James Dorr, born 1774
Horse Thief of Southminster and husband of my 6th great aunt, Sarah Downing.
When I first read the 1819 will of the Southminster Downing patriarch Joseph, one thing stood out. Joseph had stipulated that upon his wife’s death, his capital should be divided equally amongst his children, “except my daughter, Sarah Daw [Dorr], the wife of James Daw [Dorr], who has before been provided for”.
I didn’t know a lot about Sarah at this point, or what this meant. Had she married into wealth, therefore not needing her inheritance? Or did it mean that Joseph himself had already given her her share? All I knew about Sarah was that she had married James Dorr on 1st November 1798, just after her seventeenth birthday, and gone on to have ten children by him over the next sixteen years. He was five years older than her. James Dorr does not seem to have been born in Southminster or have any family there, in fact where he came from is a complete mystery. On the whole, he seems to have been a bit of a wrongun. There are three entries for him on the England and Wales criminal registers, and the Suffolk Chronicle gives a little more detail. In 1807 he was acquitted of larceny, in 1811 he was jailed for stealing a large quantity of wool from Samuel Bawtree of Southminster. Finally, in 1813, the authorities finally lost patience with him and when he was caught stealing a black mare, the property of John Wade of Southminster, James was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death.
It’s hard to believe that up until 1832, stealing a horse was punishable by death. The modern day equivalent is probably car theft, which carries a maximum sentence of six months in jail. But in those days, people relied on their horses for transportation and for work, and there was no effective means of securing them, so sentences were harsh as a deterrent. James Dorr must have known the risk when he took the mare.
James was, however, spared death. In 1814 he was transported to Australia like many convicts, where he set up a new life for himself. I wonder if he got to say goodbye to Sarah and his children before he left or if they ever knew what had become of him? Thanks to the Australian Convict Records site and a plethora of transportation records available on Ancestry and Find My Past, I certainly do. The records even give a description of James – 5’4″, dark skin, black/grey hair and dark eyes. In 1817, he married another convict, an Irish lady named Mary Lyons who had been convicted of stealing watches. This was, of course, a bigamous marriage but he was far enough away from Southminster to get away with it! They set up a tobacco farm together and had a prosperous life but no children. He was given a conditional pardon for his crime in 1834.
Unfortunately, things went downhill for James after the death of Mary in 1831. His third wife, Bridget Smith, another convict and seventeen years his junior, caused him all kinds of woe, some of which made it into the Sydney Monitor. On one occasion she ran off and left him with considerable debt, on another (in 1837, aged 64) he was attacked by Bridget’s bit-on-the-side as he attempted to catch them in the act. Although James’s death has not been found, Bridget remarried in 1850, so he probably died between 1837 and 1850… unless of course Bridget’s next marriage was another bigamous one!
And what of his poor first wife, Sarah, and their children? Five of the children died in infancy or childhood. Two girls (Sarah and Charlotte) married local men and did well for themselves. One son, Samuel, followed in his father’s footsteps and was imprisoned for stealing wine from a local cellar, before ending up in the workhouse. That leaves two children of whom I can find no trace whatsoever – Eliza and Mary Ann. The last child, James, was born and died in November 1813, while James was imprisoned and sentenced to death. And if this wasn’t bad enough, the Southminster death register records a James Dorr, aged 2 days, being buried in November 1814, with no corresponding baptism. This was clearly not James’s son, as he was already on the boat to Australia by then, so could Sarah have been pregnant by another man? Surely the baby could not have been the child of 12 year old Elizabeth? Or was there another Dorr in Southminster after all? Clearly, Sarah was left in great financial need with all these children to care for, and this is when her father Joseph must have provided for her, as mentioned in the will. Nevertheless, she still appears regularly in the Southminster poor relief books until 1825, when she remarried.
Sarah Dorr’s second husband was called Samuel Holmes. She married him in Mundon, which is not far from Southminster. The marriage register says she is a widow, which is clearly untrue, and all of Southminster must have known it yet must have turned a blind eye. I can find next to nothing about Samuel Holmes either – he died and was buried in Southminster in 1839, aged 60, but does not appear in any directory or register prior to his marriage to Sarah, and did not leave a will. I cannot find any of his relatives.
(On my to-do list: get Samuel’s death certificate, search for the two “missing” children, identify baby James Dorr born in 1814. I will update this post if anything interesting comes to light).
After Samuel’s death, Sarah was left with no option but to go into service, and I found her next on the 1841 register living in Church Hill, Walthamstow as a servant. This came as a great shock to me because I too lived in Church Hill, Walthamstow, 157 years later! The house that I lived in was not built then, though – Sarah would have seen a very different Church Hill which was mainly grass. In 1851, she was back in Essex – the census describes her as a “cottage owner” in Burnham, so she must have been back on her feet. Her final appearance before her death (aged 79 in 1861) is on the 1861 census, where she is finally back home in Southminster, being looked after by her granddaughter Elizabeth Woodyard. The census tells us that she has lost her hearing.
I wonder if Sarah and James still thought of each other as they lived their long lives on the opposites of the world, whether they ever received news of each other, and how different things would have been had he not taken that horse.