KERSLAKE, William Henry (1842-1922)
A group of letters sent by a convict to his parents prior to his transportation to Western Australia, 1864-65.
Four unpublished manuscript letters written by convict William Henry Kerslake from Chatham Prison (Kent) and the ship Racehorse (Portland Roads) to his parents in Tiverton, Devon, 1864-65; 4 bifolia, small quarto (each 230 x 190 mm), on official ‘Convict Establishment, Chatham’ blue writing paper, each with printed instructions to first leaf recto; Kerslake was illiterate, so his letters were all dictated and are written in a clerical hand across the two internal pages of each form (two letters bear his autograph ‘mark’); the second leaf verso of each has a manuscript address, tied with a penny red postage stamp and with Chatham and Tiverton postal markings; the letters are dated July 29 1864, March 17 1865, May 6 1865, and May 10 1865 (the latter being written from the transport ship Racehorse); all were folded for posting (fold lines remain); one letter (July 29 1864) has separated along the main vertical fold and has one corner excised (no loss of text), otherwise the letters are very well preserved and legible.
William Henry Kerslake was a Devonshire bricklayer who was convicted at the Exeter Assizes in July 1863 of ‘carnal knowledge of a girl under ten years’. He was sentenced to transportation to the penal colony of Western Australia for 14 years, and was one of 279 prisoners who arrived at Fremantle on 10 August 1865 on board the Racehorse.
Kerslake’s letters, written in the course of the year prior to his transportaion, enquire after his family’s (vain) attempts to mitigate his sentence. One describes a gruesome accident in which Kerslake lost the top of one of his fingers in performing labouring work, landing him in the prison infirmary. In his last poignant letter he asks for a small sum of money so that he might be able to procure a few modest comforts for the outward voyage. The letters are addressed to either ‘Dear Father and Mother’ or ‘Dear Parents’, and are signed either ‘your affectionate son’ or ‘your dutiful son’.
Although Western Australia received small numbers of juvenile offenders from 1842, it was not formally constituted as a penal colony until 1849. Between 1850 and 1868, almost 10,000 convicts were transported to Western Australia on 43 convict ship voyages. Following the cessation of transportation to Western Australia in 1868 – long after it had ended to New South Wales (1850) and Van Diemen’s Land (1853) – a significant number of convicts remained in the colony’s penal system for many years.
Kerslake was granted a Ticket of Leave on 16 November 1870, and his official Certificate of Freedom on 28 July 1877. The Police Gazette, Western Australia of 6 June 1877 records that the prisoner ‘No. 8334 William Kerslake, reports his arrival in Pinjarrah, from the Bunbury district, on 22nd ult., where he intends to reside’. Almost three years later, the Register of Expirees in the Police Gazette, Western Australia of 3 March 1880 informs us that on 1 December 1879 Kerslake departed the colony of Western Australia on the ship Bertha Rod (on which he was listed as a gardener/labourer), bound for Wallaroo in South Australia. The Police Gazette gives the following physical description of him: ‘Middling stout, age 35, 5 ft. 7 in. high, brown hair, hazel eyes, oval visage, sallow complexion, dark mark from cut on the nose’. Kerslake appears to have settled in Wallaroo and, using his middle name Henry – probably as an attempt to conceal his dark past – he first married one Bertha Thiem (5 January 1881). Then, presumably after Bertha’s death a short time later, he married Mary Bevan (5 August 1882), a woman fifteen years younger than himself. As if making up for lost time – and somewhat chillingly, given the predatory nature of his original offence – Henry fathered no fewer than 9 children with Mary, the youngest of whom was born in 1892. There is no evidence on record, however, that Kerslake was a recidivist.
It is quite remarkable that Kerslake’s hard life spanned 80 years: he would certainly have been one of only very few convicts transported to the Australian penal colonies in the nineteenth century to survive into the 1920s.
Note: The letters are accompanied by full transcriptions.