#4 John Morris Stephens – Convict

John Morris Stephns

b. abt 1764 Herefordshire, England

d. abt 1836 NSW, Australia

– STEPHENS, John Morris

It’s hard to find information regarding John due to the fact at times his surname is documented by MORRIS and other times STEPHENS.  I’m sure John did this on purpose what with being a criminal and using alias names would have been standard operation for him.

John was tried and convicted for “receiving stolen goods” on March 16, 1786 in Dorchester, Dorset, England.  Because this was not his first offense with petty crime rather than prison he was sent to the Australian Criminal Colony, sentence to seven years labor.  At this time it is recorded that he was 22 years of age.  I know little of John’s life previous to his trial and conviction, however, his ship transportation document reflects he was born in Herefordshire, England about 1764.  I have not yet researched Herefordshire England, however this blog has motivated me to search farther into John’s life.  I have found a site where I might get a copy of the trail document in Dorchester, still pending arrival.

After his trail John was held at Dirken Hulk Prison until transportation was arranged, during his time there he was described as “tolerable decent and orderly”.

John was shipped out on the convict ship named “Charlotte”, one of the eleven of the “First Fleet” to sail to Australia.  The “Charlotte” set sail March 5, 1787 transporting 78 men and 20 female prisoners, captained by Thomas Gilbert, arrived NSW on January 19, 1788.

John was charged to work for a man named John Archer as Assistant Overseer and saddler maker, however, on March 12, 1788, John was charged with theft of one knife and one waist coat and promptly returned to the “gang work” duty.  For some time to follow John is charged with multiple assaults during his time in the “colony”.  John is documented as “having a history of violence in the colony”,

One particular assault charge was turned to manslaughter when he beat one Charles Wilson to death.  He was convicted of manslaughter and sentence to burn the palm of his hand and added an additional 18 months to his term.  He was sent to Norfolk Island to finish his sentence with hard labor.

Somewhere and some how during this time John Morris Stephens got involved with a convict named Sarah Bird and had two daughters – Ann, born about 1800 and Sarah born about 1802.  Both girls were given their mothers surname, perhaps because they weren’t married or because Sarah did not want the girls to have the history of their father’s reputation following them through their lives.  I have no idea to the degree of their relationship however on January 5, 1804 John escaped Norfolk Island after stabbing and seriously wounding gaoler Edward Garth.  He then fled to the home of Sarah Bird, a home he cohabitated with her for many years, finding her in her bed he slashed her throat ear to ear. Sarah’s screams brought the constable and neighbors to her aid and John was captured.  Both victims survived thanks to the local surgeon.  John was sentenced on March 23rd 1804, to death.  However, he was instead shipped back to Norfolk Island and continued to make saddles and harnesses. Then in 1810 Governor Macquaries revoked his death sentence and reduced him to life in prison with hard labor.  He continued making saddles and harness for the colony until his death in 1836.

I’m curious if John was always violent in nature or if Criminal Colony life made him so.  I’m hoping to find more about his life in England.  Also, I am curious about his relationship with Sarah Bird and their daughters.  I’m of the belief that his crime against Sarah was that of passion and that is why his charge was reduced from a death penalty to life in prison.  Sarah is a key factor in his history and behavior and I can’t wait to further research her life.

I have a total of four Australian Convict ancestors.  John Morris Stephens & Sarah Bird, their daughter Sarah marries the offspring of my other two convict ancestors.  John, however, is the most violent and truly a convict.  Got to love the good ancestors with the bad.


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