Our local studies section recently acquired a copy of Peter Hind's fantastic new book The Campbelltown Convicts. It's a must read for those with an interest in Australian history and in particularly our convict past.
On 19 March 1818, a young man called John Champley was committed to the House of Correction in Beverley, Yorkshire, England, for two years’ hard labour. He had been convicted of being a party to the theft of eighty pounds of butt leather in Pocklington on 13 December 1817.
Four months later, after an attempted escape from the House of Correction, he was sentenced to transportation to one of His Majesty’s ‘Plantations or Colonies abroad’.
Champley arrived in the penal colony of Sydney Cove on Thursday 7 October 1819 and was assigned to a shoemaker at Parramatta. After receiving his freedom in May 1826, Champley left Parramatta – with the shoemaker’s wife.
Early in 1829, Champley and his family left Sydney to live at Bong Bong. In February 1830, following a robbery at the nearby Oldbury estate, Champley and his two alleged accomplices, John Yates and Joseph Shelvey, were sentenced to death at Campbelltown. They were saved from the gallows upon appeal by their barrister and their death penalties commuted to ‘life and hard labour in irons’. Champley and Shelvey were sent to Norfolk Island, and Yates to Moreton Bay.
About a year later, two captured bushrangers from Jack Donohoe’s gang made confessions concerning the robbery and Champley, Shelvey and Yates were brought home and pardoned. However, the trial and incarceration had by now reduced their lives from one of hope to one of despair.
Many Australians now take great pride in tracing their convict heritage, but this has not always been the case. Historically governments destroyed convict records and families kept their offspring in the dark about their convict ancestry which has made it difficult to establish the true stories of these convicts.
The backdrop to this story is the slavery of the convict system in New South Wales with the terror of the penal settlements of Norfolk Island and Moreton Bay.
Under this evil system excessive floggings were handed out by the magistrates. The floggings and starvation drove many convicts to abscond and take to the bush to become bushrangers. Even when the convicts were emancipated they were still treated as second class citizens.
This book serves to record as many facts and details as possible of one story from this tragic period in our country’s history. It is a timely reminder that compassion and authority do not always go hand in hand.