Like many 19th century towns, Norwich in England’s Norfolk county was dirty, overcrowded and unsanitary. There were epidemics of smallpox, typhoid, cholera and diphtheria during the century. The collapse of the agricultural economy of Norfolk caused many to be out of work. Children were put to work to help the family survive.
As early as 1817 when Robert Betts was nine years old, he and some other boys including a John Betts aged 12, likely to be his brother, were charged with stealing four flutes from the shop of Mrs. Lungins in St. Andrews. They were also found guilty of stealing several pairs of stockings from the shop of James Saunders in St. Andrews. The boys were sentenced to three month’s solitary confinement in Bridewell which included hard labour and whipping in the court-yard.
Four years later in April 1824 Robert was convicted of having stolen in January, a pair of breeches hanging for sale outside the shop of William Bennett in St. Simon. At the time Robert was training as a bricklayer. His sentence was seven years transportation to Van Diemen’s Land. He was given the police number 819.
After the trial Robert was sent to the prison hulk Justitia moored at Woolwich. Prisons were full, so he spent six months on the prison hulk until a convict ship was made ready to sail. The prison hulks were old naval ships which had been used as war ships. When no longer seaworthy they were moored up close to the shore and used as prison ships or holding prisons.
The hulks suffered from acute over-crowding, poor food and serious health problems. The sick were mixed in with the healthy causing serious outbreaks of cholera and dysentery. People died quite frequently. All this was happening before they faced a sea journey lasting between 6 and 8 months in almost equally bad conditions.
Robert was one of 210 convicts who set sail from Falmouth on 16 December 1824 aboard the convict ship Lady East. The voyage to Hobart lasted four months. When they arrived in April, Robert was assessed as being five foot two and a half inches tall with dark hazel eyes, a mole on the left side of his neck under his ear, small scar over his left eyebrow and another scar on his left hand. His right arm had tattoos with the initials RB, NB, JB, TB. These may be the initials of his family members.
Robert served his time and his Certificate of Freedom was proclaimed on 25 April 1831. He married free woman, Edith Thorogood who was living in Bothwell, just north of Hobart. Edith was much younger than Robert. The 1841 Tasmanian census has them living in a partially built wooden house in Bothwell with three children, a girl under two years and one boy and one girl under seven – Samuel (1836), Sarah (1839) and Annie (1840). By 1847 they had another two children and had moved to the Geelong area.
In 1850 Robert and Edith were living in a 2-room weatherboard house in Ashby (Geelong West) which may have been the same house with an extra room in Weller Street two years later. By 1854 the family had moved to a 2-room house on half an acre in Germantown where he worked as a shoemaker. Turmoil had hit the family as indicated by the advertisement Robert had put in the Geelong Advertiser on 29 August 1854 – Notice to the Public. – My wife Edith Betts having left her home without cause, I hereby caution the public against harbouring or crediting her in any way, as I will not be responsible from this date. Robert Betts, German Town. Six children later is an indication that they resolved their differences.
Vineyards were a growing business in the area, so Robert purchased more land in 1864. However, it was his trade that supported his farming on his small one-acre allotment. He leased another one acre to his son-in-law Henry Klemke in 1864. The outbreak of the disease Phylloxera in the late 1870s destroyed his vineyard. In 1882 Robert was waiting for vine compensation from the government.
Robert reduced his property holding to a cottage on one acre during the 1870s before eventually selling up and moving back to Geelong. Robert died at his home in Sutherland street Geelong at the age of 84 on 12 August 1888.
- Geelong Advertiser, 18 July 1882, page 4
- Bury and Norwich Post, 22 January 1817, page 3
- Norwich Chronicle, 8 May 1824, page 3
- Rate Books – Geelong, South Barwon