Thursday, 5 June 2014

The Drink You Have? - James Slater

James Slater, one of my fourth great grandfathers. How did he end up in Australia? As with any of these things, it is best to start at the beginning. James Slater was born in the town of Ashton under Lyne in Lancashire in June 1778, not far from Manchester. He was the second of six children to Daniel Slater and Mary ni Standfield. He had one sister, Sarah, and four brothers, Moses, Daniel (who died as a small child), John and Matthew. The family, like many in the area, were heavily involved in the textile industry. Ashton under Lyne was known for mining and for textile production. You look at a Census and those are the sorts of jobs you most commonly see – mining and textile production. Daniel, James' father, was a staple maker, that is, he made staples (that's the metal teeth) for carding cloth. Daniel's father, grandfather and great grandfather were all weavers1.

Okay, maybe we need a quick run-down on textile production. You start with raw fibre – a fleece or cotton bolls or flax, whatever. The fibre has to be processed. A fleece is skirted (all the yucky edge pieces and daggy bits taken off), any obvious vegetation picked out, washed and then it's graded (which just means sorting the fleece into fibre types: fine and soft through to thicker and coarser). Cotton has to be separated from its husk and any seeds removed (someone correct me if I am wrong – I have never done cotton picking). Flax is an involved process, soaking the stalks so they start to rot, breaking down the stalks so the fibre can be removed. It is long, hard and dirty work. There is much more to it than this, but again, I haven't done it, only seen it done. Norman Kennedy gives a great demonstration and explanation of the process on one of his videos, "Spin Flax and Cotton".

Flax is put onto a distaff and is then ready for spinning. Cotton and fleece need to be carded. That's a sort of brushing process to align fibres ready for spinning. Carders are paddles with a cloth attached to one side. The cloth (often leather) has staples all over it – dog grooming brushes are basically little carders. You also get drum carders – rotating drums, again covered by carding cloth.

Once the fibre is ready, it is spun into thread or yarn on a wheel or spindle and can then be woven or knitted or whatever.

So you can see Daniel's job was right in there, an important part of the local industry. Everyone in the family was also capable of weaving and I can't help think that at least some of them must have been spinners also.

There is a town not far from Ashton under Lyne. It's called Mossley and is on the old border of Lancashire, Cheshire and Yorkshire. In the local parish Church of St George on 24 August, 1797, James Slater and Mary Mayall came with their infant daughter, Sarah, for her christening2. The parish register does not indicate that they weren't married. Mind you, the parish register doesn't indicate much about any of the mothers listed in it. Sarah's entry is typical - “Sarah, daughter of James Slater, Land End, Clothier by Mary”. It reads like a horse breeder's record.

Church of St George, Mossley, image from GENUKI

The following month, on 26 September 1797, James Slater, weaver, married Mary Mayall in Manchester Cathedral. That sounds posh and important, but really it was a cost-saving measure. There was a dispute about fees raging at the time. If you lived under Manchester Cathedral's jurisdiction and married in your local church you had to pay two fees, one to your church, one to the Cathedral. If you married in the Cathedral you were only liable for one fee3. The Cathedral wasn't supposed to be double-dipping like this, but it was a nice little earner, so it was clung to for as long as possible.

James and Mary continued to live in Mossley over the next few years. It was a centre for fibre production and was not too far from James' family. There is some question over who Mary's family was, but it is thought that she came from Saddleworth in the West Riding of Yorkshire, which isn't far from Mossley.

Little Sarah died sometime between her parents' marriage and the birth of her sister (also Sarah) in 1798.

There then followed Mary (1800), Ann (1801), Esther (1803), Miles (1805), and Daniel (1807). These children were all christened at St George's. Sometime between 1807 and 1809 the family relocated to Ashton under Lyne, where Moses (1809), Miriam (1810) and Maria (1812) were born. Daniel died, aged about three, in 1810.

For all the Mossley christenings James was listed as a clothier or weaver, but sometime during or after these he retrained as a carpenter, and not just any old carpenter. He was specifically interested in the construction of fibre production machinery. This was the early days of the Industrial Revolution. Production was shifting from small family outfits to larger scale operations and to factories. Several inventions were driving this movement in fibre and cloth production – the Spinning Jenny, the Spinning Mule, powered carding machines and powered looms, and James was learning to make all of these. He was at the cutting edge of a new era.

So there they all were, James, Mary and eight surviving children. James' father had given up the staple factory and become clerk at St Michael's Church in Ashton under Lyne. Life was comfortable, everyone was making a good living...

And then it gets weird.

Calendar of all Prisoners in the New Bailey Prison at Salford Manchester this 20th day of January 1813.
No. 73 James Slater, 26 years [sic]
By whom and when committed: R Wright, Esq, 7th January
Charged on the oath of William Staning and others, with stealing one twilled sack, at Ashton-uner-Line, the property of Samuel Howard
Event to Trial: Transported 7 years.
Yes, you read that correctly – one twilled sack.

