Monday, 3 July 2017

Transported for 10 years…

The subject of this post is Richard Pilkington, born County Clare Ireland about 1832, the son of William Pilkington, a labourer.  He’s not a confirmed relation to my family, but given the name and location, there is a fair chance of a connection somewhere.  I was prompted to explore Richard’s story while studying a unit on Convict Ancestors with University of Tasmania.

County Clare Ireland in 1850 was still in the grip of an Gorta Mór, the Great Famine. The Kilrush Poor Law Union was one of the hardest hit areas, not only dealing with the effects of the potato blight, but also the mass evictions carried out by landlords and their agents. Some of the worst devastation was instigated by Marcus Keane, known as the Exterminator General of Clare, who happened to be the brother of my great-great-grandmother Anne Keane.  I've written about Anne in a previous post.

In February 1850, at the close of another cold wet winter, people were still being found dead from starvation and exposure. Whole villages lay deserted; their former occupants either dead or emigrated. The detailed reports of Kilrush Union Poor Law Inspector Captain Arthur Kennedy, who was responsible for the relief of the poor and destitute, reveal the suffering he regularly witnessed. Coincidently, Kennedy was to become Governor of Western Australia in 1854.

Not surprising then that people resorted to whatever means they could to survive. Livestock theft was a common occurrence, and the reason 18 year old Richard Pilkington was transported for 10 years.  On the night of February 25th 1850, eight sheep were stolen from the property of Thomas Browne at Cahermurphy.  At the Assizes in Ennis in July, Richard and five other men were convicted of the crime and sentenced to transportation.  We can only guess at their motivation. Perhaps they wanted food for their families, or maybe were hoping to profit from selling the meat at the nearby markets, where mutton was selling for 5 ¼ pence per pound.  Regardless of the reason, Thomas Browne would have seemed like a soft target. He was a well-off linen merchant from Limerick who farmed several parcels of land throughout West Clare.

Clare Journal & Ennis Advertiser 4 July 1850 page 2.

The long journey to Western Australia began in Ennis jail, described in 1845 as “a thoroughly commodious and well-conducted establishment” which had recently been extended.  Four months later, Richard and two of his co-accused were among a group of 20 prisoners transferred to Spike Island Prison in Cork harbour.  Originally built as a military fortress, Spike Island had been used as a convict depot from 1847 and by the time Richard arrived housed over 2300 prisoners.   Conditions in the prison were not ideal and many of the prisoners were unwell and debilitated as a result of the famine.

Clare Journal & Ennis Advertiser 18 November 1850 page 1.

Richard’s stay at Spike Island was of unknown duration. Although the convict ship Robert Small sailed from Spike Island for Swan River with two of Richard’s partners in crime aboard, Richard must at some point have been transferred to Dublin. His convict records in Western Australia reveal he came from Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison, where his conduct was recorded as “good”, although he doesn’t appear in the Irish Prison Records which include Mountjoy.

Built as a model prison based on the separation theory, Mountjoy was completed in 1850 and provided single cells for 450 inmates.  During his time there, Richard would have been kept completely separated from his fellow inmates, in the belief that it would promote “moral and religious improvement”. In fact, the practice was associated with significant deterioration in the mental health of the prisoners.  What a contrast it must have been for Richard to go from the isolation of Mountjoy to the crowded confines of the convict ship Phoebe Dunbar.

Sketch of the Phoebe Dunbar,
Source: R.D.Shardlow, Mitchell Families Online accessed 16 June 2017.

The Phoebe Dunbar sailed from Kingstown (Dublin) on the evening of June 3rd 1853, carrying 295 male convicts, and 93 others - pensioner guards and their families.  After a voyage of 89 days, she arrived in Fremantle on 30th August.  Sixteen lives were lost on the voyage, nine of them convicts, with three more dying soon after landing. Disease had been rife on board, with many people suffering from scurvy.  Although sailing a month before the Phoebe Dunbar, the Robert Small had been delayed in transit and had arrived only a few days before. The settlement was unprepared for the influx of almost 600 convicts, many of whom were unwell. Consequently, the convicts remained on board Phoebe Dunbar for three weeks while temporary accommodation was built.

The Perth Gazette & Independent Journal of Politics & News
Friday 2 September 1853 page 2

So began life in Australia for convict number 2449, Richard Pilkington. Described on arrival as being aged 22 and single, he was 5 feet 4 ½ inches tall, of middling stout build with no distinguishing marks. He had black hair, hazel eyes and an oval face with sallow complexion.  He was Roman Catholic and could read but not write.

Richard was assigned to public works in the quarries where constant exposure to dust and grit resulted in severe ophthalmia.  He had several admissions to hospital in 1854-55; the descriptions provided of his eyes leave no doubt that his sight must have been impaired.  The treatments recorded appear to be the standard recommendations of the period, and included green shade to reduce light sensitivity, application of leeches to the temples, and use of various preparations containing mercury, silver, potassium and opium.  Diet was a part of the treatment, and consisted of tea, gruel or broth, designed to keep the digestive tract empty. Richard’s notes show additional foods were introduced as his recovery progressed.

Richard’s progress through the penal system was uneventful, his conduct ranging from “good” to “excellent” when he obtained his ticket of leave on 7th September 1854.  He spent time at Port Gregory and Freshwater Bay convict depots, but no further record of location is available after his discharge from hospital on 19th July 1855.  As a ticket of leave holder, he was able to seek employment from free settlers. He received his conditional pardon on 3rd October 1859.

The next record of Richard is his marriage in Bunbury on 31st March 1870. Emma Burk(e) is recorded as a servant and he a labourer, both residing at Belvidere. They were married by Roman Catholic Chaplain Hugh Brady at the home of James Milligan.  Belvidere was a property originally established to raise horses for the British Army in India.  It seems reasonable to assume that both Richard and Emma were employees of the estate. They had at least three children - John, Maria and Edward, with unconfirmed reports of a fourth child, Patrick.

A lifetime of poor diet, isolation, harsh treatment and hard work finally caught up with Richard. Aged 46, he died from disease of the lungs at Bunbury on 28th October 1876.  He is remembered on panel 112 of the Museum of Western Australia’s ‘Welcome Wall’ at Fremantle.

©Katrina Vincent 2017. Written for the Convict Ancestors unit, University of Tasmania. A fully referenced PDF of this work is available on request.


  1. Always interesting stories, thanks Katrina.

    1. I have included your blog in INTERESTING BLOGS in FRIDAY FOSSICKING at

      Thank you, Chris

  2. I really enjoyed this - what a wonderful way of using snippets of information and cold facts to bring an unknown person 'alive' and make us feel involved in their life!

    1. Thanks Catherine, I enjoyed writing it and learned a lot in the process. I'm pleased you enjoyed it!

  3. Suzanne Suprock18 July 2017 at 23:37

    I very much enjoyed reading your Pilkington narrative. My own great grandmother, an O'Gorman, was from Cahermurphy, the scene of the crime.

    1. Thank you Suzanne, what difficult times they must have been!

  4. I've found your convict story and it's remarkable how similar the stories of my ancestor Patrick and this man Richard. Both appear to have had a tough life and died quite young in the colonies after being convicted of livestock theft!

    1. Such difficult lives they led. The similarity struck me too. Thanks for reading!