So you’re related to a Convict…

It’s a pretty common stereotype and sometimes an attempted insult to us Australians to say that crime is in our DNA because Australia was settled by Convicts. But I don’t see what they’re trying to get at as I’m proud to have one in my tree! It’s Australian royalty!

For the record, not all settlers to Australia were convicts and the majority that were deported Down Under went to Tasmania or New South Wales. The Swan River colony started out as a free settlement and they tried very hard to keep it that way, but  by 1850 they soon realised they were in dire need of cheap labour to build up the place. Over the next 18 years nearly 10,000 convicts were dumped on our shores, but it allowed the WA economy to boom and prosper.


james-haxton-riley-2So my Great-Great-Great Grandfather was one of the first convicts to be shipped out to the colony arriving on 13 May 1851 aboard the ship, Mermaid. 

At only 21 years of age, James Haxton Riley was living in Deal, Kent in England, and in 1849 had been tried with 2 other men, Henry & John Campbell and initially sentenced to death but then commuted to 7 years deportation.
His offence was listed as an unnatural crime… Unnatural Crime? What the hell does that mean? Was he a wizard? Did he pretend he could fly? Did he simply make a bunny appear from a hat?
After further investigations I found that unnatural crime often meant that he had either been accused of homosexuality or….beastiality. Oh now things get interesting!

I tried to find the court documents for the trial, but apparently I need to fly to Kent in England to physically search through those at the local archives. But I found an online essay which was written about homosexual convicts and he was named as one.

I started to feel a little sorry for ol Grandpa Jim. It would seem that he liked the company of men and probably would have been a little embarrassed about the fact and when caught may have been publicly ridiculed while going through the trial. The poor guy just wanted some man-love! Looking at his life in Australia, I imagined that he’d had to box away his feelings and pretend to be straight. He married a woman and had 8 children with her. Did his wife know? Did his children know? Or did he start afresh in Australia and take his secret to the grave? I noticed he’d died from alcohol poisoning at 62 years of age. Maybe he consoled himself in rum and ale to try and forget about his true identity.

Then I found another document. Apparently it wasn’t homosexuality he was convicted for…his unnatural crime was…beastiality.

Unfortunately without going to England, I’m unable to get any more information, other than the fact that he and 2 mates were caught in a field with some livestock. Were boys just being boys and went a little too far while cow tipping in the fields one night?

I’d love to find out, but for now I’ll just have to wonder at the myriad of possibilities.

And you think you’ve got a black sheep in the family!?
Well my ancestor probably shagged it…


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