Sometimes there are long gaps in records, especially for people who lived before censuses were taken. You might only have records for birth (or baptism), marriage, and death (or burial)—commonly referred to as “BMD” records, with no information about what happened in the intervals between these major life events.
Such is the case with my third great grandfather, Thomas Casbon. Thomas was born November 3, 1803 in Meldreth, Cambridgeshire. He married Emma Scruby October 9, 1830 in nearby Melbourn. The 27-year gap between his birth and marriage is a silent period in Thomas’ life.
Or at least it was.
Here’s an interesting record I found on the Findmypast website:
(Click on image to enlarge)
This is a register of criminal court proceedings for Cambridgeshire held in the year 1822. I’ve marked the pertinent items. Thomas Casborn was tried during the October Sessions, convicted of larceny, and sentenced to seven years’ transportation. Sessions were courts that met quarterly to try a variety of civil and criminal offenses. They were generally held in the county seat – in this case, Cambridge.
The sessions were also reported in the local newspaper:
Cambridge Chronicle, 25 Oct 1822. (Click on image to enlarge)
I’ve included the entire article, as I think readers might find it interesting, but here is the paragraph in question.
(Click on image to enlarge)
There are a couple of interesting terms in this report: harvest home – a festival traditionally celebrated on the Sunday nearest the harvest moon in late September or early October; haulm – “the stems or tops of crop plants (such as peas or potatoes) especially after the crop has been gathered.”
You can see that Thomas’ surname was spelled Casburn in this report. Was he my ancestor? Spelling of surnames was still highly fluid at that time, so minor variations do not rule out anyone with a similar name. The fact that the stolen watch was located in Bassingbourn possibly points to “my” Thomas, because Bassingbourn is quite close to Meldreth. (Thomas’ father Isaac and mother Susanna (Howes) were married in Bassingbourn in 1800.) But this is weak evidence at best.
To complicate matters further, there were quite a few men named Thomas, with similar surnames, living in Cambridgeshire at the time. These included the names Casborn, Casbourn, and Casburn. As a matter of fact, if you read the entire Cambridge Chronicle article, you will see that another man named Thomas Casburn was charged with disturbing the peace in the parish of Burwell. (The Casburn spelling is strongly associated with Burwell.) How can we tell if the man convicted of larceny was my ancestor?
Fortunately, there are other records that help to narrow down the field.
(Click on image to enlarge)
This is a partial page from a register of prisoners on the convict hulk Leviathan. A hulk was a decommissioned ship used as a floating prison. Masts, rigging, and other components necessary for sailing were removed, rendering the ships unseaworthy, but still able to float. They were used to house prisoners in England from 1776 until 1857, when the practice was finally banned. Many convicts were placed on hulks temporarily, while awaiting transport on convict ships to Australia and other Commonwealth lands. But a few served their entire sentence aboard the hulk.
HMS Leviathan was first launched as a 74-gun ship of the line in the British Navy in 1790. She fought in the battle of Trafalgar. She was decommissioned and converted to a prison ship in 1816, and anchored in Portsmouth harbor.
Prison Hulks in Portsmouth Harbour, oil on canvas, Daniel Turner. © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. (Click on image to enlarge)
The register of prisoners shows that Thomas Casborn was the 6,072d prisoner registered on the ship’s book. He was one of four prisoners brought aboard from Cambridge on October 31, 1822. All four were convicted of grand larceny (“G.L.”) and received seven-year sentences. If you look back at the Cambridge Chronicle article, you will find the other three names. All except Thomas were transported to New South Wales (“N.S.W” in the last column) on May 8, 1823. Thomas served his entire sentence aboard the hulk and was discharged October 18, 1829. I believe the reason Thomas was not transported is that this was his first offense. The other three men were repeat offenders.
Most importantly, this register shows that Thomas was nineteen years old at the time of his conviction. This gives him a birth year of about 1803 and helps us to narrow down the list of men who might have been Thomas. I can only find two potential candidates:
- Thomas Casbon, my third great grandfather, and
- Thomas Casburn, baptized October 3, 1802 in Burwell, Cambridgeshire.
There were also Thomases baptized in 1792 and 1808, but these are too far outside the margin of error to be listed as nineteen years old in 1822.
So, the list is down to two. But which one was the prisoner on the Leviathan? I needed more information.
With a little research, I learned that the records of the Cambridge Quarter Sessions are maintained at the Cambridgeshire Archives. I emailed the Archives, along with a copy of the news clipping, to see if they could tell me anything more about Thomas Casborn who stole the silver watch. I received this polite reply on October 4th.
I have looked at the Quarter Sessions order book for 1822-1826 (ref QSO/14) and there is indeed an entry for the trial and conviction of Thomas Casborn. There is no personal information about him other than that he was “late of the parish of Melbourn [my emphasis].” This may help you identify whether this is the Casborn you are searching for or not.
He also mentioned that other supporting papers for the October 1822 sessions are located in the archives, but to access these I would have to hire a professional researcher for a fee. These papers might contain additional background information about Thomas Casborn, but they might not. I’m hoping to visit the archives myself in a couple years, so I decided to forego the professional researcher.
Besides, I think the information I received answered my question. Thomas Casborn, the convict, was from the parish of Melbourn. The parishes of Melbourn and Meldreth are next-door neighbors, and my ancestors lived in both at one time or another. As I mentioned already, “my” Thomas was married at Melbourn. There are no records of other men named Thomas with this surname living in or near Melbourn at the time.
Have I proved that “my” Thomas was the man convicted of larceny in 1822? I think the evidence is pretty strong. What do you think?
