READER STORY

A con­tro­ver­sial an­ces­tor of Peter Stevens was con­victed of seven charges of ar­son in his parish. Matt Ford hears about the life of 19th-cen­tury firestarter, James Stevens

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The 3x great grand­fa­ther of Peter Stevens was con­victed of seven charges of ar­son in his parish

When WDYTYA? Mag­a­zine reaeder Peter Stevens be­gan re­search­ing his fam­ily his­tory, he did what many of us do: he started with some in­ter­net re­search. But it was the de­ci­sion to ac­tu­ally turn his com­puter off and go and visit the Sur­rey Record Of­fice that would lead him to the dis­cov­er­ies that would trans­form his un­der­stand­ing of his an­ces­tors’ lives.

“I was re­search­ing my 3x great grand­fa­ther, Robert, who was a brick­burner living in Chob­ham, Sur­rey,” says Peter. “And I heard that, un­usu­ally, pre-1841 cen­sus re­turns ex­isted for Chob­ham. While th­ese don’t record the names of ev­ery­one in the house – they just give the name of the head of the house and the num­ber of other peo­ple living there – I thought they would be worth hav­ing a look at.” He put in a re­quest and the ar­chiv­ist came back with a book la­belled ‘1801’. “It was amaz­ing; a real thrill. You could touch the pages with­out gloves or any­thing, which slightly ter­ri­fied me. In it I could see the names of my fam­ily mem­bers recorded in cop­per­plate hand­writ­ing. To be able to touch th­ese and see the names of my an­ces­tors, well, I found that quite an in­cred­i­ble ex­pe­ri­ence.”

He also came across a copy of The His­tory of Chob­ham (Phillimore, 1989) by Robert Schueller. “Sadly, the ref­er­ences to the Stevens in­side were scant,” he says. How­ever, Peter did find one in­ter­est­ing piece re­gard­ing seven fires started by a James Stevens and Wil­liam Smith in the (Sur­rey) County Chron­i­cle of 3 April 1849: “It will be seen by a ref­er­ence to the files at the Sur­rey as­sizes, that James Stevens and Wil­liam Smith pleaded guilty to set­ting fire to some build­ings in this parish and were sen­tenced to trans­porta­tion for life. We are now en­abled to give the con­fes­sion of Stevens, which was taken by the Mag­is­trates. The said James Stevens saith as fol­lows: ‘I wish to state about all the seven fires… The next was Mr Gude’s fire. We then ran home. The next fire was at Mr Col­lyer’s. I then struck a match and Smith held a bit of pa­per. We then ran away into the fields and waited for about half an hour. We then re­turned to the fire and stopped there for about two or three hours. We went away to a rick of hay that be­longed to James Hull. We then went into the High Road and af­ter we went home. The next fire was the parish fire. The next was Hodd’s; then we pro­ceeded to Lord Vaux’s and set that on fire. We could not get out of the gate and jumped over into the road. I was shot as de­scribed by Lord Vaux.”

Nail­ing down the ev­i­dence

Peter was in­trigued. Could the ar­son­ist be one of ‘ his’ Stevens? It was an in­ter­est­ing pos­si­bil­ity, but sadly he was un­able to find any ev­i­dence to prove a link – at least un­til a few months later. “I went back to the Sur­rey Record Of­fice and thought I’d check out the cat­a­logue once more for any in­for­ma­tion held on any Stevens,” he says. “Then I no­ticed an item in the cat­a­logue en­ti­tled ‘Notes re­lat­ing to the heirs of James Stevens, de­ceased of Val­ley End, West­ley Green, Chob­ham’. The ad­dress rang a bell from look­ing at the cen­suses to see where fam­ily mem­bers were living, so I thought I’d check this out. I with­drew a rather bat­tered piece of blue pa­per from the stor­age box and started to read it.

“It was ef­fec­tively notes of a will, pos­si­bly to help get Let­ters of Ad­min­is­tra­tion; dated 18 Jan­uary 1866. The will stated: ‘Dec’eased left no son at his death un­less James Stevens who went to West­ern Australia many years ago – was taken 10 or 12 years ago – at the time of Ld. Vaux’ fires – sent for life but worked at Gi­bral­tar for 5 years, ex­pected to be sent home but was sent for life, but he has not replied more than once since he went to Australia – he had his lib­erty then, was mar­ried & was do­ing well.’”

Peter had found his link and im­me­di­ately logged onto An­ces­try.co.uk: “I searched the Eng­land & Wales Crim­i­nal Reg­is­ters 1791-1892, which had an im­age of the trial record book and found the names James Stevens and Wil­liam Smith. Lo­ca­tion: Sur­rey; Date of trial 24 March 1849; Of­fences: ar­son of barn; Trans­porta­tion: life. I then searched Aus­tralian Con­vict Trans­porta­tion Reg­is­ters on An­ces­try and found James Stevens again, the doc­u­ment con­firmed he was sen­tenced for life and that he set sail from Gi­bral­tar, where he had been held in the in­terim, aboard the

Nile on 18 Septem­ber 1857, bound for West­ern Australia.

“Con­vic­trecords.com.au also shows James Stevens leav­ing on the Nile on 18 Septem­ber 1857 and ar­riv­ing in West­ern Australia on 1 Jan­uary 1858. Sud­denly it was all com­ing to­gether. I could now see the ship James trav­elled on, his height and the colour of his hair – that’s more than I know about my great grand­fa­ther! I had been very lucky,” says Peter.

