By Irma Walter, 2019.
This story is one of persecution by the British justice system, and of dogged persistence on the part of John Garner in search of a pardon, a quest which took him nearly thirty years.
He arrived in Western Australia on the Merchantman in 1864, described as a farm labourer, aged 51, married, no children (incorrect), height 5’9”, light brown hair, blue eyes, oval face, fresh complexion, stout, slightly bald, large head.
John Garner was more than a farm labourer. At the time of the 1851 census he was listed as a grocer and publican, aged 37, born at Revesby in Lincolnshire in 1813, living with his wife Hannah, aged 34, born at Mareham le Fen, and his daughter Elizabeth, aged 12, described as a shop assistant. They lived in Mareham le Fen, a small village six miles south of Horncastle in Lincolnshire, where the marriage of John and Hannah was registered in 1836. Their daughter Elizabeth Garner married Charles Weatherhogg in 1859.
The 1861 census described John as a farmer and the keeper of a beer-house, aged 47, living with his 74-year-old mother Jemima, born 1794 in Lincoln. John’s wife Hannah (née Jenkinson), born 1817, had died in March 1861, shortly before the census took place. Several servants lived with them, including a farm labourer and his wife and child and a female servant aged 21, named as Elizabeth Walker, born at West Theal, in Lincolnshire. (This was most likely Elizabeth Whittaker, whom he later married.)
Following the sudden death of his mother Jemima in December of 1861, coming so soon after the death of his first wife, the suspicions of locals were aroused and rumours of foul play were rife in the small community. It was well-known that John Garner was infatuated with his servant Elizabeth Whittaker who had entered service in his household about June 1860. They were married at Spilsby, Lincolnshire in the July quarter of 1862. By this time John Garner’s business had prospered. He owned some land and was a coal merchant and shop-keeper.
The new Mrs Garner was said to be bad-tempered and rude to their customers. Tales of the attempted poisoning of a local family who, it was said, became ill from eating rice or sugar purchased at Garner’s store, spread throughout the district. Then several horses in Garner’s stable died as a result of suspected poisoning, including one belonging to his son-in-law Charles Weatherhogg, to whom Elizabeth had taken a dislike. Little was done in the way of investigation until a new coroner was appointed. The bodies of the two women were exhumed on 19 November 1862 and traces of arsenic were found in their bodies. This poison was readily available in those days for agricultural use and packets of arsenic could be purchased from Garner’s store. One of these packets in the store was found to be open.
In January 1863 John Garner and Elizabeth Whittaker were together charged with the murder of his wife Hannah in March 1861 and his mother Jemima Garner in December the same year. Accounts of the trial were widely reported. Several people gave evidence of disharmony in the household and poor treatment of the old lady by both parties. Contradictory evidence was given that after the death of his wife Hannah, John Garner had taken his mother from the Bede House (Alms-house) where she was living into his own home and was kind to her, except on occasions when he had been drinking and became abusive. Garner was besotted with the younger woman and they were married in the spring of 1862. Both were found guilty of manslaughter on 12 March 1863 and were held in Lincoln Castle Prison. John Garner spent time in Woking Prison and was then transferred to Portland Prison. From there he was taken onboard the Merchantman, bound for Western Australia. During the voyage his character was described as good.
The red brick prison section of Lincoln Castle, where John & Elizabeth Garner were initially held in 1862. (from https://www.lincolncastle.com/content/victorian-prison)
Elizabeth Whittaker probably served out her sentence in an English gaol. John Garner’s prison record in Western Australia is quite brief, indicating that his misdemeanours were few:
Convictions in WA
6 April 1876 – Resident Magistrate, Fremantle – Not reporting lodging – cautioned.
14 June 1876 – Ditto, R.M. Bunbury.
21 November 1877 – Conditional Release to Bunbury. Re…..(indecipherable) 21 January 1878, cancelled & destroyed 24 April 1879.
10 March 1879 – Champion Bay – Drunk on 6th inst. – fined 5/-. Ditto, twice more, each time fined 5/-.
6 June 1879 – R.M. Fremantle – overstayed his pass – cautioned.
9 September 1879 – Fremantle – out after hours – 14 days H/L. Also drunk & incapable – 7 days H/L.
5 October 1879 – Superintendent of Fremantle Prison – having a library book in his possession – cautioned.
Employment in WA
31 December 1887 – General servant £1 per week, Wellington District, employer William Cunningham Ramsey, Minninup.
30 June 1888 – Ditto.
31 December 1888 – Ditto.
5 July 1889 – Remission to R.M. Bunbury.
(Note: John Garner was employed at Minninup by Ramsey as early as 1881, his address when he wrote a letter protesting his innocence.)
John Garner never accepted the guilty verdict against him and dedicated much of his spare time to writing letters to various people in authority in Lincolnshire and the British Government, professing his innocence and claiming that his second wife was the guilty party.
The editor of the Melton Mowbray Times sent a letter to another newspaper, the Boston Guardian, in 1879, signing it ‘H.T.’, and stating that in his impartial opinion, John Garner, who over the years had been protesting his innocence and had by then served more than 20 years in a foreign land for a crime that he insisted he had not committed, was entitled to a review of his case.
Nothing happened for a number of years, but John persisted in his quest for justice. Here is an extract from his lengthy letter which was published in full in the Stamford Mercury on 14 October 1881:
‘…It will be remembered by some of your readers that I, John Garner, was, in December 1862, apprehended on warrant, and charged with the wilful murder of my mother, Jemima Garner, my natural mother, and afterwards charged with the murder of my lawful wife. Now sir, it so happens for the comfort of myself that both those women were poisoned without my knowledge, therefore I am the first and real complainant, as I have kept repeating to the inhabitants in the neighbourhood that I belong to.
