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Wood John Composite image

Artistic Impression of John Wood based on descriptions from records

It is early December 1812, and at the Old Bailey a young man is facing the Common Serjeant. He stands just 5’1″ tall, has a dark sallow complexion, dark brown hair, naturally black eyes, and is aged about 23 years. Three weeks earlier he had been caught in Church Lane St Giles, pocketpicking a watch valued by its owner, the undertaker Richard Andrews, as being worth £1. The young man, John Wood, does not contest the charge against him, only saying “They all swear so hard against me, it is of no use for me to say anything.” and is sentenced to transportation for life.

John Wood has been sentenced to transportation for life, life in a land he does not know, life in a land where he probably does not know another soul. Life, but for how long will that “life” last? The life of John Wood probably started naturally enough, however, it is unknown who his parents were, or if he had any siblings. On many records, the age or birth year that is recorded differs – and while this can be expected, it is not expected that the difference could account for as much as 13 years [1].

After John was sentenced at the Old Bailey, he spent time on board the hulk Retribution before being moved to Captain Mitchell’s Earl Spencer, and together with 199 other convicts soon made the voyage to this new “life” in New South Wales. After stopping in Maderia for 10 days, and the death of three other convicts, the Earl Spencer arrived in Port Jackson in October 1813.

Five days later, John Wood was sent to Windsor to William Cox esq, Magistrate, and is recorded as having the alias of Leach [2]. However, John is recorded on the 1814 Muster as being part of the town gang, and so for whatever reason, William Cox found him to be unsuitable to take part in the construction of the road crossing the Blue Mountains that William Cox was responsible for. The alias surname of Leech appears again on the October 1816 General Muster, where for the first time, John is recorded as having a Ticket of Leave . When this ticket was originally issued is unknown.

Over the next 15 years, John appears to have been well behaved and sociable in nature. In 1822, John was recorded in the Census and Population Book as living in the Baulkham Hill area of Parramatta , and listed with him was his wife Elizabeth Leech, and their two children, John (born 1820) and Eliza (born 1821). They went on to have another daughter Esther in 1825.

In 1825, John’s ticket of leave is renewed while he is assigned as housekeeper in the Sydney area. He has probably been assigned to his wife Elizabeth as this muster records him with his two elder children. His ticket is renewed again in May 1830 , however in July of 1831, John is caught stealing and his ticket of leave is cancelled . As punishment for this crime, John is sentenced to a year’s transportation in Moreton Bay until his time was served and he was returned to Sydney in February 1833.

John Wood was to apparently never see his wife and children again, and Elizabeth, Eliza and Esther went on to live their lives without him, the son John having disappeared from records after 1825.

June 1833 finds John back in New South Wales, this time in Portland Head on the Hawksbury River, employed by Richard Page, and over the following few years, John is well behaved enough to be again granted a Ticket of Leave in 1837 , which is shortly altered to the Bathurst area. Unfortunately, in June 1840, the allure of alcohol gets the better of John and he is caught drunk and loses his Ticket of Leave .

However, this latest loss of ticket is only of a short duration, and in January 1841, John Wood’s Ticket of Leave was once again reissued, but this time altered to the Patricks Plains area of New South Wales .

In 1845, John’s Ticket of Leave Passport was renewed and altered from the Patricks Plains area to the Liverpool Plains area of New South Wales , and placing him in the service of a Mr George Thomas Loder. This was renewed again in August 1847 , and it was probably at this time that John was informed that he had been granted a Conditional Pardon , even though he should have been aware of it due to its announcement in the newspaper the previous month .

With his Conditional Pardon granted, John was no longer beholden to anyone, he no longer had to report to authorities, and was now responsible for his own care entirely. Even so, his ticket of leave passport indicates that he may have returned to Liverpool Plains area and the services of Messers G T and A Loder for another 12 months.

But what really happened to John Wood after August 1847? Speculation is all we have due to the commonality of his name [3]. Where did John go now that he was free? If he abided by the rules of his Conditional Pardon, he would not have returned to England. But did he remain in the areas of New South Wales that he knew, or travel to other parts of the colony, perhaps he returned to Moreton Bay by choice. Did he have funds available to him to take the next ship that left port? While he would now have been responsible for his own care, it is probable that this “old lag” was destined for support by a pauper institution sooner or later. When John died and where he was buried though is unknown.

There is a modern postscript to this story that is based on DNA [4].

[1] Age Discrepancy

In 1812 when John was convicted of pocketpicking, his age was recorded as being 23, putting his birth year as 1789. On his 1825 Ticket of Leave renewal however, his year of birth is given as 1798, making him 27 years of age, and just 4 years older than his age at conviction some 13 years earlier. This 1798 birth year appears repeated on every known Ticket of Leave, however on his Conditional Pardon in 1847, his birth year is recorded as 1785, making him 62 years of age. This is 13 years older than the year of birth on his Tickets indicate him to be, and 6 years older than his arrest age would indicate him to be.

So, how old was John Wood really, and when was he born?


We may never know the answer to that question, but I am more inclined to believe the earliest record indicating 1789 as being the most accurate one, the 1798 date could be a long term transcription error, started with his first Ticket of Leave or the first renewal, as it is clear from the records that the official records were reused for multiple events.

[2] Alias Leach

The first record of John Wood having the alias of Leach comes just 5 days after his arrival into the colony, when he appears on the list of convicts assigned to William Cox esq at Windsor. The second time the alias appears is on the 1816 Settlers and Convicts List. So far, these are the only two known instances of this alias name being recorded on documentation.

[3] Common Name

John Wood was, as can be imagined, a relatively common name in early colonial times. There were no less than 82 men transported as convicts with this name, with the earliest arrival being in 1790, and the latest being in 1868 – but there was only one on the Earl Spencer. It is the combination of his name and ship and the knowledge that he was the only person with that combination that allows us to be certain of the correct records. How many men there were in the colony who came free, is unknown, although a quick search of Ancestry’s Immigration and Travel section provides indications of potential numbers. How many more were born in the colony and survived to adulthood is also unknown given that records are known to have been lost, or events were not recorded. It is these two categories of men named John Wood that mean it has been next to impossible to locate any record for John Wood of the Earl Spencer after he was granted his Conditional Pardon and no longer had to identify himself with his transport name included.

[4] DNA Technology

Thanks to modern DNA testing technology through companies such as Family Tree DNA, AncestryDNA, 23andMe, and the comparison site of Gedmatch, it has been possible to connect with other relatives who are also descended from John Wood through his wife Elizabeth Leach, thus adding a level of certainty to the research and paper trail given the lack of birth death and marriage records able to be located. Either we are all connected through this John Wood, or we have all made the same mistakes at some point in our research regarding the children of John Wood from whom we descend, and have each of us erroneously attributed this man as being their father in the same way.

ConvictDNA People highlighted have tested their DNA and those in yellow are known to match each other.

Sources available on John Wood’s WikiTree profile