Frederick Wyatt and James Rayner: Why stealing hams was a bad plan

Much of the Wyatt family know of the successes of our convict ancestor Frederick Wyatt. This is a true historical account of the unfortunate demise of James Rayner, his partner in crime.



‘Baked country ham’ by John Goetzinger [1]

It was an extravagant and ill-advised plan. Old friends James Rayner and Frederick Wyatt were charged with burlarising and stealing 9 hams from the home Frederick’s apprentice master, in broad daylight! [2] Together they were to appear before the magistrate at the Lent session of Essex Assizies, on the 11th March 1836. Interestingly, they weren’t the only ones being tried for stealing pork products that day.[3].


Newspaper article Extract from Chelmsford chronicle 4th March 1836, showing James Rayner and Frederick Wyatt in the list of cases to be heard at Essex Assizies. Note other cases involving bacon, ham and pork. [4]


Judges and Juries didn’t have mercy for these kind of criminals.

There would be no “Guilty with Recommendations” providing leniency for James and Fred. Leniency criteria in 1836 was similar in some ways to current considerations. Contrasting was the moral norms of the day and the role of courthouse outrage[5].

  • Firstly, at ages 18 and 21 respectively, they weren’t considered too young to know better.
  • Secondly, they weren’t in desperate need. Both were employed, neither had hungry families to support.
  • Thirdly, well, it looked plain greedy. 9 Hams!
  • Fourthly, neither presented a personal reference from an upstanding person. Finding someone prepared to speak positively on your behalf before a jeering courthouse would have been tough. Besides, as a mass factory worker, James likely no social connections with an employer.  Fred, however, did come from an upstanding family, his father Samuel being a respected postman. Samuel lived several hours away, perhaps was unable to travel to court, or perhaps was too ashamed of his son.
  • James difficult family background would have been the nail in the coffin­ he was a bad seed.


England and Wales convict record Register of Persons charged with INDICTABLE OFFENCES at the Assizes and Sessions held within the County during the Year 1836. [8]

The Register of Persons charged with INDICTABLE OFFENCES at the Assizes and Sessions held within the County during the Year 1836, shown below, mentions “Level of Instruction”. Fred is noted as having “Full”, whilst James has “Imp”. This refers to ability to read and write. James has an imperfect level, meaning that he can read and write somewhat. [6]They were young, fit, somewhat educated and having trades: exactly what was needed in the colonies. [7]. They were found guilty and sentenced to 6 months imprisonment followed by transportation to Australia to serve a 7 years sentence. [8]


Born illegitimate in 1817 to an unmarried teenage mother in Bocking, Essex, England, James life was off to a rough start. His parents Anne and Isaac married when he was 6 years old, his mother going on to have 7 more children. [10]. Many had histories of petty crime, abandoning wives and children, asylum visits, and pauper offences.[11] Read more about the Rayner family here.

Like most of his extended family and neighbours, James joined the towns main industry, silk [12], beginning an apprenticeship to be a silk­weaver [13]. The rigid discipline and 12 hour shifts in the silk factory mills may have contributed to James adapting to prison life. He had no further imprisonments, and no misconduct records [14].

a6798-pt-12-looms-1-essexrecordofficeblog-co_-uk-looms-at-the-courtauld-works-a6798-pt-12A6798­pt­12­LOOMS­1 Looms at the Courtauld works (A6798 pt 12). James is likely to have worked somewhere similar.

James physical description was detailed in the NSW Convict Indents register in 1837 [16]. A small man at 5’2”, possibly the result of childhood malnourishment. His complexion is listed as dark ruddy and freckled. His hair as brown and his eyes as grey. He had a scar under his left eyebrow, and several moles.


James’s description 1837. New South Wales, Australia, Convict Indents, 1788­ 1842 [15]


After being convicted, James and Frederick were transported to Springfield, the newer gaol of Chelmsford, Essex [17]. They were greeted at the front entrance with the sight of the gallows, where public executions took place, and bodies were left to hang as a warning. There were several hangings the year prior, fortunately not in the year that they were there [19.]

Springfield Prison.