Why would he steal a sack? He could make one, his wife could make one, most of his family could make one. They probably had some lying around. It makes no sense.

Just to make things look suspicious, the court records show that John Milne was awarded £47/19/- for “the costs he has been put unto in the prosecution of James Slater [and six others] for felony”. I went looking for John Milne, to find out who he was and what was going on (Lancaster Archives are very generous with their free online records). It turns out John Milne was the coroner attached to Lancaster Quarter Sessions and coroners were only paid for convictions, that is, if prosecutions were successful. So it was in their interests to ensure that there was plenty of evidence against the accused, rather than getting to the truth of the matter. Mmm, British justice.

A distant cousin and I have been discussing this on and off for about a year now. Initially we were wondering if perhaps James was framed. New South Wales was just getting its wool production industry off the ground, and someone with James' skills would be very useful. And James later showed a great dislike for corrupt magistrates (well, who doesn't, but he was prepared to fight – see Rum and Raisings for more on this). It is a definite possibility.

I have also been discussing this, via email, with Assoc. Prof. Grace Karskens of UNSW. You want to know about convicts and the early days of the colony? Grace Karskens is the name that comes up time and again. So many books, so many academic papers, such an extrordinary depth of knowledge. So I put the question of a frame-up to her (I am indebted to Assoc. Prof. Karskens for her patience and generosity in time and knowledge in this matter).

Did you know that in the 1810s there were reports of people committing crimes so that they could be transported? “Stories were filtering back about the availability of land, opportunity, not to mention the wonderful climate. It was certainly a risky strategy, but then things were pretty terrible for working people in this period”4. So perhaps James was angling for a better life.

But this doesn't make much sense. James' father was quite well off. When he died he left four houses, one for each son. James' retraining had come at a time when oversupply of weavers and increasing mechanisation had caused a collapse in weavers' wages. His new occupation would have seen him in demand. So I don't know if this quite fits. On the other hand, in NSW he would be at the forefront of the industrialisation of fibre and cloth production, rather than just one of the many, and he certainly wouldn't have to worry about seeing future earnings driven down as had happened when he was a weaver. So maybe there was an attraction.

It's funny, when you run the facts past someone else sometimes you see a pattern you hadn't noticed before. I asked Grace Karskens if it was possible that James was actually running away. Let me put that another way. I wonder if James was running away from Mary. Is deliberate transportation what you do when divorce is not widely available?

Divorce was far from common, really a domain of the rich and then only of those who were game to bear the scandal. James and Mary had married following the birth of a child, so maybe they married because they felt they had to. Once out here he was in no great rush to be reunited. He didn't send for her, as he could have. He lived with at least one other woman in Sydney (we'll get to that). He didn't pay for Mary to come along when the children made their way out as bounty migrants (we'll get to that too). Perhaps this was a desperate alternative to divorce (I make no value judgements, but if I were Mary I'd have killed him).

I think it is possible men might have used transportation to get away from wives and families. Butcher George Cribb (arr 1807) apparently arrived with his partner in crime and lover Fanny Barnett! They later got married, then the original Mrs Cribb turned up and Fanny had to make a hasty exit”5.

Where does the truth lie?

Was James framed? Did he deliberately steal so he could come out here and start anew? Was he, in effect, getting a Clayton's divorce?

What do you think?

Back to the known facts.

Remand cell, Lancaster Castle. Image c Maxine Clayman

James was initially held at Lancaster Castle. How comfortable his stay was would have depended on what his family were willing to provide and what "fees" (aka bribes) they could pay the gaolers. He was removed to the hulk Captivity at Portsmouth on 17 April 1813, where he stayed until 17 January, 18146. James was put aboard The Surrey which set sail on 22 February of that year.

And for that little trip to hell you shall have to wait.

1Joyce Gardner, Gardney Roots - A Family History: The English Connection - Slater/Hilton/Gardner, CD-ROM (Nambucca Heads, New South Wales: Joyce Gardner, 2004
2 Church of England (Manchester, Lancashire, England), Manchester, England, Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, 1541-1812, "Mossley, St George Parish Register," Sarah Slater, Baptism record, 1797; digital images, Operations Inc, ( : accessed 12 Mar 201
3 The full story can be found at GENUKI, Manchester Cathedral
4Email from Grace Karskens to Megan Hitchens, 31 May 2014
5Email from Grace Karskens to Megan Hitchens, 2 June 2014
6 Home Office, "Convict Prison Hulks: Registers and Letter Books," database, ( : accessed 12 Mar 2013), entry for James Slater; citing Class HO9, Piece 8.

No comments:

Post a Comment