When  Australian author Kate Grenville was researching  her convict ancestor for the novel  Secret River, she admitted to feeling slightly anxious about the nature of his crime. Theft was one thing, but what if he had  been transported for something really serious; even, God forbid,  murder?  Her fears awakened memories of  a dark rumour concerning  my own convict ancestor, Solomon Shadbolt, suspected of killing a man in 1826.

However,  it was burglary that  led to Solomon’s arrest almost twenty years later. On a snowy winter’s night in 1845, Solomon  (my three times great-grandfather), his son George  and two nephews, Ben and Jonathan Shadbolt, broke into a general store in a Hertfordshire village and made off with  food, drapery, and the contents of the till.  All  four were tried and pronounced guilty at the Hertford Assizes.  The judge commented that they were a bad lot who  had evaded the authorities for a very long time!  Owing to a previous conviction for theft,  Solomon  was  transported  for twenty years.   As first offenders,  George and his two young cousins each received a lesser sentence of 15 years in exile.  At the time of  their arrest  George was  25, Jonathan 27, and Ben 20.   Solomon was 46.

In 1993 the highly  respected New Zealand writer Maurice Shadbolt wrote an account of the burglary in a  memoir called One of Ben’s .  He also noted that, ‘Uncle Solomon may literally have got away with murder two decades earlier.’   Maurice gave only sketchy details  about the affair, but it certainly gave me a jolt!

The Shadbolts were  shipped off to that harshest of  all penal colonies, Norfolk Island, arriving in January 1846.  Conditions were almost beyond belief, and  several  weeks later a gang of ‘old-hands’  went on a murderous rampage.  The brutal  killings, and the infamous mass hangings which followed  must have shaken my ancestors to the core.

Solomon was transported to Norfolk Island.
Convict ruins on the harsh penal colony on Norfok Island

Maurice suggested that Solomon became mentally unstable, describing him as ‘…a weary fifty year old, unhinged and homesick for Hertfordshire’, who ‘curled up and died’’ on Norfolk, leaving his son and nephews vulnerable to sexual abuse and  physical violence.  He wrote;  ‘Young Benjamin, Jonathan, and George would now have been easy prizes. There is no reason  to suppose they went unravished.’   These colourful  comments  struck me as very harsh. After all, the three younger Shadbolts were from a tough background, and more than handy with their fists. Three years prior to the burglary they had all been charged over a village brawl.  It  is unlikely  the trio would have turned to the diminutive  (5’ 4”), middle aged  Solomon for protection anyway, as he was in very bad shape.  For the final six weeks of the voyage to Norfolk aboard the Mayda  Solomon had been suffering from dysentery, and he was discharged only as the ship was about to dock.

Surprisingly, when I  accessed the Tasmanian convict records  I discovered that , sick as he was, Solomon did not die on Norfolk Island. He was transferred to Van Diemen’s Land in May 1847  along with George, Ben and Jonathan. From Hobart they were taken to Cascades Probation Station  on Tasman Peninsular. 

Cascades Probation Station, where Solomon died.
Cascades Probation Station

Anything would have been an improvement over the  conditions they had left behind, but life was still hard.  Prisoners were sent out at first light to fell trees and mill wood. Fatal accidents in the bush were commonplace  but there were far more deaths from pneumonia, especially among the  new arrivals from  Norfolk Island. It was  bitterly cold  and the men  were housed in damp huts without adequate food or clothing.   Solomon  made it through that first  winter only to  die in  January 1848,  tragically close to gaining at least partial freedom through the ticket-of-leave  system.


Jonathan  Shadbolt  eventually disappeared to the mainland and was never heard of again.  Ben Shadbolt married a free settler’s daughter and   moved to New Zealand.  He owned hotels and timber mills and died  a very wealthy man.  According to family lore he  was a drinker and a gambler  and his money may not have been acquired by strictly legal means!  But he was generous  and kind hearted.   Among his descendants is Tim Shadbolt,  colourful  Mayor of Invercargill and one of New  Zealand’s  best  loved personalities.  

My great great grandfather George  married  a fellow convict. He became a successful farmer, blacksmith and carpenter in  Northern Tasmania. He helped build his local church and was appointed first superintendent of the Sunday School.   The contrast between Ben and George is wonderfully illustrated in the portraits below.

