Travels with my Ancestors #10: The Eastenders – William Eaton and Jane Lloyd Ison
July 3, 2023
This is the tenth in the Travels with my Ancestors series. You may wish to read the first post for context. You can find it here.
I’m in London, the final week of my Travel with my Ancestors journey. I’m heading away from the usual tourist haunts and grand palaces to the East End. In mediaeval times this area lay outside the city gates. It was home to successive waves of immigrants: Huguenots (Protestants) fleeing persecution in France in the late 1600’s who brought their silk weaving skills with them; Irish linen weavers; construction and dock workers; Jews escaping pogroms in Poland and Russia.
During WWII London suffered greatly during the Blitz, and the East End and the docklands south along the Thames were among the most heavily bombed districts.
Post war recovery was slow, with poverty, poor health and high crime rates. In more recent years, urban revival and new building projects have changed the face of the East End. A youthful, edgy and creative vibe attracts shoppers, foodies and music lovers.
I’m here to explore where my 4 x great grandparents originated. They were William Eaton and Jane Lloyd Ison, and they lived in and around Bethnal Green and Spitalfields in the late 1700’s.
The tale of a cheese
William was born around 1769 and baptised in February that year at St Mathew’s church, Bethnal Green. I don’t know what his family situation was when he was a youngster. In later years he might well have admitted that the mistake he made when he was nineteen was the biggest of his life. He had tried to make away with a round of Cheshire cheese – which he dropped in full view of its owner. Of course, he was arrested, tried at the Old Bailey Court in 1788 and received a sentence of seven years transportation to NSW for his trouble – and no cheese.
He was sent on a Third Fleet ship, the Admiral Barrington, sailing into Sydney in the winter of 1791.
He did well after his arrival and in 1804 was granted fifty acres of Dharug land in the Nepean district. He called the property Eatonville; it lay on the banks of the Grose, not far from where the Nepean and Grose rivers meet at Yarramundi.
In 1800 he married Jane Ison, whose story is a darker and more complicated one.
A darker tale
I find the church where Jane had been baptised in 1770: Spitalfield’s Christ Church. It’s an imposing building of smooth dressed stonework and graceful white columns. I imagine her parents, James and Eleanor, holding baby Jane at the baptismal font. What were their hopes for their little girl? Her father had a trade, either gunsmith and/or shoemaker, which meant he could offer his family a better life than some in the East End, but they were not comfortably off. What lay in store for Jane?
She grew up amid the smells and sounds of Spitalfields. The Victorian era market building, now a popular spot for bargain hunters and hipster vintage lovers, stands on the site of the original thirteenth century East London marketplace, which would have housed stalls selling everything from live poultry to baked goods, flowers and sides of beef.
Jane was not yet fifteen when she married Edward Jaggers. Her account of her first husband’s fate was vague: as she told it, she was widowed very young. Trying to make a living in the crowded city, young, inexperienced and unskilled, her options were limited: enter domestic service if she could find a position, sell her body, become a pickpocket on the streets, or join a criminal gang.
She chose the last option and nearly lost her life as a result.
By December 1792, she was in a crowded cell at Newgate Gaol ready to face trial at the Old Bailey, along with four other women. Any relief she may have felt at leaving the dirty, dangerous gaol vanished once she was in the court room, standing in the dock. In this daunting, unfamiliar place, surrounded by men wearing frockcoats or dark gowns and white wigs, she heard the charges against her and her companions read out.
Their accuser, a Welsh drover named William Ellis, described what had happened to him. According to Ellis, Jane and several female accomplices had lured him to a house in Sharpe’s Alley, where he went upstairs on the promise of sex with one of the women for the price of sixpence.
This alley no longer exists; but I know that it ran off Cowcross Street, which does still stand. The landscape is vastly different from Jane’s time: there are now clean paved streets, traffic signs and coffee shops. A few local names give a nod to how it looked back in the late eighteenth century, full of (mostly illegal) gin houses, the area known as a ‘rookery’ (a term used to indicate places known for prostitutes and criminal gangs: places where ‘respectable’ folk would not venture.)
