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Transported from Bedford to Bendigo

From Bedford to Bendigo - the story of Henry Catlin


On 13th August 1918 the Bendigo Advertiser ran an obituary celebrating the life of one of its oldest residents, Henry Catlin, who had died in hospital at the age of 91.

His early life and arrival in Australia were summed up in a few sentences: 'Born in London on Christmas Day 1827, and emigrated to Tasmania when only 14 years of age. He there learned the bootmaking trade…'.

The truth, as unearthed through records held at Bedfordshire & Luton Archives, shows that Henry had an inauspicious start as one of the poorest inhabitants of Bedford.

Henry's father, John Catlin, was born in Shoreditch, East London to Thomas and Amy Catlin in about 1790. Thomas and Amy were from Bedford, and the rest of John's eight siblings were baptised there in the parish of St John.

John married Elizabeth Fleckner at St Peter's Church, Bedford on the 24th April 1810. His occupation is listed in the parish register as 'bootmaker'. They had seven children, two of whom died in childhood. The last two of their children, Maria, born about 1826 and Henry, born about 1827 were not baptised at Bedford, we know only from Henry's obituary that he was supposedly born in London.

The marriage of John and Elizabeth was a rocky one, as borne out by the evidence of the local Quarter Sessions Court, Parish Overseers and Poor Law Union. In 1824 George Potts, Overseer of the Poor for the Parish Of Bedford St Paul swore on his Oath that 'John Catlin, late of the Parish of St Paul in the said Town, Shoemaker Did about a month ago run away and leave his wife and children whereby they have become chargeable to the said parish'.

John obviously returned to his family, only for events to take a more sinister turn in 1828 when John was imprisoned for the attempted murder of his pregnant wife. The family were resident at White Horse Lane, now Harpur Street, in a tenement known as Negus' Yard. Witnesses called to give evidence to the Quarter Sessions left no doubt as to the ferocity of the attack:

Hannah Guess, the next door neighbour, reported: "Yesterday afternoon about two o'clock I saw the prisoner go home – he appeared to be in liquor. I went out for a little while and returned before three. I heard him talking but could not distinguish what he said. As I stood against my door I saw his wife come quickly out of the House – I think she came out backwards – she was screaming he followed her immediately – they were quarrelling but I did not see her do anything to him. I was so frightened I did not attend to what they said but in a few minutes I saw him strike her upon the head ... and then she fell – I was so alarmed I could see no more – I went away".

Another witness, a grocer called William Keeling, commented: "…she was lying on the ground and the women were raising her – he was at a window in his own house – when the women said he had killed her he held out his arm and clenched his fist and said 'Damn – that's all I want to do' She appeared dead and the women carried her upstairs."
The local constable, Joseph Kennings was called. "She was then insensible and I thought she was dead – the prisoner was in one of the rooms below stairs – he was intoxicated. Several of the bystanders told me in his hearing that he had kicked her ...and desired me to take him into custody. I said 'Catlin I must take you to the Cage until I can take you before a magistrate' – He submitted and I put him in the Cage. He said nothing to me about the assault – I have heard his wife's voice so many times that I have no doubt that it was she whose cry of murder I heard."

The Bedford Gaol register notes that the Magistrate, C Bailey Esq., committed John Catlin to prison on 25th July 1828. He was freed on bail on 12th September the same year. The Gaol register records John as being 5 ft 6 ins tall, with dark hair and a dark complexion.

Two years later, in December 1831, Elizabeth Catlin went before the same magistrate and charged her husband with assault. Her statement is recorded as follows:

"Last Sunday morning the twenty fifth of December instant about six o clock my husband struck me on the head three or four times with his hand. I had said or done nothing to provoke him. Last Tuesday night about twelve-o clock he hit me again on the head two or three times with his hand without any provocation. He came home very much intoxicated and abused me. The bruise I now have upon my lip was done by the blows last Tuesday morning. I believe my life to be in danger. He has frequently used me in the same way. He has not lately used any threats towards me. He is very well when he is sober but when he is in liquor he is like a madman."