Ben Shdbolt, Solomon's nephew.
“Gentleman’ Ben Shadbolt

Solomon's son George and infant daughter.
Hard working farmer and blacksmith  George Shadbolt with his daughter Mary Anne, circa 1860


George  was  just six years old at the time his  father was suspected of  killing ploughman  Thomas Chalkley in the Hertfordshire village of Datchworth.  On Sunday, January 1 1826,  Solomon and  his brother Joseph were seen leaving The Horns pub in company with Chalkley, who failed to arrive home.  His  body was found  several days later in a nearby pond.   Since he had been perfectly sober when he left the pub, foul play was suspected.  The Shadbolt brothers were hauled in  and questioned.

The Horns pub, Solomon's local.
The old pub is still standing

 A Search for the Truth…..

A few years ago  I visited  Hertford, and at the County Archives  I checked  the Hertford Mercury for the first week of  January 1826. On January 7, under  the headline  RUMOURED MURDER  was a lengthy article beginning;

Considerable consternation was spread in this town and neighbourhood  on Wednesday last from the report of another barbarous murder having been committed in this county. Like the murdered Weare, the victim was reported to have been concealed in a pond where his mutilated remains had been dragged by merciless assassins. Robbery was also attached to the crime of murder.

But all was not as it appeared;

We are happy to have it in our power to lay before our readers the whole facts of the case, the authenticity  of which may be relied on. It is so far true that the body of a man was found in a moat of water within a few hundred yards of the Horns Public House at Bull’s Green.

 The body was removed from the pond and taken back to the pub to await the Coroner’s inquest.   Solomon  and Joseph Shadbolt  were detained  and questioned,  but as The  Mercury’s report continued;

we are happy to state that nothing transpired to attach the least criminality  to either, and they were ordered to be discharged.

 The Coroner returned a verdict of accidental death, concluding  that the poor fellow had missed his footing in the dark and fallen into the freezing pond. Far from being mutilated,  Chalkey had  only minor scratches on his face  from brambles.  And  there was more;

A further proof of his not having met his death by unfair means is that the money he was known to have had about him, seven shillings, was found in his pockets. 

The inference was that if  my Shadbolts had been involved they would have pinched Chalkley’s cash, but at least it saved their  necks!  Why, one might ask, did the Hertford Mercury rush into print  to exonerate the pair?  The clue lies in the mention of the  Weare murder, which  occurred in October 1823 and was reported in the Hertfordshire County Chronicle.                               

 On Friday night last, Mr Wm Weare, attorney, of Lyons Inn, was murdered at a place about 6 miles from the town of Watford, Herts., in a manner which, for cold- blooded villany as to the mode of effecting it, and the diabolical ferocity which accompanied its perpetration, have seldom been equalled.

Weare’s throat had been cut and his body  thrown into a pond. His killer was a well born  man by the name of  John Thurtel. The public devoured every  lurid detail of the case and thousands flocked to Hertford in January 1824 to see  the murderer  hanged.

When Thomas Chalkley’s body was also  found in  a pond,   rumours spread until  local people were in a state of  near hysteria.  Clearly it was feared  that unless the facts were laid before the public quick smart,  Solomon and Joseph were in danger of being lynched. Unfortunately, most of the villagers were illiterate and it is likely the men received both verbal and physical abuse in the weeks that followed. Stories of their involvement probably circulated for years, affecting their capacity to earn a living. It may even have been a factor in Solomon’s  slide towards  a life of  crime, culminating in the  1845 burglary.

It was a relief to discover that my ancestor, although definitely no angel, was not a murderer and that he did not die ‘unhinged’ on Norfolk Island.  The convict cemetery  where Solomon was buried on Tasman Peninsula is now an orchard, and since he paid  so dearly for his sins I sincerely  hope the old chap  rests in peace  under the apple trees.

There are so many convicts in Tasmania’s lost graveyards.

You can read a second installment of the Shadbolt family  HERE


  1. Another great true story Pauline. A fascinating insight into your GGG Grandfather, son and nephews, and other criminals who were transported to Australia. I think the saying, ‘What doesn’t kill you will make you strong’ must have originated in Norfolk Island.

