The First Fleet Peat Family

Copyright Carol Baxter 2012
Prepared for Peat descendant Jeanette Bradley

Origins of surname Peat

The origins of the Peat family are not known to date however the surname itself appears to have been of northern English or Scottish origin, perhaps once a locational surname but more likely deriving from a nickname meaning 'pet' or 'darling' or 'pampered person'.[1] The first known member of the Peat family was a man named Charles Peat, who was the progenitor of the Peat family in Australia.

Charles Peat (c1759-1813)

A highway robber who “behaved with remarkable civility”, Charles Peat arrived in Sydney with the First Fleet in January 1788. Nothing is known with certainty about his family background although some histories suggest that he was born on 25 November 1759, perhaps in Scotland.[1a] An English background, however, seems more likely.[2] In trial records, he mentioned having once been a commissioned officer in the Royal Navy and his intelligence and eloquence suggest that this is a genuine possibility.

Charles is first identified in surviving records in 1781 when he was indicted for assault and highway robbery and brought to trial at the Old Bailey in London. Dr Mollie Gillen in The Founders of Australia summarises the charge (see also Appendix 1):

Charles Peat … was first convicted at the Old Bailey on 5 December 1781 for assault and robbery on the highway at Finchley near London. Riding up on horseback, he snapped a pistol and held up the coach of Richard Down Esq, and asked for money, though he offered to return the purse from which he had taken 23 shillings. Down’s servant jumped on Peat, who was secured after a “tustle”, and driven to Colney Hatch. He said he was an unfortunate man who only wanted a little money. He did not take Down’s watch, and “behaved with remarked civility”.[3]

Sentenced to death for his crime although recommended to mercy, Charles was a victim of the harsh and unmerciful British criminal justice system, the Bloody Code. At this time, the death penalty was reserved almost entirely for economic crimes, and therefore was effectively a penalty directed against the poor as the wealthy had no need for the basics for which the poor risked death on the gallows.[4] German traveler Henry Meister in 1791 found England a bloodthirsty land, reporting that "Criminal jurisprudence still retains much of its barbarity … the indulgence which this code shews is often as cruel, as its severity is sometimes shocking. The smallest theft is punished with death. The greatest degree of violence may elude the pursuits of justice.[5]

Charles had the threat of the noose weighing upon him for nearly a year. On 10 October 1782 his death sentence was commuted on the condition that he served in the navy. On the 12th, he joined HMS Prince Edward as an ordinary seaman. Ten weeks later, on 22 December, he was transferred to the Belleisle however he ran from the ship four days later, perhaps finding the conditions unbearably harsh.[6]

For fourteen months, Charles remained at large before being recaptured. In April 1783 he was committed to Newgate Gaol for having “broke the condition of His Majesty’s pardon” and, on 23 July,[7] Lord North reported to the Recorder of London that Charles’ new sentence was to be transportation for life to Nova Scotia in Canada.[8] He was sent to the hulks on 4 October to await transportation.[9]

The Americas had been the receiving point for some 50,000 British convicts between 1718 and 1776 until the American War of Independence closed this outlet. As England’s gaols gradually reached bursting point, new attempts were made dispose of the “scum” of Britain, including sending the Swift and Mercury transports to America. Charles Peat was embarked on board the Mercury on 16 March 1784,[10] and of the debacle that followed, Gillen wrote:

Two practical but (as usual) rushed and bungled attempts were then made to ship out the convicts. In August 1783, even before the peace treaty with America … had been ratified, government hustled 143 convicts from the hulks and Newgate on board the Swift transport, some of whom took over the ship in the Channel, ran her into Rye, and escaped into the Kent and Sussex countryside. Those who remained on board were landed at Baltimore, Maryland, at the end of the year. Government, encouraged by this acceptance but without any evidence of a second success in view, sent off 179 more men and women on the Mercury transport in March 1784. Once again the convicts mutinied, ran the ship in Torbay in Devon, to scatter throughout the surrounding areas.

The Mercury sailed from Plymouth in due course with 22 convicts from Somerset added to those who had failed to escape, but this time America refused to take them. They ended a miserable voyage at Honduras and the Mosquito Coast, hapless pawns in quarrels between the settlers and the contractor, George Moore, and his agents.

Many of the convicts recaptured in England from the Swift and Mercury debacles who were reprieved from mandatory death sentences went back to the hulks for wretched years. Lord Sydney had to be reminded by the member for Devon, in a wintry November, of the predicament of the convicts on the Dunkirk hulk. “I suppose your Lordship cannot be ignorant that many of the prisoners are nearly if not quite naked”. Sixty men died on the Ceres hulk alone in the last six months of 1785.[11]

Charles was one of the convicts on board the Ceres hulk at this time. After the Mercury mutiny, he had escaped and returned to London where he was recaptured at Smithfield on 4 June 1784. He was held at the New Prison in Southwark until 7 July when he was despatched to the Old Bailey for trial on a charge of “returning from transportation”.[12]

Charles provided a spirited and eloquent defence, suggesting a level of intelligence and education not normally seen in the class of criminal who frequented the dock:

