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John Weeks: Poacher's Tale - I

John Weeks has the unusual distinction of being convicted twice in a Dorchester Courtroom to be transported to Australia.

Born in Handley in 1775, John by trade was a poacher as at the time it was said were many of the Handley villagers. By 1815, the authorities had had enough of John Weeks. So, following an altercation with a gamekeeper, he was found guilty and sentenced in the Dorchester Courtroom to be transported to Australia for seven years.

Prisoners at the time had to walk from Dorchester to Portsmouth or Gosport under armed guard to await transportation. First day’s walk from Dorchester was about 14 miles and it is said brought the prisoners to a red post between Bere Regis and Wimborne. It is reckoned the post was red so that it could be identified because most of the guards were illiterate. Close by was a brick barn where the prisoners spent the night chained to a large post.

John Weeks never left these shores and spent the entire seven years in the convict prison ship Laurel in Portsmouth Harbour. Life in the convict hulks has been described as a ‘hell on earth’. Conditions below deck were insanitary, rat infested and discipline was savagely cruel. There were many deaths and the convict and French prisoner of war bodies were unceremoniously buried on Rat Island which faced the large naval abattoir at Gosport.

Every kind of graft could be found in the hulks. The captain might have a deal with an old clothes dealer who would buy the convicts’ old clothes. Even the ship’s doctor might be on the take selling the occasional convict corpse for five pounds. Convicts were used as cheap labour and put to work on the most strenuous and dangerous work in nearby Portsmouth Dockyard. As John Weeks was a versatile character, maybe he proved too versatile in the Dockyard to be sent to Australia. Alternatively, he might have known the right naval clerk to bribe!

After serving his seven years, John Weeks was released and returned back to Handley to find out that his wife Diana had died. So the ex-convict was left to bring up his three young children Benjamin, John and Jane by himself.

(Illustration: Old Handley courtesy of Sixpenny Handley Village Website)

To be continued.


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