Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Australia Day: Gateway to a new and better life

It was the evening of Friday, 30 June 1837 and William Tomlin was outside his house at Newcastle Coal Wharf, Limehouse, London.  William was a prosperous, self-made man, the owner of a fleet of lighters and barges which transported coal and timber from ships in the Thames at Limehouse up the Regent's Canal.



Being high summer, it was still very light when, around 8pm, William saw four youths sitting on a grassy bank about 100 yards away. They were pointing at William's house excitedly, in a way which aroused his suspicions. He watched them for nearly an hour and called his wife and son to take a look at them, saying that, if his house was broken into, these young men would be the people to do it. They did not realise they were under observation, because William and his family were hidden by some trees.

When William went to bed at 11pm, he made sure that he locked up well. Nevertheless, sometime after midnight the youths managed to break into the house through the kitchen window, using a knife to dig out the putty so that they could partially remove the glass and undo the catch. They then reached their hands over the top of the shutters to unfasten them. Once in the house they stole:

  • a £20 banknote;
  • two silver table-spoons, five tea-spoons and a mustard-spoon, valued at £2 12s;
  • two pairs of spectacles, valued at £2;
  • a coat, valued at £1 10s;
  • three silk handkerchiefs, valued at 9s;
  • a pair of shoes, valued at 5s;
  • a silver thimble, valued at 1s; and
  • two fourpenny pieces.

The total value of £26 17s 8d would be the equivalent of over £2,000 today.




William Tomlin was woken around 3am on Saturday, 1 July, and found the desk from his sitting room lying outside on the Wharf. It had been broken open with two chisels which lay nearby. Several papers, the £20 bank-note and the two fourpenny pieces were missing from it. One of the fourpenny pieces was very distinctive because William had bored a hole through it with a drill, in an attempt to place it on a ring.

Meanwhile, the burglars had not gone far with their haul. At about 4.30 am a brick maker found the four of them asleep in the straw in his brickfield, a short distance from William Tomlin's house. He threw them out and, in leaving, two of them made the mistake of passing close to the scene of the crime. They were recognised by William, who gave chase and caught up with them about 400 yards away, in Salmon Lane, Limehouse. He pointed them out to a policeman and they were arrested.

The two were John Burton, aged 17, and George Williamson, aged 18. Samuel Weatherstone, aged 16, a known associate of Burton and Williamson, was arrested on Monday, 3 July, having been spotted loitering outside the police station. The police found these three in possession of most of the stolen property. Burton had a table spoon up each sleeve, the handkerchiefs under his shirt and the shoes on his feet. Williamson had the two pairs of spectacles and the silver thimble and he was wearing the coat under his own clothes. Weatherstone had 14s in his pocket and the fourpenny piece with the hole in it on a scarlet ribbon round his neck. The fourth accomplice was never traced.

Weatherstone, Burton and Williamson were brought up before the magistrates for examination on Tuesday, 4 July. According to a reporter from the Times:




The three were tried for burglary at the Old Bailey the next day, Wednesday 5 July 1837. The evidence against them was overwhelming but, in order to avoid the death penalty for burglary, the jury found them guilty of the lesser charge of breaking and entering. All three were sentenced to be transported for life.

Samuel George Weatherstone sailed on the convict ship Earl Grey from Portsmouth on 27 July 1838, arriving in New South Wales in November. He was granted a ticket of leave in 1846 and pardoned in 1849. He remained in Australia, where he married Letitia Doherty and had six children. He died in Grafton, New South Wales, in 1888, aged 70. By the time of his death he and his family owned considerable amounts of land and cattle.

George Williamson was transported on the ship Lord William Bentinck, departing from Portsmouth on 14 April 1838. He arrived in Tasmania on 26 August. His transportation documents record that he was tattooed with a mermaid and anchor, which suggests he was a sailor. In 1841 he was working for Mr J McArthur in Launceston, Tasmania. By 1846 he had a ticket of leave and by 1849 he had been granted a conditional pardon. He married a fellow convict, Hannah Tillotson, in Launceston in October 1846. According to a descendant, George and Hannah "settled down, raised a family and became good, solid citizens".

John Burton, who was lame, had his life sentence commuted to seven years. He was transported on the convict ship Asia, departing from London on 25 April 1840 and arriving in Tasmania on 6 August. In 1841 he was working in a party of convicts at Southport in the extreme south of Tasmania. By 1846 he was free on a certificate.



From the mistakes they made before and after their crime, it is hard to believe these three were the professional thieves that Weatherstone, at least, was made out to be. Almost certainly they were driven to steal by extreme poverty. Today they would not even be sent to prison for a first offence of this nature, yet in 1837 these three young men only escaped the gallows because of the clemency of the jury.

Life in the hulks during the long months waiting for transportation must have been utterly ghastly. Penal servitude probably only slightly less so. Yet, following their release, two at least were successful in the new, young country of Australia. Their punishment was unbelievably harsh but it removed them from the squalor and misery of poverty in London's East End and, in the end, turned  out to be the gateway to a new and better life.


