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Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 July 2007, 16:19 GMT 17:19 UK
Sentenced for stealing two sheep
By Sarah Bell
BBC News

As records showing the names of 160,000 convicts sent to Australia from Britain are published online, one man tells how he unearthed a family secret about his great-great-great grandfather.

The First Fleet
More than 160,000 convicts were shipped to Australia from 1788-1868
With a passion for family history, Chris Hicks, 54, has been tracing his roots since 1979. But despite endless research, one glaring gap remained.

His great-great-great grandfather James Hicks, born in 1804, disappeared from official records following the christening of his first child in 1828, but no death certificate could be found.

Chris, from Warminster, eventually discovered him in a book showing criminals transported to Australia following trials in Hertford.

He said: "It was an amazing moment. Years and years of searching and there he was on a page, convicted of stealing two lambs worth 40 shillings, along with three other fellows."

You find out things about yourself simply by finding out about the people who came before you.
Chris Hicks

In 1829 this was considered a capital crime and James was sentenced to death. But six days later this was commuted to life transportation and he found himself on board a ship, the Mermaid, with nearly 200 other men.

The ship left Sheerness on 5 December 1829, arriving at Port Jackson five months later on 6 May, 1830, with two men having died en route.

A muster took place in New South Wales and a description of James is found in its notes.

James' wife Mary had been pregnant with Chris's great-great-grandfather, also James, when the convict left the UK and she must have given birth while he was at sea, according to Chris, as the records show that by the time he arrived in Australia he had two children.

'Frontier land'

James was listed as 5ft 3ins tall, with grey eyes and a rugged complexion. His occupation was described as a cowherd who could reap and milk.

James Hicks' transportation record
Records showed James Hicks was deported in 1829

He was assigned to a man Edward Sparke, from Plymouth, who bought up thousands of acres of land along the Hunter River, 80 miles north of Sydney.

Chris says: "It was frontier land at the time. What he was doing, I imagine, was hacking down gum trees and planting sugar."

Nine years later, on 29 May 1839, he was released and given permission to work for himself.

Jailed again

But in 1849 his new life was abruptly halted when he was arrested again and convicted of abducting a 13-year-old girl, who had run away from home to be with him.

Chris explains James had begun to work for a landowner called Slater, who had a young daughter.

"James asks the father if they can marry - he says no and tells him to hand himself into the authorities. He doesn't put up any defence in the trial, and he goes down for another 12 months."

James was sent to Maitland Jail, which was only shut six years ago, and is a place Chris has visited.

"It was appalling. It made your heart sink to think he lived in there, in one of the tiny cells, the size of a broom cupboard."

He was released in 1851 - and that is the last record Chris has of his ancestor's whereabouts.

"I think he changed his name and went to Victoria on the gold trail, like many people did in those days."

One thing is certain, he never returned to England.

Chris says tracing his ancestry over the past 27 years has been "better than a soap opera".

"It's like a huge jigsaw puzzle, but you don't know how the pieces fit or where they are to be found.

"You find out things about yourself simply by finding out about the people who came before you. It's in us all to want to find out more about where we come from."

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