Letters From a Chilvers Coton Convict

Letter - 24th October 1799. John Gilbert to his wife declaring his love to her and their child and that he is poorly.
Warwickshire County Record Office reference CR136/C2964/a-q

The sentence of transportation was passed on a very great number of people found guilty of a wide variety of crimes during the 18th and 19th centuries. Periods of 7, 14, and 21 years were imposed, and the majority of convicts were sent to Australia. Of those who survived the period of their sentences, few ever returned to England. Many, such as John Gilbert, never reached Botany Bay.

John Gilbert

A fascinating tale lies behind the sale of a property in Chilvers Coton in 1803 by a Mrs Gilbert to Sir Roger Newdigate, for the said lady was a widow whose deceased husband John was a convicted felon sentenced to transportation to Australia. Proof of his demise was legally required for the conveyance of the ownership of the property. However, among the bundle of papers relating to the sale of the property are a stream of letters written by John Gilbert, largely to his wife over a period of 18 months between 1799-1801.

His final days

It is possible to trace the final events of his life from his incarceration in Warwick Gaol to his boarding of the hulk, La Fortuna in Langston Harbour on the first stage of his journey to Botany Bay. A snapshot of the company he has to keep, of  “wicked men that will write fordged letters to get money” is given, as is the sense of physical conditions that are less than wholesome. Apparently educated and God-fearing, and married to a woman of some substance, John Gilbert did not conform to the common perception of a convict. This makes the despair that is the most striking feature of the letters especially moving.

Abject loneliness

His repeated declarations of love for his wife and child and his fruitless requests for a visit evoke a figure of abject loneliness. Other family members and friends do not  visit – only his mother. In a letter dated 29th June 1800 the nightmare deepens with his removal from Warwick Gaol to the hulk, and the looming journey to Botany Bay. Most poignant of all, is his letter dated 6 Mar 1801 requesting funds from William Owen, “till my pardon can be procured.”

These were his last words.

Exactly a fortnight later, W. Hartshorn, the former commander of the hulk La Fortuna confirmed his death. He had finally succumbed to the sickness that had so long troubled him.

On 20 March 1801 John Gilbert’s future was resolved. The future of his wife and child was less certain.

This article was Document of the Month for Warwickshire County Record Office in January 2009.  Further articles can be found on their website.

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