My connection to these three young men is that William Tomlin was my husband's 4x great grandfather. William died in London on 15 June 1850, survived by 10 of his 11 children. He left nearly £45,000 in his will - at a conservative estimate, the equivalent of over £4 million today.

I initially learned about this case from a report in the Times dated 5 July 1837, which I found online in the Times Digital Archive. I then found the report of the Old Bailey trial at the Old Bailey Online website. I found information about the transportation and subsequent lives of the three young men on Ancestry, in both the historical records and the member trees.

I wish all my Australian cousins a very happy Australia Day. Here in the UK our thoughts and prayers are very much with you in the aftermath of the recent terrible floods.


  1. Great story and very well told and illustrated. Thank you for sharing it with us!

  2. What a comprehensive post, thank you for the illustrations and links.
    How nice to have a contribution from the descendant of a victim of crime when quite a number of our posts are by descendants of the criminals!

    1. hi from @steelygenes - I am 3 x gt granddaughter of Samuel Weatherstone ( and one William Tomlin's descendants has tracked down - it seems we have been living only a few kilometres apart and both volunteering for the same folk festival so we are hoping to catch up in a few weeks

  3. Beautifully written! And thanks for your kind words about the floods.

  4. Thanks for joining in. I was gripped from the start! What made you decide to follow up on your ancestor's housebreakers? Whatever it was, I'm glad you did. Great post, and your contribution is very much appreciated.

  5. Thank you all for your kind comments and particular thanks to Shelley of Twigs of Yore: for this great Australia Day challenge. Apologies, Shelley - I should have credited you in my post.

    I always try to follow up on people involved with my ancestors. Often I find their paths intertwine in interesting ways. That wasn't likely to happen with these three being transported to Australia but I really wanted to know what happened to them after they left England. I was particularly concerned about the 16 year old Samuel Weatherstone. From the Times newspaper report he sounded vulnerable and disturbed. I am so glad he made good in the end.

  6. Thanks for sharing this story. From what I can tell, Samuel was the brother of Sarah Weatherstone .. another convict and my GGGgrandmother. Seems that the whole family were into crime. Even my GGGGM managed to get out of one other conviction before she was finally charged and ordered to be transported. I recently got her death certificate and it said her father was a Watchmen (ie policeman)!! Which I'm starting to find a bit unbelievable. I did find an interesting story about how he was attacked by a drunk neighbour with a hammer *LOL*

  7. Thanks for your comment, Deborah. Yes, both Samuel and Sarah were children of Adam Weatherstone and his wife Elizabeth, nee Butts. Since writing this post I've found Samuel's baptism, along with six of his seven siblings. Samuel was actually 18 at the time of his offence and trial, not 16 as he claimed.

    The 1841 census does in fact show Adam Weatherstone as a watchman. However, a watchman was not a policeman but more like a private security guard. In the parish registers of St Dunstan, Stepney and in the 1851 census he is shown as a labourer and that seems to have been his main job. The family lived in Little Harry Court off Brook Street in Ratcliff, so both jobs were probably associated with the river and the docks.

    There was another sister, Mary, transported in 1835 and the brother referred to in the Times article was probably John Williams, alias Weatherstone, also transported in 1835. Four children transported from one family must be some kind of record!

  8. Wow Caroline, it's interesting that you know so much about my family!! Another name for Litte Harry Court was just Harris' Court. I've managed to find it on the old maps. I'm even sure their mother, Elizabeth appeared before the Old Bailey (it mentions her son who was transported) but I haven't sat down to check all the dates match yet.

    So far I haven't found the matches for Mary & John (though I have seen their convict records and wondered). It's amazing the number of Weatherstone names I find amongst the crimes. My current hunt is to find out why Sarah ended up back in Gaol in Australia (twice).. it could have been for debt, but I'm just not sure yet!!

    I read, somewhere along the way, that everyone had to take turns being a "watchman" ... though can't remember the finer details of it now. Thought I'd look back into it another time. Did start to think that this family of crims needs a bit more investigating, especially when I see names like "Adam Weatherstone" in the gaol records and think, it's got to be a grandson!!!

  9. Oh.. PS ..

    I hope you don't mind if I attach your story to my tree :)

  10. Apologies for taking so long to reply to your question, Deborah - I somehow overlooked it. Yes, by all means attach my story to your tree - and thank you very much for asking.

  11. Thanks Caroline :) I'll reference you for certain.. Cheers!

  12. Very interesting story. My great grandmother, Annie Walton, was born on Tomlins Wharf and was related to the Tomlin family. She eventually immigrated to Australia (not as a convict), met my great grandfather, Walter Jones (originally from the Manchester UK area) and married. They eventually immigrated back to the UK and then to the U.S. where they ended up in the Boston area.

  13. Laine, could you please contact me via my website: I'm in touch with another relative of Annie Walton who has been trying to make a connection to the Tomlins.

  14. thank you for this - I am possibly descended from Samuel Weatherstone and am trying to trace the birth of a daughter Anne aka Nancy who married a Charles Adams, my great great grandfather. Letitia was a name commonly used in the Adams family. So am really appreciative of you sharing this story.

  15. So glad this was useful to you, KerrieAnne. Good luck with your research.