From as early as 1684, and increasingly after 1718, it was commonplace for miscreants found guilty at the Quarter Sessions or the Assizes to be sentenced to transportation to America. Jonathan Gill of Little Lepton, for example, was transported in 1727 for breaking into a house at Killinghall and stealing linen, clothing, pewter, a candlestick, and a common prayer book. Thomas Ellis and John Hardcastle received the same punishment for stealing wool (1720)1
In a more complicated case William Watts (or Whatts) of Wakefield, ‘an idle, disorderly youth,” was sent to sea and bound apprentice to a merchant called Thomas Crookes. The terms of his contract, touching on “drink, lodging and all wearing apparrell,” were drawn up “according to the Custome of the Collony of Virginia.”
At least one felon brought to the Assizes actually requested that he should be sent to America: John Howson of Newhouse in Horton in Ribblesdale, upon his trial for horsestealing and other misdemeanors, “begged transportation,” and his wish was granted (1669). Thomas Womack on the other hand, who had a wife and seven small children was "shiped of" after sentence, but “made his escape before he got to America”; later he was arrested on suspicion of having committed a felony (1728), and whipped, but unfortunately for him his former gaoler testified “that he was a Transport returned,” and after a further appearance at the Assizes he was executed.
The disadvantages of transportation seemed obvious to the authorities and no doubt solved many a moral dilemma. Certainly some of those sentenced were hardened criminals and their removal freed society from its most troublesome element. Others, however, were simply poor people caught on the wrong side of the law and their enforced emigration could be seen as a positive contribution to the development of the colonies. Unfortunately the magistrates’ enthusiasm for transportation soon created its own problems and in Yorkshire these came to a head between 1721 and 1723. It was one thing to sentence a man to transportation and quite another to find him a place on a ship. Initially the West Riding magistrates contracted with merchants for the convict’s passage, as with William Watts, but soon the numbers of those transported increased. In December 1720, for example, an agreement was worked out with a York merchanc. Robert Porteus, “for the effectual transportation” of 14 men, including Thomas Ellis and John Hardcastle mentioned earlier, and the prisoners were handed over by the gaoler of York Castle. Porteus had to provide £200, as security in case he could not carry out his part of the bargain.”
Despite an Act of Parliament, which granted freedom to some of those sentenced, the numbers in York Castle continued to increase. In 1722 the  prisoners there petitioned the magistrates, saying “we have been confied a long and tedious time….and cannot have our sentences, which is very hard upon us….we are 76 in number and more come in daily.” In the early months of 1723 the situation grew worse; there were disputes over the allowance of bread to prisoners and it was proving impossible to find them a passage. Some had been confined, under sentence, for two years and so it was decided to seek government help. Failing that the Clerk of the Peace was ordered to “use his interest to Contract with the person who undertakes the Transportation from Newgate” (in London), provided he would “receive them at Hull and be reasonable in his demands.” On 13 May 1723, those awaiting transportation “partly of want of bread and partly of delay, mutinyd; threatening to break the gaoler and his substitutes.” An emergency meeting of the magistrates in York, designed “to appease the tumult and prevent escapes” resulted in “an additional allowance of bread -- 18s, 8d per week until the mutineers could be shipp’d off.” There were further orders: a sum of £390 was levied on the West Riding rate payers partly no doubt to cover the charges made by Mr. Jonathan Forwood, the London merchant who had contracted to fetch them from Hull (one guinea per head). What effect all this had on the prisoners can only be guessed. The increased bread allowance continued to be paid for a further five months, but finally on 17 October 1723 the payments ceased, “the Transports departing that day.” No fewer than 72 prisoners left Yorkshire on the first stage of their journey to the New World.
1. The others transported on 20 December 1720 were William Price, John Frost, Thomas Brodsworth, Joseph Hawley, Thomas Sainter, Alice Burnett, John Eastwood, Robert Kay als [alias?] Leesdale, John Ibberson, John Lee, James Redfearne, and John Lysle.
Dr. Redmonds is editor of Old West Riding, a magazine for local history of time West Riding of Yorkshire, England. He will also be Course Director of the “Course in Family History for Americans” at the University of Exeter, County Devon, England, in August 5-20, 1989.