Convict Histories

John Parsons (c1833 – ?) (Reg. No. 4390)

By Irma Walter, 2022.

A copy of a petition was widely circulated in British newspapers in July 1868, pleading the case for a pardon for John Parsons, who in 1866 had  been picked up in Worcester and charged with returning early from Western Australia before his term had transpired, thus receiving a sentence at the Worcester Assizes for a further five years’ imprisonment. Later that year, a copy of his petition found its way into a Fremantle newspaper

A CONVICT’S STORY. Among the petitions to the House of Commons to be found in the latest report is one of John Parsons, a convict under sentence in Pentonville Prison. In 1854, the petitioner states, he was convicted at the Birmingham Sessions of house-breaking, and was sentenced to transportation for fifteen years. He served the first three years of his time in England, and was then taken to Western Australia, where he served four years and a half. He then received a ticket-of-leave, and, after working as a domestic servant for two years and a half more, he obtained a pardon for the remainder of his term. Being desirous of remaining in Australia, he went to Adelaide, where he was recognised by the police as a pardoned convict, and ordered to leave the city in seven hours on pain of being sent to prison for three years. He produced his pardon, but was told by one of the magistrates that it was of no use there, and was recommended to go back to England. He tried to ship to Melbourne; but no captain would have him on board, as there was a penalty of £100 for taking convicts to that city. He then went to Singapore, where, on landing, he was told by the police that, being a discharged convict, he had no right to come there, and he could not remain. He then took ship for England, went to Birmingham, and finally, to Worcester, in which city he was arrested on the charge of being illegally at large, tried, convicted, and sent back to penal servitude for five years, which he is now serving. He narrated all the preceding circumstances to the Judge who tried him; and the Judge reserved certain technical points in behaviour, which were, however, overruled. He petitions the House of Commons for a remission of his sentence.[1]

John Parsons’ story began with his trial in Birmingham at the age of 19 on 20 October 1854 for housebreaking which, not being his first offence, earned him 15 years’ penal servitude.

He was transferred to Millbank Prison, and from there was sent to the Stirling Castle hulk on 31 May 1855.[2] It was recorded that he had made a ‘feigned attempt at suicide’ while in Millbank Prison. A suspicion was also entertained that while at ‘S. Castle’ (Stirling Castle hulk), he had intended to attempt an escape.[3] [No further confirmation of these two events has been found.]

On 3 July 1857 he arrived at Fremantle in Western Australia in the convict ship Clara (Journey1), received from Portsmouth Prison. Described as a barman, married with no children, aged 24, height 5’7”, with light brown hair, brown eyes, a long face, sallow complexion, and middling stout. He had a tattoo ‘M. A. Clare’ on his right arm and a scar over his left eye.[4] He was able to read and write imperfectly and his conduct while in Separate Confinement, on Public Works and during the Voyage – all ‘Good’.

His Record in WA

30/12/57 – On Bread & Water for two days.

1/6/58 – Transferred to Class 2.

29/12/58 – As Provisional Prisoner received from Albany No. 2.

5/1/59 – On Ticket of Leave.

19/4/59 – On Ticket of Leave (again?) [5]

18/7/61 – Issued his Conditional Pardon.

His Conditional Pardon disallowed him the right to return to England, but in earlier times would have permitted him to travel to the Eastern Colonies. However by this time the other colonies, alarmed at the number of crimes being committed by this criminal class, had become fiercely protective of their borders against entry by convicts from the West.

In 1862 John Parsons went to Adelaide, but was told that he had only seven days to leave the colony or he would be imprisoned for three years. According to details given in his petition, after being refused passage from Adelaide to Melbourne, he embarked on a vessel bound for Singapore, where once again he was refused permission to land. In a desperate situation, Parsons joined the crew of a Dutch ship, the Valvish, which was heading for London, arriving there in 1863.[6]

He went to Birmingham, where he stayed for about nine months, being recognised by the local police, who suspected that he had come back illegally on a Conditional Pardon, but were prepared to allow him to remain, providing he found work and earned an honest living. He left the city and went to join his wife in Worcester, where the local police were not so accommodating. They suspected that John Parsons, with no visible signs of earning a living by honest means, had been involved in a series of robberies that had taken place in Worcester and in the neighbouring county of Hereford. He was advised to move on and find work in another place where he was not known, and endeavour to obtain an honest livelihood, advice that he shrugged off in an insolent manner.[7] Further enquiries into Parsons’ status resulted in his arrest, charged with being at large before the expiration of his sentence, and on 14 July 1866 was sentenced to a further five years.[8]

Secretary Walpole rejected Parsons’ petition, and it was then taken up by a Member of Parliament, Mr Denman, and presented to the House of Parliament in the hope of obtaining his release.[9]

However, any sympathy that John Parsons may have earned from the general public after reading his story was diminished by the publication of a letter written by Edward Webb,  J.P., in Worcester on 9 July 1868, addressed to the Secretary of State, declaring that John Parsons was a most dangerous individual, who despite warnings that he should seek to earn an honest living, was suspected, along with some of his Worcester companions, of having committed a serious burglary a few nights prior to his arrest for being illegally at large. Webb’s letter concluded by listing Parsons’ earlier convictions

…. You will find, on an enquiry, that the following convictions are registered against him: –  January 1852 – stealing shirts, three months’ hard labour; January 1853 – burglary; eighteen months’ hard labour; January 1854 – attempted felony, two months’ hard labour; October 1854 – housebreaking; 15 years’ transportation.[10]


Prison Record After Re-Arrest at Worcester

5/3/66 – Worcester Assizes – Point of Law Reserved. Judgement Respited.[11]

18/4/67 – To Pentonville Prison.[12]

24/6/67 – Conduct Good. Transferred to Portland Prison.[13]

22/6/69 – Sent to Parkhurst Prison. Health Good, conduct Good.[14]

4/12/69 – Petition for release from his five-year sentence rejected.[15]

21/6/70 – From Parkhurst Prison to Millbank for Licence. (Released)[16]

Due to the end of transportation in 1868, John Parsons avoided transportation to WA for a second time, but was able to serve his sentence in his home country, with an early release in 1870.


[1] Herald, Fremantle, 26 September 1868.

[2] Millbank Prison Registers of Convicts, Series HO24, Piece No. 6.

[3] Convict Depot Registers, Character Book (R19)

[4] Convict Department, Estimates and Convict Lists (128/1-32)

[5] Ibid.

[6] Worcester Journal, 11 July 1868.

[7] Worcester Journal, 18 July 1868.

[8] UK National Archives, Prison Registers, Series HO8, Piece No. 179.

[9] Ulverstone Mirror, 11 July 1868.

[10] Worcester Journal, 18 July 1868.

[11] UK National Archives, Prison Registers, Records Created or Inherited by the Home Office, Series HO27, Piece No. 145.

[12] Portsmouth Prison, Hampshire, Register of Prisoners, PCOM2, Piece No. 112.

[13] UK National Archives, Prison Registers, Series HO8, Piece No. 172.

[14] UK National Archives, Prison Registers, Series HO8, Piece No. 180.

[15] Correspondence and Warrants, Series HO13, Piece No. 110.

[16] UK National Archives, Prison Registers, Series HO8, Piece No.184.