John Riches Kent


John Riches Kent was born in England about 1805, probably in London, and spent his early years in Bedford. Although details of his parentage are yet to be confirmed, it is likely that he was the son of John Kent, a publican, and his wife Elizabeth. It seems that he had at least two sisters, Sarah Ann and Elizabeth, and a brother Henry.

John Kent senior, the son of a saddler, also with the name John Kent, died in London in 1842. He was living in Spring Gardens, near what is now Trafalgar Square, where he had been employed as a butler.

Sarah Ann Kent married William Adam Warden, son of an auctioneer, in Bedford in 1821. By the late 1820s William and his father were conducting a real estate business in Cornhill, in the City of London. It is known that John Riches Kent worked for the firm for two years prior to August 1829. John was at one time employed as a clerk, but also practised as a chemist and druggist.

On 16 March 1830 Kent was tried and convicted at the Kent Lent Assizes of stealing, in September 1829, a horse and cart belonging to Thomas Pellett, a Canterbury publican. He was sentenced to death but, following an appeal to the Home Secretary, this was commuted to transportation for life to Australia.

After a short period in jail he was transferred on 4 May 1830 to the prison hulk Retribution anchored in Sheerness. On 26 June John Kent departed England on board the Southworth with 160 fellow convicts. He left behind in England his wife Mary and a child born just after his trial.

The Southworth arrived in Hobart on 19 October 1830 after a voyage lasting 115 days. Only one convict had died on the long journey.

For the next twelve years or so John Kent served his sentence in a variety of callings, including duty in a hospital, in a road gang, and on assignment to Mr Henry Batten. His behaviour was less than exemplary and he received his share of punishment, including periods of solitary confinement and hard labour.

Kent was granted a Ticket of Leave in October 1839, but this was cancelled, presumably for misconduct, on 5 December. A new ticket was issued on 2 July 1840 and a Conditional Pardon granted in October 1842, to which Royal Assent was announced in May 1844.

On 22 April 1839 John Riches Kent was appointed a constable in the Van Diemen's Land Police force, a position he held until his resignation on 30 October 1842. It was later claimed that, while serving as a constable in Launceston, Kent was known as "Byron's Lap Dog", on account of his being the "lacquey" of John Byron, at that time Chief Constable.

Upon leaving the police force, Kent is reported to have operated a public house in Hobart known as the Union Inn. By now he had taken up company with Harriet Mary Ann Cooper.

Harriet, the daughter of a Norfolk solicitor, had arrived as a free immigrant around 1835. In 1839 she married John Morris, a Welsh convict, in Launceston. A daughter, Harriet Hannah Hogarth Morris, was born in Hobart on 10 December 1840.

On 3 July 1842 Harriet gave birth to a son. The child's birth certificate recorded Morris as the father. However, John Kent was listed as the father when the child was baptised, as Alfred Riches Kent, on 27 April 1843.

Harriet gave birth to a second son, William Henry Warden Kent, on 17 February 1844. By this time John was carrying on the trade of butcher in New Town, Hobart. Later reports indicate that he may then have opened a butcher's shop in the interior of Van Diemen's Land.

John Kent and family sailed from Hobart on 2 September 1846 aboard the schooner Lillias, which arrived in Melbourne on 7 September. The passenger list shows that John and Harriet travelled with three children. Two of these would probably have been Alfred and William; the third was named Maria, whose origins I have yet to discover. It appears that Harriet Hannah remained in Tasmania with her father who, following his pardon, seems to have earned a respectable living as a chemist.

During his stay in Melbourne, John Riches Kent found employment in an assortment of callings. In early October he and F T Field announced to the inhabitants of Melbourne that they had commenced business as pastry cooks, confectioners, wholesale ginger-beer manufacturers and fancy bread and biscuit makers. The partnership was dissolved within three weeks. At one time or another John vended fish and fruit from a wheelbarrow and practised as a surgeon. This latter profession he had apparently also carried on in Hobart.

In late 1847 the family left the rented home in Bourke street, opposite the Post Office, in which they had been living for the previous year, and moved to Portland, in Western Victoria. They sailed to Portland aboard the Juno, which departed Melbourne on 7 December, and arrived in Portland two days later. John had accepted a position as master at the local Church of England school and was also to serve as Church Clerk. The school had recently closed due to the departure of its only teacher. On 3 January John commenced his schoolmaster duties, while Harriet opened a school for young ladies at their residence, Erin Cottage, in Henty street.

The Kent family did not remain in Portland for very long and by June had moved to Arrandoovong (now Branxholme), fifteen miles south-west of Hamilton, where John took over as licensee of the Travellers' Rest Hotel. There he resumed his earlier occupations as publican and surgeon.

At an inquest in August 1848, into the death of one of his patients, Kent was warned by the Coroner of the impropriety of acting as a professional man, unqualified at that, and as a publican at the same time. Kent promised not to future practise in a medical capacity.

By early 1849 John Kent faced an increasing number of impatient creditors in Portland and Port Fairy, in addition to those it appeared he had left behind in Van Diemen's Land and Melbourne. They included Thomas Best, the former owner of the Travellers' Rest, and T H Osborne and Thomas Wilkinson, editors respectively of the two Portland newspapers.

