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Transported for Life: William Searle WESTAWAY

by Shirley Westaway

The Victoria Police Academy stands high on a hill in Melbourne's eastern suburbs and is a landmark for miles across the country where city and farmland meet. Ecclesiastical in appearance in extensive grounds, it was built in the 1960s by the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne as a Jesuit seminary, Corpus Christi. An architectural anachronism when it was built, within a decade the church realised its error and it was sold to the Victorian Government for a police training college.

At Corpus Christi, there were two lay people, both women, on the staff, the librarian and the secretary who was a friend of mine. She told me they were cataloguing a vast library which had been bequeathed to the college and was concerned that it included many historical records which should have been in the public archives but would remain the property of the seminary because of the terms of the bequest. Among these were extensive shipping records which included convict transports which she gleefully perused in the hope of recognising a name. (At the time admitting to a convict ancestor was infra dig in Australia but the 1988 Bicentennial changed Australian attitudes forever and now it seems that unless a family can produce four or five convicts, one doesn't make the grade.)

My friend recognised one name only - mine. William Searle WESTAWAY arrived in Sydney 15 March 1832 aboard the "Isabella". He came from Ashburton and was tried for stealing plate on 4 April 1831 when he was sentenced to transportation for life. His age was given as 45: he was married with six children (three boys and three girls) and was a protestant who could read and write. Included is a physical description.

The details didn't mean much to my husband, Peter and his brother John, who had grown up in Australia with very little knowledge of their Westaway families and when asked, always said they had no relatives here. Peter and I happily took William Searle under our wings raising a few eyebrows as we did so and tried to find out more about him. We shared William Searle with Ron Upham in Somerset and Ed Somers in Winnipeg. Access to records if they existed was difficult so it's been a slow process. Searches for his wife and children, a Ticket of Leave or a Pardon, were all in vain but I found numbers of Westaways in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. In 25 years, I'd found only that he'd been assigned to Mrs Harper at Maitland, NSW (1837 Convict Muster NSW), and appeared to be the son of Susanna SEARLE and Benjamin WESTEWAY m 18 Feb 1787 Ashburton. The NSW death indexes show that William WESTAWAY, a bricklayer living at Maitland, died 2 July 1854 aged 64 years and was buried the next day.

In 1995 I was contacted by Judy Grant of Melbourne, who was also researching Westaways. She identified many of the Victorian names as her husband's family and was delighted when I gave her William Searle along with the information which Ron had been sending since 1990. Judy confirmed the information I already had on William Searle and we decided to share the hefty cost to obtain more information from The Archives Authority of New South Wales. She also discovered two WESTAWAY convicts in Tasmania but they are both proving elusive.

In May, 1997, Sheila Yeo sent me several family trees, censuses and wills. One chart was headed : William Searle WESTAWAY m Grace, with a notation of William's transportation. What a find! Grace and her children did not come to Australia but the censuses of 1841 and 1851 showed that she was a laundress and her son John b 1814 was a mason. Did he learn his trade from his father? The children Elizabeth, James and Maryanne all bp 2 June 1826 were triplets. (additon by S. Yeo; they were baptised together but born in South Wales in different years so were not triplets.) Perhaps it's no wonder poor William succumbed to pinching other people's property His sentence also indicates that he had at least one prior conviction.

The Convict Research Service results arrived in October 1997 and told us only a little more than we knew. I'd hoped to have the records of the trial but the information given is that he was charged at Devon Assizes with larceny in a dwelling house. He was sentenced to death which was commuted to transportation for life. The volume of copies of Conditional Pardons for the period is blank.

On arrival in NSW William appears to have been assigned to William Harper at Oswald (near Maitland). Presumably Mr. Harper died and William was assigned to Mrs Harper. He obtained a Ticket of Leave 3 June 1840 which allowed him to remain in the district of Maitland and was recommended for a Conditional Pardon in 1844. The New South Wales Government Gazette shows that he received a Second Class Conditional Pardon dated 2 March 1846 and had to pay 5s. 6d. for it. Second Class signified that he was never to return to England.

William lived in Australia for 22 years. Was it a comfortable peaceful life? Did he find a companion to share his 10 free years? Did he think of Grace and his children? How did Grace react to the death sentence? Was transportation for life any better from her viewpoint? Did William write to his family?

Because of his masonry and bricklaying skills I hope he had some happy productive years and contributed not a little to a rapidly developing community. His Condition of Pardon carries five signatures of recommendation including that of G.M. Harper. I like to think that it marked some measure of esteem for William Searle.

Shirley Westaway, Foster, Victoria with thanks to Judy Grant and Nicola Aldrige.

NB Comments by Shirley. This was first published in The Westaway Jigsaw produced by Nicola Aldridge and circulated within the family in the days before Paul Ashton set up the website Westaway on the Web.

Additions by Sheila Yeo - 2006

William Searle Westaway's tree

So who was William Searle Westaway ?

William Searle Westaway was born in Ashburton in 1790, the son of Benjamin Westaway & Susan Searle. Benjamin was born in South Tawton, Devon and moved to Ashburton in the 1780's. Times were hard and Benjamin was claiming relief from the South Tawton Parish during the 1790's.


William Searle Westaway married Grace Willis in 1810 in Plymouth, Devon. He was a builder and moved around trying to find work. His first child, William was baptised in Plymouth St Andrew on the 29th September, 1811 and they then moved to Monmouthshire in South Wales where two other children were born. Aound 1820 they moved back to Devon and lived in Exeter St David, where the other three children were born. With six children to feed and little work, William turned to petty crime to subsidise his income. The alternative to this was the workhouse as the parishes were finding it increasingly more difficult to sustain the parish relief and joined together to create Union worhouses. On this occasion he appears to have stolen some silver from a house in Exeter and as this was his second offence he was transported for life to Australia. He was only saved from the gallows because of several influential people vouching for his good character. Interestingly in 1841, his son William was in Exeter gaol so he obviously also was involved in petty crime. Interestingly, William's son, Alfred Searle Westaway was a jeweller in 1861, so had learnt the trade well. William Searle has many descendants who still live in the area and have made substantial contributions to the local community so he would have been proud of this. Grace never remarried and tried to bring the family up as best she could, taking in washing to feed her young family. How different life was then from today !!!

Link to more information on Australian Convicts

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