# 40889

BAKER, Thomas (ca. 1764-1788)

[FIRST FLEET] A convict awaiting transportation to Botany Bay writes to Lord Sydney, Secretary of State, in an attempt to have his sentence commuted. Newgate Prison, 9 May 1787.

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Manuscript letter in ink on laid paper, one page quarto, with a conjugate leaf with address panel and red wax seal; dated at ‘Newgate, 9th May 1787’, signed ‘Thos. Baker’, and addressed to ‘Right Honble. Lord Sydney, Secretary of State’; the letter is written in a fine hand, apparently by a scrivener on the prisoner’s behalf (see below); old folds, conjugate leaf with small marginal loss where the seal was broken; a very well preserved document.

A rare example of a First Fleet convict letter.

At the Exeter Quarter Sessions on 10 January 1786, Thomas Baker – no occupation recorded – was found guilty of a felony and sentenced to transportation for seven years. He was initially held on the prison hulk Dunkirk at Plymouth, where a report from the superintendent described him as ‘troublesome at times’. He was later transferred to Newgate, before being delivered to the convict transport Charlotte on 11 March 1787. A petition presented to Lord Sydney, signed by prominent members of his parish and pleading for a mitigation of his sentence, would fall on deaf ears, and in May 1787 Thomas joined the first cohort of convicts to be transported to New South Wales. He arrived at Port Jackson on board the First Fleet ship Charlotte on 26 January 1788.

Thomas died in the penal colony within a matter of months, having succumbed to scurvy, a disease that is invariably fatal if left untreated. He was buried at an unknown site in Sydney Cove on 13 September 1788. (At this early date, an area for an official burial ground was yet to be designated). It is worth noting that contrary to what we might expect – given the cramped and unhygienic conditions that prevailed on board a convict transport – the death rate among the 775 male and female prisoners on the First Fleet was relatively low compared to that on the subsequent Fleets and throughout the period of transportation in general, with an average of around 5 convict deaths per month during the time at sea. However, Thomas had likely developed scurvy on the 250-day voyage, meaning that his death from the disease should probably count him as a First Fleet statistic.

The present letter, written just four days before the departure of the First Fleet, is a veritable last-ditch attempt to prevent Thomas’ banishment to the end of the earth, a punishment that would diminish the prospect of him ever reuniting with his loved ones. In particular, this meant his loyal wife, who had fought valiantly for his cause and had travelled to London from Devon to hand-deliver both the petition and this desperate final plea to Lord Sydney. Indeed, we can speculate that it was she who had arranged for both documents to be prepared, probably with the help of the Bakers’ local parish clergy, as the letter is ostensibly addressed from Thomas in Newgate, even though he had already spent almost two months on the Charlotte. (It can probably be assumed that the letter was written on Thomas’ behalf). In the end, her efforts were to no avail, and their worst fears – Thomas’ exile and premature death – were realised.


My Lord,

On the 2d. of this Month a Petition was presented to your Lordship subscribed by a great number of very respectable persons such as the Minister, Church Wardens, Common Council Men and other very respectable persons praying a mitigation of my sentence, which was delivered into your Lordship’s Office by my Wife who brings you this and I hope your Lordship will consider it, but am much afraid that we shall soon go off and shall be very happy if your Lordship will condescend to give her an answer. I am, My Lord, Your Lordship’s most obedient and obliged humble servant, Thos. Baker.