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John Weeks : Poacher's Tale - II

After release from the prison convict hulk, Laurel in Portsmouth Harbour, John Weeks returned to his poaching trade in Handley. As a result of some further skirmishes with the law John became far more familiar with the Dorchester Courtroom than any of the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

When John’s children married their prospects in Handley were pretty grim. Wages paid to agricultural labourers in Dorset were among the lowest in the country. So Benjamin, John & Jane seized the opportunity when a local clergyman, the Reverend John West of Chettle offered them the chance in 1836 to start a new life in Australia. This was under an early assisted passage scheme sponsored by the new colony and the Australian landowning Macarthur family.

Their father John was desperate to travel out with them but had no chance. He was too old at 62 and he also had a criminal record. The only way the wayward father could get out to join his children was as a convict – as a ‘prisoner of His Majesty’. So John Weeks was soon back in the Dorchester Courtroom found guilty of stealing wheat. Again, he was sentenced to transportation for a period of seven years. Again, he walked with others from Dorchester Jail to Portsmouth Harbour but this time was put in the convict hulk, York. His former hulk, the Laurel had simply rotted away. When John Weeks left Portsmouth on a transport vessel, he was the oldest convict aboard. Most convicts of his age were left to rot in the hulk as they were not considered strong enough to survive the hazardous voyage.

John Weeks served his seven years’ hard labour in Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) and crossed over to the mainland to join up with his family who had now settled in Camden just outside Sydney. He arrived in Camden just before Christmas, so that must have been quite a Christmas family reunion.

At the age of 82, John Weeks died and there is no known trace of him receiving any further criminal convictions ‘down under’. He proved to be a valuable worker for the Macarthur family as he was described as a groom, coachman, farm labourer & ploughman.

John Weeks the Handley poacher is buried in Campbell Hill Church of England Cemetery, West Maitland, New South Wales – a long way from his native Dorset.

(Illustration: Convict Hulk York berthed at Gosport)


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