Famous Living Sewells
Rufus Sewell - An Update
By Tim Soles
This article was originally published in the August 2001 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society.
In the December edition of Soul Search we published a short article on the actor Rufus Sewell. Recently, we have been contacted by Marina in Australia who maintains a web site dedicated to Rufus Sewell. She has kindly provided the following account of how Rufus' ancestor was transported to Australia
With very many thanks to Peter Sewell, here is the real story of how George Sewell, ancestor of Rufus Sewell, found himself transported to New South Wales. The story is reconstructed from reports in the York Herald of July and August 1813.
George was born in 1782 at Beverley, Yorkshire. He was living here at the time of his offence, and was a blacksmith by trade. Perhaps with a wife and five children to support he was having trouble making ends meet. With three other men, he decided to rob Mr Birtwhistle of Howden.
On the evening of 10 April 1813, the men met at the house of the "celebrated Snowden Dunhill" (who this man was is not quite clear - he may have been a publican or possibly some kind of notorious fence) (See below for further information). The sister of one of the men helped them to blacken their faces and, at around midnight, George and his companions gained entry to Mr Birtwhistle's house by removing a window. Leaving one man on guard, the others roused and threatened Mr B and his servant. The men then proceeded to ransack the house and found about 37 guineas in gold, a 7 shilling piece, 17 pounds and 1 shilling in silver, several watches, gold rings, some trinkets and 2 hams.
The burglars then returned with their spoils to Dunhill's where the sister washed their faces and also cooked some of the ham. In return for doing this, she was given the 7 shilling piece and some of the silver.
However, it seems that one man in the group turned informer and betrayed the whereabouts of the others. One was captured on the Hull Coach but two were still at Dunhill's when caught. All were found to be holding stolen property.
The jury took only a few minutes to find them all guilty. George was "...not one of your namby pamby hanky bread pinchers, he was a desperate housebreaker." The Judge summed up that they had committed the supreme crime of the property-valuing Age of Enlightenment and therefore deserved the death sentence, which was also imposed on many other prisoners tried that day. The Judge's speech is a perfect reflection of the times - pious words mixed with thunderous righteous wrath:
"Prisoners: You have been severally convicted by Juries of your Country on clear and satisfactory evidence of crimes which subject you to the punishment of death. It is a lamentable sight to see so many stand at the bar, to receive the last awful sentence of the law, and still more lamentable, because most of you were well able, by the exertion of your bodily powers, to have maintained yourselves to honest industry."
"George Sewell, Robert Cross and Robert Taylor, the crime of which you have been convicted is that of Burglary, that is of breaking into a dwelling house, in the night, for the purpose of plunder. It is necessary for the protection of mankind, that season, which nature claims for repose should be secured by the strongest sanctions of the law from the attacks of daring violence, that of which you have been convicted was of a most atrocious and daring nature. You were accompanied by another person who, fortunately for the purposes of public justice, has given evidence against you. You went with your faces blackened and your persons otherwise disguised, to the house of Mr Birtwistle. After breaking into the house, you went into the bedroom of Mr Birtwistle, whom you compelled by intimidation, to lie still in bed, and forced his servant to lie down by the side of her master, until you executed your scheme of plunder. After remaining half an hour, you departed with gold and silver watches and rings to a considerable amount, after keeping the family during this period in a state of the most dreadful alarm, which spoil you afterwards divided at the house whence you set out on this lawless enterprise. Such a daring gang of offenders are seldom heard of, and it is necessary for the purpose of public justice that you suffer the sentence of law, you therefore can have no well grounded hope of any mercy being extended to you."
The rest of the article from the newspaper contains many illegible words but concludes with: "hanged by the neck until you are dead, and may the Lord have mercy on your souls."
How George managed to avoid the noose is not known. Perhaps he appealed his sentence and pleaded for his family or otherwise talked his way out of it, but eventually he received the lesser sentence of transportation to Australia for 7 years. He arrived in New South Wales in 1814 on the Somersetshire, a sailing ship of 449 tons with a 35 man crew which sailed from London to Sydney via Rio, Batavia and Calcutta. There were 199 male prisoners on board including George. The ship carried 100 tons of coal and also members of the 46th Regiment. In 1815, George's wife Ellen and five children aged between 3-13 years followed him on the Northampton.
George worked as a blacksmith in premises on Brickfield Hill almost opposite the old burial ground [near where Sydney's Central Station is today]. He also leased other property in the city. By 1828 he was living at Sutton Forest where two of his sons had received land grants in 1822. George and his sons George and Thomas all became big landholders around the area. The eldest son John was also a blacksmith like his father.
The Howden robbery was the first or last crime committed by George (or the last one he was suspected of) because when his sons applied for the grants they and their sponsors mentioned that they were the sons of sober and respectable parents.
George died in Sydney on 13 October 1837 aged 55 and he was buried in the family grave at the Sandhills Cemetery. His widow Ellen died 8 June 1864 and was buried with him.
Ellen Sewell is mentioned in the book by Portia Robinson, "The Women of Botany Bay". In 1815, Ellen petitioned to have her husband pardoned so he could support his family, and George was eventually assigned into her custody. "Had it not been for the persistence of the wife, followed by the proven industrious good character of both, George Sewell would have remained a prisoner of the Crown."
Update August 2008
With regards to Snowden Dunhill mentioned on your web page, he was a distant great uncle of mine who was transported to Tasmania for the first time in 1823. I say the first time for he returned to England after serving his 7 years only to be later transported for a second time, this occasion was for life.
The whole of his family was infamous in the district around where he lived in Yorkshire, and he was known as a highwayman although usual his target was the local wealthy farmers.
His wifeís first husband was shot to death whilst committing a crime and indeed Snowden was shot also whilst committing a burglary although evaded capture and recovered.
His wife Sarah Taylor and all of his children eventually were transported for various crimes and his son George was hung in July 1827 at Hobart for stealing sheep with others.
When Snowden returned for his second transportation he found that his wife had taken religion, and they made a living by Sarah baking cakes and pies and Snowden selling then around the town. However he was still up to his old tricks it is believed but was never caught or proven to be into crime again.
Hope you find this interesting, I believe the sentence for all of the people arrested with your relative was commuted to transportation so he will have travelled with friends.
Anthony Dunnill (Dunhill around 1800ís)
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