My latest novel, The Convict’s Wife, was inspired partly by a chance remark from a former editor who asked I wonder what happened to the wives of the convict’s who were left behind?
It made me wonder too. So I began some research and came across the incredible story of Thomas Holden who lived at Hag End Fold on the outskirts of Bolton. He was arrested following a weavers’ meeting on the moor on 14th April 1812 and brought to trial at the Special Assize held in Lancaster Castle in May 1812, which had been convened primarily to try the people accused of burning down a mill in Westhoughton and those involved in the food riots in Manchester. On the flimsy evidence of one witness, Isaac Crompton, Thomas Holden was found guilty of swearing an illegal oath and on 1st June 1812, he was sentenced to seven years transportation to New South Wales.
It was a harsh sentence, but these events took place soon after the French Revolution and I could imagine the aristocrats and gentry of England fingering their collars and fearing for their necks as the workers began to question why they were so downtrodden, badly paid and literally starving. Fearing a revolution in this country they chose to rid themselves of anyone who made even a hint of trouble and having a place so far away to send them to seemed the ideal solution.
But what makes Thomas’s story so unusual, if not unique, is the collection of letters that he wrote home to his wife and family, many of which have survived. It seems that Thomas also kept a diary, but that has been lost apart from some fragments quoted in the booklet. I would love it to be rediscovered at the back of a cupboard somewhere as I think it would add even more to his story. But the letters are gems and a gift across the years. They bring to life the thoughts, hopes and fears of a young man of twenty who is sent away from his Native Country to a new life on the other side of the world.
The original letters are kept at the Lancashire Archives, but luckily there are also various transcriptions online that allowed me to continue with my research during lockdown. The Luddite Bicentary blogspot is an amazing resource, so many grateful thanks to them for all their work. http://ludditebicentenary.blogspot.com
I also found this small booklet which has been indispensable and contains images of parts of the letters, the various postmarks from where they were sent and other relevant information.
As I read the letters for the first time I felt like I was getting to know Thomas because I was hearing his story in his own words. This is what he wrote to his wife from Lancaster after he had heard his sentence:
“Its with sorrow that I acquaint you that I this day receiv’d my Tryal and has receiv’d the hard sentence of Seven Years Transportation beyond the seas…If it was for any Time in prison I would try and content myself but to be sent from my Native Country perhaps never to see it again distresses me beyond comprehension and will Terminate with my life…To part with my dear Wife and Child, Parents and Friends, to be no more, cut off in the Bloom of my Youth without doing the least wrong to any person on earth. Oh my hard fate, may God have mercy on me…Your affec. Husband until Death.”
In many of his letters he is sad and despondent. He believes he is innocent of any wrongdoing and asks time and again for his family to plead for a reprieve – a reprieve that never came.
Some of his letters made me cry when I first read them. One in particular sent from Sydney on 23rd June 1815 stays with me when he says:
My Dear Father & Mother,
I take this Opportunity of [ ]iting to you those few lines hoping it will [ ]ind you in good Health as it leaves me and I should wish to know the reason you dont write to me as there is a Ship sails from Portsmouth every 3 Months there is nothing in this World that would giue me more happiness than hearing from you at euery Opportunity there is never a Ship comes into New South Wales but I always go and ask for one and when there is not one I always think that /you\ quite forgott[ ] me
But I knew there was more to this story than Thomas. There was his wife Mary, whom he addresses as Molly, and their little daughter Annie. How did Molly survive without her husband? Who provided for her? These are the questions I decided to address in the novel, which tells Molly’s story from the night of Thomas’s arrest, drawing both on the facts that survive in the letters interwoven with my own imagination.
In the next two books of my series I’ll be exploring what happened to the wives of Thomas Fisher and James Knowles. Sadly, they heard nothing from their husbands, although they are clearly desperate for news. In one letter from Bolton to New South Wales that has survived Thomas Holden’s father writes:
Thos Fishers wife and Knowles wife desire that if y[ ] know anything off their husbands that you will say it or let them know in your n[ ]t letter to us as the have had no advice from the[m] [ ]ince the went to NS Wales –
Thomas replies to his father:
Dear Father you was a speaking to me about the Men that came in the Ship with me but I neuer associated with any of them so that I dont know any thing about any of them for I have as much as ever I can do to look after myself.
So their stories will come mainly from my imagination and the knowledge of the many struggles of the families who were left behind.