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
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