For this assault John was imprisoned for just one week's hard labour. The gaoler commented in the register that John was 'a bad character'.

Elizabeth Catlin died aged just 42, and was buried at St John's Church, Bedford on 30th July 1832. This left John in sole charge of his family. By 1836 his elder sons, Thomas, Charles and William were fending for themselves. John and his two youngest children, Henry and Maria, were admitted to Bedford Workhouse on 15th December that year. John was discharged on Christmas Eve. His daughter Maria died there on Wednesday 3rd January 1837. Henry left the workhouse to go back to live with his father on 7th of January.

Nine months later, Henry faced the prospect of transportation for the first time in his life. Along with his friend, 10 year old John Wilshere, Henry was charged on Tuesday 17th October 1837 with stealing a pair of shoes belonging to George Flood of the parish of St Paul, Bedford.

The Bedford Gaol register records Henry's appearance at the age of nine as being of fair complexion with light hair and hazel eyes. He was 3 ft 10 ins tall, scarred from smallpox and had the letter 'H' tattooed on his left arm. He was illiterate.

The boys were sentenced to seven years transportation, harsh even by the standards of the day. However, in the Minutes of the Michaelmas Quarter Sessions, the magistrates outlined their reasons for this:

'…a sentence passed upon them not with the view that at their age they should be actually transported, but the Chairman was requested to apply to the Secretary of State and suggest a commutation by their removal to the General Penitentiary at Millbank, to be there kept and instructed with a view of reformation with other Infant Culprits. The Chairman read the answer of the Secretary of State to the effect that the prison intended for Juvenile Offenders is not yet ready for their reception and that the General Penitentiary at Millbank is full and therefore requesting the Chairman to acquaint his Lordship what course the court would have taken with the Boys in question had they been aware of these facts. It was thereupon resolved that it is the opinion of the Justices now assembled that if the circumstances stated in the Secretary of States letter been known to the court at the time of passing sentence the sentence upon John Wilshere would probably have been that he should be imprisoned and kept to hard labour in the New House of Correction for this County six calendar months that every alternate fortnight of the term should be solitary confinement and that he should be privately whipped once during his imprisonment. And that the sentence upon Henry Catlin would probably have been that he should be imprisoned and kept to hard labour in the New House of Correction for this County four calendar months that every alternate fortnight of the said term should be solitary confinement and that he should be privately whipped once during his imprisonment.'

Life was precarious for Henry when he was released from prison. He continued to live with his father, John. The 1841 census records them as occupants of Waterloo, a row of run down cottages on the riverside in Bedford. Shortly after the census was taken they were once again in the workhouse. John is recorded as being partially disabled from lame hands, which would have kept him from his trade as a shoemaker and contributed to their poverty. By summer of the next year both father and son were tempted back into crime. What motivated them to commit their offences is open to question.

John Catlin was committed for trial at the Quarter Sessions by the Bedford Borough Petty Sessions, charged with robbing Samuel Allen, a cripple he was supposed to be looking after. Samuel's brother Joseph told the court that John and his son, a boy about 14 [Henry], stayed with Samuel, John 'acting as a sort of nurse and attendant to him, for which he received about 6d per day'. Drink continued to be his downfall, as Joseph was called to his brothers house late on the 26th May 1842, where he found John 'drunk and using the most horrible language'. Samuel accused John of stealing from him. Curiously it was Henry who had told Samuel that his father had taken the money, offering it back after he had found it in his father's waistcoat pocket. John's defence was that, although he had been a teetotaller for about a month he was feeling '…so very faint he thought to recruit his strength by a slight indulgence in malt liquor, and having quaffed two pints, it so affected him he really did not know what he was doing….'

It is possible that John and Henry were desperate enough to actually seek to be transported. Immediately prior to John being accused of stealing Henry had committed a similar crime for which he was to stand trial.

