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John Fibbins & Sarah Watkins
plus James Fibbins and Johanna Ahern

This story was presented by Esther Dean at the WFHG Christmas Party held at Charmhaven Hall on 13 December 2007. It is an excellent example of one style of producing an ancestor's biography.

Good Evening Ladies and Gentlemen, and thank you Kerrie for inviting me to tell you the story of my life.

As you have heard, my name is John Fibbins.

'john fibbins' 'esther dean'


Esther giving the presentation
I know its hard to believe but I am actually 5 ft 6½ inches tall, I have a fresh complexion, brown hair and hazel grey eyes and I know I don’t look it, but I am 208 years old.

George III was on the throne of England and the 18th century was fast coming to a close when I was born in a small rural village called Steyning in West Sussex. Steyning is set in the middle of the beautiful Sussex weald and was extensively cultivated and farmed. It was a market town on the coach route between Brighton and London. Most of the village was owned by only a couple of people and my parents were renting a small cottage from the Duke of Norfolk for £1 per year.

I am the third child of James Fibbins, an agricultural labourer, and his second wife Lucy Jordan. I was christened in the parish church of St Andrew on 20 Jan 1799. By 1814 seven more children had been born and we had buried three of them. It was certainly a hard life for agricultural labourers in that period of England’s history.

My older brother James and I worked as ploughmen and helped our family when we could. The 10 Feb 1822 was a sad day for us when we buried our father, leaving our mother to try and keep the family together. By early 1825 our three younger brothers were inmates of the Steyning Poorhouse, so you can understand how really desperate we were.

So desperate that on 25 Feb 1825, James and I made a decision that was to affect the rest of our lives. With force and arms we went to the Kings Highway in our local area and made an assault on James Lidbetter. We stole from him a cheese to the value of 6 pence and silver coin of the realm totaling £10.0.0 This was the property of Hugh Penfold who was one of the large local landholders. Of course we were caught.

Four weeks later on 23 Mar 1825, James and I were tried in the Horsham Assizes charged with the crime of Highway Robbery. We were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged by the neck until we be dead. Our poor mother was distraught, our family was devastated, and we weren’t too thrilled about it either.

Luckily for us the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and transportation across the seas. The end result was the same - we would never see our family again. We weren’t there to comfort our sister and brothers when our mother died 18 months later.

A month after the trial, on 26 April, James and I were taken to Portsmouth and placed on one of the hulks in the Harbour. I can’t quite remember which one we were sent to, either the “Leviathan” or the “York”, but I do remember it was a terrible place to be. As soon as we got there we were stripped and washed, then clothed in coarse grey jackets and breeches. Irons were placed on our legs which was very degrading. We were then sent out in gangs to work on shore, guarded by soldiers. About 500 of us were squashed into a hulk that was 176 ft long and 48 ft wide. Strictest discipline was maintained. Our daily diet consisted of a pound and a quarter of bread, and a quart of thick gruel morning and evening; on four days of the week, we got a piece of meat weighing 14 ounces before it was cooked; and on the other three days in lieu of meat, we received a quarter of a pound of cheese.

We spent four long soul destroying months on that hulk. The gaoler’s report said we were both of bad character. Now that is an absolute lie and I strongly object to that slanderous remark.


So on 15 August it was with great trepidation, and fear of the unknown, that James and I were put aboard the “Marquis of Hastings” at Portsmouth for our journey to Australia. We were part of the cargo of 152 male convicts. You heard correctly, I said “cargo”. We were not classed as human beings any more. Perhaps we were fortunate that the ships master Mr Ostler was a humane person resulting in no loss of life during the voyage. The surgeon was George Rutherford, who was also known to care about the health of his charges.

We left Portsmouth a week later on 22 August knowing that our family and homeland were lost to us forever. The journey took 134 days going via Madeira and Rio and on 3 Jan 1826 we arrived at Port Jackson. At home in England it would have been winter, but in Sydney in January it was the middle of summer and very very hot. No rolling green hills just strange looking trees and animals, lots of dust and flies, oh the flies!!!

James and I were assigned to Mr William Cox at Clarendon near Richmond to their property called Hobartville, and we commenced our new life as convict labour. Mr Cox was well known as the man who built the road across the Blue Mountains in 1814-15. He was also well known for his fair treatment of his convicts so I suppose you could say we had another stroke of luck.

