Robbery and retribution: the true story of James Metcalfe and his transportation to Australia

Mary Slater
 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 

On Saturday 7 April 1827 George Burrow, a yeoman of Westhouse, near Ingleton, was going home at 10 o’clock, slightly the worse for wear after an evening at the Fountain Inn at Burton in Lonsdale. Paul Barker, a twine spinner, accompanied him part of the way, as far as Threaber Farm, before returning to the Fountain where he lived. Further along, about a third of a mile from his home, Burrow was overtaken by another man whom he could see vaguely in the moonlight, but didn’t recognise. This man threatened Burrow with a stick, saying “I want your money. I will knock your brains out if you do not give it to me”. He pulled off Burrow’s hat and searched his pockets for money, and then forcibly pulled off his coat (which had a red and yellow handkerchief and a pair of gloves in the pocket), waistcoat, shirt, neck cloth and braces. He was about to relieve him of his trousers as well, but Burrow pleaded that he would be cold, at which the stranger gave him back his waistcoat and half the pair of braces. The man then told Burrow to go home and threatened to kill him if he resisted.

The next morning, Sunday, Burrow returned to Burton and sent for the deputy constable, John Bateson, out of Burton Chapel. As a result of some information received Burrow, Bateson and some others including Samuel Batty, a cotton spinner of Burton, went to Forelands, the house of William Metcalfe, a farmer, and his wife Esther, in Bentham township. A man, a woman and some girls were there, but the constable and Batty went upstairs and found William Metcalfe’s son James in a bedroom, and a bundle of clothes. Batty had a stick in his hand, and James Metcalfe said to him “Lay that stick down and I will be quiet”. Batty did so and Metcalfe said “I will go out of the country and never be seen again here, if you will let me go away”. They all came downstairs where Burrow identified his clothing and said to Metcalfe “Are you the man who took these things off my back near Westhouse?” to which James Metcalfe replied “I am”. After agreeing to go quietly he was taken into custody, the clothes were tied up in the handkerchief and he was taken by the constable, Burrow, Batty and the others to Bentham to consult Hornby Roughsedge, a Justice of the Peace for the West Riding. They then returned to the Fountain Inn at Burton where the bundle was given into the safekeeping of the innkeeper’s wife.

A day later, on 9 April, all the witnesses gave their sworn statements before two Justices of the Peace, Roughsedge and William Wilson Carus Wilson. Burrow identified his garments — one was actually marked with his name — but as to money, he was not sure how much, if any, had been in his pocket. “I had put 8 to 10 shillings in my pocket when I left home on Saturday morning, but I believe I had nearly spent it all. Some of the liquor was given to others. The rest I drank. I was not quite sober when I left the Fountain on Saturday night”. But despite the huge outlay on drink he could still say “I knew very well what I was doing when I went home”. James Metcalfe had been seen in the Fountain that evening, and the barmaid and others had seen him leave about 10 minutes after Burrow. Paul Barker, on his return to the inn from walking part way home with Burrow, had noticed that Metcalfe had left.

As a result, James Metcalfe was kept in custody that night and committed the next day, charged with feloniously assaulting George Burrow on the King’s Highway at Thornton in Lonsdale, putting him in bodily fear and taking from his person the various articles (which Burrow valued at a total of 6s 2d) described above. He appeared at the York Assizes which commenced on 28 July 1827 before the Hon. Sir John Hullock, and was found Guilty. A death sentence was inevitable for highway robbery. However, clemency was shown and it was commuted to transportation for life. At this period transportation, which peaked in the 1830s, was felt by the British government to be an effective and humane punishment which had the benefit, in the case of younger criminals, of providing productive labour for the new colony of Australia (a view not entirely shared by the colonial authorities).

Records show Metcalfe at the aptly named prison hulk Retribution, moored at Woolwich, by 16 September, where the gaoler reported his character in the one word — ‘bad’. He left London for Port Jackson (Sydney), New South Wales, on 23 November by the ship Asia, a brig of 536 tons, with 99 other male convicts (fourteen of whom were between 14 and 16 years old). There was also on board a small military guard, a few other non-convicts including women and children, and a cargo of government naval stores. Despite various illnesses including cholera, dysentery and pneumonia, and a badly fitting and damp water closet recorded in the Surgeon’s log book, and having given every attention to cleanliness and ventilation, he deemed the ship to be very suitable for its purpose with all the convicts arriving safely in Sydney on 13 March 1828 after a passage of 111 days.

The indent then for the prisoners on board ship gives us, for the first time, a fuller picture of who Metcalfe (now listed as Metcalf) was and what he was like. He was 5 feet 7¼ inches tall with fair hair, brown eyes and a fair to ruddy complexion. He had a small scar at the corner of his right eye, near the temple. He was Protestant and single, had had no education and no previous convictions, and he had been a farm servant. He was stated to be 22 years old, although we know from baptism records in his home area that he was born in September 1804, making him a year older. On coming ashore at Port Jackson he was ‘disposed of’ to Col. Wall, a military man who had been at Waterloo and who had first come to New South Wales in 1822 with a regiment, had settled there and was now farming. There was a census in November 1828 and Metcalf was listed as a ‘government servant’ (a convict by another name), a ‘farmer man’ working for Col. Wall at Wallsgrove, Melville, which is now in suburban Sydney. His age was now given as 29 years.

We next catch sight of Metcalf, now listed as 41 years old, in a general muster of convicts in New South Wales made on the last day of 1837. He was by then assigned to L Macalister of Goulburn district. Only a few days later, on 13 January 1838, he absconded. A notice, including his personal description, was issued by the Principal Superintendent of Convicts and published in the Government Gazette on 31 January. ‘All Constables and others are hereby required … to use their utmost exertion in apprehending and lodging (absconders) in safe custody’. Lachlan Macalister was another ex-military officer now building up a large farming acreage in the Picton and Goulburn area, and he was also in charge of the local mounted police and a magistrate.

Metcalf must have been rounded up as eventually he was recommended a ‘ticket of leave’ by Goulburn Bench in July 1840, awarded in the following November. This would have allowed him to work for himself as long as he remained in the local area and reported regularly to the authorities and if possible attend divine worship every Sunday. However, it came too late. A Coroner’s report listed his death on 11 November 1840 reported by the police magistrate (Macalister) — cause of death ‘accidentally killed — intemperance’. Drunkenness was frequently cited as a contributory cause of the many violent deaths. The Anglican Parish Register at Sydney recorded his burial the following day in the parish of Stonequarry (renamed Picton shortly after) which is around 80 km southwest of central Sydney, at the age of only 36 years. A short life and not a happy one.


Fountain Inn, Burton-in-Lonsdale

Fountain Inn, Burton-in-Lonsdale