The Fitch Family of Westbury, Tasmania
 T H E  F I T C H  F A M I L Y  O F  W E S T B U R Y,  T A S M A N I A

created 2003  *   last updated Jan 2016

by Greg Harling & Bruce Eames


email       home   Children of Samuel & Sarah Fitch

Acknowledgements - thanks are due to family members without whom these pages would not be possible - Betty & George Shipperley, Phylliss & Merv Barwick

The meaning of the surname Fitch is unknown, but it originates in Essex, England, and it has been claimed that most people with the name are descended from Richard Fitch of Steeple Bumpstead, Essex, who died in 1494. Tasmania became home to a surprising number of people with the name, but the focus here is on Samuel Fitch, transported to Tasmania in 1850.

Samuel's convict records state his father to be James, and lists siblings Charles, George and Mary Ann. These clues lead us to Samuel's baptism on 30 July 1826, at  West Bergholt, Essex, close to Colchester. He was the first child of James and Mary and was followed by 5 siblings : George (undocumented other than in Samuel's convict record), Mary Ann 1828-, Charles Edward 1831-, Henry Thomas Nov-Dec 1832, and Harriet Feb-July 1835.

From the 1851 census we know James was born in Wakes Colne, a nearby parish, in about 1796. The parish registers contain no Fitch entries for the period but other parish records are more revealing. In a 1799 list of Wakes Colne paupers, a "Widw Fitch" is recorded as being given sixpence for each of her 3 children, one of whom was probably James (Essex RO D/P 88/25/1).  A further list of paupers receiving relief from the parish drawn up in 1821 contains James Fitch. Resident in neighbouring Fordham at the time, he is described as 22 years of age, single, healthy, and occasionally receiving help since 1819 (Essex RO D/P 88/18/5).

These records also contain a William Fitch, born ca 1794 at Wakes Colne, whose movements closely parallel James' and who is probably his brother. He married Ruth Bush in West Bergholt on 14 April 1816. In 1819, the overseers of West Bergholt issued a removal order against William and Ruth, citing Wakes Colne as his legal place of settlement (Essex RO D/P 88/13/3). It appears William, Ruth and James then moved to Fordham. William had several children here (Mary Ann 1821, William 1823) and Ruth died there and was buried 25 November 1824.

James' marriage to Mary has not been traced but probably dates to 1825. By 1826 both James and William were back in West Bergholt where William remarried on 18 July (to Margaret Constable), closely followed by Samuel's baptism on 30 July.

During this period James continued to receive occasional help (e.g. bread) from the parish of Wakes Colne as his legal place of settlement. When his wife Mary died in October 1836, leaving him with 4 young children, the Wakes Colne overseers provided a coffin for the burial at West Bergholt on 30 October. (Essex RO D/P 88/13/3)

Soon after, James moved away to Hornchurch, on the other side of the county. In the 1841 census he was living by himself at Osborn's Cottages, Hornchurch.  The children (Sanuel, Charles & Mary Ann) stayed behind in the care of the Lexden & Winstree Union Workouse, back in Colchester (the building later became St Allbright's Hospital, now closed & derelict but still standing).

James' brother William remained at West Bergholt. With his second wife Margaret (maried 18 July 1826), he raised a family comprising another 11 children : George, John, Jane Maria, Charles, Edward, Sarah Ann, Walter, Emily, Thomas William, Alfred Shepheard and Eliza). He continued to live at West Bergholt into the 1860's and was buried there on 5 April 1863 (NBI).

Cut loose from parental control, Samuel's behaviour deteriorated. On 10 December 1842, he was arrested for trying to exchange a stolen donkey in Colchester. Samuel initially said he had found it, then claimed his father had bought it 9 months earlier but subsequently ran away and left it with him. Thomas Bailey of Fordham identified the donkey as his, which he had left on Fordham Heath on 9 December. Samuel was committed for trial at the next Quarter Sessions in 1843, but the date and outcome have  not yet been traced.   (The Essex Standard, December 16, 1842, see also  December 23 and 30 Dec)

On 17 December 1844, Samuel was sentenced to 2 months incarceration in Colchester House of Correction for stealing clothes from the Stanway Union. (The Essex Standard, December 20, 1844). And again, on 8 Jan 1846 Samuel and 2 other inmates of the Lexden & Winstree Union House were disorderly and brought before the Colchester magistrates, from whom he received 21 days imprisonment. (The Essex Standard, January 09, 1846). Another possible reference to him is found in the Middlesex Quarter Sessions, held at Clerkenwell, London, on 29 July 1845, when a Samuel Fitch was convicted of larceny at  Middlesex Quarter Sessions and sentenced to 6 months imprisonment.

