Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Bill Brunt Was a Thief ...

As readers of this blog may well imagine, it didn't take me long to plunge into further research on my ancestor, William Henry Brunt, and his time in Van Diemen's Land. The Tasmanian Archives turned out to be a wonderful -- and free -- resource, and I was fairly quickly able to locate his official conduct record. His voyage aboard the aptly-named "Tortoise" seems to have taken nearly seven months; judging from the ledger of convicts it seems that it also stopped in Halifax to take on prisoners -- one wonders whether Bill Brunt's first sight of North America whetted his appetite for his later return.

After the particulars of the voyage, the ledger gives his name and crime -- housebreaking and larceny, 10 years. Interestingly, he seems to have objected to the charges, stating that it was his sister's house into which he had gone with the intention of retrieving his sister's things. He admitted to taking a pair of Trousers and handkerchiefs, however, yet curiously declared "he was never in the House of Correction," although his report from there stated his conduct was good. He was also described as "Protestant -- can read and write," which corresponds, I think, with his family's origins near Banbridge in County Down, Ireland, where his surname was spelled variously "Brunt," "Brunty," and "Brontë."

From his physical description I learned that he was 5 foot, 5 inches, with brown hair, brown eyes, and no whiskers. He was apparently fond of drink, and was also the proud owner of a riotous array of tattoos, which the ledger is at pains to enumerate:
A slightly freckled man. Flag, anchor & mermaid on rt. arm, ring on middle finger right hand, HB. hearts and darts, M & S. flower put on left Arm.
The "HB" might just be his initials, if he used his middle name -- many convicts seem to have gotten their initials tattooed on themselves, probably just to be sure their body could be identified after death. Since no photograph of Bill Brunt survived in my family, this may be the most vivid image I'll ever have. The remainder of the record details his time in Van Diemen's land:
Period of Probation: Eighteen Mos. 11/1/43
Station of Gang: Flinders Bay 12/1/43
Class: 2nd, 1st, pp & 3
Offenses and Sentences: 19 Aug. 1843 Original term of Probation
18 May Discovered willfully breaking two panes of glass in the sky light of his ward, for an improper purpose. Six months hard labor.
8 March 47. Misconduct in lying asleep on his post. Ten days solitary.
9 May 1848 J.L.
Freed Cert. 17 June 1851
His arrival at Flinders Bay in 1843 put him among the first group of transported prisoners to be stationed there for their probation, since it had only been established in 1841. The work was hard, clearing trees and brush, and the prisoner station was not long maintained there, with all the remaining prisoners being transferred to Port Arthur in 1844. Given the term of his sentence, his two infractions -- breaking a glass skylight and falling asleep on his watch -- seem quite minor; the large ledger page allotted each convict was, in his case, less than 1/3 filled, while others spill out into long lists of offenses (and others -- the briefest -- say simply "Died at Sea" or "Died in the Mines"). He earned his freedom in June of 1851, and must have lost little time in finding passage to Canada. Perhaps the rumors of homesteads there made it a more attractive destination for him -- or perhaps it was his earlier glimpse of the land that enticed him.


  1. I read the description as "Remarks: Might[i]ly freckled. man flag. anchor mermaid on rt arm ring on middle finger rt hand H.B. hearts and darts M+S flower pot on left arm."

    I think "H.B." are someone's initials (H___ Brunt?), and not "A.B." because the writer's capital A's look different.

  2. I'd suggest "slightly freckled" as there is some variation in the 'f's, but I wouldn't bet the ranch on it - these transcriptions can be infuriating. Congratulations on a fascinating discovery.

  3. Zooming in as close as I can, I think "slightly freckled" is a plausible reading, and sensible. If it were "pickled," this would be a very early use of the word in the sense of "drunk" -- OED dates this to 1841 -- so that may also argue against such a reading. I may have to go see the original document to be certain!

  4. I´ve found this collection of convict photografs. They came from Port Arthur but unfortunately they are from 1871, too late i am afraid, and no trace of W.H. Brunt, but they are however interesting:

    I´ve came to this web page from this other:

    I´ve don´t look at it thoroughly, and perhaps you have been checking it already, but...if it helps...

  5. Andrés, thanks for this! It whets one's appetite to see those photos. Alas, although convict records are excellent, records of immigration and homesteading in Canada in the 1850's and 60's are only on microfilm, so it may take some time to confirm the identity of William Brunt.

    One thing I did find out was that he obtained permission to marry while a convict, and did so, marrying one Elizabeth Wilson in 1849 -- so if this is the right William Brunt, his marriage to Mary Ann in Canada was his second.

    1. Some of the photographs of those convicts are really terrifyng.

      I´ve continued trying to found something else. In this record:

      I´ve found the name of his sister, Emma and of his father, Stephen. Altough his age doesn´t match. From the reading of the box called "population" it seems that travelling in that time was a little bit uncomfortable, three people died on the journey.

  6. The Brontë sisters father, Patrick Brontë, came from Banbridge,Co. dOwn. He originally spelt his name Brunte...any relation????

    1. I have to admit, I immediately wondered that, too!

  7. Yes, it's true that Bill Brunt was likely related to the Brontes! The name was spelt, variously, Brunt, Brunty, and Brunte; it was Patrick (father to the famous sisters) who hit on the idea of changing it to Brontë, as he felt that gave it a little more class. I've never worked out the precise relationship, though now might be a good time!

  8. Have you had the time to find out whether you ARE related to Patrick Brontë? I imagine you must be soooo busy during lockdown!!!! Perhaps that's where you get your writing skills fro