    • Very true Madalyn. In Robert Hughes’ book The Fatal Shore is the story that when the MAYDA arrived on Norfolk Island the Shadbolts & their fellow prisoners were sent down to the beach to bathe. They were immediately set upon by the ‘old hands’ who stole their clothes & what few possessions they had. The guards stood by and let it happen as the old hands (hardened, violent men who had seriously re-offended in Australia)were in complete control.

      • Survival of the hardest and the most violent. At drama college I had a (dramatic) taste of the hard life people endured in the Australian gold rush. I can’t begin to imagine what the Shadbolts & their fellow prisoners suffered. But after a week in a small wooden hut (some were in old tents) in Epping Forest, in the middle of winter, I can try. We lived in the Australian ‘gold fields’ and whatever happened, and many dreadful things did, we couldn’t escape. (We could leave of course, but that would have defeated the point of the exercise. And of course the criminals and British army etc., were plants, but it was terrifying.) The Eureka Stockade in Australia 1854 was a truly terrifying place to be. For me in 1974 it was a life changing, wonderful experience.

        • Pauline

          What a unique experience Maddie! Far more positive than those stupid celebrity TV ‘Get me out of here’ shows. Rob and I visited Cascades Probation Station, which was very emotional for me as it showed how difficult life was for the inmates, albeit a lot better than on Norfolk Island. No wonder Solomon didn’t survive. Unlike Jonathan and Ben, my ancestor George did not re-offend after his father died. I think it must have had a profound affect on him.

          A lot of ex-convicts ended up on the goldfields. As you say, it was also a very hard life – except for the lucky few who struck it rich.

  2. Pauline, Wow, all I can say is you have many books to write, and what a colorfull history. To be able to trace your ancestors all the way back to the early 1800’s is amazing. Keep digging, and I will keep reading.

    • Thanks Patricia. Of course the Shadbolts can be traced back hundreds of years before that, due to their unusual name. I’m not sure how they evaded police for so long because they were bumbling thieves. For one thing, they left a trail of spilled tea in the snow. Also, people saw them passing by in the early hours of the morning with bulging pockets in their smocks!

  3. That’s very interesting, Pauline, and just goes to show how a link – however unfair – with a serious crime was impossible to shake off. I’d have liked to add, ‘in barely literate times’, but I suspect it’s still the case.

    I hope Solomon’s young relatives got to enjoy their lives on the other side of the planet, in the end. They must have.

    • Pauline

      Well, there were some very turbulent times Diane, as with most families I guess. One thing that occurred to me recently was that the first Shadbolt relo to go back to England was Arthur Singleton, my shell-shocked g-uncle who fought at Gallipoli. He spent time in a Military hospital in Wandsworth having his shoulder reconstructed. I’m sure he didn’t know that his ancestors were convicts…it was a very shameful thing and never spoken about.

  4. What an interesting story! I suppose many of us have ancestors who have done such things but we have no history of them. Someone has done a family tree on both sides of my family, but there is almost no info about my mother’s mother, so we don’t really know what kind of circumstances she was born into or lived in. Thank you for sharing this story from the past.

    • Pauline

      You are right Diane. One of the ‘benefits’ of having convict ancestors is that even though they were very lowly people, they are extremely well documented; the exact details of their appearance, court records, their illnesses aboard the transports, their ‘ticket of leave’ employers, their applications for marriage etc etc. It’s amazing.

  5. What a wonderful story – they are all wonderful stories! As Patricia says you must keep on writing and we will continue to read. Thanks Pauline.

    • Pauline

      Thank you Anne, it is so lovely to receive feedback from my readers.

      It’s funny how, even generations later, injustice relating to a ‘family member ‘ can stir the blood. It’s a pity Maurice Shadbolt is not alive as I suspect he and I would have a lively discussion over our common ancestor.

      Ben Shadbolt constantly re-offended after his release and when he went to NZ (probably at the urging of the ‘born again’ George) he left his son Linden behind to be raised by George and wife Jane. Years later Linden and HIS new bride went to NZ to reunite with Ben. The NZ lot found Linden very pious and sanctimonious and he thought they were on a highway to hell! It was all a big disaster and Linden and wife returned home after a year or so.

