John Hopkinson: Under Six Monarchs

My longest-lived Ancestor is my 2nd ggf John Hopkinson who experienced life under six monarchs (George III, George IV, William IV, Victoria, Edward VII, George V) and brought the Hopkinson name to NSW, albeit involuntarily.

He was born in 1818 in Nottingham [1] in the final years of the reign of George III, the ‘mad’ king who saw the 13 Colonies on East coast of North America win their independence, creating the need for a new penal colony, where, it turns out he’d spend most of his life.He first fronted the Derby Assizes at age 13 for ‘Larceny’ and at 14 for ‘Offences against the Game Law,’ but was acquitted both times [2]. But in March 13, 1838, at age 20, he was convicted for Shop-Breaking and sentenced to 10 years transportation [3]. He was transferred to the prison hulk Justitia at Woolwich and comments in the Gaoler’s report suggest he was of ‘bad character and connections’, was single, and could not read or write. It gives his trade as ‘frame work knitter’ and says he was convicted of ‘stealing a pair of pliers’ [4]. The Prison Hulk Report from the same year gives a sense of the daily grind on the hulks and there is a convict memoir about life on the Justitia from about the same time (though it was written much later). This was getting late in the day for the penal transportation, in fact the Molesworth Enquiry had recommended its abolition (the echoes of slavery, which had been abolished in the British Empire in 1834, were still clear) but it would continue for another 28 years. The British Government’s main concern was keeping costs down.

By April 2 he was aboard the Lord Lyndoch, one of 330 male convicts ‘disposed’ to the Colony of NSW. He arrived on August 8, 1838, in the second year of Queen Victoria’s long reign. The convict muster on arrival [5] tells a slightly different story – he was a still single, but now called himself a labourer who could read and write, convicted for ‘stealing a shirt’. It describes him as 5 foot 5, with light hair and grey eyes, a sallow and freckled complexion and scars on his left thumb and both knees. It gives his religion as ‘Methodist’ (in a long column of generic ‘Protestants’). It is estimated by Associate Professor David Kent at UNE estimates that about 30% of male convicts had tattoos. John’s were simple – 9 blue dots forming a square on back of his right wrist and a blue ring on middle finger of his right hand, 7 dots on his left wrist and blue dots on 3 of his fingers.

It’s always surprising what you can find out about your convict ancestor and yet always frustrating about how big the gaps are. To some extent this reflects the convict experience itself as historians Connell & Irving sum it up convict life as one of ‘unpredictable movements between quite different situations…’ (p. 35). It was highly repressive, resembling nothing so much as discipline on board a naval ship – with a strict hierarchy, punishment swift (about 30% of male convicts were flogged) and with nowhere to run [6]. There was no appeal as courts were staffed by the same class of people as those to who you were assigned and we can see this with John who next appears in the historical record in Newcastle. On March 10, 1846, he is in Newcastle Goal for the ‘crime’ of disobeying the orders
of one H Glennic for which he is returned to government service [7].

This was to have been his ToL dated March 7 but, written across it is:  “April 1846 Suspended for 6 months having been punished between the time of the application for and the issue of his ToL PSW Min dated 8 April 1846 on Lv [leave] from Singleton Repd [reprimanded] No 46/2599 ToL destroyed.”

This was due to the above mentioned offence (and it was not re-issued till the end of the year.) He was then ‘forwarded to Sydney’ with four others on March 14 to ‘H[yde] P[ark] Barracks’ [8].

The final trace I have for John comes from his obituary June 10 1911 in the Armidale Chronicle. It gives details of his children (3 daughters and 1 son). I have no record of his marriage but a Rootsweb discussion suggests he was the second husband of another ex-convict, Sarah Carroll, who he married around 1854.

The obituary says he lived with his youngest daughter after he disposed of his own selection 5 years previously. As was typical his convict past is hidden, he ‘left for Australia’ and worked around Sydney until 1848 (when his sentence expired – but it doesn’t say that) before moving to the district ‘under engagement to the late Richard Hargrave’ who was the owner of Hillgrove station and the representative of Armidale in first NSW Legislative Assembly in 1856-57. There is no doubt much more to John’s story but I will close with the words from the obituary:

On Saturday evening last an old resident of Hillgrove, named John Hopkinson (better known as “Daddy” Hopkinson), passed away after having reached the age of 95 years and four months. The old man had been ailing for some time, but was conscious right up to the last and passed peacefully away. The remains were interred in the Church of England portion of the local cemetery on Monday afternoon, a large number following the remains to their last resting place.


  1. Derbyshire, England, Select Church of England Parish Registers, 1538-1910 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2014.
  2. England & Wales, Criminal Registers, 1791-1892 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2014
  3. England & Wales, Criminal Registers, 1791-1892[database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc. 2009.
  4. UK, Prison Hulk Registers and Letter Books, 1802-1849. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc. 2010
  5. New South Wales, Australia Convict Ship Muster Rolls and Related Records, 1790-1849 Operations Inc. 2008
  6. R Connell & T Irving. Class Structure in Australian History: documents, narrative and argument.  Melbourne, Australia. Longman Cheshire, 1980.
  7. New South Wales, Australia, Gaol Description and Entrance Books, 1818-1930 Operations Inc. 2012
  8. New South Wales, Australia, Gaol Description and Entrance Books, 1818-1930 Operations Inc. 2012

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