My interest in John Mortlock was aroused when I discovered that his journey as a convict paralleled that of my own relatives, the Shadbolts.


Mortlock Family Tree
Mortlock Family Tree

John Frederick Mortlock was born in Cambridge on August 8, 1809.  His father, Frederick Cheetham Mortlock,  had been a partner in the family bank.  When Frederick died in August 1838, he left his estate to his brothers Thomas and   Edmund, to be held in trust for his numerous children. However, Thomas informed John and his siblings that because their spendthrift father had died  £400 in his debt,they would not receive a penny. As the oldest son, John Mortlock wrote to his uncle Edmund, his father’s executor, querying the matter and asking to view any relevant documents. He received the following in response;

My dear nephew.- It did not surprise me at all to find your father’s property so small, having for years been aware from your Uncle Thomas, that his [Frederick’s] sole income, independent of the trust property in marriage settlement, was an annuity upon his retirement from the Bank. Owing to the expenses of his family, I have often been called upon to assist him; and my accounts as executor will show a balance against him. I have no documents to exhibit to you, but a balance-sheet of my receipts and expenses as his executor; but I have seen the deed of annuity. You are well aware of all these circumstances. Your affectionate uncle, E. Mortlock.

Despite this response, or perhaps because of it, John remained unshaken in his belief that he had been robbed.  He commenced a relentless campaign against his uncles. In 1842 he published a pamphlet with the colourful title;   A Legatee Versus Two Thieving Executors.   He also sent letters of petition to the royal consort, Prince Albert. When all such measures failed he  resorted to  even more direct action. This is John’s own account of what happened in November of that year,

‘One evening, under considerable excitement, from vexation at being robbed, from disgust at the state of the laws, and from the prospect of neither more or less than starvation, I entered Edmund’s rooms in college, and having seized him by the collar, pointed a pistol at his head, and demanded, “whither he intended to give me my property?” He whined out, like the thief in the fable, “I have not got your property.” Thereupon I lowered the weapon, and having fired it close to his stomach, released him from my grasp, with a slight kick upon his seat of honour. He ran out of the room, and next morning deposed before the magistrates that, although the skin had not been broken, a considerable bruise had been inflicted. His hypocritical effrontery nearly drove me crazy.’

John always insisted that he had placed a very small charge in the pistol, and that his intention was to frighten his uncle rather than to cause him serious harm. Nevertheless, he was charged with attempted murder, found guilty, and transported to the harsh penal colony of Norfolk Island for twenty one years.

Convict ruins on Norfolk Island
Convict ruins on the harsh penal colony of Norfok Island

It was reported that many of those present in the courtroom were moved to tears by the severity of the sentence.

19th century convict hulk
19th century convict hulk

Eventually , prisoner John Mortlock was moved from Norfolk Island to Van Diemen’s Land.  In  1853 he obtained his ticket of leave and for several years he earned a decent living as a peddler. However, he remained obsessed with the notion that he had been unfairly disinherited. Against the advice of all his friends he made the terrible mistake of returning to England before his original 21 year sentence had expired. If he had kept his head down the authorities may have let the matter pass, but he immediately renewed his campaign against his uncles. Before long he had been arrested again. While awaiting trial in Cambridge gaol he wrote a memoir.

Memoir of John Mortlock
Memoir of John Mortlock

As well as telling the story of his lost inheritance and of his own experiences as a convict, he took the opportunity to speak out on behalf of others, arguing for change in an often corrupt prison system;

‘I emerged from the initiating and most severe stage of punishment through which criminals under sentence of transportation had then to pass, and now may take the liberty to suggest that, as probably it has been found difficult to prevent the abuse of power, entrusted to governors of gaols, superintendents of convicts, captains of hulks, and similar functionaries, a simple yet powerful check on them would be obtained by the periodical publication (at short intervals) in the newspapers, of bills of prison mortality, with reports (specifying the misconduct and age of the offenders) of all arbitrary punishments inflicted at the different places of detention. If full, true, and particular returns, only extending over the last twenty years, could be procured from the penal colonies, and even from the British hulks and gaols, the waste of life, I imagine, would be found to have been very great, owing chiefly to the want of judicious, zealous supervision.’

