Thomas Dowse: Unaccompanied Minor

There is a lake in Sandgate, my suburb on the edge of Moreton Bay, called Dowse Lagoon.  It is named after one of Sandgate’s first European settlers, Thomas Dowse, (1809-1885) who settled here with his wife and family in 1842.  Thomas Dowse was an ex-convict.  In September 1824, at the age of 15, he was tried in the Old Bailey:

for stealing, on the 16th of August , at St. Andrew, Holborn , a coat, value 2 l. a waistcoat, value 5 s. a pair of trowsers, value 10 s. a handkerchief, value 4 s. and a shirt, value 4 s.

He stole these items and pawned them for 35 shillings.

This is where the story gets strange, for the main witness in the case was Catherine Dowse, a widow – and Thomas’s mother.  The clothes belonged to Tom’s brother (though technically they were Catherine’s, since minors could not own property).

So what was going on?  Was Tom a tearaway, whose mother despaired of him and turned him over to the police?  Was this a case of extreme sibling rivalry, with Catherine siding with her other son? It seems unlikely that this was a dysfunctional family, because Catherine later joined him in New South Wales.  In 1838, he wrote that ‘his mother an aged woman has also joined him in this Colony and is depending upon him for support.’

So was the whole thing a set up?

My friend and colleague, Jennifer Harrison, who knows much more about the early Moreton Bay settlement than I do, thinks that it was.  There were several Dowses in early New South Wales, including a Private Thomas Dowse in the 17th regiment, who was a witness in a court case in 1834.  If Private Dowse was related – a father or an uncle, perhaps – Catherine may have hoped to get Tom sent to Australia to join him, with the rest of the family to follow in due course.

If this is the case, it was a desperately risky plan.  Stealing from a private dwelling – even your own mother’s private dwelling – goods worth more than £1, was a capital offence, and Thomas Dowse, 15, was sentenced to death at his Old Bailey trial.  It was unlikely that the authorities would hang a boy his age, and sure enough, the sentence was commuted to transportation for life – but there were still many hazards ahead.

He might have died of gaol fever in England – and it was nearly 3 years before he left on the Florentia for New South Wales.  With a few notorious exceptions, most convict ships were well run, but there were still dangers of death, from disease or shipwreck, on the voyage out, and the many horrors of the convict system ahead of him in the colony.

Thomas Dowse, in State Library of Queensland

Yet, as it happens, Tom flourished.  He married 4 years later, gained a ticket-of-leave (rather like parole) in 1836, and a conditional pardon in 1839, 15 years after he had stolen and pawned his brother’s clothes.  In 1842 he moved to Moreton Bay, bought land, and set up in business. He became an auctioneer, got involved in local politics and was elected Town Clerk in 1862.  He kept a diary of these years that is now in the State Library of Queensland and when he died, there were glowing obituaries to him – though few references to his convict past.

Did the Dowse family conspire to have Thomas transported to New South Wales?  It’s impossible to know for sure.  There are certainly some examples of people committing crimes in the hope of a one-way ticket to Australia.  Sometimes it could go terribly wrong, such in the case of a woman who stole goods to follow her transported lover – but was sentenced to hang instead.

Yet when circumstances were desperate at home, people took enormous risks for a chance of a new life.  When news came through that transportation to Van Diemen’s Land was to end in 1851, there were riots in the women’s prison in Dublin.  For these prisoners, Van Diemen’s Land seemed a better prospect than famine-ravaged Ireland.

The response of the authorities was to emphasise how awful the convict system was.  Transportation was supposed to act as a deterrent, not an opportunity, so the British government ratcheted up the brutality of the system to try to deter opportunists.  Punishment, not profit, was the aim.

But the occasional story of a convict made good always had more impact back home than government accounts of how dreadful the system really was.  One personal success story plays better in public opinion than vague accounts of anonymous misery.