On 2 February the Small Debts Court found against Kent in four causes, and on 2 March he did not defend an action in the Supreme Court for recovery of just over 200. On 9 March the Portland papers reported that Kent had "bolted" from Arrandoovong to avoid paying his debts. Together with his family and the two drays in which were stored all his moveable effects, he was supposed to be headed for South Australia. He was described as stout, standing five feet six inches, with black hair, dark eyes, bushy whiskers, one or two missing teeth and a lisp.

For some reason, Kent returned to the Travellers' Rest within a few days, supposedly to await his creditors. All he was prepared to offer to them was the empty inn for which, in any case, Thomas Best was alleging he had never been paid. Kent had in the meantime packed his family off to Port Fairy.

By the middle of April the Kent family had returned to Melbourne, where it took up residence in New Town (now Collingwood/Fitzroy). Two horses were seized to satisfy the Supreme Court judgment against him and, on 30 May, he appeared in the Melbourne Insolvency Court. He claimed at the hearing that he would never have been insolvent "but for the way in which I was libelled in the newspapers." He had been "treated shamefully by Osborne and others."

John Kent had indeed been subjected to a torrent of abuse in the Portland press, where he was variously described as a "villain", a "notorious swindler", and a "polished rogue." How much of this he deserved is difficult to assess from this distance, but Kent's apparent inability to remain in one place for more than a few months, his criminal conviction in England and his use in England and Australia of a series of aliases, all point to the conclusion that he was not entirely innocent of the charges levelled against him.

Harriet too did not escape notoriety, and her true identity as Mrs Morris, Kent's mistress, was triumphantly revealed in the press. In what must have been a difficult and trying time she gave birth to another son, Arthur John, on 1 July.

In late 1849 John Kent failed in his application for discharge of his insolvency, on the ground that he had not followed the correct court procedures. He claimed he was unable to afford legal representation due to the damage to his reputation resulting from what he described as a "libellous" article appearing in the Melbourne Daily News.

No doubt desperate by now to secure an income, John Kent wrote to Melbourne's Mayor, seeking employment as a detective in the police force. To the delight of Melbourne's press his request was denied, on the recommendation of the Chief Constable. The Argus referred to "the unfavourable nature" of Kent's "Vandemonian character", and reported that Melbourne's police detectives "would instantly resign" if the appointment had been made.

In early February 1850 John Kent was ordered evicted from his residence in Flinders Lane, Melbourne, on account of non-payment of rent to the landlord, Mr Dalmahoy Campbell.

The family's next movements have proved difficult to trace. Arthur's baptismal certificate, dated 25 March 1852, records its address as Bendigo Creek, where the gold rushes were in full flight. The father was named as Edward Kent, sawyer. (John Kent was later stated also to have been a miner).

In 1855 Harriet, at least, was living in Bendigo. She died in Melbourne Hospital on 28 September 1861, aged 47, and was buried in a pauper's grave in the Melbourne General Cemetery. Her death certificate does not record whether John was still alive, and his ultimate fate remains to be uncovered.

Harriet's oldest son Alfred used the name Alfred Edward Morris in later life. He claims to have married Theresi Donnelly but the marriage entry is still to be located. They had at least four children, (Harriet, born in 1866), Mary Ann (1868), Edward John (1870-1945) and Arthur William (1872-74). The date and place of death of Alfred and Theresi are not known at this stage. Interestingly, on his eldest daughter's birth certificate, Alfred claims, incorrectly, to have been born in New York.

William Henry Warden Kent married Mary Ann Clifford in Echuca in 1871. The couple had nine children: William Arthur (1871-1935), Kate Mary Ann (1873-1932), Alfred Ernest (1876-1957), Edward John (1878-1936), Harriet (1879-1942), Thomas Clifford (1881-1940), Ada Doris (1884-1958), Ethel Annie (1886-1899) and Herbert Henry Warden (1888-1976). William Henry and Mary Ann Kent died in Echuca in 1905 and 1929 respectively.

Arthur John Kent married Rachel Willis in Carlton in 1874. They had seven children: Arthur William (1874-77), Ernest Ashton (1876-76), George Stanley (1878-1924), Herbert Cooper (1880-1916), Amy Rachel (1882-1951), Harriet Daisy (1885-1887) and May Victoria (1888-88). Rachel Kent died in 1890; Arthur in 1903.

William and Arthur's half-sister Harriet Hannah Hogarth Morris married John Smith in West Melbourne in 1875. The couple settled in Mt Eliza. Harriet died in 1921, and John the following year. They had one daughter, Ethel Annie (1879-1968).

Sarah Ann Warden, John's sister, remained a widow until her death in Clapham, Surrey, in 1886.

Gary Brian Kent
Canberra, Australia

June 2003

(The author is the great great great grandson of John Riches Kent)

Submitted to this site by Gary Kent
Article Gary Kent 2003. All rights reserved

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Updated 22-Jul-2002