Eighteen months after arriving, I had to appear in Windsor Court charged with neglect of duty and other turbulent conduct. The Court alleged that I “drove my master’s horses in a very furious manner and carelessly drove against a post, whereby the dray was broken.” I insisted that the horses ran away and I could not stop them. Mr Cox interceded for me and I was admonished and discharged.

Just two months later I had a rush of blood to the head. That’s all I can think it was. I was told to draw some wood from the bush, not once but twice. I didn’t comply so again I appeared in Windsor Court and was charged with neglect of duty and disobedience of orders. This time I was not so lucky and my sentence was 25 lashes. The pain and cruelty of that sentence still lives with me. I can hear the swish of the cat-o-nine-tails and feel the flesh on my back splitting with every stroke. Needless to say I did not do that again.

In 1828 a census was taken of all the population of the Colony (except the military) and I was recorded under the name Tibbins – with a T. Even back then there were clerical errors in the public service.

The Cox family had extensive holdings in the Hunter Valley and I was subsequently sent to their property Negoa in the District of Invermein (which is now known as Scone). After nine long years in the Colony, on 26 Jul 1834, I was issued with my Ticket of Leave which meant I could move around, but only in the district of Invermein.

Around 1836/37 I experienced another life changing event. A young woman, Sarah Watkins, was assigned as a bond servant to Mr Cox Jnr who had taken over the property after the death of his father William, and I was smitten.

Sarah had been born in London at a time when crime and corruption was rife in the city, and life for the poor was a hand to mouth existence. On 20 Oct 1831, 18 year old Sarah and her friend Ann Hillery were charged with theft, pick pocketing, and tried at the Old Bailey. Robert Waters, a shipwright, said he was drunk and the girls had stolen his chain and watch which was in the fob that they had cut off.

Evidence was given by a policeman, James Gamble, that he had apprehended the girls and one of them threw down the watch and fob. Needless to say they were found guilty and sentenced to be transported for seven years.

Sarah came to Australia aboard the “Burrell 2” whose Master was Mr Metcalfe. The ship left London with a cargo (there’s that word again) of 101 female prisoners and the passengers were troops of the 39th Regiment and families. They travelled via Madrid and arrived in Port Jackson on 20 May 1832. Sarah was only a tiny girl, just five foot, one and three quarter inches tall. She had a ruddy, pock-pitted complexion with sandy hair and grey eyes. She also had a tattoo of JW on her lower right arm and five blue dots between her right thumb and forefinger. She wasn’t what you would call pretty, but there was something about her that I couldn’t resist.

She was a feisty lass and didn’t take too well to servitude. Her first employer was Mrs Appleton of Pitt Street. Followed by Mr Williams also of Pitt Street. I don’t know what went wrong but on 21 Jun 1834 Sarah absconded. She was soon apprehended and returned to Mr Williams. The next year while assigned to Ann Dowse at The Rocks she absconded again and was caught and returned to Mrs Dowse on 25 Mar 1835.

When Sarah arrived at the Cox property she was not alone. She brought with her the sweetest little girl, her daughter Mary Ann who had been born in Sydney on 1 Nov 1835.

Well, Sarah and I hit it off and on 9 Jun 1838 we applied for the publication of banns. This was allowed on noting Watkins’ assignee’s consent.

Now, I have two very inquisitive and persistent great great granddaughters, Marie and Esther, who are researching our family history, and who have not yet been able to find any record of Sarah and me actually marrying. They have looked everywhere. Marie even asked her father Wally to contact me when he went “upstairs” and let her know the answer, but so far he’s kept my secret.

So, did Sarah and I marry? Well, that’s for me to know and the girls to find out.

Sarah and I became a family and I gave Mary Ann my name. Mr Cox settled us on his property Ashfield and over the next few years we added five children to the population of the new country. We had three boys – John, Charles and David and then two girls - who we named Sarah and Maria.

At the completion of her seven year sentence my Sarah was granted her Certificate of Freedom on 18 Oct 1839. What a great day that was!

In 1841 we appeared in the Hunter Valley Directory as John Fibbens labourer, Muswellbrook, ticket of leave holder servant to William Cox at Wybong. And Sarah was recorded as Mrs John Fibbens of Muswellbrook.

1 Jan 1843 was another red letter day, when I was issued with my Conditional Pardon. This meant I was at last a free man and free to move around the country, but never go back to England.

When my youngest child Maria was baptized on 4 Mar 1851 I was working as a carrier in Muswellbrook.

