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William Dring

At the October Hull quarter sessions in October 1784 William Dring was sentenced to transportation for seven years for his part in a theft [1]. William went to Australia in the First Fleet, aboard the convict ship the Alexander, (which had, coincidentally, been built in Hull) [2]. William may have been born in South Shields, Yorkshire, on the 28th December 1767, son of William and Elizabeth [3]. However, it seems that the Drings were from the East Yorkshire town of Hedon, and this is where William was living at the time of the crime. William’s Great Grandfather Francis Dring was a shoe maker in the town; his Grandfather Thomas was a weaver and later owned the New Sun Inn, from where his father ran the customs office and worked as ‘Tideswaiter’; some of William’s relatives were mayors of the town[4]. At the age of 16, William worked as a ‘Tidesman’ in Hedon, boarding boats to collect excise [3]. William’s prowess with boats was to prove useful during his life in the penal colony [5].

The Hull Quarter Sessions indicted William Dring along with Joseph Robinson and John Hastings for the crime of stealing ‘six glass bottles filled with brandy, three Blue and White Shirts, two pair of Trowsers one pair of Red Leather Boots and several other things of the value of ten pence of the Goods and Chattels of Joseph Mitchinson’. Among these ‘other things’ were books – ‘The Seaman’s Complete Daily Assistant’ by John Hamilton-Moor, ‘Complete Treatise of Practical Navigation,’ by Archibald Patoun along with two other books. The three men were also indicted on a separate charge of taking two Jackets one pair of Draweres one pair of Trowsers and one Knife of the Value of Tenpence of the Goods and Chattels of Morris Wall’. William and Robinson pleaded guilty. The pair were convicted of petty larceny and sentenced to seven years transportation, whereas John Hastings pleaded not guilty, and may have been acquitted [6][7].

An appeal for clemency was written by the Member of Parliament for Hedon, William Chaytor, to the Home Secretary Lord Sydney, claiming that William’s crimes were undertaken ‘on the persuasion of two other sailors who had escaped' [8].A letter from Sir Henry Etherington, recorder at the Hull quarter sessions, responded to this appeal for clemency by laying out the details of the crime and advising the Home Secretary against mercy:

"At the General Quarter Sessions of the peace held here the 7th day of October 1784, Wm Dring…and Joseph Robinson were convicted upon two bills of indictment of stealing several articles of wearing apparel and several bottles of Brandy the property of Joseph Mitchinson and Morris Wall, two mariners belonging this town, and were sentenced to be transported for seven years. It appears from the information taken before the magistrate who committed the above offenders, that they stole the said goods together with several other articles of wearing apparel the property of Jas Walker and Thomas Topping two other mariners (but who did not prefer indictment against them) from aboard a ship which lay in the haven of this town. From what I have been able to collect respecting the said William Dring, he appears to have been a person of General bad Character’ [9]."

After being sentenced on 7 October 1784, William was kept in Hull Gaol, before arriving in April 1785 on the prison hulk Ceres, moored at Woolwich in the Thames [6] [10]. In January 1787, William was delivered onto the Alexander, the Hull-built ship which was to transport him over 15,000 miles to Australia as part of the First Fleet [6]. (William’s partner in crime, Joseph Robinson, was also transported aboard the Alexander.)The Fleet spent some months moored up whilst preparations were made for the voyage; when a typhus outbreak killed eleven prisoners aboard the overcrowded Alexander in March, the survivors were taken ashore so that the ship could be cleaned and smoked. [11]. The fleet finally set sail on May 12, 1787, by which time sixteen of the Alexander’s prisoners had already died. Conditions aboard the Alexander were cramped and unhealthy in the extreme, and fifteen passengers died during the voyage (the highest number of any ship in the First Fleet) [12]. During the voyage a plot was formed between the prisoners and some of the sailors to take the Alexander. The convicts had been furnished by the seamen with an iron crowbar and other items to help them mount an attack in order to escape at the Cape. However, the crew learned about the attack from an informer and John Powers the ringleader was transferred to the Scarborough [13].

William survived the voyage and began his new life as a convict inhabitant of Britain’s first colony in Australia, landing at Botany Bay in January 1788.

The new colony in which the convicts were to live was established a few miles up the coast from Botany Bay, in a natural harbour which Captain Phillip called Sydney Cove. William’s life in the convict colony was eventful. He was one of a number of prisoners sent to Norfolk Island in October 1788. Captain (now Governor) Phillip hoped to establish a British colony on Norfolk Island, over 1000 miles from Sydney, because it was thought that the hemp and pine trees growing on this island could be used to make sails and masts for British naval and merchant shipping. William appears in the records of Norfolk Island several times as a result of troublesome behavior[6]. He received three dozen lashes for leaving the settlement without permission on 11 May 1789, and on 22 March 1790 he volunteered along with another prisoner, James Branagan, to swim to the wreck of the First Fleet flagship Sirius, which had hit a reef off Norfolk island in one of its journeys between the island and Sydney, in order to rescue some of the stores and provisions on board. William and Branagan opened one of the rum barrels they found on the ship and became drunk, eventually lighting a fire which got out of control and destroyed the Sirius. William and his companion were punished by the marines who guarded the convicts by being put in irons. On 15 May 1791, along with Charles McLaughlin and Henry Barnet he was sent to the nearby Nepean Island for three weeks for theft of potatoes from gardens; the prisoners were left in irons and provided with two weeks rations to last them for six weeks[6]. According to Captain Clark of the New South Wales Corps, Dring was ‘the greatest rascal living’ [14].

