John Culpin of Upton, Northamptonshire; Transported to Tasmania

HMS Anson in Tasmania

The convict ship HMS Anson arrived in Hobart, Tasmania on 4th February 1844, after sailing from Southampton on 1st October 1843,  with the greatest number of transported convicts ever to leave the shores of England on a ship. John Culpin was one of these convicts having been convicted in October 1842 and sentenced to be ‘transported for a period of 15 years’.

John was one of 499 convicts on board, and 326 crew.

John Culpin was born in 1798 in the parish of Castor, Northamptonshire, probably in the small village of Upton. His parents, William Culpin and Mary Parkinson had lived there since at least 1793 (when they were declared as ‘of this parish’ in the Parish Register, William had been born in Woodnewton. This village is a few miles away and he was one of the first Culpin family members to move from Woodnewton to Castor at the end of the 18th Century.

We don’t know much about John’s early life but we know that by the time he was transported to Australia he had gained quite a number of farming skills.  The records for the Southport Penal Colony on Tasmania state him to be skilled as a ‘Ploughman’, a ‘Shepherd’ as well as being a ‘Perfect Milkman’.

There aren’t known to be any images of him, but we know quite a bit about what he looked like, from his penal colony records. At the age of 46 he was 5 foot 4 inches, had a dark complexion and an oval head. His hair was brown with matching whiskers, his eyes and eyebrows were light brown and he had a large mouth with a medium nose!

By the time of his arrival in Tasmania (then called Van Diemans Land) he had a number of scars. There is no way of knowing if these were old, but we can probably assume they predated his transportation. The scars recorded, a large one across his chest and ones on each of his legs, were obviously prominent but there is no mention of a scar on his neck from when he attempted to commit suicide, just prior to his last conviction. Perhaps it healed well or was hidden by his beard!

Tasmanian records and those for the ship he travelled on, HMS Anson record him as having ‘good conduct’, and he said to be industrious. By contrast, previous to his transportation to Australia, he had been in and out of trouble for years.

His earlier life

Little is known about his early life, but he must have learnt at least some of his farming skills from his father, who was also a shepherd. We are not sure where he lived until he was in his late twenties, but we can probably assume it was in Castor or somewhere nearby as by May 1832 he was living in a ‘tenement’ or ‘messuage’ with two other men.

Living in Upton, near Castor, Northants

An advert was placed in the local papers to announce the sale, by lots, and by freehold, of a number of properties in the Castor and surrounding area. John’s cottage was one of these. The details of who purchased them on 26th May 1832, at the Angel Inn, Peterborough, aren’t known, but it is likely they were sold tenanted and with John remaining in them but with new landlords.

This property could be the one he later lived in, when he was referred to as a ‘Cottager’ as it is typical of the ones these sort of people occupied. This dwelling had in addition to the house, a ‘garden, Dovecot, Cow Hovel, Piggeries and convenient outbuildings’

Find out about the sale of the cottage

Larceny 1832

The first recorded offence for which he was sent to Gaol, appears in 1832, just before the cottage he was living in had new owners. At the Easter Court Sessions at Peterborough, he was sentenced to five weeks for larceny. This may have been his first offence, or simply the first one surviving in records, but we do know it was the first of the three custodial sentences mentioned at his transportation hearing.

Transportation decisions often looked at ‘past crimes’ and usually focused on those that led to time in gaol but there were often others. Some of these that did not lead to gaol sentence ended up with fines. These often did not show in the formal transportation record but clearly might have been discussed in the final trial. An example in 1837, (see below) is one such case recorded against John.


Three years after the purchase of his ‘newly erected messuage’ by new landlords, he was married. On 26th Feb 1835, John married Ann Whitehead at the Upton Chapel. This ancient chapel-of-ease was built as a daughter church to St Kyneburgha, Castor in 1120 and still shares the same parish priest. The church is set in the fields to the east of Upton village. John stayed in the village of Upton and with his wife started their family of five children; Jane born 1836, Daniel 1838, Elizabeth 1839, William 1840 and Hannah 1842.

Pound Offence 1837

John’s criminal activities continued after his marriage. It was two years or so after his marriage that the offence mentioned above occurred. John was found guilt of a Pound Offence in 1837. He was described in an 1837 newspaper report about his hearing at the Court Sessions in Peterborough as a ‘cottager’. This was a person who leased a small plot of land with a house or cottage on it, and could well be the plot mentioned in the sale earlier. The land was often worked like a family vegetable plot or small holding and often had a pen for pigs and sheep. Some cottagers managed quite well with their plots and were able to feed their family as well as sell some produce at local fairs, others were less successful and struggled to feed both the animals on their land as well as their family.

John’s court appearance in 1837 appears to be about offences he committed with the village Pound.

Very few Pounds or Pinfolds survive. This is an example from the village of Barlow in Derbyshire

The ‘Pound’ was also known as a ‘Pinfold’ in northern and eastern England and was an enclosure maintained to hold animals that had been found straying on other people’s land or on the common without permission. The practice dates back to medieval times and was maintained by the village’s ‘Pinder’, an officer of the Lord of the Manor. Animals were only released from the Pinfold or Pound after payment of a fine. Such laws were essential parts of the ways village were controlled. Forcibly breaking into the pound to release the animals was an offence punishable by a fine and, or imprisonment. These offences were well known and penalties respected by villagers.

