Ephraim Digby (my Great x 4 Grandfather) was born in the month of October in the year of 1807 in Norfolk, England. He was the youngest child of his parents, Robert Digby (a gardener) and Martha Thaxter.
He essentially grew up during the early days of the Industrial Revolution in England and probably lived in poverty. Factories sprung up everywhere and adults and children alike worked long hours for meagre pay. They lived in cramped unsanitary conditions with their diets mainly consisting of bread, butter, potatoes and bacon. Meat was a luxurious food few could afford. The people were often poor, illiterate and hungry and as London grew, they turned to crime as a means to survive.
During his youth Ephraim was one of the lucky ones as he’d managed to find employment as a shoemaker’s boy. Soon however there came a point in his life when the path before him split in two and he had to choose which road he was going to take. His decision (probably made in a split second) ultimately became the pivotal point of when his life was turned upside down.
On 22 December 1821, Mr Richard Treadaway (a butcher) was serving in his shop when a little girl sought his attention and told him that she saw a boy steal some beef. He quickly ran out and there he saw Ephraim walking away carrying the beef under his arm. Mr Treadaway apprehended Ephraim who claimed that he had not stolen the beef; he had in fact found it.
Maintaining this defence up until the day of his trial, Ephraim found no sympathetic ear in the courtroom. On 9 January 1822 at the age of 14 he was found guilty of stealing four pounds of beef (valued at 1s 6d) and was sentenced to seven years transportation.
For nearly three years Ephraim endured life living on the dreaded hulks (prison ships) which were often filthy, crowded and rampant with disease. His conduct was recorded as ‘indifferent’ and when he eventually departed Falmouth on the ship ‘Lady East’ on 16 December 1824 he was 17 years old.
His destination and the place where he would carry out his transportation sentence was Van Diemen’s Land or, as we now know it, Tasmania. After four months at sea he arrived on 9 April 1825.
He and his fellow prisoners were the Government’s answer to slave labour and were immediately set to work in their new home.
He stood at 5 foot 1½ inches tall and had dark brown hair and dark grey eyes. There was a small mole on his forehead and one on the right side of his neck. His right arm was scarred in several places which was perhaps a testament to the life he lived. Interestingly, he also sported several tattoos. There was a mermaid above the elbow joint on his left arm and the initials ‘M.H. E.D. M.H.’ in hearts on the same arm. Though the owner of the initials M.H. is anyone’s guess, I assume that the initials E.D. were his own.
In terms of stature he was not an imposing man (perhaps it was a result of malnutrition or he still had more growing to do) but combined with his other characteristics, a picture is painted of a tough young man ready to fight his battles.
Among the convicts there were those who would toe the line and would be the perfect example of good behaviour, while on the other hand there were those who repeatedly found themselves in trouble. Ephraim fell into the latter group.
During the late 1820s and the early 1830s Ephraim was reprimanded for a myriad of trivial offences.
It was recorded that on 18 February 1828 he refused to work and was insolent to his master. As punishment for such bad behaviour he was ordered to complete four days on the treadwheel.
The treadwheel was a form of punishment which most convicts loathed to receive. It consisted of a wide hollow cylinder usually with wooden steps built around the frame. It was designed to hold up to 20 convicts who, as the wheel began to rotate, had to keep stepping on the wooden steps. This continual stepping could last for a whole day with five minute breaks every ten or fifteen minutes. It’s not hard to see why the treadwheel also became known to convicts as the everlasting staircase. In some instances the power generated was used to grind corn and pump water but in others, it was simply a form of cruel punishment.
His stint with the treadwheel did not end in this one instance. For being absent from his lodgings at 9:30pm on 15 August 1828 he was given ten days on the treadwheel and when he was found at the Gibraltar Public House at 10pm on 25 November 1828, he was ordered to complete three days on the treadwheel.
Regardless of all the punishments, Ephraim was coming close to having served his full sentence. On 17 January 1829 at the age of 21 Ephraim received his Certificate of Freedom. It officially made him a free man and allowed him to seek his own employment.
Records show however that having freedom seemed a little too much for Ephraim. He assaulted a Police Constable on 1 September 1831 and was bound over to keep the peace for six months. Then, on 7 February 1832, 9 October 1832, 21 December 1832 and 2 January 1833 respectively he was found drunk and disorderly. In these cases he was fined and ordered to find sureties to keep the peace, except for the incident on 21 December. For some reason, for this offence, he was placed in the stocks for two hours.
During the next four years Ephraim’s misbehaviour seems to be a thing of the past. Or, perhaps it was simply unrecorded. Nevertheless by all appearances it looked as though he was ‘turning over a new leaf’. This could not be more apparent than when he filed an application on 25 May 1837 to marry a fellow convict, Ellen Murphy.