We  know litle else of Samuel’s youth, but he had several tattooes described in 1850 as “2 stars sloop E. F.” and  “Sloop 1844” which might suggest involvement in maritime activity.

His delinquency reached a life changing climax on 16 April 1847, when Samuel (now 21 years old) and his 16 year old brother, Charles, broke into their father’s house at Hornchurch, entering via a window. James had left early that morning and upon returning in the evening discovered that various items were missing : bread, flour, a great coat, a jacket, flannel shirts, razors, and a tobacco box. Suspicion fell immediately onto the boys, and the police went to Lexden and Winstree Workhouse, where they found them wearing some of the clothes and in possession of other stolen items.

On 18 May 1847, Samuel and Charles faced the judges at Chelmsford Quarter Sessions and both pled guilty to the charges. Because of his former conviction, Samuel felt the full force of the law and was sentenced to 10 years transportation. The young Charles, still a teenager with no prior offences, was dealt with more leniently, and received one lash followed by 4 months hard labour in Colchester House of Correction. (See Essex Standard April 23, May 21, 1847)

The Essex Standard wrote -

"This case presented the melancholy picture of a father being compelled to prosecute his own children ; he appeared himself a respectable man in his class ; but his eldest son having, after repeated irregularities, left his roof, afterwards enticed away his younger brother, and together carried their unnatural conduct to the extent of plundering their father's dwelling." (May 21, 1847)
Melancholy indeed : James Fitch later explained that he was "compelled to prosecute my own child" by the Magistrate and was "very unhappy to do so". In January 1849 he petitioned the Home Secretary stating the circumstances and asking for a mitigation of the sentence or a pardon. It was Samuel's first offence he not quite accurately pointed out and his son was "truly penitent". Samuel's previous employer was "quiet willing to give him employment if he is again restored to liberty". The application for mercy was refused. (Nat Arch TNA_CCC_HO18_226_00189-00190, TNA_CCC_HO13_096_00051)

In the meantime,  Samuel was transferred from the Essex county gaol to Millbank Penitentiary, London, on 29 September 1847 (The Essex Standard, October 01, 1847). By December he was on the hulk York, moored at Gosport, near Portsmouth. Here he spent almost 3 years, during which time his behaviour was mostly good. There was actually some trouble on the York at this time involving convict rioting and protest, and a guard was even killed, but there is no evidence that Samuel was involved.

Around the same time, Charles and Mary Ann returned to Hornchurch. Alas, Charles did not do well -  on 15 Feb 1850 the Hornchurch parish overseers issued a removal order against him for receiving relief, "such relief not being made necessary by sickness or accident" (Essex RO D/P 88/13/3) and the parish of Wakes Colne was ordered to support him. Charles returned to the Lexden workhouse and on 16 January 1851 got into trouble there for misbehaviour. This resulted in 21 days incarceration (The Essex Standard January 24, 1851).

Charles' later life has not yet been traced but his sister Mary Ann lived with her father at the time of the 1851 census, at Hare Lodge, Hornchurch.

On 24 June 1850, Samuel was consigned to a group of approx 300 prisoners bound for Tasmania on board the Nile. The ship left London on 27 June and travelled around the coast collecting prisoners, finally departing from Portland Harbour (Dorset) on 5 July.  The long journey to the other side of the earth then began, and it was not until 3 Oct 1850 that the ship put in at Hobart. Upon arrival,  detailed documents were collated and drawn up by the Tasmanian authorities, and it is thanks to these that we have a record of Samuel’s origins, life, and physical description. He was 5’ 2” tall, with a fresh complexion, dark brown hair, hazel eyes, small nose, and a medium-sized head, mouth and chin. He was also a Protestant and could read a little.

By 1850, transportation to Tasmania was in its last days. The increased number of free residents disliked being a dumping ground for criminals, and the system itself no longer functioned properly. The economic situation was such that convicts could no longer be so readily  farmed out to private employers and the government could not afford to maintain them in public works. Samuel and his fellow convicts on the Nile were handled as many transportees were at this date : within  9 days of arriving, they were granted tickets of leave en masse. While still under sentence and required to attend church and musters, convicts with tickets of leave were able to find their own work, live where they chose (subject to notifying local police), and own property. Later, as a reward for continued good behaviour over time, many convicts received conditional or absolute pardons. Samuel went North1875, spending time in Westbury, Launceston, Carrick, and Ross. His record is clean until 1852, but after this he got into trouble half a dozen times for being drunk and disorderly, which resulted in hard labour and fines. His last offence was in 1856, in Westbury, where he was drunk (again), and he was fined a whopping £ 1. The following year saw the end of his 10 year sentence.

