Saved from death – the reprieve of Joseph Backler Jr

In which we consider how the rather reckless young Joseph Backler found his sentence commuted from death to Transport to Australia, from which he was never to return to England, attempts in 1840 to secure his return to the home country having failed on account of his continuing wayward behaviour. He was to become a well-known artist and portrait painter in Australia, his works now shown in a number of galleries across  the country.

Port Macquarie

(Picture Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales: ‘Port Macquarie’, by Joseph Backler)

In my most recent post about the two Joseph Backlers –  Snr and Jnr – I showed how, after stealing his father’s model for the window at St James’s Piccadilly, Joseph was convicted of uttering forged cheques and sentenced at the Old Bailey to death.  A few years ago, when I was earnestly engaged in online studies about genealogy and family history, I was charged with learning more about convict and prison records, a project for which the young Joseph proved an obliging case study.  As with many of my research efforts then (while I still lived very nearby), I took myself to The National Archives (TNA), where I happily immersed myself in fascinating records about my nearly-ancestor.

A search on the convict records database (http://www.convictrecords.com.au/convicts/backler/joseph/123197) led me to:

Joseph Backler, one of 178 convicts transported on the Portland, 19 November 1831. Convicted at Middlesex Gaol Delivery for a term of life on 30 June 1831. Vessel: Portland. Date of Departure: 19 November 1831. Place of Arrival: New South Wales. Source: Australian Joint Copying Project. Microfilm Roll 89, Class and Piece Number HO11/8, Page Number 225 (115)

At TNA, HO 13/58 showed me the letter of 24 August 1831 declaring the pardon of Joseph Backler and others on condition of their being transported for life to New South Wales or Van Dieman’s Land.  Some others listed were spared transportation and imprisoned for different periods, a privilege which had been denied Joseph Backler, despite the pleadings of his family and prominent persons.  These documents in HO 17/3/72 reveal a range of personal details as well as giving the signatures of many of Joseph’s family.  The TNA catalogue description says:

Prisoner’s name: Joseph Backler. Prisoner’s age: 18. Prisoner’s occupation: Painter on stained glass. Court and date of trial: Old Bailey Sessions June 1831. Crime: Uttering a forged cheque. Initial sentence: Death commuted to transportation for life. Annotated: Considered at Report in Council 17 August 1831. Petitioner: Jane Backler, the prisoner’s mother and 7 others including family members; 5 prosecutors; John Clayton Pastor.  Grounds for clemency: Family has had to move to Scotland to make their living leaving son to fall into bad company; no previous crime; known to several influential people; extreme youth; small stature; ‘of feeble structure’.

Other papers: Letter from Jonathan Stephen enclosing report on Backler from George Gipps, Governor of New South Wales. Report states that he has twice been sentenced to serve in irons for obtaining arms illegally and for absconding. Memorandum asking whether prisoner may be allowed ‘any indulgence which the Colonial Regulations will admit of’. Letter from John Clayton enclosing his petition.

I think of all the papers I have ever found, this collection ranks high as one of my favourites.  It is a unique record of the frantic pleadings of a family and high-ranking relatives and colleagues to spare the life of a wayward 18 year old, along with evidence of his later misdemeanors, which meant he was not granted leave to return to England.

Who were the ‘seven others’ who fought hard for young Joseph’s pardon?  And just what did they write?  HO 17/3 tells the story, and is worth repeating nearly in full, as follows:

The Petition of Mrs Jane Backler and others.  J Butt, College Street, Westminster.  Unto the Kings Most Excellent Majesty.  [Bold type is mine] The Petition of Mrs Jane Backler wife of Joseph Backler Painter on Stained Glass Artist late of Newman Street London.  Miss Jane [Cowie] Backler Daughter of the Petitioner and of the said Joseph Backler. of Mrs Sarah Mitchell Sister of the said Mrs Jane Backler, wife of Thomas Mitchell Esq. Merchant in Glasgow and of the said Thomas Mitchell.

