An amateur genealogist solves the mystery of how a letter was flown out of the Paris siege in 1870 and later found in Australia.
Once again we fire up our little grey cells and try to come up with a germ of an idea. An idea that will grow into another piece of fiction fit for Friday Fictioneers.
Thanks to Rochelle Wisoff-Fields for her dedication and time, keeping Friday Fictioneers growing straight and true.
Word Count: 100
A Family Tree
After the war we had nothing. Stripped of our possessions, we wandered the land searching for food, shelter, kindness. Maria, mourning her child, lost her mind. Men found her dancing in the field and amused themselves, then fearful of the consequences, tied her to a tree and left her.
“This can’t be true, who would do this?”
We found her after animals and birds had fed, we buried her.
“It happened” said the genealogist, handing me more yellowing pages, “there is a gravestone, with details.”
That night, the dream came again; a tree tied with red ribbons.
Now I understand.
The story of the convict stayed with me and I spent many nights on the computer, searching the family history sites trying to find out anything I could. I decided to write to the librarian in Colne, explain what information I had and see if they had any documents that could throw some light on the story my aunt had told me.
I eventually had a reply, telling me there was only one man from the town who seemed to fit the bill. His name was Richard Boothman and, at a Chartist riot in Colne on 10 August 1840 he killed a policeman.
I went onto the Lancaster prison website and typed his name into the database, nothing. There were long lists of prisoners who had stolen bread, horses, murdered their neighbours, husbands and wives, but no mention of Richard Boothman. Then one morning, whilst trying to sort out all the papers and folders I had on my family tree, I came across a package at the bottom of the box. It contained an old book, all about the history of Colne, that had belonged to my great grandmother and had been given to me when my grandmother died. It was written by a local historian in 1878. I had scanned it briefly when I received it, but the writing style was very staid and after a while, just plain boring, so I had not got very far and had stopped not long after the bit about a supposed Roman settlement!
I picked it up again, wondering if there could possibly be anything in it about this case. I sat on the floor of the study, slowly turning the thin, dry pages of small print until, towards the back of the book, in a chapter entitled “Guilty or Not Guilty” I found the story of Richard Boothman, weaver and murderer.
Since then I have spent hours trying to piece together his story and I am still working on it. I have transcripts of letters he wrote from prison to his father, who never got over the shock of what happened to his son. I read of him protesting his innocence and begging his father to find townspeople who would speak on his behalf at his trial and in one letter telling his father that ” the Assizes commence the 20th March” and could he please have a new pair of shoes. Later, in February, he tells his father that he is” preparing to meet his fate with fortitude and courage”. Some townspeople do make the long journey to speak for him at his trial, but he is found “guilty of wilful murder”.
However, very strenuous efforts were made on his behalf for many believed in his innocence, and on 7 April 1841 there was success of a kind as a reprieve was issued. But any hope was dashed on 14 April as he was served with an order for transportation for life. Shortly after that he was taken from Lancaster prison to the prison hulks at Woolwich. He and the other prisoners were kept in squalid conditions and sent ashore to work across the river, unloading cargoes at the docks. He worked there until he was transferred in shackles to the Barossa which set sail for Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) and arrived in Hobart on 13 January 1842.
The National Archive in Hobart were very helpful and I obtained a lot of information from them, including reports that he served his sentence at Impression Bay, Westbury, Quamby, Peth and Launceston; that he was considered a good worker; that in January 1844 his original term of probation expired and on 5 February 1850 he was granted his “Ticket of Leave”. Finally on 7 June 1853 his conditional pardon was approved. He married another prisoner, Mary Brown who had left London on the convict ship St Vincent and it seems he settled in Launceston where he farmed until his death in 1877. He is buried just outside Launceston.
The times he lived in were incredibly hard, he was a weaver at the time of the Chartist riots, a period of great unrest and yes, he probably did fight to defend his livelihood. I am glad that he survived transportation when so many convicts perished; I believe in his innocence and feel sad that the punishment he received was so harsh and that he never saw his family again. I have helped others find a place in their family tree for Richard Boothman and also fill in a few gaps in the lists of the convict ships, but as much as I would dearly love to, I can’t yet find a place for him in my tree. I know that some of my great great grandmother’s family lived in the same street as the Boothmans, could it be that the story that has come down to me, is one of the women of the street coming together to support the family in a time of great need? Could it be that the women who walked those long, long miles to Lancaster prison with food and clothing for Richard were his sisters and their close friends from the street? Perhaps I’ll never know, perhaps we are not related, but I know I will go on looking