At this point he disappears from sight for almost 20 years, but he probably lived in Westbury and eked out a living as a labourer.  From 1875, we are able to trace him again : on 9 Feb he married 18 year old Sarah Brown at Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church, Westbury, at which time he grossly understated his age as 38 when we know he was really 49 years old.

Sarah was born in Campbell Town on 18 Dec 1856 and was the daughter of Thomas Brown and Ellen Jane Handley (aka Heritage). Both parents were convicts who had a relationship but never married, and they had 4 children in the period 1855-1861 in the  Campbell Town area :
Shortly after Catherine's birth, Thomas and Ellen went their separate ways and she married John Hawthorn(e) on 12 August 1861, and they moved south to Ross. They had four children :

In May 1864, John could not get sufficient work and the family did not have enough money to feed and clothe themselves so he asked the authorities if their 3 oldest children could be taken into the Queen's Asylum in Hobart. A search for Thomas Brown - as the children's father -  ensued (see Police Gazette  7 & 14 Oct 1864) but he could not be found and the children entered the Asylum in September / October (see Tas. Arch. SWD26-1-7).  Things did not improve however and in 1870 Catherine, John and Louisa Hawthorne also entered the Asylum. From this point the lives of the children took a largely separate course from John and Ellen's, who increasingly got into trouble with the Police for drunkeness and disorderliness, for which they were frequently incarcerated in Campbell Town and Launceston Gaols.

Like her siblings, Sarah Jane Brown was assigned to work for settlers outsde the Asylum : she was placed with Timothy Donovan of Westbury on 1 March 1871 and within the next few years she met Samuel Fitch.They had 7 children over the period 1877-1890 : James, Peter Paul, Mary Jane, Henry Patrick, Elsie May, George, and Ada Mary. In 1884, tragedy struck : it was Saturday morning, 26 April, and at about 10 am Sarah briefly went out to get some wood. Samuel was not home and the children were in the house by themselves. When Sarah returned,  she found 2 ½ year old Mary Jane lying near the well, very badly burnt. The doctor was sent for but little could be done, and the poor girl clung to life until 4 am that night. An inquest was held on Monday, and it emerged that Mary Jane had strayed too close to the fire and her clothes caught alight.  Sarah was in fact 12 weeks pregnant at this time with her next child, Elsie May, who was born in December. Two years later, however, they lost another child, newly-born George, who died of “convulsions” when 6 days old.

Further details of Samuel and Sarah’s life are sketchy. There is a reference to Samuel as a labourer living in Westbury in the 1890/91 post office directory. He is also listed in some assessment rolls published in the Tasmanian Government Gazette for municipal tax purposes : in 1899-1901, he was leasing a cottage with land near the Main Rd in Westbury  from Denis Shanahan, and the rolls for 1902-03 record a lease on a similar cottage in King St, Westbury, leased from Miss Kate O’Brien.  Electoral rolls for the new Federation of Australia then confirm the presence of Samuel and Sarah in Westbury until 1905. In approx. 1906 they  moved up to Devonport. Son James may have been there already (at least in 1900 when his daughter was born there), but certainly Henry and Ada moved to Devonport with their parents. Here it was that old Samuel saw his youngest child get married in 1908 to John Floyd, whose family had come from Burnie in 1898 and was descended from convict William Floyd. Two years later, Samuel finally died, aged 84. His convict origins might have been kept quiet at this time, but what a story he could have told! Born during the reign of George IV, incarcerated in the infamous hulks, and sent to Tasmania in the last years of transportation, one wonders how many of his fellow convicts were still alive by the 20th century. Samuel was possibly buried at the Devonport General  Cemetery (where his wife was interred years later).

The widowed Sarah Jane continued to live in Devonport. The assessment rolls list her at a dwelling  in William St in Nov 1908, and in Madden St in 1911-12. Over the years, Sarah often lived with her daughter Ada, but by 1916 she had leased a house in Nicholls St, which was her home for the remaining 19 years of her life.

Sarah was busy in the local community, acting as midwife to many women. She adopted a baby boy, Bertram (always known as Bertie), born 26 August 1913 to a local doctor and his nurse. According to the family, they were inseparable.

In her later years, Sarah suffered from dropsy (edema). Her grand-daughter Betty remembers resting hot bricks on the soles of Sarah's feet to give some relief from the discomfort. In her last days, the local Catholic nuns were constant companions in prayer. On 23 April 1935, Sarah died at her Nicholls St home.  On 25 April, she was buried at Devonport General Cemetery. (No monument is erected on her grave.)

Her older sister Ellen, after being widowed 3 times, moved from Campbell Town to Devonport before World War I.  Ellen died at the Devon Hospital, Latrobe, on 22 Feb 1931, and was interred at Latrobe Cemetery on 24 Feb.

Children of Samuel & Sarah Fitch

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