  6. A great account of our ancestors Paulie, although it is heartbreaking to realize the ones who led us to Australia suffered such hardship ,it really is quite remarkable that records are still available. I wonder what they would make of their stories being broadcast by a relative all these years later. To be honoured in this way and so carefully researched by you makes me very proud.

    • Pauline

      Thank you Robbie, what a lovely thing to say. I have a big lump in my throat now.
      I was really annoyed by Maurice’s book and just had to stand up for ‘our lot’. You know what I’m like when I get a ‘bee in my bonnet’ about something. And wasn’t it moving that George’s grandson Arthur went off to fight so bravely, even though the outcome was utterly tragic. xxx

  7. Hi,
    It was very interesting to read your post. I am a direct descendant of Solomon and I am researching my family tree.

    Thanks for the info

    • Pauline

      Hello Ross
      Well, I am fascinated to know more of your connection!! I will email you. Thanks for leaving a message.

  8. Hello Pauline,
    How delighted I was to find this little gem online! I am descended through Benjamin Shadbolt whose first daughter, Emma Selina Shadbolt, was my great great grandmother, making Benjamin my 3rd great grandfather.
    Your story that puts the flesh on the bones of our family story reminded me of the importance of really finding the facts of the lives of our ancestors and how lucky we are to have had some forbears who lived on the edge for it is they who find themselves reported upon in the newspapers of the day!
    Like you, I feel a certain sense of loyalty to those transported Shadbolts, as my research informs me that there is a name that keeps popping up alongside that of Shadbolt in a variety of news reports! Each time I read of an “old man Benjamin Shadbolt” who stole a piece of wood worth 6d or of the two Shadbolts, Solomon and Daniel who were found on the premises of another person with “intent to commit a felony” it is interesting to note that the property in question is that of a Mr Sutton!! Mr Sutton must have had it in for the Shadbolt family and was probably most delighted when they were sent down! I feel a burning desire to find out more about this Mr Sutton and to locate his descendants in order to have my revenge on them!!
    I loved the way you wrote of our ancestors with kindness and honesty. And I was especially delighted to discover that Solomon had not got away with murder as Maurice would have had us believe.
    I am off to Tasmania in January to see where Emma Selina was born and walk some of the hills and roads that our Shadbolts would have walked. I am looking forward to that very much. Thanks so much for sharing your story with all who seek to put the meat on the bones of our shared ancestors!
    Sheryl M. Baron

    • Pauline

      Hello Sheryl, so lovely to hear from another Shadbolt relative. Thank you for your kind words. I have long been fascinated by the family, especially by George and Ben, who it seems were so different in personality. Do you have a photo of Emma
      Selina? And do you know anything about Emma’s brother Linden, and his stay in New Zealand? Please feel free to email me at [email protected]

  9. Dear Pauline,

    I have just stumbled upon your site and I find it most informative. I am currently writing a book about the Postal history of the Mersey district. You may not know that your relation, Lindon George Shadbolt was the official postmaster at Sassafras from 1.7.1878 until 9.12.1900 (I suspect that his wife Mary may have done the work)
    His daughter Sarah took over as postmistress from 10.12.1900 until 12.12.1909 and was followed by Ethel Shadbolt who was the wife of Lindon’s son Alfred until 1.3.1912
    Than you for the background, it was a very interesting read

    • Thanks Bob for posting this message about Lindon George Shadbolt’s life as a postmaster — I am off to Tasmania in search of the Shadbolts on January 2 so I shall be pleased to learn more of this part of the history!

      • Hi Sheryl

        If you check my reply to Bob you will see a link to an article which may interest you. Actually, there is a lot of info on the Shadbolts in Trove…just type in their various names etc. The site is free and provided by the National Library. I found a ‘letter to the editor’ only today, dating from the 1860’s. It’s about my George Shadbolt being very uncharitable towards Roman Catholics! Must say I sympathized with the writer! Have a wonderful trip to Tassie and do let me know how you get on.

    • Hello Bob,

      Many thanks for your message and good luck with your project. Yes, I was aware of Mary and co. running the post office all those years…quite a record! Now I suggest you go to trove.nla.gov.au/newspapers then click on digitised newspapers. Type in Pioneers of the Sassafras District. It should bring up a wonderful interview with Mary which appeared in the Advocate on 13 November 1935. Among other things, she talks about being postmistress.

