Henry Foulk appears in records from the eighteenth century held in Shropshire Archives. Prisoners awaiting trial in Shrewsbury Gaol were listed in the Calendar of Prisoners from the records of the Quarter Sessions and Assizes. These were meetings of the Justices of Peace, held as the name suggests, four times a year. Before the establishment of County Councils after 1888, administration at county level was largely in the hands of the Justices of the Peace. Their judicial powers included “trying and punishing all felonies and trespasses, arresting on suspicion and taking sureties for good behaviour”. The Calendar of Prisoners gives the name and age of the prisoner, details of the offence and a note of the sentence given.
Henry Foulk stands out because he escaped while awaiting transportation and was reported as being ‘At Large in Ratchup’. (Ratchup is the Shropshire village of Ratlinghope – correct pronunciation remains controversial even today). He escaped the gaol in April 1785 and was recommitted to Shrewsbury Gaol on 11th September 1786 on the oath of three men. The charge this time was of being ‘at Large in Ratchup’ having escaped under sentence of Transportation ‘beyond the seas for seven years’. The accessible records start in 1786 so I haven’t been able to find out the original charge.
Typically, those sentenced in Shrewsbury to seven years transportation, were charged with stealing: sometimes money but more usually items, such as clothing – which in the records is itemised; e.g. coat & hat worth two shillings, linen waistcoat, two silk handkerchiefs; equipment – a saddle, a pair of stirrup leathers from a stable; or livestock – in one case a single ewe. My guess is that Henry Foulk was originally on a similar charge of stealing items or livestock.
Foulk appears on the Calendar of Prisoners for the sessions in October 1786, and January 1787. At the Lent Assize in March 1787 he was sentenced, along with five other prisoners, to ‘Condemned and Reprieved’ i.e. condemned to death – but reprieved at the discretion of the Justices, perhaps because the death penalty was considered too harsh for the offence. This sentence of ‘condemned and reprieved’ appears frequently in the Quarter Session records. Foulk is named as a prisoner condemned and reprieved in the Calendar for April 1787 and then he disappears. He does not seem to be in Gaol awaiting transportation or serving time. His name is not on any list of convicts that I have been able to find on line for the First, Second or Third Fleets. These are probably not 100% complete but based on the available evidence he was not transported as per the original sentence.
At each of the Quarter Sessions from this date of 1786 (possibly from earlier) there are several prisoners sentenced to “Transportation Beyond the Seas” – meaning to Van Diemens Land (now Tasmania) and New South Wales in modern day Australia. To be transported to Australia in the early 1790s could not be more frightening, more unknown. Cook mapped and claimed the east coast of Australia for Great Britain in 1783. The First Fleet of convict & supply ships left England in 1787 so if Henry Foulk had not escaped he could have been on the First Fleet as several prisoners convicted at Shrewsbury were. He was sentenced before any ships of convicts had even left England for Australia.
The second Fleet set sail at the beginning of 1790. Several men sentenced at Shrewsbury at the Quarter Sessions in Shrewsbury in 1790 to Transportation Beyond the Seas for seven years appear on a list of convicts on the Third Fleet, eleven ships, including supply ships, which left England between February and April 1791, arriving between July and October 1791.
The poem imagines the feelings of a man contemplating transportation for seven years to a place which could not be further from the known world, geographically or imaginatively. Foulk is fifty years old. The length and appalling conditions of sentence and voyage mean it is unlikely he would ever return (198 convicts – about 10% – on the Third Fleet died on the voyage; on the Second Fleet it was 273 – a quarter – with many others sick on arrival). Convicts who completed their sentence were free but were not returned to England instead left to fend or find their own way home.
I like to think that in escaping, Foulk gambled and won.
(Based on research of original records and on microfiche at Shropshire Archives plus web research www.shropshirearchives.org.uk; www.nationalarchives.gov.uk; Wikipedia – Penal Transportation; members.iinet.net.au; firstfleetfellowship.org.au; history.cass.anu.edu.au)
About Alison Patrick: Originally from Nottinghamshire I have lived in Shrewsbury, Shropshire for 30 years. For many years I was a local government Tourism Officer. Since 2015 my partner and I have been running and working in the cornershop in our own neighbourhood of Shrewsbury. I did an English degree at Leeds University a long time ago (and loved it). I have dabbled in writing poetry on and off but only recently submitted any for publication. At Large in Ratchup was written as a result of a Poetry Workshop led by Jean Atkin at Shropshire Archives. I like giving a voice to these people who appear as a few lines in an official document, in a newspaper report or as an unnamed face in a photograph. It’s mostly speculation of course but the records in the Archives give us a hotline to the past. These were real people with real lives, problems, dreams, passions and personalities. As a Unitarian I write and broadcast an occasional piece for Pause for Thought on BBC Radio Shropshire; lead services, as a lay person, at Shrewsbury Unitarian and other Unitarian churches and write some worship material. I also often use (other people’s) poetry and fiction finding it provides more interesting and revealing material for services than overtly spiritual writing.
(Henry Foulk, 50, charged with escaping from Shrewsbury Gaol while under sentence of Transportation).
At Large in Ratchup
One nail’s breadth at a time
Or even less, this little, black, hard beetle
Scales the grass blade. And will
Reach the top. I will not see
The tip bend with the tiny weight.
Now that I have been written out of life
In copperplate italics
I find I am afraid.
Hiding in woods and ditches.
Warm dry straw and a barn on a good day.
Thieving scraps from dogs and
Shirts from hedges.
Foraging in summer.
Starving in winter.
In the spring, the gallows.
Better than this.
This falling off the edge of things
Into whatever unknown hell awaits
Beyond the seas.
I hear them coming.