Most Humbly Sheweth

That your Petitioner Mrs Jane Backler, who was accustomed from her youth to genteel and most respectable Society, was obliged sometime ago, in consequence of reverses in the circumstances of the said Joseph Backler, to come with her daughter your Petitioner, to Scotland, to endeavour to gain a livelihood for themselves and the other members of their family, by giving board and instruction to young ladies – and are now resident at Kilmarnock in the County of Ayr pursuing this vocation.

That your Petitioners have just learnt with the utmost dismay that Joseph Backler eldest son of the said Mrs Jane Backler, having been convicted on two charges of forgery, is now lying in Newgate Prison under sentence of death.

That the said Joseph Backler is only eighteen years of age and, so far as known to your Petitioners, has never before been convicted of any crime or addicted to any course of vice. And, while your Petitioners are deeply afflicted by the commission of the crime of which their relative has been found guilty, they cannot but impute it, in a great measure, to the recklessness of youth, and to incidental temptations to which he had lately been exposed by the breach of his father’s family, whom misfortune has separated from each other as above mentioned.  And they cannot but earnestly hope & trust that the unhappy youth  would be restored to the paths of rectitude by that imprisonment and correction, which is administered, under your Majesty’s wise and paternal Government, to young delinquents, and less aggravated offences.

That the unhappy youth is the nephew of Dr Matthew Cowie Surgeon lately belonging to the second Dragoon Guards, and to Benjamin Cowie Esq., Hill House Esher; and is nephew by marriage to Mr James J. J. Sudlow of the House of Fisher and Sudlow Chancery Lane; who, with his Father (still in London) will probably ere this have approached Your Majesty in behalf of the unhappy youth, and who can verify the facts above set forth.

Your Petitioners most earnestly implore Your Majesty to consider the circumstances above stated – to Compassionate the feelings and situation of your Petitioners and specially those of the Mother and Sister of the unhappy youth – in the meantime to respite the execution of the sentence which has been pronounced against him – and upon being satisfied of the truth of the facts above stated, to extend your Majesty’s Royal Mercy, and commute the punishment which has been awarded against him, in any way that seems meet to Your Majesty’s wisdom –

And Your Petitioners, as in duty bound, shall ever Pray [signed] Jane Backler, Thos Mitchell, Jane Cowie Backler and Sarah Mitchell. 

[There follow the signatures of four worthies, attesting to the ‘highly respectable’ nature of the petitioners – the Acting Chief Magistrate of Glasgow; a Sherriff; John Mitchell, D.D. [presumably related]; and one other.]

In addition to the heartfelt pleadings of his relations, a clergyman known to the Cowie family, weighed in with further justification of the youth’s delinquent behaviour, with rather unflattering reference to the Backler side of the family, and considerable optimism as to Joseph’s future should his sentence be commuted.  John Clayton, late Pastor of the Congregation at the King’s Weigh-house Chapel, now of Gaines, Upminster, wrote to John Butt [I think he was the family solicitor in this case] on 25 July 1831:

This is to certify that Joseph Backler now under sentence of Death, is a Descendant (maternally) of most respectable Progenitors. His Grandparents during the whole of their wedded life to the time of their Decease, were under my Pastoral care.  The marriage of their oldest Daughter, the Mother of the unhappy Delinquent, was indiscreet in the extreme, from which resulted the Son’s defective Education, his great Disadvantages moral & religious, give him a claim to charitable commiseration: he is only 18 years of age, diminutive in stature, of feeble structure, unfit for Labour in ye land of British Outcasts: It is submitted, whether these considerations, may not from His Majesty’s well known Clemency, allow a commutation of Punishment.  If sent to the general Penitentiary, the Convict will by a lengthened life, have space given for Repentance, which should he obtain, & exemplify its fruits, he will become an accepted servant of the World’s Redeemer, a loyal and grateful Subject of his Sovereign, and an useful member of society….

A separate letter, also dated 25 July 1831 from Clayton to John Butt reveals a slightly unflattering picture of young Joseph.  Unfortunately my photocopy from TNA of this letter is missing a bit of text on one side, but the gist of the letter is that Clayton visited young Joseph in prison. His ‘interview was short’ and he made little impression on the lad when stating his ‘sins against God and his country’; but when Clayton raised the ‘overwhelming distress of his Mother, he became the subject of [word missing] tender emotions’.