However, by the end of 1792, Dring had become a more respectable member of the Norfolk Island community. He cultivated grain on a small plot that had been allotted to him and sold this back to the colony. Dring was able to sign the receipt for this transaction, demonstrating his literacy. He became a freeman in 1793, and in 1794 apparently earned the respect of Governor King who wrote that he 'has been employed, from the time I first came to Norfolk Island, as a Cockswain, and having the care of the Boats, a very useful man, & is of the greatest service' [6].

Dring married a fellow transportee, Ann Forbes, in November 1791, and the couple had a daughter, Ann, by the beginning of 1792 [14]. William’s troubles were not over however. By 1791, the New South Wales Corps, also known as the ‘Botany Bay Rangers’, were keeping guard over the colony.

Hedon Haven
An old wooden ship at the entrance to Hedon Haven. William Dring worked as a 'tideswaiter' at Hedon, boarding ships to collect excise duty. Photo by Andy Beecroft. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Hedon, showing the church in the mist. Photo by Andy Beecroft. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Book by Hamilton-Moor
One of the books stolen by William Dring was Hamilton-Moor's Seaman's Complete Daily Assistant.
The First Fleet 1788
The First Fleet entering Botany Bay in 1788. Image held by State Library of New South Wales. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 au via Wikimedia Commons.
Philip Gidley King
Philip King was the governor of the convict colony on Norfolk Island when William Dring was a prisoner there. Image Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Sirius, flagship of the First Fleet
William Dring was sent to salvage supplies from the wreck of the Sirius, flagship of the First Fleet, but ended up setting fire to the ship. The Melancholy loss of the HMS Sirius off Norfolk Island, March 19, 1790 by George Raper.
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Letter from William Chaytor
Letter from MP William Chaytor 22 March 1796, following up on an earlier petition to the Home Secretary for clemency for William Dring. From the collections of Hull History Centre.

These soldiers were unruly and acted as de-facto rulers of the colony, with the governors of both Sydney and Norfolk Island often unable to restrain them [11]. Botany Bay Rangers would often attempt to seduce the wives of freed convicts; William’s wife, Ann, was frequently found in the company of one of these soldiers, Charles Windsor and at Christmas 1793, William beat Windsor, and also hit Ann. William was given a fine of twenty shillings, but Windsor’s fellow Botany Bay Rangers believed that he should have been flogged. They marched to William’s farm in order to burn his corn. The governor of Norfolk Island, Philip King, had Windsor arrested; in revenge the soldiers severely beat William with bludgeons. Governor King came down with severity on William’s assailants; he gave one attacker 100 lashes, and ordered another, Sergeant Downey, to make William a gift of a barrel of rum. This incident was important in the history of the early colony, since it led to an attempted mutinee on the part of the soldiers (led by Sergeant Downey and Charles Windsor among others) against King’s governorship, which King was only able to put down with the help of a militia recruited from the freed convicts. When news of this incident reached Governor Grose in Sydney, he was angry that King had allowed ex-convicts to act against the soldiers, and issued a declaration essentially stating that the New South Wales Corps were above the civil law of the new colonies [11].

William Dring and his wife Ann returned to Sydney Cove with their two children Ann and Elizabeth in 1794. Another child, Charles, was born in Sydney in 1796. There is no further information about Dring after this point, although by 1798 his wife Ann was now with another man, suggesting that either their marriage had broken down, William had left the colony to go to sea or he had returned to England [6].

References cited

[1] National Archives, ‘Judges reports on criminals’, HO47/5/73.

[2] University of Hull, ‘Far Horizons’ website, http://www.hull.ac.uk/mhsc/FarHorizons/farhorizons.htm (accessed 16 November 2015).

[3] Lynne MacDonald writing on ‘Wikitree’ website, (accessed 16 November 2015)

[4] Lynne MacDonald, 26 April 20, and Cllr John P Dennis, April 24 2015, writing in the ‘Hedon Blog’, (accessed 16 November 2015).

[5] Journal entry by ‘janilye’ on Familytreecircles website(accessed 16 November 2015).

[6] Steve Liversidge, Dring Family research, (accessed 17 November 2015);

[7] National Archives, HO 10/7, folio 9;

[8] Letter requesting clemency written by William Chaytor, Member of Parliament for Hedon, Hull History Centre Archives CQB/6/52b.

[9] National archives HO47/5/73 – Letter from Etherington to Home Secretary (Lord Sydney), dated March 29 1796.

[10] National Archives series HO13 ‘prison registers’ – Letter to the Sheriff of Hull asking that the prisoners William Dring, Joseph Robinson and Rob Nettleton be delivered to the hulk Ceres – copy accessed on Findmypast.co.uk.

[11] Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore. A History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1787-1868 (Vintage: London, 2003).

[12] Wikipedia, Alexander (1783 ship), (accessed 17 November 2015).

[13] Charles Bateson, The Convict Ships, (Sydney: Library of Australian History, 1983), p. 109.

[14] Lynne MacDonald writing on Fellowshipfirstfleeters website, (accessed 17 November 2015).

NEXT CHAPTER: Charles Drewery