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John HOOPER – A “notorious character”



Where do I start? Sixteen of my direct ancestors were sentenced to transportation ‘beyond the seas’ to the colonies of Australia, all for theft.[1] None of them saw their family, friends or homes again. Some had lived in rural England. Others came from the slums of the late Georgian and early Victorian-era cities of Birmingham, Leicester, Paisley, Dublin and London.

For many this was a time of grinding poverty, injustice, high crime rates and harsh punishment. It was accepted that crimes were committed by members of a ‘criminal class’. An unforgiving judicial system believed that removing the offenders, or members of that class, from the country would cause crime to decline.

By 1820 the English judicial system had at least 20 classifications of theft – ranging from pocketpicking to highway robbery. The graph below shows that 534 people were convicted for theft in 1818 alone. Of that number 94% were transported to Australia.[2] John HOOPER, my 5 x great grandfather, was one of those 534 convicts.

Sentence outcomes for theft, 1818. Created by The Digital Panopticon Search Builder

John HOOPER was one of my four convict ancestors from London, a city of 1.4 million people in 1815.[3] His criminal records provide a lot of information about him. He was 5’5½” tall, of slight build, and had brown hair and grey eyes. He was a shoemaker by trade. The records tell me that the little finger of his right hand was crippled. [4]

In 1817 John Hooper was living in the notorious slum near Westminster London that Charles Dickens called ‘The Devil’s Acre‘ . In his weekly magazine Household Words Dickens described it as being an area

begirt by scenes of indescribable infamy and pollution; the blackest tide of moral turpitude that flows in the capital rolls its filthy wavelets up to the very walls of Westminster Abbey.

Charles Dickens, 1850 [5]
Wentworth Street Whitechapel, – London, a Pilgrimage by Gustave Doré [6]

On the 9 September 1818 John was found guilty of ‘Pocketpicking’ 2 seals valued at 2 Pounds, 1 watch chain valued at 1 Pound, and one key valued at one penny. [7] We know from witness statements at his trial at the Old Bailey that he attempted to steal these objects from a painter and glazier, Mr William Cross. from the area in the map below.

I am a painter and glazier . On the 22d of August, I was in Dean-street, Westminster, going home; when I got to the corner of Orchard-street , the prisoner snatched my chain and seals, and ran on-the chain broke. I pursued and collared him in St. Ann’s-lane, and asked him for my property, he denied having it. I said he must, or else he had thrown it away. A watchman came up, and took him; another watchman brought my chain and seals. I am certain he is the man; he was never out of my sight. Nobody else was in the street.

William Cross, 1818 [ 8]
Map Of London 1868, By Edward Weller, F.R.G.S. [9]
Revised And Corrected To The Present Time By John Dower, F.R.G.S.[ ]
The map clearly shows the corner of Orchard St and St Ann’s Street

John Hooper was sentenced to transportation for Life.[ 10] It is highly likely that, rather than the usual seven or fourteen year sentence, he received this harsh sentence because this conviction wasn’t his first offence.

In 1817 he had been found guilty of Grand Larceny and sentenced to be ‘confined and whipped’.[11] In 1818, only four months prior to his conviction and subsequent transportation, John was charged with committing a near-identical robbery in the same location of Westminster. [12] His criminal records show that he was already considered to be a ”notorious character’. This label, and much worse, was to follow him for decades.[13]

John Hooper arrived in Van Dieman’s Land on 11 May 1819 on the convict ship Hibernia. [14]

12 at Midnight; The Hibernia Attempting to Run the Comet Down, 1814,
Thomas Whitcombe (1763 – c. 1824) – Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.[ 15]

In 1830, and just eleven years later, John was a turnkey at Newcastle Gaol and was described as an “ex-thief and thug” and “jailer-standover man”[16], On 6 July 1830 he was charged the ‘wilful murder’ of a convict at Newcastle Gaol . Hooper was tried in the Superior Court of New South Wales in one of the colony’s first trials by jury .[17] The crime was a particularly vicious one.

Those interim years saw John Hooper absconding before becoming a bushranger. He was imprisoned in increasingly harsh and isolated prisons. He received brutal floggings. He also became a husband and a father of two daughters.

John Hooper’s years in Australia will be the subject of further posts. They reflect the sometimes brutal, and brutalising, beginnings of my country.


[1] NSW State Records and Archives, ‘Sentenced beyond the Seas: Australia’s early convict records’,, Accessed 28 November 2019.

[2] The Digital Panopticon Search Builder; results. ( Version , consulted 26th November 2019.

[3] The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, ‘London 1800-1913’,, Accessed 26 November 2019.

[4] Ancestry, Alphabetical register of the appropriation of the convicts in the North, 1833-1835, Tasmania, Australia, Convict Court and Selected Records, 1800-1899, Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office, Hobart, Tasmania, Accessed 25 November 2019.

[5] Digital Victorians, ‘“Social Distress on Parliament’s doorstep” The Devil’s Acre, Westminster,, Accessed 27 November 2019.

[6] Wentworth Street, Whitechapel” (London, a Pilgrimage), Gustave Doré [Public domain],,_a_Pilgrimage.jpg, Accessed 30 November 2019.

[7]The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, ‘JOHN HOOPER, Theft,, Accessed 2 September, 2017

[8] The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, ‘JOHN HOOPER, Theft’

[ 9], “The Devil’s Acre’,, Accessed 25 November, 2019.

[10] The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, ‘JOHN HOOPER, Theft’

[11] London Lives 1690-1800, Old Bailey Proceedings,, Accessed 26 November 2019.

[12] London Lives 1690-1800, Old Bailey Proceedings, Accessed 26 November, 2019., 2019

[13] Ancestry, England & Wales, Criminal Registers, 1791-1892, Class: HO 26; Piece: 24; Page: 102, Accessed 25 November 2019.

[14] John Hooper, Indent, Conduct Registers Of Male Convicts Arriving In The Period Of The Assignment System Archives Office of Tasmania, Hobart, CON31-1-18, p.

[15 ] 12 at Midnight; The Hibernia Attempting to Run the Comet Down, 1814,Thomas Whitcombe (1763 – c. 1824) – Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery., CC BY-SA 4.0,, Accessed 30 November 2019.

[16] Hunter Living Histories, True Crime: Mason, Young and Hooper, Accessed 3 Septermber, 2017

[17]Macquarie University, Decisions of the Superior Courts of NSW, 1788-1899, Accessed 2 September, 2017

Nobby’s, Newcastle. Unsigned. Undated. – From an abum of sketches and watercolours in England and Australia, ca. 1858-1862? / drawn by Conrad Martens . Dixson Library, State Library of New South Wales

2 thoughts on “John HOOPER – A “notorious character” Leave a comment

  1. Another fascinating read, thank you for sharing this family history. I find your immigrant convict ancestors very interesting. Their descendants must be numerous and successful and the judges who convicted them could never have imagined that outcome.


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