The Prosecutors support the pleas for mercy: In a letter from the prosecutors in the case (those whom young Joseph attempted to defraud), we find an interesting statement in support of mercy for Joseph, as follows:

To the Rt. Honble Viscount Melbourne Secretary of State for the Home Department [top of page].

Then: To The Rt. Honourable Lord Chief Justice Parker.  The earnest and humble petition of the agonized Parents and friends of Joseph Backler aged 18, the youth who was found guilty at the Tribunal of the Old Bailey of uttering two checks knowing them to be forged, venture to plead his extreme youth and the hope that the good principles which have been instilled in his mind from his earliest breath, may yet, when reason resumes her Empire in his mind, still be the means of restoring him to respectability and usefulness in society, and that he will never again violate those laws which he has ever been taught to venerate. Your humble Petitioners with broken hearts acknowledge the justice of the verdict passed by your honourable Court, while they, in the deepest anguish earnestly entreat a mitigation of punishment –

[Before the turnover to the next page, appear the following signatures:]

Prosecutors: W.P. Lander [or Lauder] M.D.; Eden Bowler; Thos. Blackwell; Matt A Robinson Red Lion Sq for Self & Partners

[Resuming on the next page:] And they humbly pray that if in your great Mercy you are graciously pleased to spare his life he may not be doomed to spend the whole of it in a distant country but that after a limited time he may be restored to his family & his nation land – and the prayers of a distracted family will be ever yours & etc….

In HO 6/16, we find Circuit Letters, Recorder’s Reports and Judge’s and Justice’s [sic] Recommendations 1831.  The List of Capital Convicts to be reported to His Majesty in Council on the tenth day of August 1831 yielded the Pardons prepared on 22 August 1831.  The crimes resulting in Transportation for Life included (on the page and reverse including Joseph Backler): Feloniously transposing Stamps with intent to defraud; Horse stealing; uttering a forged cheque; House breaking; Burglary; Larceny in a dwelling house val. £5; and Joseph – uttering a forged cheque (two convictions).  Here we find an explanation of the above letter – that there was a ‘Petition of the Prosecutors praying that the Prisoner’s life may be spared’; also ‘Certificate in favour of the Prisoner’; and ‘Petition of the Prisoner’s Parents praying that the Prisoner’s life may be spared’.

Transportation on The Portland:  And so the Pardon was duly issued on 22 August 1831, leading to Joseph’s presence in a prison hulk before sailing in November on the Portland. This website (http://www.jenwilletts.com/convict_ships_p.htm#Portland32) gives historical detail about the Portland, and summarises ship’s surgeon Joseph Cook’s medical journal entries from ADM 101/60/4, which can also be browsed on Ancestry.  The journal names prisoners and their illnesses, what treatment they had etc.  It does not name Joseph Backler, but the TNA index shows that Folios 26-27 contain the Surgeon’s general remarks: On 14 November 1831, 178 male convicts were embarked at Spithead from the Leviathan and York convict hulks. The ship arrived at Port Jackson on 26 March 1832 and on 6 April the original number of convicts were landed at Sydney fit for immediate employment.

In Australia: More context can be gleaned through the Settler and Convict Listing for Joseph Backler: HO 10/29.  In this we see familiar information about dates and ship, but the new piece of information that he was assigned to ‘Major Mitchell’ – a Scottish-born surveyor of volatile temperament, later to become ‘Sir Thomas Livingstone Mitchell’. Initially at least it would seem that young Joseph’s artistic talents were to be put to use in surveying roads in New South Wales, but records show that he was later moved to Port Macquarie, due to his bad behaviour (perhaps in response to Major Mitchell’s temper?).  There is a lot of information about Port Macquarie’s place in convict history.  It was there that Joseph Backler did a number of paintings, and married his first wife, former convict Margaret Magner.