  10. Great read…thank God it was so long ago. Just started researching the family tree and found your article on a general search. That villainy must have spread through the family. I believe my line follows Daniel(son of Solomon), thru Fredrick and Martha to Priscilla Shadbolt, Wall then O’Shea. Unfortunately, or fortunately the history of the O’Shea’s is cruel but one light is the Wall’s name which was in 1920’s associated as butchers'(of meats) who became renowned in UK until they were bought out. anyway again great read and good to see they did well in the end.

  11. Hi Vinny, sorry for my delay in responding and thanks for taking the time to leave a message. I must say your lot sound rather intriguing! There is no doubt that we have some colourful ancestors! Would love to know what happened with the O’Shea link.

  12. Great story Paulie; very interesting and photos too! You are a very talented writer.

    • Pauline

      Thanks Josie, the Shadbolts were an interesting lot!

  13. Pauline thank you for your Family Story. Your Research was Commendable and as a result righted what was a wrong against the Shadbolt Clan. Very Harsh Times in the 1800s and Poverty was the precursor to activities that eventuated in many being Transported to Van Diemans Land. I recall in disgust a circumstance when a overseas University student was overheard casually remarking that ” Australia should be grateful for recent immigrants considering Australia was born from White Rubbish.” To which I replied “Our Convicts Settled and through their labour built the foundations of Australia, the infrastructure and with their Spirit the Social and Cultural Norms you are so keen to use and adapt to today. ” Adding ” Besides having a Convict in your Australian Heritage is a Badge of Honour.” I strongly believe that Australians should stand Tall if finding Convict Ancestors. Context is very important when looking back into our Australian Forebears. No Social Security existed then only ‘Poor Houses’ and if you weren’t born of a certain ‘Class’ people were regarded as a Commodity and exploited under the guise of Criminal Offence. Unscrupulous Magistrates were well aware in Britain that ‘unpaid slave labour’ Be it White or Black was a necessity in Nation Building wherever the ‘Sun Set upon in the Empire.’
    Once again Thank You Pauline for Sharing part of your Australian Ancestry.

    • Pauline

      Thanks for leaving such thoughtful and erudite comments Anon. Yes, I am very proud of my ancestor George Shadbolt. I also admire his free settler neighbours, who accepted him as a hard working man and did not discriminate against him. Together they transformed virgin bush into some of the best pastural land in Tasmania.

  14. Hi Pauline, I have just found out that I am a descendant of Solomon Shadbolt his son Edmund had a daughter Emma who married Ethrian Hollingsworth. I’m so glad that I was able to read the truth about my grandfather as I had read that he was a suspected murderer. Thank you for so much information about my ancestors Regards Shirley

    • Pauline

      You are most welcome Shirley. I was so glad to able to absolve our mutual ancestor. Poor old Solomon.

  15. Hi Pauline,
    Thanks for writing this, it was fascinating! Solomon is my 4 x great grandfather through his daughter Jemima. Although I’ve been looking into my family history for many years now, it’s only through doing my DNA that I’ve discovered so many more links. I’ve loved reading about the Shadbolt’s, so thank you!

    • Pauline

      Hi Sandie, well we certainly share some fascinating ancestors. Jemima’s story is particularly sad.

  16. Dear Pauline,

    Thank you for your eloquent and highly informative post.

    I came upon George Shadbolt in my tree, and as I lived for many years in Datchworth, decided to look further into the family.

    Solomon Shadbolt married Eleanor (Ellen) Ewington on Oct 28 1817 in Datchworth, On the night of the 1841 census, he was not at home but a Solomon Shadbolt was in the Infirmary in Hertford. Do you know anything of this?

    On Dec 25 1848 Ellen married Benjamin Miles, a Railway Labourer. I can find no evidence of a divorce. Were transportees declared “effectively” dead enabling a deserted wife to remarry? I shall be most grateful for any help that you can offer

    • Pauline

      Hi Derek, I so enjoyed visiting Datchworth. Yes, Solomon was first married to Eleanor Ewington. Transported convicts were rarely if ever divorced, but it was just assumed they would never return home, so nobody worried too much . Solomon’s son George married in Tasmania and his wife back in England did the same, as did nephew Ben.

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