Now he had his an­ces­tor’s age, it was

Doc­u­ments con­firmed James was sen­tenced for life and that he was bound for West­ern Australia

easy to find his bap­tism on 21 Jan­uary 1821 at St Lawrence Church, Chob­ham.

Peter was also able to find fur­ther ref­er­ence to James’ crimes in an ar­ti­cle in The Times news­pa­per that recorded the court ver­dict – and hinted at pre­vi­ous of­fences: “Wil­liam Smith and James Stevens, who had pleaded ‘Guilty’ to the of­fence of ar­son... The pros­e­cu­tion, Lord Vaux, had rec­om­mended them to mercy, and his con­duct in do­ing so did great credit to his hu­man­ity, but af­ter look­ing at the de­po­si­tions, and see­ing that there were sev­eral other charges of a sim­i­lar char­ac­ter against them, he felt that he could not, con­sis­tently with his duty to the public, give any ef­fect to that rec­om­men­da­tion, but was com­pelled to pass the full sen­tence fixed by the law for the of­fence of which they had pleaded guilty, which was that they be trans­ported for the term of their nat­u­ral lives.”

Turn­ing his at­ten­tion to An­ces­try.co.uk again, Peter set out to see if he could find out more about James’ even­tual fate in Australia. “I found a num­ber of other fam­ily trees posted by dis­tant rel­a­tives that showed James,” he says. “There seemed to be a con­sen­sus of a death on 30 April 1892 at Bed­fordale, West­ern Australia, aged 72. The dates looked rea­son­able and there was also a mar­riage to an El­iz­a­beth Dob­son Pusey (1845-1928) in 1862.

A new life Down Un­der

“At this stage I came to a halt as I couldn’t be ab­so­lutely cer­tain this was my James get­ting mar­ried. I like to prove things for my­self and didn’t just want to take the word of some­one on­line.

“So it was a great sur­prise in March this year, when I re­ceived an email from Australia ask­ing for in­for­ma­tion about James, and the

be­tween James Stevens, boat­man, aged 34, to El­iz­a­beth Pusey, gen­eral house ser­vant, aged 21, at the In­de­pen­dent Church, Guild­ford, West­ern Australia, on 18 June 1862.”

But there are still some sig­nif­i­cant un­solved ques­tions about James. For ex­am­ple, the mar­riage cer­tifi­cate records James as a wid­ower while he is listed as sin­gle on the trans­porta­tion records. On Schueller’s notes in the Sur­rey Record Of­fice he lists James as ‘mar­ried to Hannah?’, but doesn’t ex­pand on this or ex­plain the ref­er­ence. Had he been mar­ried be­fore, or not?

More sig­nif­i­cantly for Peter is the ques­tion of why his an­ces­tor set the fires that cost him his lib­erty? “I think there must have been some po­lit­i­cal edge,” says Peter. “The mid-19th cen­tury was a time of so­cial up­heaval in Bri­tain as coun­try peo­ple re­belled against the en­clo­sure of the com­mons and in­creased mech­a­ni­sa­tion, which led to un­em­ploy­ment and poverty. Ar­son and at­tacks on the prop­erty of farm­ers and gen­try were a com­mon ex­pres­sion of their anger. The tricky thing about ge­neal­ogy is that you can­not ever re­ally be sure why peo­ple do things,” says Peter. How­ever, this was the era of the ‘Swing Ri­ots’. “Although I can’t find any in his area, there were cer­tainly en­clo­sures there then and that could have driven him to it. Ar­son like this is not some­thing that would have brought him any ma­te­rial gain; it’s quite an un­usual crime. Ei­ther way, he clearly had a very hard time for what is re­ally quite a mi­nor of­fence.” Peter takes some com­fort from the fact that James seemed to set­tle in Australia and do rea­son­ably well for him­self. “I want to think the best of him,” he says. “But I still can’t be sure. The con­tact in Australia who sent me the mar­riage cer­tifi­cate said she had heard from rel­a­tives that he was a pick­pocket and a drunk. So I’m not sure what to think! He would have had to have been pretty tough to sur­vive on the con­vict ship and I’m sure the ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing trans­ported would have changed him.

“I would love to find a photo of James – I’ve found a photo of his wife, and an­other of his wife with his chil­dren on the farm. But I can’t find any­thing of him and I’m not sure I ever will.” But Peter has man­aged to un­cover a re­mark­able life and his ex­pe­ri­ence reaf­firms the value of do­ing some of the leg­work your­self – as well as search­ing on­line. “My ex­pe­ri­ence proves what you can find in the record of­fice,” he says. “But I would also re­ally ad­vise peo­ple to email places like mu­se­ums and record of­fices to see if they can help you. In gen­eral, they are only too happy to do a bit of dig­ging.

“With­out the in­ter­net and very help­ful peo­ple in mu­se­ums and record of­fices an­swer­ing emails, much of my re­search would have been very hard – if not im­pos­si­ble.”

The copy of a mar­riage cer­tifi­cate be­tween James Stevens and El­iz­a­beth Pusey on 18 June 1862

lady who con­tacted me said James was her hus­band’s great grand­fa­ther!”

That started a cor­re­spon­dence. “I’ve re­ceived a copy of the mar­riage cer­tifi­cate Peter found this let­ter about the death of James Stevens Snr at Sur­rey Record Of­fice

Peter Stevens at St Lawrence Church in Chob­ham, Sur­rey

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