The older prison, Moulsham, notorious for disease and depravity, was still in operation [20] . Springfield was known to be highly efficient, clean, and orderly. Food was adequate and exercise allowed. Discipline was reportedly harsh, with convict operated treadmills powering parts of the gaol [21]. chelmsford_gaol History House co uk


The record below shows Frederick and James transferred together from Springfield Gaol to the custody of J.W. Capper, Esquire to a convict Hulk Ship on the 3rd of September 1836 [22.] The Leviathan was docked in Portsmouth.


Extract from ‘England and Wales, Crime, Prisons and Punishment, 1770­1935’ (My family past)

Convict Hulks, decommissioned war ships, were hollowed out ‘floating prisons’. The custody and responsibility of prisoners were transferred from the state to the private sector, to each ships Masters. The hulks had dual purposes.  They were a profitable exercise. Prisoners could now be used as slaves, doing hard physical labour on the docks where the Hulks were moored. James would likely would have spent this time in chains, working long days on the docks, and sleeping in crowded cells. Food was likely inadequate for the labour done. Hulk life also served to indoctrinate discipline, order,  and following routine, making them easier to manage on the convict journeys.  Convicts also learnt practical, employable skills which could be used on arrival in Australia [23.] Still, at least the friends were still together.


Two convict ships moored at the quayside ships.  Grieve 1822 [24]

This video, Medway Prison Hulks Tour. The Guidhall Museum, Rochester, England, gives an indication of the experience of being on a ship similar to the Leviathan. v=eYiEvDYoDsk      [25.]


The Convict Hulks Register for the Leviathan shows when James and Frederick parted ways. James was “disposed of” on the 21st October 1836. Frederick remained on the Leviathan until 15th of March 1837. Perhaps Frederick was sentenced to an additional 6 months hard labour for poor conduct.


Home Office: Convict Prison Hulks: Registers and Letter Books; Class: HO9; Piece: 8 James boarded the convict ship “Norfolk 5”, setting sail on 27th of October 1836 [27]

UK, Prison Hulk Registers and Letter Books, 1802­1849 Leviathan Register 1801­1836 Extract showing that Frederick and James left the Leviathan separately [26]

This shows James boarding the Norfolk Ship on the 27th October 1836. 280 other male convicts accompanied James on what was the fasted convict ship journey of the time [27.]

The ships Surgeon Superintendent was required to report daily on any prisoner who was ill. There was no mention of James Rayner, indicating that he was in good health the entire journey. The surgeon commented on the good conduct, health and cleanliness of prisoners: “They were extremely orderly in their conduct” He concluded that the journey was uncomplicated, with little illness other than scurvy. There was one death during the journey [28.]


Uk, Royal Navy Medical Journals, 1817­1857 Norfolk. Final page, general remarks. Closing remarks by the surgeon John Inches. UK, Royal Navy Medical Journals, 1817­1857 (Ancestry) [28]

Arriving in Australia…

James arrived at Port Botany, New South Wales, on the 11th February 1837. The record below was likely written up before he disembarked the ship. James is again recorded as a silk weaver, he now can read and write, and has already served his 6 months of hard labour. [29]


Convict indents New South Wales 1837 List of 280 male convicts by the ship Norfolk (5).



James was assigned to work for free settler Donald Ryrie, in the St Vincent district of New South Wales [30].


James Rayner, now 20, assigned to Donald Ryrie .New South Wales and Tasmania, Australia Convict Musters NSW General Musters R­Y 1837 

The Ryrie family were known as prominent landholders in the region with their largest sheep farm being ‘Arnprior’. James was one of many convicts employed by the family, including a baker. His labouring work would have earned him a comfortable bed and plentiful food. [31]


James died in a hospital in 1839, tragically early at the age of 21. He was buried on the 31st of March, in the Parish of St James. His cause of death was not noted[32.]

As a convict, James likely out the last of his days at Sydney General Hospital in St James. Masters were responsible for paying for the first 14 days of a hospital stay, after that they could hand back the convict to the government, who would be responsible for the care until death or reassignment [33.] It is not known how long James spent in the hospital, or what disease or injury he may have had. He would likely have been buried on site, without a headstone: his family wouldn’t have been notified.


Convict death New South Wales, Australia, Convict Death Register, 1826­ 1879 [database on­line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2007.[32]


James appears to have had a wretched life from birth to death. Born into disadvantage in a family rife with dysfunction, there was little if any ‘safety net’ that may have protected him.

Sorry James, It wasn’t fair that your life sucked so much.


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