John Smith's Family Tree Website


Close up of Tijou Screen at Hampton Court Palace

Higgins family


* * *


John Higgins Jr (1840 - ?)


Early life and criminal conviction

John Higgins Jr was the only son of John Higgins Sr and Mary Williams. He was born in Lyonshall in 1840 and baptised 03 June that same year. He attended the local day school where he learned to read (but not, apparently, how to write) and as a young teenager, he worked as a labourer.

In 1855, when he was 15, he was arrested. His crime was delicately described by ‘The Hereford Times’ of 04 August as an ‘unnatural offence’, although ‘The Hereford Journal’ of 18 July was less squeamish in stating the charge: ‘…feloniously, wickedly, and against the order of nature, carnally known a certain cow’. He was committed for trial 10 July and sent to the Hereford County Gaol. At the Hereford Assizes 28 July, John pleaded guilty to bestiality, which at the time was a capital offence. A sentence of death was automatically recorded.

The use of the death penalty in Britain had been known since before the Norman Conquest of 1066, but it depended on the monarch of the day as to how often it was imposed and for which offences. Over the centuries the list of offences leading to execution increased, with a significant increase from 50 offences in 1688 to 220 by the end of the 18th century. This ‘Bloody Code’ was born out of the strife of the English Civil War and the ruling landowners’ fears of burgeoning criminality amongst the populace. It gave the ultimate penalty for forgery, associating with gipsies, having a blackened face while out at night, stealing goods worth more than 12 pence, amongst many other ‘minor’ crimes. As a result, juries were loath to find someone guilty of a triviality that would result in their execution (often the following day). Reforms were championed and many Acts of Parliament were introduced during the 19th century to reduce the number of capital crimes. By 1832 it was about sixty and by 1861 there were only four. [1]

However, in 1855 any crimes that involved ‘unnatural acts’ were still capital offences. The Judgement of Death Act (1823) gave judges the power to reduce most sentences to a term of imprisonment or transportation, though the death sentence was still recorded. This is what happened to John after his guilty plea, which everyone understood would result in a reprieve and commutation.

Convict life in England

John was sentenced to 14 years transportation to Australia. He was held in Hereford Gaol and then removed to Millbank Prison, London, 29 September. Millbank had been opened in 1816 as a National Penitentiary for those who had been sentenced to transportation but were considered capable of reforming. Owing to design problems, and the subsequent construction of the ‘model’ Pentonville Prison, Millbank became a depot for convicts after 1843. Convicts were supposed to be held there for three months while a decision was made about their destination. However, John was there for nine months and it would have been a terrible experience for a 15-year old (those below the age of thirteen were generally treated less harshly). As ‘prisoner number 1465’, John lost his identify and would have been in solitary confinement for many months. When in the company of other prisoners, he was not allowed to communicate with them. Unlike other prisons which used treadmills to demoralise prisoners with tedious work, the governor at the time believed useful work aided reformation. Prisoners made hammocks for the navy, clothing for themselves and soldiers, and sewed other items. On average there were about 700 male prisoners at any one time in Millbank. [2]

John was removed to the convict hulk ‘Warrior’ 11 June 1856. The hulks were floating prisons and were generally considered a slightly healthier place than prison (illness was rife in Millbank). The Warrior was moored off Woolwich Docks and during the day John would have been digging, dredging and building in the docks – it cost the government a lot to house convicts and this way they recouped some finances. John now became ‘prisoner number 6399’ and was healthy and behaved very well during his time on board. He would also have had the chance for some more schooling. The hulk was supposed to accommodate 450 but when John arrived there were about 520. [3]

John was removed to Chatham Prison, Kent, 07 October 1856, and became ‘prisoner number 280’. He continued behaving well but now faced very unhealthy conditions and very harsh punishments. Once again John would have been put to work on construction projects. Overcrowding grew steadily worse: When John arrived, there were about 650 prisoners (Chatham had only been built in 1850), but one year later this had doubled. [4]

Transportation to Western Australia

Finally, after two and a half years in various prisons, John (now ‘convict number 4812’) was removed to the convict ship ‘Lord Raglan’ which departed Gravesend, Kent, 17 February 1858. Since 1850, the only destination for convicts to Australia was Western Australia and after briefly calling in at Portsmouth, Portland and Plymouth, ‘Lord Raglan’ sailed for the Swan River Colony (as Western Australia was alternatively known as). A physical description of him was recorded for posterity: 5’9”, brown hair, grey eyes, long sallow face, middling stout build with a burn on his left arm.

John was now 18 (despite being described as ‘21’ upon arrival and being recorded as ‘15’ in every prison record in England). Convicts who had good behaviour records did not usually serve out their full sentence: after serving two-thirds of the time, they applied for tickets of leave or pardons. After almost four years as a ‘good’ prisoner from the time of his conviction, John was granted a ticket of leave 27 April 1859. He was now able to seek work and was assigned to Toodyay, about 60km north-east of Perth. There was a convict hiring depot there and the land was considered very fertile so John may have hired himself out to do farming or other labour. [5]

There were strict conditions to adhere to: John could not leave the district without permission, had to carry his ticket at all times, report monthly to a local magistrate and attend church. Unfortunately, he was caught 18 months later without a pass and was ‘reconvicted’ 08 September 1860. He was sentenced to six weeks and transferred to Mt Eliza convict depot in Perth. After completing his sentence, he was removed from Mt Eliza but ten days later, was convicted of assaulting a ‘master’ (the person a convict worked for). This time he was sentenced to two months but where he served that is not known. 

The final record of John was dated 21 October 1862 when he received a conditional pardon while living in the Murray district, south of Perth. This type of pardon, which came seven years after John’s conviction, allowed John his freedom within Australia. However, he was not allowed to return to England unless he was later granted an absolute pardon. Approximately one-third of convicts left Western Australia after completing their sentence. There is no record of John after 1862 and it is very likely he never saw his family again. [6]



[1] ‘The Abolition of the Death Penalty in the United Kingdom: How it happened and why it still matters’, Julian B Knowles QC (2015) (

[2] ‘Handbook of London: past and present’, Peter Cunningham (1850), publisher John Murray;The Criminal Prisons of London, and Scenes of Prison Life, Volume 3’ of The Great Metropolis, Henry Mayhew and John Binny (1862), publisher Griffin, Bohn, and Company

[3] Royal Arsenal History website (


[5] National Library of Australia website (; State Records Office of Western Australia (; Toodyay Shire website (

[6] England and Wales Criminal Registers, 1791-1892; UK Surgeon Superintendents’ Journals of Convict Ships, 1858-1867; Western Australia Convict Records, 1846-1930 (; Millbank Prison Registers: Male Prisoners, Volume 6; England and Wales Crime, Prison’s and Punishment, 1770-1935 [from Convict Hulks, Convict Prisons and Lunatic Asylum Quarterly Returns at The National Archives] (