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


Thomas_Jeffries 2

Thomas Jefferies (Jeffries, Jeffreys), 1826

On 4 May 1826, the ‘gentleman bushranger’ of Van Diemen’s Land, Mathew Brady, awaited his imminent hanging. Brady was ready to die for his crimes but lamented that he was fated to enter oblivion together with a man he once called a ‘de-humanised monster’. Brady had a point. Suffering that day at Hobart Gaol alongside the other condemned was Thomas Jefferies (Jeffries), a ghoulish embodiment of the creatures the transportation system could produce. Even by the standards of Van Diemen’s Land his crimes were considered exceptional enough for the people of Launceston to attempt to lynch him when he was finally brought in from the bush.

Jefferies stood apart from the general rabble of convicts even before he left Britain. While awaiting transportation he accepted the role of flogger and executioner. Arriving in October 1823, Jefferies was soon sent to Macquarie Harbour after threatening a constable. Following that twelve-month sentence, he was unwisely appointed as a watchhouse keeper in Launceston. Here he again took up the task of official scourger and sexually assaulted several women. He took to the bush and began a brief but bloody career. From Christmas Day 1825 he and some accomplices carried out a number of callous murders, including that of a five-month old baby whose brains Jefferies smashed out on a tree trunk because the mother he had kidnapped could not keep up with the fleeing bushrangers. The colonial press told the tale:

It is with feelings of the utmost horror, that we have to make public the following appalling circumstance. On Saturday last, Jeffrey [sic], the notorious villain, who lately broke out of the Launceston watch-house, accompanied with the two miscreants who followed him, after having robbed Mr. Barnard’s hut, proceeded to the residence of a respectable Settler named Tibbs, about 5 miles from Launceston.  They arrived there about noon.  Mr. Tibbs and his wife, a young and respectable woman, to whom he had been married about two years, with their child, and a servant of a neighbouring Settler, named Basham, were in the house.  The ruffians attempted to bind them, but, upon their offering resistance, these diabolical murderers shot them both.  The man fell dead; Mr. Tibbs was dangerously wounded, but he escaped with his life, and contrived to give an alarm.  The whole town of Launceston, with one accord, rushed out after the murderous villains; but the unhappy female and her child were gone.  About 3 o’clock on Sunday, she returned to her forlorn residence. She was in a state of distraction. The dæmons had murdered her infant. We cannot relate the rest.  The agitation this dreadful event has excited is beyond expression.  We hope and trust the execrable monsters may be quickly brought to condign punishment.[i]

Fleeing from these appalling crimes and running short of food, the bushrangers murdered one of their group while the foolish man slept. His body kept them alive for four days until they were able to slaughter a couple of sheep. They were still carrying about five pounds of human flesh when apprehended. Jefferies surrendered without a fight and was happy to inform against his accomplices.

Captured in late January:

‘The monster arrived in Launceston a few minutes before nine o’clock on Sunday Evening. The town was almost emptied of its inhabitants to meet the inhuman wretch. Several attempts were made by the people to take him out of the cart that they might wreak their vengeance upon him, and it became necessary to send to Town for a stronger guard to prevent his immediate dispatch. He entered the Town and gaol amidst the curses of every person whomsoever.’[ii]

Jefferies was called ‘The greatest monster who ever cursed the earth’ and nobody mourned his death.


[i]Colonial Times, 6 January 1826.

[ii]Hobart Town Gazette, 28 January 1826, given in broadside form in Geoffrey Ingleton, True Patriots All, Charles E Tuttle Co., Rutland, Vermont and Tokyo, 1988, p. 107.


Thomas Rowlandson, Selling a Wife, 1812 – 1814 

Here’s an update on an intriguing folk custom I wrote about in Great Convict Stories.


