John Francis


John Francis was an out-of-work carpenter aged 19 when he became famous throughout the land.  He was the son of a Welshman who had worked at the Theatre Royal as a stage carpenter for more than twenty years.  His mother came from Somerset and, like her husband, had come to London in the difficult depression years following the end of the Napoleonic war.  John had been apprenticed to his father, but fell out with his parents whilst still a journeyman and moved out to live in cheap accommodation near to Oxford Street.

John grew disillusioned with his occupation, feeling the pay was not adequate for the long hours, and frequently quarrelled with his employers.  He found it increasingly hard to get work and soon fell behind with his rent.  Like Edward Oxford, he felt he was worth more than his lowly status, and one day arranged to rent a shop to become a tobacconist.  He obtained stock on credit and opened a few days later.  To alleviate his financial difficulties he stole some money from his room mate, but his landlord soon discovered the theft and threw him out, while his supplier took away the stock after no payment was forthcoming.

With his last coins he bought a pistol from a  pawnbroker and followed the trail blazed by Edward Oxford.  But on his first attempt the gun failed to go off, although he managed to escape.  Queen Victoria bravely agreed with Sir Robert Peel that she would go out again in an open carriage the next day, whilst Peel deployed numerous plain-clothes policemen in the royal parks.  Sure enough, John Francis was on station in Constitution Hill and this time the gun fired.  Victoria again escaped injury, and John was taken into custody.

This time the accused was poorly defended, and he was found guilty of high treason and sentenced to be drawn, hung and quartered.  In medieval times the words were in a different order and involved hanging by the neck, but not until dead, and while still alive having ones intestines drawn out and being castrated, before being finished off with an axe and cut into four pieces.  The slightly more humane nineteenth century version included being drawn to the place of execution on a hurdle, hanged on a scaffold until dead, and then quartered and disposed off as Her Majesty saw fit.

Port Arthur is now an open air museum to the misery

John Francis anguished in solitary confinement until less than 48 hours before his public execution in front of a baying mob when, in response to impassioned petitions for mercy from his parents and others, the sentence was commuted to transportation for life.  He was taken to a prison hulk at Portsmouth and then sent with 239 other convicts in the hold of a sailing ship on a four-month journey to Van Dieman's Land.  There he was committed to Port Arthur convict settlement, the 'most penal' that the colony had to offer.  John later described the place as an ‘abyss of wretchedness and misery’.  Along with other horrors, ‘unnatural crime’ was widespread and John was a handsome boy.


After 4 years he was removed from the labour camps and put out to work for various settlers in Launceston in central Tasmania, where he resumed work as a carpenter and gained skills as a general builder.  He married and prospered in his trade, and14 years after his trial received a conditional pardon.  His abilities were valued in the community and in 1860 he won the contract to build the Launceston General Hospital at a cost of £10,122.  But a few years later an economic depression set in and work dried up, and John decided to move to Melbourne with his wife and 9 children.  Although he continued to work as a builder, he never again gained the same prosperity, and he died of TB in 1885.


The 12,000-word chapter in the book provides the whole story, including the horrific details of the voyage to Australia and what life was actually like in the infamous Port Arthur labour camp.

Sources used in the full account in the book


Charles Bateson, The Convict Ships 1787 – 1868, Reed, New South Wales, 1983
Ian Brand, The Convict Probation System: Van Dieman's Land 1839-54, Blubber Head Press, Hobart, 1990
Alan Brooke and David Brandon, Bound for Botany Bay: British Convict Voyages to Australia, The National Archives, Kew, 2005
Clifford Carig (ed.), The First Hundred Years, 1863-1963, of the Launceston General Hospital, Board of Management, Hobart, 1963
David T. Hawkings, Bound for AustraliaPhillimore, Chichester, 1987
Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore: A History of Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1787-1868, Vintage, London, 1987
Adrienne Phillips, great-great-great-granddaughter of John and Maria Clarke of Launceston, Personal Communication, New Zealand, 2010
Christopher Sweeney, Transported: In Place of Death, Macmillan, Australia, 1981
Walter Thornbury, Old and New London volume 3, Cassell, London, 1878
Edward Walford, Old and New London volume 4, Cassell, London, 1878