Sometime in the three years between the birth of Maria in 1851 and Sep 1854, I’m sad to say ….I died. Again my two great great granddaughters are frustrated. They cannot find any record of my death or the place where I’m pushing up daisies, and they think I’m lying in an unmarked grave in a paddock somewhere around Muswellbrook. So if any of you know where my old bones are, please, put them out of their misery.

My Sarah was left to look after the children, no widow’s pension or supporting parents benefits those days. So she married George Clark, a widower, at East Maitland on 12 Sep 1854. She gave George a son and lived to the age of 77.

I’m very proud of my children. They all grew up and raised families who contributed to the prosperity of this young country. Mary Ann married a convict John Brown and they had eleven children. They were well known and respected residents of Muswellbrook.

My eldest son John moved to Queensland and became a bullock driver. He married Caroline Isabella Walsh and they had five children.


Next son Charles lived most of his life at Muswellbrook. He married Elizabeth Ann Reynolds in 1869 in Muswellbrook and they also had five children.

David too became a bullock driver and later selected and farmed the property Lemon Grove. He married Louisa Jane Reynolds and fathered five children. Their son John married Agnes Fuz ,(who was a daughter of Anne Cox) and created the situation where the grandson of convicts married a granddaughter of the landed gentry who had treated their convicts so well at Negoa. Some of David’s descendants still work Lemon Grove.

Young Sarah married Arthur King, a dairy farmer and himself a son of a convict, and lived all her life in the Muswellbrook area raising their eleven children. Sarah is the great grandmother of Esther and Marie.

Lastly, Maria, my youngest, married John Richard Reynolds and gave him six children. They had a family property at Riverstone, not too far from where I commenced my time in Australia.

Marie and Esther have calculated that I have 1,749 known descendants at the last count and another is due in February.

My descendants have lived in every state of Australia and spread far and wide, even across the ditch to New Zealand. Some have followed my love of the land, others have made their mark in industry, one gave his life in the Great War, one has been awarded the Order of Australia Medal, while another received a gold medal as a member of the 2000 Olympic Hockeyroos. But the most prestigious of all, one is President of a Family History Society.

Marie and Esther have recently made my heart swell with pride. They’ve honoured their great great grandmother by entering a bonnet in her name in the Roses from the Heart project. My Sarah is not forgotten.

I cannot finish this tale without mentioning the fate of my older brother James.

James had been assigned with me to Mr William Cox at the property Hobartville near Windsor/Richmond. After eight years working there, he decided he’d had enough and escaped. His freedom was short lived and he was recaptured on 20 Aug 1834. He was then sent to Invermein and was there on 28 Feb 1835 when he was granted a Ticket of Leave and allowed to remain in the District. On 14 August that same year his Ticket of Leave was cancelled. What had he done?? Well, apparently he attempted to break into a hut with the intention of assaulting a female. This was the charge when he came before the Police Magistrate at Muswellbrook. It would be five long years before his Ticket of Leave was restored to him in 1840 and he was allowed to remain in the District of Patricks Plain where he was working on another property belonging to the Cox family.

The 1841 Hunter Valley Directory shows James as a ticket of leave resident at Patricks Plain. It was six more years before he received his Conditional Pardon on 10 Apr 1847, over 22 years since being sentenced to death.

While at Patricks Plain James met his future wife Johanna Ahern and they applied for permission to marry in 1845. Johanna was born in Cork, Ireland, around 1808 and had been transported to Australia aboard the Palambam arriving in Sydney Cove on 31 Jul 1831. She had been a housemaid and was convicted for stealing clothes. Her brother and two sisters had already been transported to the Colony. I’m not too sure about the innocence of that family.

Now, even though they applied in 1845, it was not until 7 Nov 1850 that they were married in St Marys Catholic Church in Maitland. I’m told that James and Johanna continued to live in Maitland until his death on 23rd Sep 1863 at Upper Hunter Street. Johanna claims on his death certificate that he was the father of two males deceased, but Marie and Esther have not been able to find any record of this.

James is buried in the Campbells Hill Cemetery in West Maitland in an unmarked grave. At least the girls know where his bones are.

So that is my story which I hope you have enjoyed. My early life in England and in Australia was not ideal, but like the majority of my fellow convicts, I made a better life for my descendants here than they would have had back home. Maybe I was the winner after all.

Thank you.

Written and Presented by : Esther Dean, Member WFHG, 13 December 2007

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