Now sir, as they refuse to accept me as the complainant, as I justly am, I claim the privilege to be legally dealt with, viz., to be found guilty or not guilty, because I expect them to acquit themselves honourably. If I am guilty it is their duty to hang me. If the crimes were committed without my knowledge, as I say they were, then I must be the complainant, and it must be their duty to protect me…’
(Signed) John Garner, Minninup, Bunbury, Western Australia, Aug. 28th, 1881.
At the time John went on to say that he would undoubtedly have been next in line for a ‘lick of white powder’, as he had reached the conclusion that his young wife Elizabeth had only married him for the purpose of raising her status. His letters were well-drafted and convinced a lot of people that his plea was justified. However the issue remained unresolved for a number of years, but John persisted and eventually won the support of some influential people, who in 1888 set up a petition on his behalf:
THE CASE OF JOHN GARNER –
Efforts are being made to call the attention of the Home Secretary to the case of John Garner, now a convict on leave in South Australia (sic, Western Australia), and formerly a shop-keeper and farmer at Revesby Moorhouses in the County of Lincoln. Readers of the Mercury will remember that letters from Garner have occasionally appeared in our columns, appealing to the people of Lincolnshire for justice and protesting his innocence of the crime imputed to him, the murder of his mother and first wife on the charge of manslaughter, of which he was convicted. There was a very general feeling at the time of his conviction, that he was the victim of circumstances, but the prejudices that existed against him owing to his second marriage, and his alleged cruelty to his mother, prevented this finding a collective expression.
His repeated protests of innocence have induced several persons to look into the matter, and the result is a petition from Garner to the Home Secretary, stating his case, which is to be supported by a memorial from the Lincolnshire people. We give the texts of both the documents below. Copies of the memorial on sheets prepared for signature may be had on application to Mr. J. Cooke, 94, West Street Boston, who, along with Dr. Clegg of Boston, has charge of this matter. (A copy of the petition and the memorial were published at the end of this article.)
The petition to have Garner’s sentence quashed was widely circulated. At one stage it was stated that the signatures of 7,800 people had been received. On 5 January 1889 the editor of the Boston Guardian announced that he had received a communication from the Home Secretary, who stated that although the rightness of John Garner’s conviction would not be re-considered, he would, however, consult further with the Governor of WA over whether, due to Garner’s age and long-term punishment, a remission of the remainder of his sentence (not a Free Pardon) would be considered, as an act of grace. Months later it was announced that John Garner had finally been awarded a remission of his sentence:
The Home Secretary has forwarded a communication to Boston, Lincolnshire, that John Garner, a Lincolnshire man (who was sentenced to penal servitude for life on a charge of murdering his wife and mother in 1863), would be set at liberty, and that her Majesty had ordered that a communication be sent to Western Australia, where Garner is imprisoned, to that effect.
Stubborn to the end, John demanded that he be reimbursed for the loss of his Lincolnshire property, which would have been worth a considerable sum by that time. When this request was rejected, he decided to see out his remaining years in Western Australia. It is not known whether he was still living at Ramsey’s Minninup property at the time of his death in 1895. His death was reported in the Bulletin and republished in a Geraldton newspaper as follows:
FROM Westralia comes news of the death of John Garner who, years ago, was condemned to death in Lincolnshire for the murder by poison of his wife and mother-in-law. The sentence was commuted to transportation for life to Westralia. Garner always asserted his innocence, alleging that the servant, with whom he had improper relations, had committed the double murder. A petition with 20,000 signatures was after a lapse of years, presented to Home Secretary Matthews, asking for a free pardon. This was granted, but Garner declined to accept it, unless Government compensated him for the business he had lost at the time of his conviction. This the Government declined to do, and Garner elected to remain and die in Western Australia.
WC Ramsey, who had employed and supported John Garner in his quest for justice, sent a letter to the British paper in 1895, informing them of the death of his old employee, and requesting that his next-of-kin should be informed of his passing:
To the Editor of the Boston Guardian –
Minninup, December 31st, 1894.
Sir, I write to let you know that poor old John Garner has joined the majority. He stayed at my place for a long while. I always found him honest and straightforward. The Government have taken possession of his property and effects. I have handed to them the last account you sent him for your paper, which we read with the greatest interest to the last. You might let his nearest relative know of his death.
William Cunningham Ramsey.
John Garner died intestate and the WA Administrator of Intestate Estates advertised that any claims against the estate of John Garner needed to be made by 7 March 1896. Whether his daughter’s family in England made a claim is not known.
 Convict ships WA website, members.iinet.net.au
 Lincolnshire marriage index.
 UK marriage index.
 Registered in the Horncastle District, UK Death Index, volume 7a, page 327.
 Bell’s Life in London & Sporting Chronicles, 18 January 1863.
 UK marriage index, Vol. 7A, page 107.
 Bell’s Life in London & Sporting Chronicle, 18 January 1863.
 Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 20 March 1863.
 Bell’s Life in London & Sporting Chronicle, 18 January 1863.
 England and Wales Criminal Registers, 1791-1892, Lincolnshire.
 Journal of Surgeon Superintendent Dr William Smith, The National Archives of the UK (TNA); Admiralty Transport Department, Surgeon Superintendents’ Journals of Convict Ships; Reference Number: MT32/8
 Stamford Mercury, 14 October 1881.
 Boston Guardian, 28 November 1879.
 Stamford Mercury, 25 May 1888.
 Boston Guardian, 5 January 1889.
 Norfolk News, 1 June 1889.
 Geraldton Advertiser, 20 November 1895.
 Boston Guardian, 9 February 1895.
 Southern Times, 26 February 1896.