33-5055

I was quite surprised when it arrived to see a four-page document quite closely written in the left margin of the first page. The letter was not from Mr Cobb of Hunter River, as I had expected, but the Principal Superintendent of Convicts, complaining to the Colonial Secretary that assignees do not report the deaths of the convicts assigned to them.

ColSecCorr 33-5055 p3 detail

Timothy Baverstock is only mentioned because the Principal Superintendent used him as an example of  a convict whose death he would have remained ignorant except that the assignee, Mr Cobb, applied to be assigned another convict.

The letter reads in full:

I beg leave again to bring under the notice of the Government the fact of my being seldom apprized of the death of Convicts in the interior by Assignees; and to suggest the propriety should His Excellency the Governor approve of directing public attention to this matter thr[ough] the medium of the Official Gazette.

As cases in point, I beg leave to mentionthat it was only yesterday in looking over a file of applications in the Office of the Assignment Branch, I discovered the death of the two Convicts named in the margin hereof.

[in the margin] Timothy Baverstock 33/376 Camden 2, Carpenter & Wheelwright Complete

Job Nobbs 32/461 Isabella 4, Shoemaker Complete

The first named was assigned to Mr Cobb of Hunter River, and according to that Gentleman’s statement died the day after his arrival on the farm. The other was assigned to Mr HC Kurnell[?] of Argyle, who states that he also died soon after reaching his farm. Neither case would have been reported had it not been thought by the assignees it would strengthen their claims for others.

I never receive any reports of deaths from Coroners. I have the honour to be, etc etc

The Colonial Secretary wrote an “executive summary” in the margin of the first page for the Governor:

The Prin’l Sup Convicts represents that he is seldom apprised by assignees of the death of their convict servants, and suggests the propriety of directing public attention to the matter by means of the Gazette – adds also that he never receives reports of deaths from the Coroners.

All the Returns of Burials rec’d in this office are periodically sent to Mr Hely (see note below) for his confirmation. The several Coroners may be required to furnish a Death return, but as the bodies of persons on whom inquests are held are interred, then names doubtless included in a Clerical report of Burials, it would not appear that the non-transmission of the Return by the Coroners is productive of much inconvenience. As respects the notice to Assignees I am fearful that not much attention will be paid to it – but they might nevertheless be req’d to report to the Mag[istrate] the death of the Convict servant.

Timothy Baverstock had died the day after his arrival. As a blacksmith and carpenter Timothy Baverstock would have been valuable to a settler, and Mr Cobb would have wanted a quick replacement.

Without his assignee’s request for a replacement and the Principal Superintendent of Convict’s request to The Colonial Secretary, he would have disappeared from the records and we would never have known what happened to him.

Note Frederick Augustus Hely, according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, held the post of Principal Superintendent of Convicts from 1823 until his death in 1836. He applied to retire on a pension but died before it was approved by the Colonial Office.

Sources
State Records NSW: Principal Superintendent of Convicts; NRS12213, Convict Death Register. SR Reel 690. Online version published by Ancestry.com.

State Records NSW: Colonial Secretary’s Office; NRS905, Main series of letters received, 1826-1982. 33/5055, Letter from Principal Superintendent of Convicts dated 1 Aug 1833.