Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Tanton Tragedy

Millbank Prison, Westminster, Middlesex, England
James Tanton suffered many tragedies in his long life. When he died at the age of 90 in 1853 at Beaford, Devon, James had outlived not only his wife, but ten of his 15 children.

James was born in Bideford, Devon in 1768, and with his parents came to St Giles in the Wood about 1790. In 1797 his youngest brother Daniel died accidentally. Daniel's untimely death is described in gruesome detail on his gravestone:

In memory of DANIEL
TANTON by Firing off
a Gun it Burst the Breech
of which sunk in his Head
where it remained 9 weeks
on extraction of which He
expired ye 29th of Jany 1797
aged 17 Years
In 1799, James married Mary Lemon at St Giles in the Wood. The first of their 15 children was born the following year. At the time of his marriage, James was an agricultural labourer. He soon acquired the means to become a tenant farmer at Blinsham in the neighbouring parish of Beaford. This was likely the result of an inheritance brought about by his father's death in 1801.

James and Mary's fourth child, Jane, died in 1804 at the age of four months. Four years later their seventh child, Richard, died at the age of seven months. Their ninth child, Hannah, was born in 1811. Six additional children followed, including twins in 1819, but all died within a few months of their births.

Their eight child, Charlotte, died in 1827 at the age of 17. Two years later, their daughter-in-law, Ann Leathern, wife of their oldest son James, also died.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy, however, involved James's youngest surviving daughter, Hannah. In 1834, Hannah had an illegitimate daughter whom she named Charlotte. Six years later she married Stephen Balkwill, an agricultural labourer from the nearby parish of Meeth. At the time of her marriage she was several months pregnant—not that unusual an occurrence. Two more children followed, both baptised in Merton.

Hannah died in August of 1847. Details of Hannah's death are recorded in the Merton burial register: "Killed in the harvest field by the cart going over her chest." Hannah's youngest was only 2½ years old.

A few months later a spate of burglaries occured in the area. After a break-in at the house of John Gordon on October 14th, suspicion fell on Stephen Balkwill, Hannah's widowed husband, and an accomplice, James Lewis. Stephen was arrested on October 30th, however, he escaped custody the following day despite being handcuffed. A reward of £10 was offered, but it wasn't until early December that he was recaptured at a lodging house in Crediton.

Between his escape and recapture, Stephen had fallen in with Mary Ann Eastman, who pretended to be Stephen's wife. Together they broke into the house of William Budd of Dolton on November 23rd. Evidence given at the trial showed how Stephen had cut through the shutter and removed a pane of glass from a window in order to gain entry. Mary Budd, the wife of William testified that "seven table-spoons, a dozen teas-spoons, four salt spoons, all silver, and various other articles" had been stolen. Some of this was recovered when Stephen and Mary Ann were arrested.

At their trial at the Devon Assizes on 16 Mar 1848, James Lewis and Mary Ann Eastman were sentenced to be transported for seven years. As Steven had been involved in both burglaries his sentence was fourteen years.

During the early 19th century, the British Government transported more than 165,000 convicts to penal colonies in Australia. Of these 76,000 were transported to Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) between 1804 and 1855.

Prison Hulk (HMS Warrior)
Steven Balkwill never made it to Australia. The usual procedure for convicts awaiting transportation was to be first sent to the "hulks" in London. Prison hulks were old navy ships anchored on the banks of the Thames. Steven, however, was sent to Millbank Prison. Millbank was located near Vauxhill Bridge in Westminster (now the site of Tate Britain) and, beginning in 1843, was used to house convicts awaiting transportation to Australia.

Conditions at both the prison hulks and at Millbank were appalling, and diseases such as typhoid and cholera were rampant. Stephen Balkwill died at Millbank on 13 October 1848.

In October 1848, Mary Ann Eastman was transferred from the Devon County Gaol to Millbank Prison. She eventually was one of 170 female convicts transported on the Stately which sailed from England on 12 May 1849, and arrived in Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) on 2 Sep 1849. The records also show that Mary Ann died in Hobart a month after her arrival.

In the 1851 Census, all three of Stephen's children, Stephen, Mary Ann, and John, are inmates of the Torrington Workhouse. Ten years later all had obtained employment as servants. Mary Ann married in 1865 and Stephen in 1878. What became of their their half-sister Charlotte is not known.


Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 20 Nov 1847
Exeter Flying Post, 8 Dec 1847
Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, March 25, 1848

Exeter Flying Post, 19 Oct 1848