Map by Henry Mangles Denham (1832)

Thomas Benson was born into a substantial merchant family in Devon in 1708. He inherited some ships and resources at his father’s death and embarked on a career of legitimate trading supplemented by piracy and smuggling. By the late 1740s Benson was in a position to lease the island of Lundy, around ten miles off the Devon coast, for sixty pounds a year. This enabled him to land tobacco from America and smuggle it to the mainland, avoiding the duty payable.

Benson also obtained a government contract to transport convicts to Maryland. He had a clever scheme in mind. Instead of taking the convicts across the Atlantic Ocean to the American colony, for which the government paid him twenty pounds a head, he simply offloaded them on Lundy. Here they were forced to work on improvements to the island’s infrastructure and assist with the tobacco-smuggling operation. The convicts were boarded in the castle keep and worked around the island in chains. A group of seven or eight managed to reach the mainland in the island’s boat, vanishing into oblivion. But their unfortunate companions remained to labour on the island. 

It was a scheme of criminal genius and worked like a charm – until Benson unwisely took some house guests to Lundy, including the Sheriff of Somerset, to show off his enterprise. The Sheriff was not impressed with Benson’s claim that he was only obliged to transport convicts off mainland Britain and not all the expen­sive way to the Americas. He was prosecuted, but unsuccessfully. So imprecise and contradictory were the laws governing transportation that his feeble excuse was accepted. 

To this point Benson appeared not to have been much more scheming than many other traders of the time. But he would eventually distinguish himself as a criminal exploiter of the worst kind. His plan was devious and audacious. Deep in debt, Benson now planned a bold insurance scam. He indemnified his oldest and leakiest ship, the Nightingale, together with its cargo and crew, for as much as the insurance company would bear. Suborning his upright but needy Captain Lancey and a crew of sea-going desperadoes, Benson had them ready the Nightingale for sea in the summer of 1752. Her cargo was an unremarkable mix of salt, cloth, pewter and cutlery, along with a mysterious ‘hogshead of dry goods’. 

As well, there were twelve men and three women, all in chains, the men in pairs and the women together. Brought down from Exeter Gaol, the miserable convicts were bound for transportation to Maryland. From Bristol they sailed straight to Lundy where most of the cargo was illegally unloaded and the crew bribed to keep quiet about their part in this act and in what was to follow. 

After a couple of nights trans-shipping the cargo to the island, an operation kept concealed from the convicts, the Nightingale put to sea. About eighty kilo­metres west they encountered the Charming Nancy out of Philadelphia. After the customary exchange of pleasantries, the American ship continued on her way and Lancey initiated the next stage of the scheme. 

The ship’s boat was readied and two sailors were ordered to break open the hogshead of dried goods. It was filled with small barrels of tar and oakum soaked in tar. The black tar was spread around in the hold and a hole cut between that area and the bread room or pantry. A hole was drilled below the waterline and stopped with a marlinspike. A lighted candle was then pushed through the hole into the hold where it ignited the tar. And then the marlinspike was pulled out. The Nightingale was afire.

The crew then pretended to put out the fire, making as much noise as possible to attract the attention of the Charming Nancy. While all this was taking place, the hapless convicts remained in chains. Lancey loudly accused them of starting the fire and moved them towards the waiting ship’s boat. Everyone clambered into the lifeboat, the convicts protesting their innocence. By now the American ship had sighted the smoke and swung around to pick up the Nightingale’s boat. A few hours later another ship took them aboard and brought them all safely ashore at Clovelly. From here, Lancey was able to quickly return to Benson’s house.

Surprised by this unexpectedly early return of his co-conspirators, willing and otherwise, Benson insisted that the captain and the crew sign affidavits attesting that the fiery fate of the Nightingale was an accident. But it was in vain. One of the crew drank too much and boasted of the deed in Barnstaple one market day where plenty of eager ears heard the true story. One of Benson’s rivals bribed the sailor to confess. Lancey was arrested and the crew began to turn themselves in to the authorities. Eventually the captain and one of the sailors were examined by the Judge of the Admiralty, as was the custom then. Lancey refused to give evidence against Benson, despite being promised clemency. The two men were committed for trial.

Meanwhile, Benson attempted to ensure through various legal and financial ploys that the true story did not come out in court and so reveal the extent of his debt. None of these were successful and he was eventually judged to owe over £8,000, an enormous sum in those days. Unable to pay, his property was seized and in December he fled to Portugal where he had family business connections.

Lancey and two of the crew were tried at the Court of the Admiralty in February 1754. The unlucky captain was found guilty and sentenced to death. He seems to have accepted his fate without rancour for any of his co-conspirators, even Benson. He prayed day and night for two days leading up to his execution and ‘to his last hour, behaved with a steadiness and composure, very seldom seen on the like solemn occasion’. Lancey was hanged at Wapping on 17 June 1754. Benson soon revived his business in Portugal, courtesy of his captain’s misplaced loyalty. Threatened with extradition, he fled to Spain. But his crimes were soon forgotten as Britain went to war with France once again and Benson returned to Portugal where he lived until his death in 1772. 

The fate of the island convict colony is unknown. Research into initials carved into the walls of what is now known as ‘Benson’s Cave’, quarried into shale beneath the castle keep, provides only the barest hints of who these people were. They seem to have been transported from Exeter in two groups, the first in 1749 and the second group on the Nightingale a few years later. It is assumed the authorities arranged for the men and women to continue their interrupted voyage to Maryland to serve out whatever remained of their original sentences. 

From Condemned: The Transported Men, Women and Children Who Built Britain’s Empire