A ‘disgraceful transaction’ took place at Windsor (New South Wales, Australia) in 1811. Ralph Malkin, transported in 1801, put a rope around his wife and led her down the street seeking a buyer. He found one. Thomas Quire stumped up 16 pounds on the spot, plus a few yards of cloth.
While the better classes of society were outraged at such a ‘gross violation of decency’, wife selling was a custom practiced throughout Britain since at least the 16th century. And not only by the common folk. The 2ndDuke of Chandos is said to have purchased his second wife around 1740 and many recorded cases of the custom involve tradesmen and skilled men as the purveyors of their spouses. While the practice was not legal, it was commonly believed to be so and there was often a reluctance by magistrates to prosecute cases, particularly as, it was claimed, the women involved were agreeable to being sold.
By the time Ralph Malkin decided to offer his wife to the highest bidder in Windsor, the custom was increasingly frowned on by public opinion. The writer of the letter in which the event is recorded used words like ‘shameful’ and ‘contemptible to describe the seller and the buyer of Mrs Malkin.
But all was not as it might seem to contemporary or modern sensibilities. For a wife selling to proceed, the woman had to agree to be sold. Research on this custom indicates that in quite a few cases the women were sold to men who were already their lovers. It seems that wife selling was a form of folk divorce at a time when the average person could not afford such proceedings, or even access the legal means to achieve that state.
Prices paid for wives exchanged by this custom varied from a high of 100 pounds down to three farthings. There are even cases where wives were given away free or for a glass of beer. The price was not as important as the fact that the sale took place in public, usually a market, fair or public house. This ensured the presence of plenty of witnesses to validate the transaction. Popular participation and approval was an important element of the custom and, in some incidents, magistrates seeking to stop a wife sale were driven away by the crowd and on others the crowd refused to allow a sale to proceed if the woman was not agreeable.
An occasional reason for sale was that the wife was simply fed up with the husband, as in the case of a wife sold in Wenlock Market, Shropshire in 1830. When her husband showed signs of cold feet at the last minute she reportedly flipped her apron in his face and said ‘Let be yer rogue. I wull be sold. I wants a change.’
Selling a Wife at Smithfield Market, 1816
In the case of the Windsor event, Mrs Malkin (who is never named) was thought to be: ‘… so devoid of the feelings which are so justly deemed the most valuable in her sex, agreed to the base traffic, and went off with the purchaser, significantly hinting that she had no doubt that her new possessor would make her a better husband than the wretch she thus parted from.’ Which was the long-winded nineteenth century way of saying that she not only agreed to be sold but that she thought the new husband was a whole lot better than the old one.
While everyone involved in this transaction was seemingly perfectly happy with it, the local bench of magistrates investigated and determined that a breach of some law had taken place. And in any case, the three ‘base wretches’ involved quite readily admitted to their crime, if it was one. Ralph Malkin received fifty lashes and three months hard labour in irons. His wife – or ex-wife – was transported to the Coal River (Newcastle) for an indefinite period. There seems to be no record of any proceedings against Mrs Malkin’s purchaser.
Wives continued to be sold in Australia. There was a case in the Swan River colony in 1839 and another on the Mount Alexander goldfield in 1861:
‘Last Saturday week a miner residing near Cockatoo discovered that his wife was untrue to him, the gay Lothario being a miner named Sam. The latter party, a cool sort of customer, informed the husband that a row would bring no gain to either party, and that perhaps an arrangement satisfactory to both parties might be effected. The husband offered to sell his wife, tent, cooking utensils for £5.- Sam agreed to the terms, paid the money, and the husband departed.’
But Sam soon tired of his new spouse, a woman of twenty-seven years and reportedly ‘not by any means destitute of personal attractions’. He went in search of another buyer and soon found a miner willing to pay two pounds for the lady.
The belief that wife selling was legal persisted for a long time. Nineteenth century newspapers frequently pointed out that it was a ‘popular error’ but there was a recorded sale in England as late as 1913.



The Sydney Morning Herald, 6 March 1862, p. 2, surveying wife selling in England from 1766 to the 1830s.

Geoffrey C Ingleton, True Patriots All, Angus & Robertson, Sydney 1952, p. 58; Bruce Kercher, Debt, Seduction and Other Disasters: The Birth of Civil Law in Convict New South Wales, Federation Press, 1996 pp. 66-7; ‘Wife Selling’, Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, A Dictionary if English Folklore, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000, p. 390. There is a treatment of wife selling in Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge(1886) and an excellent article by Lauren Padgett, ‘Brutal exhibitions of depravity’: 19th Century Wife-selling in Literature, Illustrations and Practice’ at, accessed August 2018.

The Perth and Independent Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News, 24 January 1862, p. 3 (in article on state of the colony in 1939).Mount Alexander Mail, 7 June, 1861, P. 5 (reprinted from the North West Chronicle).

Dance’s Historical  Miscellany at, accessed August 2018.