Dani's Niche

Family history. A novel idea.

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Convict in the Family

For years I thought it was a poem about friendship. Then I made a stunning discovery.


Oh, the comfort–
The inexpressible comfort of feeling
safe with a person,
Having neither to weigh thoughts,
Nor measure words–but pouring them
All right out–just as they are–
Chaff and grain together–
Certain that a faithful hand will
Take and sift them–
Keep what is worth keeping–
and with a breath of kindness
Blow the rest away.

Sometimes attributed to author George Eliot as a poem about friendship, this quote is from chapter 16 of Dinah Craik’s novel, “A Life for Life,” published in 1859.  Its context was a talk about capital punishment! The discussion took place on a Sunday after the minister had spoken out against the death penalty. In those days a person could be put to death for theft of items valued over a shilling (a fair day’s wage.) The accused could only hope for a compassionate jury or judge.

The character of Ben Stone (a pseudonym) in my historical novel, “Stone’s Hope,” is based on my great great grandfather’s brother who faced such a decision.

It was the winter of 1843. Work was hard to come by for the ailing 30 year old day laborer. His three children and pregnant wife were hungry. Ben once worked for a widow and her son who had sheep. He thought they would not miss one little ewe lamb, so he took it, skinned and gutted it, then brought it home for Zillah to cook. On the last day of the year, the family enjoyed what was to be their last meal together. The next day the constable, and the widow’s son who suspected Ben, came to search the cottage. Mutton parts found in an earthen pot matched a discarded skin. Ben was taken to prison and his family was left to endure a long cold winter and the rest of their lives without him.

The law stated: ‘If any person, after the first day of May, seventeen forty-one, shall feloniously drive away or in any manner feloniously steal any sheep, or shall willfully kill one or more sheep, with intent to steal the whole or any part of the carcasses, the person or persons so offending shall suffer death, without benefit of clergy.’

By law, the judge had every right to punish the convict by death, but it was a common crime, committed under dire circumstances. The judge, believing his judgment to be humane and lenient, mercifully declared Ben guilty then sentenced him to Van Dieman’s Land for fifteen years hard labor. He escaped death, but he was as good as dead to his family.

Four months after sentencing and languishing in a filthy prison cell, he boarded the Maria Somes in London for the 97 day voyage to Tasmania.  Of 262 convicts aboard the vermin infested, overcrowded and filthy convict ship, two died. Those who survived reached Oyster Bay malnourished and disheartened. Treated as slaves they began long years of hard labor in work gangs.
wikimedia commons
Source Pinterest—Van Diemen’s Land Steam Co.

Ben worked a year and nine months probation in the work gang before being assigned to two different farmers over the course of five years without pay or the right to marry or own land.

After seven years, convicts were permitted to marry even though they might have spouses living in England. The Government encouraged marriage between convicts as it was seen as a means of rehabilitation.

He was granted a Ticket of Leave which meant he could not own land, had to report to authorities regularly, worship each Sunday, and be confined to a named area.  In 1853 Ben was granted a Conditional Pardon. He was treated as a free person as long as he remained in the colony.

Transportation of convicts from England to Australia ended in 1857, a year before Ben’s term would have expired.  By then about 40 percent of the English-speaking population of Australia consisted of transported convicts.

I have not found any documentation for Ben after his pardon. Did he marry? Have a family? Think about his fatherless family in England? Did he have a long life? Short life? Did he find peace? Forgiveness?

After learning the context of the quote, its words seem to speak of mercy rather than friendship. The judge sifted the chaff from the grain and showed a breath of kindness, thus saving Ben from death. The widow and her son whose lamb Ben took, however, were not merciful. They could have given the destitute family a Christmas lamb. Instead, their actions tore a family apart.

It reminds me of another Lamb who, in mercy and love, paid with His death for the punishment we deserve. May you be encouraged by these words today.

The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. John 1:29 KJV

For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. 2 Corinthians 5:21 KJV

But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;) Ephesians 2:4-5 KJV

Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need. Hebrews 4:16 KJV