1840 – indulgence? In June 1840, James Oswald (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Oswald_(merchant)), a well-connected Scottish M.P., wrote to the Marquis of Normanby (Home Secretary) to ‘lay before your Lordship the case of Joseph Backler, and to request that you would be pleased to take unto your Lordships’ consideration…’  The letter accompanied a Memorandum as follows:

Joseph Backler was transported to New South Wales in 1831 for a forgery committed in London of no great extent.  He was then about eighteen years of age – His Education had been good – but though born of parents in a very respectable rank of life, he had no benefit from paternal oversight or example – His abilities are very good – especially in the way of painting on glass, in which department of art his father employed himself in London.  He is now at Port McQuarrie, and the length of his stay there, it seems, entitles him, according to ordinary practice, to some relief or remission from the severe rules of that Settlement – if his conduct have deserved it.

His maternal relations, who are highly respectable, have lately heard from him, expressing contrition for his past life and giving the best promises for the future – They have no knowledge of his conduct or present character except from his own letters, but are exceedingly desirous that any relief or remission or benefit to which these may entitle him, in the opinion of those who adjudicate in such cases, should be extended to him, with a view to promote his comfort, and as far as possible his moral improvement – and to effect this, it is much desired by them that the attention of the proper authorities were kindly given to his case – His maternal relations live in this neighbourhood – Glasgow June 1840

No! On July 8 1841, a letter from the Marquis of Normanby, 10 Downing Street, revealed the result of this appeal:

To the Right Honorable The Lord John Russell, from Government House, Sydney. 14 January 1841.

My Lord – I have had the honour to receive Your Lordship’s dispatch of the 9th July 1840. No 100, enclosing an application from Mr Oswald M.P. in favour of a Convict named Joseph Backler. The Prisoner is attached to the Surveyor General’s Department; and has been in the District of Port Macquarie ever since his arrival in the Colony; his conduct however, has not been such I regret to say, as would justify my recommending him for any present indulgence.

He has twice been sentenced to serve in Irons (a period of six months each time) – first for obtaining Fire Arms illegally and under false pretences, and secondly for absconding –

I have etc… signed Geo. Gipps  [this is a copy letter]

Ticket of Leave: Joseph’s ticket of leave initially restricted his residence to Port Macquarie in 1841, but was changed in 1843 to allow him to move to Sydney, ‘as long only as he remains in the service of Messrs Cetta and Hughes’, frame makers and carvers, about whom more detail might be available through Sydney directories.  In 1846 and 1847, he was issued ‘Ticket of Leave Passport’, in the first instance for six months travel between Goulbourn Ineanbeywn and Yass for six months; then for travel to Bathurst in the capacity of an artist for six months.

Joseph married again, but died childless in 1895, followed by his second wife, Sarah Vincer, in 1898.  He had spent the intervening years travelling around eastern Australia, painting the ‘not so rich and famous’.  Various Australian art websites host information about him, for instance the Australian dictionary of Biography at http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/backler-joseph-12778; or the National Library of Australia at http://trove.nla.gov.au/people/1464264?c=people.  There are any number of other sources of information about Backler and his paintings, which can be found by a simple online search of ‘Joseph Backler Australia’.

And there I will leave Joseph.  Had I only known about him when I was in Australia in the 1990s, I could have looked out his paintings in Sydney and elsewhere, but I fear they will now have to live only in my virtual world.  I have one more of Sotherton Backler’s sons’ life to chronicle before I turn to the final one – my own 3x great grandfather, Samuel Backler.  Hopefully my next blog won’t be quite so long in the writing.

800px-Hannah_Watson_oil_portrait_by_Joseph_Backler_a128164hHannah Watson – oil portrait by Joseph Backler. From the collection of the Library of New South Wales.  Further examples of Joseph Backler’s works can be seen in this list of NSW Library holdings: http://acmssearch.sl.nsw.gov.au/s/search.html?collection=slnsw&form=simple&query=backler+joseph&type=1&meta_G_sand=&sort=&submit-search=Search&start_rank=21

Further information about Joseph’s movements in Australia can be found at: http://www.convictrecords.com.au/convicts/backler/joseph/123197

 

 

One comment

  1. Hi Barbara,

    Another great blog post! The sheer depth of your research is fabulous and your writing is superb. I almost feel that I am with the agonised family pleading for Joseph’s life (naughty boy). His sentence would be considered draconian by today’s standards, even after his commutation to transportation. I have visited the Adelaide art gallery to see some of his paintings. What a waste of his talent to embark on forging cheques!as a career diversion.

    Best wishes,

    Ray

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