At the Midsummer Quarter Sessions 1842, held at Bedford, Henry was found guilty of stealing three shillings and sixpence from a group of small girls collecting money for the Queen's birthday. Although still only 14, his previous conviction for a felony meant that Henry faced a sentence of 14 years transportation, meted out by the Mayor of Bedford, Mr W R Mesham JP.

Samuel Allen had since died, but his deposition along with that of the local constable and Joseph Allen, was enough for John Catlin to be found guilty at the same sessions and sentenced to seven years transportation.

Henry finally set sail from Sheerness, aboard the Asiatic on 23rd May 1843. The voyage took 118 days, arriving at Van Dieman's Land (Tasmania) on 23rd September. His father was left behind on the prison hulks, where he stayed for the term of his sentence.

John Catlin returned to Bedford after serving his seven years. The 1851 Census lists him at Allhallows, living with his son Thomas. Later that year he was briefly imprisoned again at Bedford, sentenced to three months for threatening to shoot his neighbour Sarah Craft. The gaol register noted that he had previously been transported. From 1852 onward he was a frequent inmate of the workhouse, admitted for infirmity and drunkenness. The 1861 Workhouse returns note that he had been in the workhouse for nine years. He died there in April 1866, aged about 74.


Henry was granted a ticket of leave on 5th February 1850, having served just over half of his 14 year sentence. He was 21. He chose to stay in Australia. He married Harriet Coffee at Hobart, Van Dieman's Land on 18th October 1852 and received his Conditional Pardon on 16th November 1852.

With his wife he travelled to Bendigo, Victoria where he was to stay until his death many years later in 1918. He tried his hand at goldmining, and the author of his obituary in the Bendigo Advertiser stated that he 'tried his hand his luck with the usual viscissitudes of the average digger, without sharing in any of the fabulously rich nuggets'. However he secured his living by continuing to work as a bootmaker in order to support his growing family. He had nine children, Ellen, who lived only for 45 days, followed by Ellen Helen Christina, Harriet Jane, Henry, who lived only one year, Maria, Elizabeth, Henry, William Charles, and Frederick Thomas.

His obituary summarised his more tranquil later years, and shows that he was an esteemed and respected man, who had succeeded despite the difficulties of his childhood:

'Mr Catlin practically stayed in this city for the remainder of his life, and was therefore a resident of 64 years' standing, he having been away in the early days only, for short trips to the Maryborough and Ovens rushes, where fortune eluded him as it had done at the Bendigo diggings. An extraordinary fact about Mr Catlin was that never in his long life had he travelled in a railway train. When he was coming to Bendigo, the railway line was not built, so he journeyed in the then popular bullock waggon, his wife also having to use a similar vehicle when she travelled to Bendigo. When Mr Catlin went of to Maryborough and the Ovens, he journeyed either on foot, on horse, or on horse-drawn vehicles, and after his return from those early adventurings he was never away from Bendigo, carrying on his bootmaking business for very many years in Barnard Street. Indeed, it was only in later years that he had ridden on a tram. He always enjoyed good health and the full use of his faculties until a month or so ago, when he commenced to fail, then rapidly declining and passing peacefully away of sheer old age and full of years. Mrs Catlin died 27 years ago, but two sons and three daughters survive. One of the sons, Charles, fought in the present war, enlisting from Western Australia, and being badly gassed in France. He was returned home and discharged as medically unfit, and is now engaged in business in Perth, Western Australia. Mrs M Bunbury of 37 Lilac Street, is the eldest daughter, the others being Mrs J Carl, of Ringarooma, Tasmania, and Mrs T Morse, of Sorrento.

The story of Henry and John Catlin was constructed by using gaol records, Quarter Sessions records, newspapers, census material, parish registers, overseers accounts and poor law union workhouse records held here in the archives. The additional material about Henry's fortunes and later life in Australia was kindly provided by one of his descendants resident in Victoria, Gail Sinclair.