Despite the application, the marriage between Ephraim and Ellen did not go ahead. Ephraim was not to be deterred and just over a year later on 26 June 1838 in Launceston, he married Frances Cusick, my Great x 4 Grandmother. He was 30 years old and she was 26.
The couple brought eight children into the world: Martha Ann in September 1839; Mary Jane on 20 August 1841; Samuel Ephraim on 2 June 1843; Harriett Rebeckah on 6 May 1845; Frances Elizabeth (my Great x 3 Grandmother) on 25 May 1847; Esther on 5 June 1849; Matthew William on 30 June 1851 and Jemima on 18 March 1853.
Half of their children however did not reach adulthood. Matthew William died on 3 April 1852 at 9 months of age; Jemima died on 21 March 1853 only three days old; Samuel Ephraim died on 1 November 1853 aged 10 and Esther died on 11 November 1853 aged 4.
The young ages and closely linked date of deaths suggest that there was some sort of disease that had broken out in Launceston which these four children caught and couldn’t shake off. Living in a small, confined house may have also contributed to the spreading of the illness amongst the siblings.
Generally Ephraim and Frances’s marriage had its ups and downs but sadly, alcohol was the monkey on Ephraim’s back that he couldn’t seem to shake off. It was often the reason for the downs.
The alcohol caused him to become violent and several times his wife, Frances took him to court for assault. By the time the day came they either chose not to show up or she withdrew her claim.
In another instance where Ephraim assaulted Frances the court fined him and further advised him “to avoid drink in the future, or it would always bring him into such difficulties as that”.
He lived in the Launceston area for many years of his life. First, in Muddy Plains as a farmer and then eventually, Wellington Street in Launceston where he went back to his trade and worked as a bootmaker.
As he got older there was still the odd incident such as neglecting horses, allowing his cow to wander freely or carelessly driving a dray, which would get him in trouble but these only resulted in fines. He continued to have issues with his drinking but all-in-all became a functioning member of society.
He watched his daughters grow up and saw them all married. The years rolled by and he found himself saying goodbye to his wife, Frances. She’d stuck with him through thick and thin but was killed accidentally on 28 October 1886 by a runaway cow. She was 74 years old. As strange as that may sound I will publish a future post which provides more details of her accidental death.
The young man with the mermaid tattoo was now an old man but he continued to live out the remaining years of his life surrounded by his daughters and grandchildren. It was at his daughter’s house in Forth Beach when on 5 July 1897 he took his last breath and passed away at the age of 89. He was later laid to rest in Forth Cemetery.
Ephraim’s life, like many other convicts, is colourful and filled with drama. He had his problems but I get the impression that he tried to do his best for his family. Family notices are scattered throughout the historical newspapers and though he may not have been a rich man these make me believe that he was a man who cared.
I would also like to extend my gratitude to the Archives Office of Tasmania. If their convict records were not available for viewing online I would never have discovered the descriptions of Ephraim (and been amazed at his tattoos) nor would I have known of his behavioural record and his various punishments.
- Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 6.0, 19 August 2011), January 1822, trial of EPHRAIM DIGBY (t18220109-113).
- Ancestry.com. Australian Convict Transportation Registers – Other Fleets & Ships, 1791-1868 [database on-line].
- Indents of Male Convicts. Item number: CON14/1/1. Page number: 18. Courtesy of Archives Office of Tasmania.
- Descriptive Lists of Convicts Compiled by Surgeons. Item number: CON69/1/1. Page number: 124. Courtesy of Archives Office of Tasmania.
- Registers of Male Convicts. Item number: CON23/1/1. Page: D 342-371. Courtesy of the Archives Office of Tasmania.
- Conduct Records. Item number: CON31-1-9. Page: 129. Courtesy of the Archives Office of Tasmania.
- Information and image of the Treadwheel courtesy of: Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2011. Web. 18 Aug. 2011. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1333759/treadwheel>.
- 1829 ‘From the Gazette of this Day.’, The Hobart Town Courier (Tas. : 1827 – 1839), 17 January, p. 2, viewed 19 August, 2011, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article4218436
- Ancestry.com. Australia Marriage Index, 1788-1950 [database on-line].
- 1842 ‘POLICE REPORT.’, Launceston Examiner (Tas. : 1842 – 1899), 16 April, p. 4 Edition: EVENING, viewed 19 August, 2011, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article36248157
- 1856 ‘LOCAL INTELLIGENCE.’, The Cornwall Chronicle (Launceston, Tas. : 1835 – 1880), 12 March, p. 5, viewed 19 August, 2011, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article65719483
- Launceston Assessment Roll (1856): http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~austas/Lton2.htm
- Residents of Launceston (1866): http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~austas/lton66cd.htm
- 1897 ‘Family Notices.’, Launceston Examiner (Tas. : 1842 – 1899), 10 July, p. 1, viewed 19 August, 2011, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article39691881
- Photo of Ephraim’s headstone courtesy of Judith.