Do I need to emphasise the parallels with the situation of illegal immigrants coming to Australia today?  Desperate people will take terrible risks, in the hope of a better life.  Once the first member of the family arrives, a chain of family members follow, as and when they can, by legal or illegal means.  And desperate families will often send a teenager out first, because they hope that the authorities will be more lenient in how they deal with him.

The response of authorities is to try to deter people by stressing the dangers ahead – but danger is relative, if you live in Ireland in the 1840s, or Afghanistan today.  And part of me feels that we can always use a few more Thomas Dowses, risk-takers with guts and determination who are not afraid of hard work.

This time last year:
Contested Places, 25 June 2011
Mistaken Lords, 28 June 2011

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8 responses to “Thomas Dowse: Unaccompanied Minor

  1. Thought-provoking stuff, as always, Marion.
    I am quite troubled by the migration debate, and have been for some time. The issues are complex and the ground seems to me to have shifted a great deal from the simplicities of the Pauline Hanson/ John Howard era. As a migrant myself, living with someone whose parents were refugees from the Nazis, the issues then seemed pretty clear. But now?
    The debate this week has ostensibly been about stopping the boats, because of the risk of drowning. The whole thing is so terrible, the appalling tragedy of all those deaths at sea so horrendous to contemplate … But am I the only one who sensed that some of those parliamentarians were squeezing out crocodile tears yesterday? Whatever those, particularly of the Tony Abbot persuasion, say, they don’t want to stop the boats because they are worried the people on them might not get here. They want to stop the boats because they don’t want the people on them to get here.

  2. Thanks Sally. I think we are all troubled at the moment – and appalled by the stalemate at the political level.
    One further irony of Thomas Dowse’s story (which I left out, as the post was getting too big and baggy) is that he and his son were attacked by Aborigines in Sandgate who weren’t particularly keen on HIS migration to THEIR country. The attack was the trigger for the introduction of the Native Police to the area, who ‘dispersed’ the Aboriginal people from the area.

  3. What a great post; yes, I’ve come across similar although not quite as obvious set-ups to be transported to Australia.
    The poor souls were so desperate to get to sunny, Nirvana-like Oz they’d do almost anything.
    Interesting parallel with todays refugees – nothing will stop the boats (sorry, Tony) because there will always be strife somewhere forcing people to take mammoth risks to find safe harbour.

  4. Enjoyed your piece about Thomas Dowse.

    While I always wondered why his mother accused her son of stealing – Dowse himself writing to the Colonial authorities said she was his “prosecutrix though mistaken motives” – I never considered the angle you bring to the tale. I do find it appealing as both his mother and brother followed him to the colonies.

    The other contemporary Thomas Dowse (of the 17th regiment) in Sydney is also interesting and there were others named Dowse living in the colony at the time as well.

    Thomas Dowse’s father, William, who ran an inn, had died in 1824 only a few months before the incident and subsequent trial. HIs wife, Catherine, was apparently struggling to keep the family together, employing Thomas to help with the running of the place. Henry, the elder brother, had already run afoul of the law a couple of years earlier when his father took him to the police because of.his hanging out with the wrong crowd and getting into mischief. Years later Henry Dowse came up to Brisbane and was helped out financially and materially by Thomas but they had a falling out when Henry opened a business in opposition to Thomas. Thomas declared that he washed his hands of Henry and had no wish ever to see him again.

    When you write “part of me feels that we can always use a few more Thomas Dowses, risk-takers with guts and determination who are not afraid of hard work.” I can only concur. Such was the character of most of the pioneers though not true of course of all of the convicts.

    If I may be so bold, I think you may be drawing a bit of a long bow equating those early arrivals with latter day illegal immigrants. Very few convicts – or anyone else either – were eager to travel to the shores of “Botany Bay” on the far side of the world, even in the 1820s, in search of a “sunny NIrvana like OZ” alluded to be Jayne above!

  5. Pingback: Forced Migration – Convicts to australia | Exodus: Movement of the People

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