For all his eccentricity these are lucid, considered statements, not the ramblings of a madman. It is also to Mortlock’s credit that, despite coming from a privileged background, he never once placed himself above his fellow convicts, who included some of the roughest, most desperate characters imaginable. Mortlock also realized that many young people had great potential but were born into poverty and introduced to crime by their parents;

‘Some who, when children, have been taught and commanded by their earthly parents to ‘go out and steal’, may be both morally and intellectually highly gifted. Having committed breaches of the law, under circumstances over which they had no control, they are clearly more fit for compassionate instruction than punishment……What is the measure of the guilt of those transported for killing game, or goaded to robbery by famine and destitution?’  

Reading this, it seems a shame John did not abandon the fight for his inheritance and direct his passion wholly into the area of social reform.

Meanwhile, there was a great deal of public support for his situation.   A petition on his behalf signed by 1,200 residents of Cambridge was received at the Home Office in January 6th 1858.  After spending almost twelve months in Cambridge gaol, John finally appeared in court. The Cambridge Chronicle wrote;

‘From the position of the prisoner, and the romantic events of his history, the case excited considerable interest; and his gentlemanly demeanor increased the sympathy with which he had been hitherto regarded. On being arraigned, the prisoner was perfectly self-possessed, and pleaded ‘not guilty’ in a firm and distinct voice. The prisoner wears a light coloured moustache; he was on the present occasion dressed with evident care, and his deportment and appearance were military and dignified.’

To the relief of his uncles,  John  was duly convicted and in 1859 he was sent back to complete his sentence at a penal colony near Perth, Western Australia .

In 1864  his original sentence expired and he returned to Van Diemen’s Land, by now known as Tasmania. At the age of fifty five he was at last a completely free man. Life became quite comfortable for him. He was doing well  again as a peddler , and had friends all over the Island.   There was an opportunity for him to open a small shop, but all he could think about was Cambridge, and that wretched inheritance;

‘In the early part of April, finding that I possessed a hundred pounds in the Hobart Town Savings Bank, another hundred in the Launceston one, besides forty pounds in my pocket, I cogitated upon the propriety of a trip to Europe.’  

 Cogitation quickly led to the purchase of a ticket. After arriving home he discovered that his Uncle Thomas had died in 1859, and that the Mortlock estate had passed to a cousin, Edmund John Mortlock;

“I ascertained that the legatee (a stranger to me) was a young man about thirty years old, married to the daughter of a London solicitor – the same, probably, who drew up the will.’     No doubt the cousin had been warned that  convict John might turn up again, and no doubt his heart sank as he read the following letter  dated October 1st 1864;

Sir, – having just returned from Australia, I learn from the perusal of the late Mr Thomas Mortlock’s will, that you are in possession of my late father, Frederick Mortlock’s property, namely, his interest in the bank and real property elsewhere, together with all accumulations. As a matter of form I will acquaint you that my father bequeathed the above-mentioned property to Mr Thomas Mortlock, as a trustee, but that the said Thomas kept possession of it for his own purposes more than twenty years, even until his death, and then bequeathed it to you.

 Perhaps you will satisfy yourself that what I have asserted is true, and in that case I feel sure I need not point out to a man of integrity what is necessary to be done. As a matter of form I will also acquaint you that I am the eldest son of the aforesaid Frederick M—–.

I am, Sir, yours etc’

John Mortlock

 The reply was so swift and brief that it betrayed a hint of panic;

Sir, – I beg to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of this day. As my view of the circumstances of the case is so totally different to yours, I think it would be useless entering into any personal discussion with you on the subject, and must decline from doing so.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant


But surely  Edmund  knew this would not be the end of the matter, and he was right.  John spent several days composing his next ‘paper dart’.  On October 5 he invited his cousin to produce any evidence against his claim on the estate, adding in a sort of veiled threat;

‘…allow me to hope that I shall be credited with the intention of inflicting upon you no more annoyance than is absolutely unavoidable in this extremely disagreeable affair.’

For someone who had grown up hearing lurid tales of an unhinged John Mortlock (particularly the shooting incident), these words must have been unsettling to say the least. Having effectively put the wind up his cousin, John then hinted for the very first time that some sort of settlement might be arrived at;

Restitution of what may justly and legally belong to me, will hardly reduce you to poverty. After being nursed so many years, the property will surely bear dividing. However until I can ascertain exactly how much I have been dispossessed of, I am unable to make any proposal. You would not like to hand over everything to me but £5,000 and retire to economise upon that? I have lived for many years upon far less.’

