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.
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.