James Beckett (c1758-c1808?)

Note: This biography is extracted from Michael Flynn's book "The Second Fleet, Britain's Grim Convict Armada of 1790" I am extremely grateful for the excellent research he has conducted and would recommend his book to anyone interested in the history of transportation to Australia.

On 17 June 1788 James Becket was arrested and charged with the highway robbery of Joseph Tipton in the parish of Holy Cross and St Giles in the town of Shrewsbury. A hempen bag, a linsey waistcoat, two handkerchiefs (one cotton, one silk) and nine shillings in cash had been stolen. In a statement signed with a mark X Becket said he had been at Mr Pugh's house in Shrewsbury from 6pm till 8.30pm on the night of the crime and had crossed the road to eat his supper at his mother's. He had gone to the bed which he shared with his sister at about nine and remained there till five the next morning. Tipton, a shoemaker of Westbury, alleged that Becket had knocked him down and robbed him between 10 and 11pm on 10 June. Penelope Sheppard said she had seen both men at Mr George's at Norton (a village just outside Shrewsbury) between 8 and 9pm and that they had left together and walked towards the town [Pugh's and George's were probably pubs]. Becket was found guilty and sentenced to death at the 26 July 1788 Shrewsbury (Shropshire) Assizes. He was reprieved to transportation for life in October and remained in Shrewsbury Goal until early November 1789 when he was sent with three other convicts to the Thames hulk Stanislaus, age given as 30. On the 20th he was embarked on the Surprize transport.

Beckett was a skilled brickmaker and soon after arrival he was placed in charge of the brick kilns at Rose Hill (Parramatta). Writing in November 1790 the Marines officer Watkin Tench reported that Becket had 52 people working under him and was producing 25,000 bricks per week. He told Tench he had worked as a brickmaker at Birmingham prior to his conviction, which suggests be may have committed his crime while staying with his mother during a spell of unemployment.

On 30 January 1791 Becket married Ann Calcut (qv) at Rose Hill, both signing with their marks X. A son, Samuel, baptised there on 2 October, died aged 16 months. Although a prisoner for life, Becket was allowed to earn money and in July 1802 was recorded holding a 30 acre farm at Concord by purchase. Three and a half acres were sown in wheat with another three ready for planting maize. He owned one hog and supported his wife and four children. The family seemed to have lived mainly near Parramatta. By 1806 Becket had received a conditional pardon and in August of that year the muster of landholders lists him as a settler on 30 acres in the Parramatta district. He was cultivating 11 acres in wheat, maize, barley and vegetables, owned five goats and nine hogs and held ten bushels of maize from a previous crop. It seems likely that this farm was located east of Parramatta on what later became known as Becket's Creek and A'Becket Street, near John Macarthur's Elizabeth Farm and modern Rosehill Racecourse. It seems likely that he was associated with the construction of Becket's Bridge near Parramatta which was built prior to April 1805 when it was referred to in a Sydney Gazette notice. In August 1806 Becket was granted 30 acres in the Toongabbie district [in the vicinity of Old Windsor Road and Vardys Road].

The latest colonial record traced for Becket is his signature on an address from settlers to Governor Bligh dated 1 January 1808. No record of his death has been found, but by 1814 Ann Becket was described as a widow. Other children born to the couple were James (1793), Samuel (1795), Esther (1798) and Mary (1801).

Beckett's committal examination is at PRO ASS15/108/ptl; he may have been the James Becket charged at the lent 1785 Shrewsbury Assizes with the highway robbery of Joseph Gwyn in which a purse and money were stolen; this robbery also took place in the parish of Holy Cross and St Giles [the outcome of the case has not been checked, but he was probably acquitted];

For brickmaking details see Tench, Watkin Sydney's First Four Years p196;

Becket is definitely recorded in the published version of the landholders' muster of 1802 as holding a farm at Concord by purchase. It has been suggested that this entry is an error because Becket is thought to have been living in or near Parramatta at the time. It is possible, however, that he lived near Parramatta and employed men to work the purchased farm at Concord.

In 1806 he was recorded holding another farm outside Parramatta which he had probably also purchased. The 1806 muster is somewhat ambiguous, listing him as a settler on 30 acres at Parramatta in the general muster and on an unspecified grant in the landholders muster. The confusion probably arose from the fact that he was occupying the Parramatta farm at the time of the muster and received the Toongabbie grant in the same month.

The Toongabbie grant may have been the 30 acres held by Becket's son James at Seven Hills in 1828. James senior had died insolvent according to a government document dating from about 1820 (ML MSS Bigge Appendix box 12 p5l).

Some details contributed by A. McEwan, A. Needham & P. Scott.


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