Hazel Phillips tells the amazing story of James Blackburn, Clerkenwell’s ‘white collar’ convict
Today it’s hard to imagine that Clerkenwell was notorious for crime. Charles Dickens wrote about the terrible conditions he saw in parts of Clerkenwell, particularly in Oliver Twist, and before Farringdon Road was built, there were notorious ‘rookeries’ around Saffron and Herbal Hills where conditions were terrible. It was a warren of crime stretching over the Fleet River and Dickens based his character Fagin in Oliver Twist on notorious Ikey Solomons – a shopkeeper receiving stolen goods. He avoided an Old Bailey trial when he escaped and travelled to New York, then joined his wife in Tasmania who had been transported there, and ultimately opened a shop and remained there.
Most convicts who were transported did not have such colourful lives as Solomons. Another deportee to Tasmania, convicted for what today we might call ‘white collar crime’, was James Blackburn from the Lloyd Baker Estate.
Blackburn came from a respectable family and his brother John was the Minister at the Congregational Church in Claremont Square. A surveyor-cum-architect/engineer, he had been involved in developing the sewage system in Finsbury.
Blackburn was involved in building the Lloyd Baker Estate in the 1830s. The system for housing development in those days meant that people would lease land from the landowner, build a house or two on that land and then lease it to a resident for a specified period.
This could be financially precarious if the builder was not able to let the house and recoup the investment. Blackburn experienced this cash flow problem in the winter of 1833. Already living in a house with his family in Lloyd Street with his brother John next door, furniture was taken from his house and he faced losing his home altogether.
The solution he chose that February – 190 years ago this month – resulted in a dramatic and irreversible turn in his life. He forged two signatures on a Bank of England draft to the value of £600 – £36,000 in today’s prices.
He was found out and charged. Blackburn had strong character witnesses at his trial including the solicitor of the Lloyd Baker Estate and several sewage commissioners he had worked with. Despite this, he was sentenced to transportation to Tasmania (then Van Diemen’s Land). His sentence was considered to be harsh as most convicts transported had been convicted more than once.
Thus did the next phase of Blackburn’s life begin in Hobart. Far from leaving his skills behind, they were very useful in developing the town and colony which was little more than 30 years old. On arrival convicts would be assessed for behaviour and skills and allocated either to work for the government or to develop farms and estates. Soon, James was designing and building churches, watch houses, roads and bridges across Tasmania – and a significant landmark in Hobart today is the sandstone tower of the church of St George’s in the neighbourhood of Battery Point to his design.
Not all convicts rehabilitated themselves so well, and most were not educated or skilled as he was, but many had opportunities to improve their lot. But how would Blackburn have integrated into aspirational Hobart society? It seems that people were accepted into the middle classes as long as they didn’t display their conviction. This is likely to have happened to Blackburn, and certainly his descendants didn’t know he had been a convict.
After a free pardon in 1841, Blackburn headed to Melbourne with his wife and now larger family – a route chosen by many in Tasmania attracted by the benefits of the gold rush. With four businessmen, he formed a water company to supply the first piped water in the city at a cheaper price, then became Melbourne’s City Surveyor. He died in his 50s in Melbourne with many achievements under his belt. But what might Blackburn have done had he not been transported? London was expanding fast in Islington and elsewhere. Possibly, he may have been involved in sanitation projects to combat diseases like cholera – first making an appearance in the 1830s – cleaned up the nearby Fleet River or worked with other champions of public health like Edwin Chadwick.
We can only speculate. But Blackburn certainly left his mark in Tasmania and Melbourne, some visible today. How’s that for a convict’s legacy?