I have used a lot of Van Gogh paintings and drawings on this page. Even though he was painting at the other end of the nineteenth century I suspect that farm workers at the beginning of the century looked much the same as those at the end. And Van Gogh is so good at showing the hardship and the strength of their lives.
At some point - maybe on the death of his father around 1820 James moved from Essendon to Enfield. He most likely continued to work as an agricultural labourer - on various documents he is listed as a thresher, a carter and a ploughman so, like most agricultural labourers of the time he could turn his hand to just about anything. By the time he had grown into a young man, Samuel Whitbread had sold Bedwell Park and so perhaps life there was not as attractive as it had been.
I know that James’ father died some time around 1820, because his brother John’s petition for mercy states that from the age of 12 (around 1820) John had had to fend for himself, after the death of his parents and no-one able to support him. (What about his big brothers Joseph and James one is tempted to ask - or his big sister Sarah? - but that’s another story.) James would have been around 19 when his father died, so most likely had left home and was working on his own account.
Indeed in 1820 I think he was a witness for the prosecution in the trial of one William Day. This was his first brush with the law, though this time on the right side. He gave his evidence: “I am servant to Mr. Pearson. On the 28th of July I slept at Messrs, Whitbreads’ warehouse, about three o’clock in the morning I heard a noise in the stable, went down, saw the prisoner going out of the yard with these things, and secured him.” I do not know who Mr. Pearson is, but it sounds like he was part of the Whitbread empire, so it is indeed likely that this is our James, and that he is still working for the Whitbreads, though not at Bedwell Park. He also took the initiative by the sound of things, in capturing a wrongdoer. So what went wrong in the next few years, that he should resort to crime himself? I’m pretty sure he remained employed, so he wasn’t exactly destitute.
Then in Enfield he met and married Sophia Anne Nightingale. I cannot find the record. I had thought they were married in St. James’ whose records seemed to be incomplete, but I now see that St. James was not built and consecrated until 1831, so it isn’t a candidate. So where the marriage took place (and if indeed it did) I do not know - not in St. Andrews anyway - I have scoured the records. The curate who christened their children certainly thought they were married anyway. But the children were christened there, so we have to assume that they settled in the area - the vintage postcard below left shows a pretty idyllic spot.
I’m guessing at 1823 for in early 1824 their first child (I think), John Newman Dearman was born. He was christened on February 15 1824. Until I find a marriage I have no idea whether this was yet another shotgun wedding or a love match. So let us hope that at least for a while, James and Sophia lived a tranquil, if plain life, like the couple in Van Gogh’s painting at the top of the page and that this was James’ love match.
Then in 1826 everything changed. In February, his big brother Joseph was sent to prison for stealing coal (in league with his wife). In July his second child and the Dearman ancestor to be, James, was born and in November, James himself was imprisoned for six months. I wonder what the change in circumstances was for both James and his brother to turn to crime. Or had they been doing this for some time, and these were the first times they were caught? The Napoleonic Wars were well over and Britain was entering a major period of prosperity, and various reforms in the political and social arenas were underway. So no obvious external reason for crime. With three members of the same family ultimately transported to Australia was it a family tradition? We can only guess.
Whatever the reason, James’ first trial took place on 7th December 1826 at the Old Bailey. The original transcript of the trial is shown at left. So what do we learn from it? That he was a carter at the time, employed by Henry Walker - a respected Enfield farmer. That, for some reason Mr Walker asked Mr. Palmer to watch his farmyard at night. So was James already under suspicion? I have to say it is also unclear as to why Palmer should think that James was stealing the potatoes, rather than just loading them for the market. It was all done at midnight - presumably it took a while to drive a cart to Covent Garden for the early morning market, and the transcription does not make it clear how the potatoes James loaded are not just part of the market offering. Nevertheless James confessed to taking them “I have done wrong and must suffer for it” - pretty stilted words, which I put down to the somewhat rudimentary transcription. 210 lbs of potatoes is a lot of potatoes - which is no doubt why he got six months imprisonment. I can only assume that James had already been pilfering various things and that he was being watched. We shall never know why he did it.
