Unearthing a tale of love, woe, and murder
April 3, 2016
ON DIFFERENT SHORES is a work of historical fiction, inspired by research into a family story about which my maternal grandmother was more than a little tight-lipped. Had one of my ancestors really murdered one of Lord Northamption’s gamekeepers and been transported to Van Deiman’s Land, as Tasmania was then known?
Rumour has it we have relations who own a shipping company out there. Whilst research hasn’t yet proved this grand claim to be true, the shameful secret grandma tried to keep under wraps will finally have its day. I traced her family back to 1840, where I came across a record of my great-great-great uncle James, of Yardley Hastings, Northampton, who was indeed accused of murder and was tried at Northampton Assises in March 1841.
I unearthed committal records, trial proceeding records, newspaper reports, a physical description in James’s behaviour records whilst aboard the convict ship HMS Tortoise, and probation records from Impression Bay Convict Station in Van Deimen’s Land. I am still researching James’s later life, but I know he married twice, had ten children and died in 1913 aged 93. His second wife died in 1912, aged 92, and both are buried in Hobart. It seems life in Tasmania was not all bad.
The research, both into my grandmother’s family, who were brickmakers and lacemakers, and into the lives and social standing of women in the 1840s, including transportation, convict ships, the setting up of the colonies and the poor laws, has been fascinating and sobering.
One man was transported for ‘obtaining a shovel by deception’ and one woman for ‘stealing two lengths of ribbon;’ some were sent to the colonies simply for being a burden on their parish, and many didn’t survive the perilous journey. Women’s rights didn’t exist and it was actually believed that if women’s brains were taxed too much they would explode. (I think maybe mine has) Modern women (and men) have much to be thankful for.
On Different Shores, although a work of fiction, is firmly based in historical fact. It’s recorded that James was about to be married when the murder occurred, although I haven’t been able to discover any more about the girl he left behind. My tale revolves around James, known as Jem, and Ella, his fictional common-law wife; the girl who was determined not to be left behind. This is their story.
On Different Shores
‘You must go where life takes you,
Bend, ere love breaks you
And tears the ties that bind you.
Though we dwell on different shores,
My heart’s forever yours
And, one day, I shall find you.’
England 1840: When Ralph, the son of Ella’s mother’s well-to-do employer, Josiah Barton – solicitor of Bath, takes too serious an interest in Ella, she is banished to rural Northamptonshire, sent to Mr Barton’s friend, Reverend Buchanan, who is charged with mending her ‘wanton’ ways, and marrying her off at the earliest opportunity to a suitable match. But Ella, though illegitimate and without a dowry, is an independent spirit, determined to not to live her life as her mother does: a drudge for a man she doesn’t love.
Ella meets Jem Weston, a manual labourer, and they fall for one another. They share one life-defining kiss, but James knows he can’t give her life she’s accustomed to, and pushes her away. Her arranged marriage to Harry is a disaster; she loves James, and things go from bad to worse when he is arrested for murder.
She pleads with Mr Barton to defend her lover. Will Jem hang on the gallows, or will he be transported to the colonies for life? Jem asks her to forget him and get on with her life, but Ella vows that if he’s sentenced to transportation she’ll find him; she’s determined to do whatever it takes to be with the man she loves.