 Not surprisingly, E.J.M failed to respond.

John’s  family tried repeatedly to convince him to give up the cause, but he refused point blank. However misguided he may have been, it is impossible not to admire his persistence in standing up for what he believed to be right. In January 1870 he produced a pamphlet called Perseverence Rewarded by Discovery’.  What he discovered I have no idea, but it clearly brought no financial reward. Publishing fees and legal costs mounted, and a year later he was declared a bankrupt and imprisoned yet again.

John Mortlock died in London on June 21st 1882 at 8 Northumberland Street, The Strand, a boarding house operated by an ex-servant of his mother. He died intestate, but with no regular income and after years of costly legal proceedings he had precious little to bequeath anyway. His effects were valued at a meagre £158.18.1d. The money went to his sister Sarah.

However, in John’s  mind he had left a will. In November 2nd 1881 he lodged an extraordinary document in the probate registry of the high court of justice. It was a mock will and testament, written as though he were actually in possession of the estate he had fought for all his life. He had also arranged to have the document printed and circulated, thereby continuing to champion his lost cause from the grave;

I, John Frederick Mortlock, now residing in Bridge Street, Cambridge, give and devise all my estate at Great and Little Abingdon and in Cambridge to the Corporation of Cambridge to be held by them in trust for the benefit of the inhabitants of Cambridge, not altogether excluding members of the University.

There followed a remarkably detailed list of imaginary legacies and bequests, including £10,000 to the governors of a local hospital, £500 each to various nieces and nephews , £2,000 to the vicar of St Luke’s Church in Chesterton (a district of Cambridge) and £100 to his most recent solicitor.     John Mortlock always felt that his mother had not supported him either emotionally or financially, and rather pointedly he ‘bequeathed’ her a paltry ₤180, the amount she had allowed him in the previous seven years.

In a final protestation, John  then explained that having been dispossessed of his estate for forty three years, ‘I now calculate that I may justly claim with interest nearly £300,000 for the inhabitants of Cambridge and particularly for the poor inhabitants of Chesterton.’ He stated that he wanted to be buried in the churchyard of St Lukes in Chesterton, but since the will was not an official document it seems unlikely that  this wish was fulfilled.

Strangely enough, the most appropriate ‘obituary’ I can find for John Mortlock was published in Tasmania, sixteen years before his death. It is contained within an article which appeared in the Hobart Morning Herald on 31st October 1866, advertising the forthcoming publication of extracts from his memoir;

‘We presume that there are few citizens of Hobart Town to whom the writer of this book… .is unknown. In fact, throughout the Colony, from Cape Pillar to Circular Head, his familiar smiling face was always welcomed and his company eagerly sought, as he wended his way through the island, bearing with him a package of articles by vending which he was enabled to earn an honest penny. Poor fellow, he was very eccentric, but in the highest degree, honourable, and always cheerful. Everyone knew that he had been a convict, but none respected him less on that account. For besides knowing that he had seen better days; that his prospects had been blighted by wicked relations, which no-one, who heard his story, for a moment doubted; he was a real genuine good fellow, so simple and temperate in his habits and tastes; so respectable in his demeanour; so interesting in his conversation; that wherever he went he was always a welcome guest; from some of the highest in Tasmanian society, to those, amongst whom his fortunes frequently cast him, of the lowest. He appears to have had but one set object of his life. That was, while he passed it as congenially and pleasantly as his humble circumstances would allow, to still keep in view his deep wrongs, with a determination that nothing could shake to get a restitution of his natural rights.’

John Frederick Mortlock may have been a convict and a humble peddler, but records at Somerset House describe his station in life as, ‘Gentleman’ , which he most certainly was.

POSTCRIPT – Fourteen years after  John Mortlock died his cousin Edmund , who inherited the estate from Thomas Mortlock in 1859,  sold Mortlock’s Bank in Cambridge to Barclays of London.   A blue plaque commemorates John’s grandfather, who established the institution. A quote inscribed on the plaque suggests that his ancestor may not have been entirely scrupulous in amassing the disputed family fortune!