My Lord, from the well known justice of this honourable Court, I have not the least doubt of a patient hearing, especially as the hardness of my case is unparalleled in the records of the Old Bailey. I stood here convicted of a robbery, and afterwards received his Majesty's pardon; on the 4th of June I was apprehended in Smithfield, and brought to prison; I pleaded Not Guilty to this indictment, not with intent to give the Court any unnecessary trouble, but to explain the hardness of my case; the robbery I was cast for was attended with such circumstances of behaviour on my part, that the Court thought me not unworthy of clemency, and I was accordingly recommended to his Majesty's mercy, and I was afterwards pardoned on condition of serving in the royal army in the East Indies; but some difficulty arising in putting this pardon into execution, my prosecutor applied to Mr. Townsend, now Lord Sydney, for a free pardon; then I had a pardon on condition of serving on board any of his Majesty's ships or vessels of war; I went on board his Majesty's ship the Prince Edward, two months after, having been six months at my liberty, and I was taken up for not complying with the terms of my pardon, and committed to Newgate, where I continued six months, and was had up every Sessions, and was informed I should be discharged: during the time I was in Newgate, I had a severe illness, which rendered me insensible, and whilst I was in that state I was brought before Counsellor Harrison, who sat as Deputy Recorder. When the sentence of the Court was read to me to be transported to Nova Scotia for the term of my natural life, it may be said I acquiesced, but I was then in a state of insensibility: I apply to Mr. Akerman, that during my long confinement, I never was charged with any offence; I have served his Majesty in the Royal Navy, and had the honour of bearing a commission. Whilst I was on board the hulk, I had the mortification of seeing my fellow sufferers die daily, to the amount of two hundred and fifty, several who have had pardons similar to mine, such as Charles Stone and others, have been committed on the same charge, but discharged: my behaviour on board the Duke of Tuscany was such as I have no reason to blame my feelings for, having endeavoured to preserve the property of the Captain; we were to be disposed of by sale as indented servants for five years; I hope the Court will take my case into their consideration, and view the whole matter, considering I only in one offence fell a victim to the laws, and received his Majesty's pardon, and have never committed a fresh offence; I have his Majesty's pardon dated in October 1782, to enter on board any of his Majesty's vessels or ships of war, and on that pardon I rest my defence.[13]

Although remanded to his previous sentence, Charles’ destination was changed from America to Africa in March 1785. On 5 April he was sent from Newgate to join fellow Africa-destined convicts on board the Ceres hulk. Of the plight of these convicts, Gillen wrote:

The Ceres hulk had been established in March 1785 to receive convicts sentenced to Africa. An Order in Council dated 11 March changed the destination of 74 convicts in Newgate to Africa ... An island some four hundred miles up the Gambia River in West Africa (Lemain island) was purchased by Richard Bradley to accommodate 150 convicts, who were to be landed there with tools, seeds and provisions for a first year, and then left to their own devices. A guard ship was to lie in the river to stop any who escaped from pillaging the trading stations near the coast, ships were tendered for the voyage, and it was expected that an annual consignment of convicts would soon rid the teeming prisons of England of the people sentenced to transportation.

The plan foundered when members of parliament looked more closely into conditions in the area, and a committee hearing evidence soon found that the climate was totally unsuitable, that deaths from noxious fevers had abounded, and the land itself was swampy and unhealthy. The plan was quickly dropped.

Early in 1786 yet another African destination, the region around the Bay of Des Voltas (now Namibia) was surveyed and found to be uninhabitable, although that had not stopped government (before the survey report was received) from putting in hand elaborate arrangements to send off 1000 convicts to this as yet unexplored region … By August 1786, when the Das Voltas plan had foundered, all other destinations had been examined and found wanting … At this point, Botany Bay, discussed and discarded from time to time since as early as 1779 (seriously suggested by Sir Joseph Banks) was the only place left.[14]

On 18 August 1786 Treasury agreed to send 750 convicts to Botany Bay, and the plans for the First Fleet voyage to Australia were implemented. Although, originally intended to sail from Portsmouth in October 1786, difficulties in obtaining supplies and in fitting and loading the vessels delayed the departure date by seven months.[15] Charles Peat was ordered to the First Fleet transport Scarborough and was sent by wagon to Portsmouth where he embarked on 27 February 1787.[16] Sent from Newgate a month earlier to the female transport Lady Penrhyn was a convict named Hannah Mullens, who was to marry Charles Peat soon after their arrival in New South Wales.[17]

Hannah Mullens (c1760- )

Hannah Mullens was another convict transportee from London, although she appears to have been a native of Ireland.[18] Born around the year 1760 and arriving in London in the mid-1770s, she was a servant residing in St Giles, London, in 1786 when indicted for fraud.[19] Gillen in The Founders of Australia summarises the details of her case (see also Appendix 4):

Hannah Mullens … received a death sentenced at the Old Bailey on 26 April 1786 for attempting to get the wages and pay of a deceased seaman by a forged will. She said she had been in England from Ireland about ten years, and had lived with the seaman for a while. Her child (named Mary) was by a man named Edward Mullens, a porter, with whom she had lived for about two years. She said her father’s name was Jack Mullens. A witness said the sailor had been seen to give her a letter with the will, and that she had had two or three husbands in about two years.

The jury recommended mercy “because they supposed she had been drawn in”. She was not reprieved until 4 January 1787 to transportation for life to NSW, having remained in the condemned cell with her child from the date of conviction. Aged 26, she was embarked on Lady Penrhyn from Newgate with the child on 26 January 1787.[20]

Mary Mullens was around three years of age when mother and daughter embarked on the Lady Penrhyn. No later reference to the child has been found in colonial records.

As Hannah was generally recorded as Ann Mullens in colonial records, and as she indicated that her maiden name was Mullens (although this is not necessarily accurate as she also stated that her partner’s surname was Mullens), she was possibly the Ann Mullins who was convicted of theft at the Old Bailey on 6 December 1780 and sentenced “to be whipped” (see Appendix 3).[21]