The record does not state where he was imprisoned, but it was most likely in Newgate, although it seems that it was mostly a holding place for prisoners awaiting trial or transportation. Nevertheless I think this this is probably where James served his sentence. Newgate Prison was situated right next door to the Old Bailey. It was the main London prison, and conditions there were not good as you can imagine. The picture at left is a very famous engraving by Gustave Doré later sort of copied by Vincent Van Gogh. Below is a description of what it was like, though I am not sure whether this applies to the period we are looking at or an earlier one. The prison was rebuilt apparently at the end of the 18th century.
“It had room for between 40 and 50 prisoners at various times. Because prisons were privately run, any time spent in prison had to be paid for by the prisoner; gaoler in those times was a lucrative position, and one that had to be paid for. ‘Garnish’ had to be paid on arrival, payments for candles, soap and other supplies had to be made. Heavy manacles - often painfully constricting - were attached to prisoners and then secured to chains and staples in the floor. The prisoner could pay to have lighter manacles fitted (‘easement of irons’), or have them removed entirely. The freedom to walk around could also be bought, if enough money changed hands. Prisoners were also housed according to their ability to pay, ranging from a private cell with a cleaning woman and a visiting prostitute, to simply lying on the floor with no cover and barely any clothes. Lice were everywhere, and only a quarter of the prisoners survived until their execution day. Infectious diseases like typhus - the so-called ‘gaol-fever’, which was spread throughout the prison by lice and fleas, killed far more people than the gallows.
Food was provided by the authorities, and by charities to those who could not pay, but cooking wasn’t included and so it was often eaten raw. Drink was also available - the prison had a bar - although the prices were extortionate. Leaving prison was not simply a matter of finishing a sentence and walking out. A departure fee had to be paid and, until it was, prisoners could not leave. Those who died inside had to stay there as a rotting corpse until relatives found the money for it to be released. The stench was unimaginable, and unavoidable for the incarcerated. Nearby shops were often forced to close in the summer because of the unbearable smell.”
Do read the article by Rictor Norton to get some idea of what the experience would have been like. For me the most salient point is that food and drink do not seem to have been provided - well not above basic bread and water I think. So who came to see him with food and drink, or who gave him money to buy some? Enfield is not that close to the city of London - well not for a young wife with two small children and no means of support and no quick method of transport. Maybe she hitched a ride with one of the carters taking goods to the city. All we know is that he didn’t die and returned to home and family.
I think I read elsewhere that relatives could bring in food if you couldn’t afford to pay for it, so heaven knows how James survived in there as he would not have had much money.
There are some records in England at the National archives which will tell me more about his time in prison, but I haven’t accessed them as yet as they are not online. I think this is a job I have to give my sister.
One has to assume that the experience was a chastening one for him, for he seems to have stayed out of trouble for three years or so. He seems to have settled down to family life with his young wife and two little boys. I imagine he worked at the various farms and grand estates in the area, turning his hand to whatever was required. And perhaps his wife worked alongside him, or took in washing, or sewed dresses.
Until disaster struck the Dearmans in 1828.
First of all, big brother Joseph was again caught stealing - this time a batch of tools from a neighbouring wheelwright. He took them to a pawnbroker in Barnet and sold them there. But somehow or other he was found out, and detained on 22nd May. However, he compounded the crime by escaping from custody, hotfooting it to Hertfordshire until he was recaptured some six months later. At the trial in December he was sentenced to transportation for seven years. I think he was married but do not know if there were any children. I also do not know a lot about what happened to him in Australia, other than that he eventually gained his certificate of freedom. I do know that after the trial he was taken to the hulk the Leviathan at Portsmouth and then in May of the following year he left for Australia on the Norfolk. If time permits I shall write another page about Joseph and little brother John who also ended up in Australia.
But if this wasn’t tragedy enough for the Dearman clan in October 1828 Sophia Anne died after giving birth to their third son William, who died and was buried along with his mother on October 28th. One can only assume that she died as the result of giving birth - a common enough story for the time. So James was left with two little boys, four and two years old, and no-one to care for them. His parents were both dead, so no help there. Maybe his older sister Sarah was around to help, or maybe his wife’s parents. But none of these were a permanent solution. It’s mind boggling really what happened in those days in circumstances like these, for he would have had to continue to work - or else no food. Desperate times, but help was not far away.
MARRIAGE AND THE BEGINNING OF A LIFE OF CRIME