A Brief Guide to St Andrew’s Launceston, St John’s Street, Launceston, Tasmania, 2011
Assessment & Valuation Rolls for Launceston, Launceston Library and Archives Office of Tasmania, 1853-1868
Australian Birth, Marriage and Death Index, ancestry.co.uk
Citizen Lists for Melbourne, Victoria Public Records Office, 1871-1891
Convict Conduct Register, Archives Office of Tasmania, CON33/1/29
Convict Transportation Registers Database, State Library of Queensland
Description List of Male Convicts, Archives Office of Tasmania, CON18/1/33
Idents of Male Convicts, Archives Office of Tasmania, CON14/1/16
Hampshire Advertiser & Salisbury Guardian, July 1842
Insolvency Papers for John Francis, Victoria Public Record Office VPRS759 P0 Unit 198 Case 12042, 1869
John Francis Death Certificates, General Register Office of Victoria, Australia, 1885
Lloyd’s List and Register of Shipping, Guildhall Library, 1842-43
Martha Francis Death Certificate, General Register Office of Victoria, Australia, 1872
Metropolitan Police File on John Francis, The National Archives MEPO3/18
Petitions to the Queen and the Home Office on behalf of Robert Pate and John Francis, The National Archives, HO45/3079
Pioneer’s Index and General Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths for Tasmania, Launceston Library, Tasmania
Port Arthur: Visitor Guide, Information and Commentary, Tasmania, 2011
Proceedings of the Inquest on Henry Burdett Francis, Victoria Public Record Office VPRS24/P0 Unit 495 Desc 1886/370, 1886
Sands & McDougall Melbourne Directory, 1868-1885
Ship Agreements and Crew Lists for the Marquis of Hastings, 1837-45, The National Archives BT98/374
South Melbourne Rate Books, Victoria Public Record Office, 1867-1873
Surgeon’s Log from Marquis of Hastings, The National Archives ADM101/50/6, 1842
Tasmanian Marriage and Birth Registers, 1848-1863
The Age, Melbourne, 1867-1885
The Law List for 1843, ancestry.co.uk

Sources used in this and other chapters

Arthur Christopher Benson and Viscount Esher (eds), The Letters of Queen Victoria, John Murray, London, 1908
George Earle Buckle (ed.), The Letters of Queen Victoria: Second Series 1862-1885, J. Murray, 1926-28
Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria: A Personal History, Harper Collins, London, 2000
James, D.; Kerrigan, T.; Forfar, R.; Farnham, F.; Preston, L., The Fixated Threat Assessment Centre: Preventing Harm and Facilitating Care, Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology 21 (4): 1, 2010
Norman Lowe, Mastering Modern British History, Third Edition, Palgrave, Basingstoke, 1998
Helen Rappaport, Queen Victoria: A Biographical Companion, ABC-CLIO, Oxford, 2001
Lee Jackson, www.victorianlondon.org
Dr Kurt Jagow (ed.), Letters of the Prince Consort 1831-1861, J. Murray, London, 1938
Lytton Strachey, Queen Victoria, Chatto and Windus, 1921
Stanley Weintraub, Victoria: Biography of a Queen, Unwin Hyman, London, 1987
Censuses of England 1841-1911, The National Archives
London and National Newspapers, especially The Era, The Morning Chronicle, The Morning Post, The Observer, The Standard and The Times
The General Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, General Register Office
The International Genealogical Index, www.familysearch.org
The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, www.oldbaileyonline.org
The Treasury Solicitor’s Transcript of the Trials of Edward Oxford, John Francis, John William Bean and Roderick Maclean, The National Archives TS36/25, 1840-82

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