A Sad Tale Unfolding
The Goal, Maidstone
"The Goal, Maidstone" engraved by J.Allen after a picture by G.Shepherd, published in W.H.Ireland's The County of Kent, 1830. Steel engraving with recent hand colour. Size 14 x 9 cms. Ref E1793
Image courtesy of antiqueprints.com

The events which led to William Farmer's incarceration in Maidstone goal at the time of the 1851 census were not William's first encounter with the Victorian judical system. We are grateful to Joan Proud from Pertth Australia who has kindly provided detail of the prision records for William.

Details about convict are found in the Prison Commission Prison Books The National Archives' Catalogue PCOM 2. Information provided about each convict varies considerably from prison to prison but may include age, literacy, occupation, religion, place of birth, physical description, marital status and number of children, occasionally address of family, offence (sometimes in detail), place and date of trial, sentence, periods in other prisons, conduct, health and prison, hulk or ship sent to.

We are fortunate in that the records in William's case are more detailed than many. The regsiter for the prison hulk Stirling Castle (PCOM 2/132) provides us with the following picture of William.

Number   451
Name   William Farmer. Licence No. 4862 (in pencil above name)
Age   44
Offence   Felony and pre con (previous conviction)
Convicted When    5th July 1849
  Where    Maidstone
Sentence   Life, commuted to 15 years
Gaoler's Report   Convicted manslaughter in 1833, his present conviction is for receiving the stolen property from his son who had stolen it from his employer, not previously transported.
Where born   Staplehurst Kent
Hair   Dk
Eyes   Lt - -?
Complexion   Fresh
Make   Stout.
Married or Single   W 4ch.
Height   5ft 7ins.
Read or Write   Impt. (imperfect)
Trade or Occupation   Lab
Remarks   Several scars on forehead, lost front tooth upper and lower jaw, scar on throat and under tip of chin, scar back left hand, do. 2nd finger right hand.
Residence of the Prisoner's Relatives or Friends   Daughter Chiddingstone Kent.
How disposed of   Licensed 18 Feb 1856.

Manslaughter 1833

The tragic events leading up to William's manslaughter charge were widely reported across the country. The following article is from The Morning Chronicle (London, England) Wednesday, January 23, 1833; Issue 19784. Other accounts of the incident and subsequent inquest and trial have been found in the Times (London), The Examiner (London), the Caledonian Mercury (Edinburgh) and Jackson's Oxford Journal (Oxford) and Bridgwater Alfred (Somerset).


On Monday morning the village of Northfleet, Kent, was thrown iinto the utmost consternation, in consequence of a report that William Farmer, a servant in the service of Thomas Harman, Esq. had shot a fellow-servant, living in the same family, named Sarah Parker, through the heart, and afterwards endeavoured to destroy himself by cutting his throat. A number of persons collected in the front of the house, and a constable was sent for, who was speedily in attendance, and the prisoner was delivered into his custody, and placed in one of the rooms of Mr. Harman. Dr Beamont was sent for. The wound in his throat, which is a most dreadful one, was immediately attended to, and he is now doing as well as can be expected. There are various reports in circulation as to the cause of the dreadful deed, but the most probable is the following:- It appears that the coachman had been out shooting in the morning, and on returning home he unloaded his gun, before placing it in the house, and shortly afterwards was sent for to drive Mrs Harman; in his absence the footman took up the gun, and went out shooting also, and on his return he left, incautiously, the gun loaded in the place from whence he had taken it; the coachman having returned, after attending to his horses, came into the kitchen, and taking up the gun, in a jocular manner, said (not knowing it to be loaded), pointing the gun at her, "Sarah, I will shoot you through the heart," and, awful to relate, the gun went off, and it is supposed it had such a dreadful effect upon him as to attempt the rash act. The prisoner is a married man, and has been some time in Mr. Harman's employ. An inquest will be held on the body this morning at ten o'clock.

The Morning Chronicle covered the Coroner's inquest which was held at "Wimble Hall, Northfleet, about half a mile from Gravesend, the seat of Thomas Harman, Esq". All the witnesses were called and examined except William who was too ill to attend so the inquest was adjourned for a week Mr. Harman sent a solicitor instead to the adjourned hearing. The decision of the Coronor's jury was that William be committed for trial.

He was tried for wilful murder at the Maidstone Assizes on 12 March 1833. The trial was covered in the Times of London. who did not report a verdict. the verdict was however, reported by the Examiner of March 17.

Times Wed Mar 13 1833
Examiner 17 March 1833

THE TIMES Wednesday March 18 1833
MAIDSTONE Tuesday March 12

The assizes for the county of Kent commenced yesterday, before Lord Chief justice TINDAL and Lord LYNHURST.

The commission having been opened, the Lordships proceeded to church and this morning took their places on the bench; Chief justice Tindal presiding in the civil court and Lord Lyndhurst in the crown court. The cause list contains 42 causes; the calendar the names of 96 prisoners, With the exception of a charge of arson and murder, the crimes imputed to the prisoners are of a trivial nature.

(Before Lord Lyndhust.)

The grand jury having been sworn, his Lordship addressed them, and in reference to the charge of murder, stated that it had been suggested that the prisoner was insane at the time of committing the offence. There was nothing in the facts as they appeared on the face of the depositions which led to that conclusion, and the only question which they would have to consider was, whether at the time of firing the prisoner knew the gun was loaded.


Wm Farmer was tried for the murder of Sarah Parker, his fellow servant, (whom he shot with a gun which he did not suppose to be charged,) at Northfleet, and upon evidence already before our readers, he was found guilty of manslaughter, and sentenced to twelve months imprisonment

1849 Conviction: Maidstone, Kent 05 July 1849

PCOM 3/44:Home Office and Prison Commission: Male Licences
Licence number 4862: William Farmer.
Caption order and prison record from when he was convicted of Receiving four shawls, two scarfs, two dresses, one victorine, one piece of cotton print, one piece of calico knowing them to have been stolen at the Quarter Sessions at Maidstone, Kent 05 July 1849.
Then aged 44 years and by trade a Labourer.
Sentence: Life commuted to 15 years transportation.
Licence granted 07 February 1856, for early release from Stirling Castle hulk.

Prison Hulks: Sterling Castle


Up to the 1850s, invalid prison accommodation was also provided in various old 'hulks' - derelict wooden ships that had been turned into floating prisons. This practice originated during the American War of Independence in the 1770s when transporting convicts to America no longer became possible. The prison hulks used as invalid prisons were sited at Woolwich (including the ‘Justitia’, the ‘Warrior’, the ‘Defence’ and hospital ship ‘Unité’) and at Portsmouth (the ‘York’, and then the ‘Stirling Castle’ with its hospital ship the ‘Briton’). The hulks received inmates with a wide variety of medical conditions although again a fair proportion were TB cases. Conditions on the hulks were generally accepted as wretched. By the 1850s, the ‘Stirling Castle’ was so bad that it was closed down and the inmates transferred to the ‘Defence’ at Woolwich. When that then burnt down in 1856 it was decided to establish a new land-based invalid prison at Woking. In the interim, Lewes prison was used as a temporary invalid prison.

(Right) The Defence, the only known photograph of an English prison hulk. It was taken in 1857 shortly before the Defense burned off the Woolwich docks, bringing the era of the hulks in England to a close. The vessel to the left is the hospital hulk Unite

Parlimentary Report

Extracts from the 1851 Parlimentary Report
on the Discipline and Management
of the Convict Prisons