Once he was on the bed, two of the women took his purse and watch, when one of them (possibly Jane) bit him on the hand as he tried to struggle. After his assailants had run off, he made his way down to the street, ‘very much frightened’, and reported the assault and theft to the nightwatchman, who was next to testify.
While the women escaped, they were identified and arrested a day or so later. And so Jane and her accomplices faced the court in December 1792. Several of them tried to lay blame on the others, protesting their innocence, but the evidence against them was damning.
I know that the Old Bailey court is no longer the same building as the one the women were tried in, but I still want to see where it all happened, so my next stop is to the Central Criminal Court building on Old Bailey Street, in the City.
The building that stood here in the 1700’s was a crowded and cramped place, with a passageway from Newgate Gaol around the corner, allowing easier access to bring prisoners from their gaol cell to the dock. Newgate is no longer there, and I’m certain that the many thousands of prisoners who languished there along with the rats, fleas and lice, would not regret its loss.
Because the charges against the women involved violent assault as well as robbery, and stolen property worth well over £31, they must have known that if they were found guilty that day, their sentences would be harsh.
Even so, nothing could have prepared them for hearing the ‘guilty’ verdict from the jury for all but one of the five; followed immediately by the sight of the judge placing the dreaded black cloth over his wig and solemnly pronouncing a sentence of death for the four guilty parties—Jane included.
She was twenty-two years old.
The four women were returned to the teeming gaol cells. It seemed that the only way out would be via the gallows. Jane could not claim pregnancy, the most common plea for mercy by women. Would she be hung at the public gallows just outside the gaol, for all to come and gawk as she took her last breath? Perhaps she’d hear the execution bell toll its mournful warning on the night before her execution. How long would it take for her to die once the trapdoor was released beneath her by the hangman? Would she disgrace herself or die with dignity? These thoughts preoccupied all those facing the death sentence.
Three months after the trial, she heard that she and her accomplices had been granted mercy. They were not to be hung after all, but rather transported ‘to the eastern coast of NSW for the term of their natural lives.’ Relief and trepidation were mixed as she contemplated the meaning of this new sentence.
In February 1794, she was put aboard the Surprize, anchored on the Thames at Blackfriars Bridge. For nearly two months the business of provisioning the ship went on, while the convicts accustomed themselves to the routines of shipboard life. They set sail in May. Her three partners in crime sailed along with her; whether they wanted to speak to each other after all the accusations they’d hurled during their trial was another matter.
The Surprize docked at Port Jackson in October, a time of warm spring sunshine and cooling sea breezes in the upside-down seasons of the place.
Her fortunes took a turn for the better when she met William Eaton, already three years into his sentence. Sydney Town was a small settlement and the two met there; a daughter arrived in May 1800, and three months later the couple were married at St Phillips’ church, on the same day as their baby was baptised. As convicts, they did not have the luxury of choosing the date and circumstances of such major life occasions.
William and Jane had seven children together and lived at Eatonville at Yarramundi where William established a productive farm on his land grant, growing wheat, barley, fruit and vegetables: all essential produce to feed the infant colony. He also had two horses (costly and sought after animals), cattle and hogs, two convicts working for him, and he kept his family off the government stores—quite an achievement for someone born and raised in the crowded poverty of eastern London.
In 1823 he was widowed, still with young children. A year later he married another Jane. He shared sixteen years with her at Eatonville until her death in 1840. The two Janes were buried in the same vault at St Peters’ Richmond, where William himself was buried in 1858 at the very grand age of ninety years.
That’s the story of William and Jane, and my search for their beginnings in the seedier parts of eighteenth century London. I find myself wondering: if I could meet them (assuming time travel is a thing) would I like them?
Possibly. William’s crime seems so quirky, even amusing (and I confess to a little sympathy with his evident clumsiness in dropping that cheese!)
Jane, I am not so sure about. She was a young woman of her time and place in history; perhaps neither especially good nor especially bad, although a little of my sympathy here also lies with the gormless Welsh drover, who was clearly thinking with a part of his anatomy other than his brain, when he agreed to give Jane or her accomplice sixpence for sex and go upstairs with them.
I am glad to have found some of the places of significance for these people, my 4 x great-grandparents: these Eastenders.
All photos by author. Thank you for reading. If you’d like to read more Travels with my Ancestors, you can subscribe to my blog.