Many years ago justice was hard and the sentence for stealing just a few pence could well be seven years transportation or even life – stealing more and it could well be a hanging. In Bookham, gallows at the junction of Crabtree Lane and Leatherhead Road saw the hanging of Ralph Sutherland for sheep stealing from Polesden Lacey. Some extracts from the local assizes some two hundred or so years ago tell the story. These examples were taken from the Surrey Assizes at Croydon in July 1793:
• John Bates, alias John Smith alias Lucky Jack and Sarah Bookham alias Amos, burglary in the dwelling house of Isaac Callaway and stealing goods value £9 19s 6d – transportation for life
• John Howard, stealing goods value 20s property of Richard Carpenter Smith and Thomas Pooley privately in their shop – 7 years transportation
• James Follon, for stealing goods, value 6d, and a bank note, value £100, from James Downes, privately from his person – 7 years transportation
• Edward Poole, for a highway robbery on William Ralph Cartwright and taking from him goods and money, value £32 8s 0d – transportation for life
Back in those days prisons did not exist as we know them. The penal choice was some form of physical punishment, death or flogging, or transportation, banishment from the land. In the early 1700s America was a British colony far enough away to lose the lesser criminal and to solve a local problem. Send the criminal away and keep Britain free from crime.
This went on with large numbers transported until the American War of Independence in the 1770s and when America in 1776 declared itself independent. This set a problem for the magistrates – transportation was still a sentence but there was nowhere to transport them. Prisoners were temporarily lodged in rotting hulks of warships moored along the Thames in chains and disgusting conditions.
A solution however was at hand, James Cook had discovered a new world in Australia in 1770 and a coast which he named New South Wales . Some ten years or so after the loss of America a decision was taken to set up a penal colony in Botany Bay in New South Wales and a fleet of 11 ships set off with some 700 convicts. These terrible convicts included a 9 year old boy who had stolen clothes and a pistol and an 82 year old woman convicted of lying under oath. After a 252 day voyage and 15,000 miles the ships reached land and those surviving the journey were taken in chains to their new life. Life was brutal and criminals were treated like criminals.
North of Botany Bay a more ideal harbour for the ships was discovered surrounded by attractive agricultural land. The new location was named Sydney after the lord of the same name who was a government minister under prime minister William Pitt. Sydney was developed to become one of the main colonies for prisoners. Further penal colonies were set up in other parts of Australia .
The new landowners of Australia soon took full advantage of this source of labour. Given their new surroundings and new life the criminals soon became new people and provided a marvellous cheap work force to build a new country. A good worker soon earned his reprieve and could establish a new life. In practice very few of the prisoners ever returned to England , the new land offered a great future and the wealth of the area grew. In the mid 1800s was the gold rush. It has been reckoned that some 160,000 convicts were transported to Australia in the years 1788 to 1868 and about 40% of the current population have their roots from this origin.
It was not until well into the 1800s that the penal reformers had their say and prisons in Britain were built and the concept of reforming prisoners grew. All this seems to be remote from the justice of today with no capital punishment and perhaps only a short sentences for a major crime with release after half of it is served. To many transportation proved eventually to be a blessing, a gateway to a new life and a release from the hardships of a Victorian or earlier Britain .