John was found guilty of committing just this offence in 1837. Pounds were in common use at the time and John would have known clearly the penalty for breaking the rules. Additionally Upton was a very small community where everyone would know everyone else so we are left with the question of why did he do it? One of the news reports states that John had repeatedly let his animals trespass, presumably either because he needed to feed them (a cottage plot might have been small) or simply because he thought he could get away with it.

Once his animals had been removed to the Pound he would have to pay a fine to get them back, but John chose to ‘break in’ and remove them. His decision not to simply pay the fine and to ‘break in’ is an odd one in such a small community. It was bound to be discovered that he had done it and the penalty of a court appearance was an obvious consequence for such a move. Sadly it was an error of judgement on his part or worse still he may have simply thought he would be allowed to ‘get away with it’.

Whatever the issue behind this episode, this relatively local matter was widely reported across the region.

Read newspaper reports about the Court Hearing for this crime

Stealing Wool 1838

Although the crime of 1837 was reported in a number of newspapers it didn’t lead to a custodial sentence. The next recorded incident did. In January 1838 he was reported to have been to been’stealing wool from the backs of several sheep’ said to be owned by a Castor farmer. He was found guilty of the crime at the Peterborough Sessions held on the 6th April later that year. The actual hearing was a lengthy affair partly because during his time in the court, a fire broke out at a local brewery, and the entire court hearing was suspended while ‘everybody’ went out to help sort it out. The actual report for this incident makes interesting reading and does reflect a little of what life was like in early nineteenth century Peterborough. After resolving the fire, the court resumed and John’s case was heard. Whatever was discussed it took a further two hours, after which John was sentenced to twelve months hard labour at the local House of Correction.

This was a bad move for John and a significant contributing factor to his later transportation. Without the details of the trial it is hard to see what actually happened but the reports indicate it was simply ‘theft’. The theft of the wool in winter may have risked not just farmer’s revenue from the wool but the life of the sheep concerned.

John was a shepherd and his father had been one, so he would have known the risks of shearing a sheep in winter. Today it is practised, but usually where the animals are housed indoors during the period and there is good husbandry. To do it in open fields was a risk. Given that, John had at least two previous crossings with the law, the best conclusion does appear to put John in a bad light.

Read more about this incident

John served his term in Gaol and returned to Upton knowning what would occur if he was sentenced again. The usual punishment for repeat offenders was transportation. Sadly this was his fate.

1842 His final conviction and his sentence to be ‘Transported’

In 1842 John was accused of stealing ‘a quantity of wheat in the chaff’ and some sacks from an Upton farmer called Tebbutt. The items were found on John’s premises hidden under some potato ‘tops’.

John must have realised that this incident, if he was convicted of it, would lead to him being transported because shortly before he was arrested he tried to commit suicide. The Lincolnshire Chronicle of 14th October 1842 states,  ‘previous to being in custody, made an attempt upon his life by cutting his throat, dividing the windpipe, but missing the main artery;’. His attempt was unsuccessful as the Chronicle reports,’…he was consequently in an enfeebled state, but sufficiently recovered to become an inmate of the gaol.’

At the Peterborough Sessions of 20th and 21st October 1842, John was found guilt and sentenced to ’15 years’ transportation’. 

Read about the 1842 Court Case

Chatham Prison Hulk

Convicted people who were to be transported were often sent to a prison hulk

Typical prison hulk similar to HMS Fortitude at Chatham.

John was sent to a prison hulk to wait for his transfer to the Local Gaols were often full and awas sent to Chatham to the prison hulk HMS Fortitude arriving on 2nd November 1842 to await transportation to Australia.

Transportation to Australia 1843

John was transferred to Southampton in September 1843 where he joined the prison ship HMS Anson. He left England for the last time on HMS Anson on 1st October 1843 with 825 other people, 498 of which were convicts, the largest number ever to sail from England in one ship. She sailed for Australia under the command of Captain Coglin and after four months at sea docked at Hobart on 4th February 1844. This was the only sailing the ship made from England to Australia as a convict ship as after the convicts were disembarked, the ship was refitted as a prison for the island. It was towed to Prince of Wales Bay, Risdon, near Hobart where it was used as a female convict prison from 1844 until it was dismantled.

John was transferred to the hard labour work gang at Southport Station and served on the gang for 2 years.

Shortly later he applied to the state governor for free passage for his wife (and presumably children), but there is no record as to whether this was accepted or whether she refused, but his family did not travel to Australia and remained in England.

John was to stay in Tasmania finally dying there on the 7th February 1881 at the age 81. He had actually outlived his wife back in England! In later life he was employed as a labourer and lived at the Brickfields Pauper Establishment, Hobart.

His wife Ann remarried in the June Quarter of 1863 in the Peterborough Registration District. Spouses of Transported persons were given permission to re-marry essentially on the equivalent of desertion.

Find out about conditions for remarrying

John was a given a condition pardon on 16th November 1852, about 8 years 9 months after arriving in Tasmania.

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