It might sound like I’m celebrating the fact that I’m related to a thief. Although it does add a bit more color to the family history, I think what I’m really celebrating is that I’ve been able to link my ancestor to these records, and because of that I now have a more complete picture of his life.
What was life like for Thomas on the hulk? Some generalities can be made. Prisoners were required to do hard labor at the dockyards or river banks.
This work was backbreaking, exhausting and very public; convict chain gangs provided a moral spectacle and example for all who saw them. The rations … were inadequate, in that they did not provide the convicts with the energy or nutrition required to perform such arduous work. This was done on purpose – the parliamentary act authorizing the use of hulks stipulated that convicts were to be fed little other than bread, “any coarse or inferior food”, water and small beer.
Discipline was said to be severe and convicts were frequently locked in irons. Mortality rates were high, although this does not seem to be the case on the Leviathan. Of the 444 prisoners brought onto the Leviathan in 1822, only eight died while in captivity.
These would be considered extreme and inhumane conditions by today’s standards. In Thomas’ time, harsh punishments were the norm, although criticism of the hulk system did occur.
© The British Library Board. (Click on image to enlarge)
I have another set of records from the Leviathan, known as Quarterly Returns. These list the prisoners on board at any given time, and they include entries about prisoners’ “Bodily State” and “Behavior.” Most of Thomas’ entries list his bodily state as “good” and behavior as “very good.” However, in 1827 his behavior was listed as “indifferent.” After five years imprisonment, this would not be surprising. In 1828 and 1829, his behavior was once again “very good.” Perhaps by then he was seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
How does this change how I think of and feel about my third great grandfather? I don’t know if I have an answer. I never knew him, so everything I know about him is based on limited information. Now I know that he committed a criminal act, when he was old enough to know better, and was punished accordingly. Did he “learn his lesson” after serving his sentence? It would seem so. He married Emma Scruby one year after his release from the Leviathan. After another sixteen years he was somehow able to come to the United States, where his family was able to prosper in ways that would have been impossible in his mother country. There is nothing to suggest he was anything but a model citizen after coming to America. The balance sheet seems to be in his favor.
Nothing of this has been passed down in our family history that I know of. Who knew about it? His wife Emma would have surely known. The children, who ranged in age from thirteen to two years old when they emigrated, might have had an inkling. If they did know, it seems that they kept it to themselves.
His conviction and imprisonment on the Leviathan must have influenced his decision to emigrate. By coming to America he was able to put the past behind him and start over with a clean slate.
 “England & Wales, Crime, Prisons & Punishment, 1770-1935,” database with images, Findmypast (subscription site) (https://search.findmypast.com/record?id=TNA/CCC/HO27/023/00041&parentid=TNA/CCC/HO27/00950248 : accessed 26 September 2018), entry for Thomas Casborn, October Sessions, 1822, Cambridge; citing The National Archives, HO 27, piece 23.
 “England Quarter Session Records,” FamilySearch Wiki (https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/England_Quarter_Session_Records : accessed 10 October 2018), rev. 26 Dec 15, 02:53.
 “Cambridgeshrire Quarter Sessions, October 18 and 19, 1822,” Cambridge Chronicle and Journal, and Huntingdonshire Gazette, 25 Oct 1822, p. 3, col. 4; online image, The British Newspaper Archive (https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/BL/0000420/18221025/008/0003 : accessed 26 September 2018).
 “British harvest: how long does the season last, when is harvest day, plus history and traditions,”Countryfile Magazine (https://www.countryfile.com/how-to/food-recipes/british-harvest-how-long-does-the-season-last-when-is-harvest-day-plus-history-and-traditions/ : accessed 11 October 2018), 9 Aug 2018.
 “haulm,” Merriam-Webster (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/haulm : accessed 11 October 2018).
 “England Marriages, 1538–1973 ,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:N63P-B9H : accessed 4 November 2015), Isaac Casbill and Susannah Howes, 15 Oct 1800; citing; FHL microfilm 1,040,367.
 “HO 9. Convict hulks moored at Portsmouth: Portland, Captivity, Leviathan: Register of prisoners,” p. 213 (stamped); PDF download, The National Archives (http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C4286832 : accessed 10 October 2018). (file HO-9-8_1.pdf).
 “List of British prison hulks,” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_British_prison_hulks : accessed 10 October 2018), rev. 31 Aug 18, 08:44.
 “HO 9. Convict hulks moored at Portsmouth: Portland, Captivity, Leviathan: Register of prisoners,” p. 145 (stamped).
 Ibid, pp. 154, 163 (stamped).
 “England Births and Christenings, 1538-1975,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:NVPC-NNY : accessed 10 October 2018), Thomas Casburn; citing FHL microfilm 887,403.
 Alan Akeroyd (firstname.lastname@example.org), to Jon Casbon, email, 4 Oct 2018, “Cambs quarter sessions, October 1822”; privately held by Casbon [(e-address for private use)].
 “Convict Hulks,” digital panopticon (https://www.digitalpanopticon.org/Convict_Hulks : accessed 11 October 2018).
 Jon Casbon, review of Leviathan prisoner register, cited above.
 “Convict Hulks,” digital panopticon, previously cited.
 “England & Wales, Crime, Prisons & Punishment, 1770-1935,” database & images, findmypast (https://search.findmypast.com/record?id=TNA/CCC/HO8/011/00204 : accessed 26 September 2018), quarterly returns from Hulk Leviathan, Mar 1827, p. 192 (stamped), no. 6072, Thomas Casborn; citing The National Archives, HO 8, piece 11.