Timothy Tierney, Again

Nearly a month has gone by since my last entry about Timothy Tierney, and he’s still on my mind. Every year I let my Ancestry subscription lapse for a while until they offer me a good discount to come back. This break gives me an opportunity to look for other resources and be more creative with my research. It’s a good chance to read some books and go deeper.

You’ll remember that Timothy was my great X4 grandfather, which means that I share about 106 cM of DNA with him. It also means that he’s one of 64 of my great X4 grandparents and I’m one of his uncountable descendants. Judging from his 6 childrens’ fertility, I’m guessing there are thousands of us. He’s just one tiny knot on my family tree, yet I keep thinking about his life. Below is a graphic about a family tree to his generation.

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I’ve already done an overview of his life. This month I’d like to talk more about convict life in Australia and how he fits in with it. Much of my information about transportation to NSW comes from “Convict Society and its Enemies” by John Hirst. I was quite surprised by a lot of information in this book – I had a very different idea about what a life sentence of hard labour entailed.


Over the 50 odd years that the UK transported convicts to New South Wales, some 162,000 people were forcibly relocated. When the first boatload of convicts lifted anchor, prisons in the UK were not like what they are now – our modern notion of prison is quite different from what existed then. The death penalty was used a lot, and for relatively minor crimes. Other punishments for less severe crimes were usually limited to lashing. Prisons were squalid, chaotic places usually reserved for those awaiting trial or debtors. By the late 1700s, there were some movements to modernize the penitentiary system and standardize and codify laws. The infrastructure just wasn’t in place to house the number of convicted criminals as capital punishment for any old thing was starting to fall out of favour. Some convicts were housed on hulks, or ships, off shore on the rivers in large cities (pictured below). By day they did hard labour and by night they slept on board in cramped filthy quarters, where they shared a lot of diseases. Realizing this wasn’t a longterm solution, magistrates began sending prisoners to colonies. There was some transportation to America, but it largely ended after US independence and shifted to NSW.


It turns out the transport itself wasn’t that bad, you know, relatively speaking. In Timothy’s case it was 109 days without porting. By the time of his transport, the conditions ok – convicts weren’t usually locked up and could generally go on deck (this surprised me). The survival rates and conditions were much better than many immigrant ships of the time, especially the “coffin ships” leaving from Ireland.

I had always imagined that convicts were sent abroad and then housed in prisons where they toiled and built roads for the government in chain gangs. This is true in some cases, and there were places such as Hyde Barracks in Sydney where this happened. However, in most cases, prisoners were assigned a master. Masters were typically free settlers or ex-convicts who would take in convicts, getting labour in return for providing them with rations and basic accommodation. Usually these homesteads were quite far from major cities. Some larger homesteads would have 30 or more convicts working and living there. Masters were not allowed to punish servants, and had to report bad behaviour to the courts, and the courts would decide the course of action. If a convict absconded from his master, when he was caught he might be sentenced to lashings, or in the worst cases sent to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) or Norfolk Island, where there were brutal prisons, rife all sorts of atrocities. Luckily these places were the exception. In fact, being a convict in Australia was often more comfortable than the lives many of the convicts left behind in the UK and Ireland.


Timothy arrived in Australia with some advantages. He was a larger, strong man when compared to other convicts. Most other convicts were petty urban thieves with few skills that would help them in an agricultural society. Timothy was a political prisoner and former farm hand and shepherd, who likely knew a good day’s graft. This experience probably helped him to be selected by a master and offered a prime position on the station or farm. He wasn’t assigned until 2 years after his arrival, and it’s likely he was living in barracks (pictured below) and rocking out with the chain gang for the first while. This was typical during the time of his arrival, as word had been getting back to the UK that life in NSW wasn’t all that bad. The magistrates wanted transportation to instil fear in the hearts of would-be criminals everywhere, and made most of them toil upon arrival. Below is a picture of convict arriving.


Timothy’s master was John Elliott, who hailed from Northumberland. He had come to NSW as a blacksmith’s indentured apprentice in 1825 with his wife and 1 child. After completing his apprenticeship, he got land near the town of Maitland (below). He and his wife Martha had 12 children, who all lived to adulthood, which was a pretty big deal back then.


I’m not sure how many other convict servants were working under John Elliott, but there were others. In theory, convicts were to work from dawn to dusk with a one hour break for meals, although this was not always done in practice. Some convicts did task-based labour, meaning that they would be off the clock once their job was done. This would allow them to work for their own money. This was not technically legal by the time Timothy came to NSW, but was often the practice. In fact by 1838 Timothy was working as a constable, even though he was still a convict. He probably did this work in his off time to earn some extra money.

John is reported to have been a kind master, although he did have convicts that absconded from him (and subsequently caught and flogged). Timothy worked for John until at least 1843, when he received his Ticket-of-Leave.  A Ticket could only be granted to a lifer after a minimum of 8 years. The Ticket allowed Timothy to own land and work for himself or for money. He could also marry or invite family to join him. One of the conditions of his ticket was that he remain in a designated area, which for Timothy was in Maitland. Sometimes ticket holders would continue to work for their master, earning wages.

Ticket holders were expected to maintain good behaviour. Timothy wasn’t always great – he was charged with drunkenness on one occasion in 1850; he pled guilty and was cautioned and discharged. In 1851 he was selling some wheat he’d grown in Bolwarra on land he rented, some 20 kms from John Elliott’s place. The following year, he was granted permission to cut timber in Wollombi.

In 1852 Timothy received a conditional pardon, meaning that he was essentially free in every way except that he could not return to the UK or Ireland or hold a publican’s license.  The last record I have of him is in 1858 in Wollombi when he donated 5s to someone who’d lost their place in a fire.

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I have no confirmed record of him until his death at the Liverpool Asylum in 1872. I don’t know when he entered the Liverpool Asylum and those records no longer exist.

I’ve looked at the other Timothy Tierneys in NSW at the time, but can’t find any others that are the right age. There was one man 10 years older who was convicted and did 7 years, but I think he returned to Ireland after his sentence in 1833. There are also at least 3 other Timothy Tierneys who were all about 40 years younger than “mine”… One of them is amusing/tragic: he was arrested and spent time in jail for exposing his person, a few years later was found drunk and wandering the streets in rags, and eventually died from choking on meat while drunk.

Although transportation would have been difficult, in some cases it was an improvement in living standards. I don’t know if that’s the case for Timothy, but it seems he did quite well for himself in some ways. He got his ticket of leave and pardon in very good time, and more or less stayed out of trouble. However, because he didn’t have family in NSW he also didn’t have anyone to care for him in old age, which is why he (like many others) ended up in an unmarked grave outside an asylum for the poor and ill.




2 thoughts on “Timothy Tierney, Again

  1. Katy Burger says:

    Hi Katie,
    The Timothy you have mentioned in your articles/stories is also my 4th Great Grandfather. I believe my family has some of his convict records. Thank you for some of the information you have provided. I do know that my great-uncle was in touch with some of our distance relatives in Ireland.



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