My Bell Family Ancestors – George Bell (1817-1894) – Sorting Red Herrings

I have blogged about my ancestor George Bell before, and mentioned that he was born in 1817 at East Farleigh, Kent, England.

He married Sarah Sargent at Sutton Forest in 1844 and settled in Picton, (NSW),where they raised a family of five sons and three daughters.

My next challenge was to find when and how he had arrived in Australia. Where would I find clues?

I had his full death certificate (1894) which stated he had been in the colonies 56 years. This would give me a time period of approximately 1837-1838.The informant was his eldest son, George.

On his marriage entry in All Saints, Church of England, Sutton Forest, (NSW) in 1844 he was a “bachelor, Free by Servitude” and his wife Sarah was a “spinster, Free Immigrant.” So, it looked like he may have been a convict!

When I had been researching his life at Picton I had come across a subscription publication, “Aldine’s History of NSW “(1888) in which there were biographical details of the pioneers, alledgedly submitted by themselves. There was an entry for George Bell in which states:-

In 1837 he left England to try his fortune in the colonies, and landed in the same year in Sydney.”

Amongst other material I have been able to find on the family was a copy of an article published in the journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society. James Bell, the second son of George and Sarah Bell, who was born in 1847, and had spent his whole life in Picton, was asked to give a lecture to the Royal Historical Society on the history of Picton. In it he states:- “My father, George Bell, who was a native of East Furley (Farleigh), near Maidstone, in Kent, England, arrived in Sydney in 1838, a freeman, having joined the crew of the convict shipAsia (adopting the name of Freeman) to obtain a passage to Sydney”.

I had been able to confirm through parish records, that George Bell was born in East Farleigh, Kent in 1817, the son of Thomas and Mary Bell.

The immigration records for most government assisted immigrants have survived and are now held by the State Records of New South Wales, formerly known as the Archives Authority of NSW. These had been indexed by the staff and volunteers at the Mitchell Library, ( a part of the State Library of NSW), in the early part of the 20th Century. I started my ‘research’ into my Bell ancestors in 1973 and made a visit to the State Archives.

[Where as in the 1970’s it was only accessable by visiting the library and searching an in- house card index; by the 1980’s and 1990’s the Archives Authority made them available through several printed books based on the card indexes. They are now searchable on-line by logging onto the State Records of NSW website. These searches are free. ]

I was not able to find George Bell amongst the free immigrants to Sydney in 1837 or 1838.

A search of convict shipping records at the Archives Authority of NSW (now State Records)confirmed the convict ship ‘Asia’ did make a voyage to Sydney in 1837.

A check of the ‘Convict Indents’ at State Records for the 1837, Asia voyage also confirmed there was on board a convict named “George Bell, alias Ball. He was aged 20 years (born 1817), could read and write, was a Protestant, single and a native of Woolwich (Kent). He had been tried in the Central Court, London on 27th February (1837) for stealing hats and had been sentenced to seven years transportation.”

Great excitement, a convict in the family!I kept it quiet, as it was not fashionable to have convict forebears in the early 1970’s. Only after 1988!.

It looked as if there had been a family cover-up and I had found my ancestor coming as a convict.

Evidence:                           a. His marriage certificate in 1844 had stated that he was ‘free by servitude’.

          1. He was born in the right year , 1817.

          2. He was born in Kent, England. Woolwich is only a few kilometres from Maidstone.

          3. He arrived in Sydney in 1837.

          4. The convict ship ‘Asia’ had made a voyage to Sydney in 1837.

BUT,was this my ancestor, George Bell? Or were there two people with the same name on the same ship? More research was needed.

In my next blog I will explain some of the detailed research that helped to prove that this George Bell was not my ancestor. It is all too easy to trace the wrong family tree, if you are not careful.