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  • Writer's pictureWendy Percival

The Tragic Tale of Moses Percival

Last week, I was reminded of a family history story, part of which found its way into the plot of the Esme Quentin series prequel novella, The Legacy of Guilt (see The Scandal of the Woman in the fox fur).

This week, I'm revisiting the story of another Percival ancestor, Moses Percival. It was while researching Moses when I found myself delving into the dark history of 19th century convict transportation, which provided the inspiration for the second Esme Quentin novel, The Indelible Stain.

Moses’ story starts ordinarily enough. He was born in 1802 in Great Tey, Essex, to parents Edward and Susannah Percival, one of 13 children. He started at the village school at the age of six, learning at least to write his name, for in 1826 when he married Hannah Rayner he was able to sign the register.

Moses was recorded as being a ploughman and came from a family of agricultural workers. By 1831 he and Hannah had baptized three children but it was at this point that Moses disappeared from the parish records. When Hannah remarried in 1844, the assumption was that Moses had died, though there was no record of his burial.

The unpalatable truth

It wasn't until some time later I discovered the truth. In 1831 Moses was convicted of theft. The Chelmsford assizes records of 7th March noted his crime as stealing some barley and a sack. I was a little bemused that it wasn’t recorded as a “sack of barley”, and that, it turned out, was because the sack had been stolen on a separate occasion, after the barley!

So, with the theft of the sack being a 'second offence', it may explain why Moses was sentenced to fourteen years in Van Diemans Land, present day Tasmania.

This turn of events was tragic enough, but worse was to come.

A prison hulk similar to where Moses would have been held (

Moses spent the first three months of his sentence on board the hulk ship, Cumberland before being shipped across the world on 11th June on the convict ship the Larkins, arriving in Hobart on 19th October 183.

A detailed description

Convicts’ descriptions were recorded for identification purposes, should they abscond and they were quite detailed. I learned that Moses was 5ft 5½ inches tall, with a brown complexion, a small head, brown hair and eyes, small whiskers, a large mouth, thick lips, a long chin and a mole on his cheek.

Image courtesy of archive office of Tasmania

Unless convicted of a violent crime, most convicts were put to work rather than being incarcerated and Moses is recorded as working for Mr Andrew Tolnie, or Tolmey. But on 31st May 1838, having served only half of his sentence, Moses was granted a free pardon. No doubt his willingness to work hard, coupled with good behaviour were contributory factors in his early release.

Moses continued in the employ of Mr Tolmey after his pardon, as a horseman. His name appears in The Hobart Town Courier newspaper later that year, announcing he was rounding up stray cattle at the public pound in a place called Jerusalem, and declaring they would be sold by him if not claimed by their owners.

Business was going well and soon Moses had made enough money to buy 50 acres of land and a quantity of stock. Things were looking up!

Tragedy strikes

But sadly, Moses had little time to enjoy his freedom, as a few months later in early 1839, tragedy struck. During a storm, a tree fell on him, crushing his leg. The wound became infected and poor Moses died of gangrene.

Mr Tolmey, clearly an honest man and, it would seem, aware of Moses' family back in England, wrote to Moses' wife Hannah to tell her not only of the tragic death of her husband, but to inform her that she'd inherited the value of the land Moses had bought, worth between £200 and £300. It would have been a considerable sum for the time, especially to someone of Hannah’s modest means.

I’ve always assumed that, had Moses lived, he’d been planning for his family to join him and begin a new life in Van Diemans Land. So sad that it never happened.


You can find more about The Indelible Stain, and about the rest of the books in the

Esme Quentin series, by clicking on the image below.


Wendy Percival
Wendy Percival

Yes, it’s always possible! 😉 Moses set me on a fascinating path of discovery, not least to the brilliant book about British penal history and Australian transportation, called The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes. It’s one of those books which finds you exclaiming things out loud, like, “OMG, I never knew that!” and “Oh no, how terrible!” Well worth a read if it’s a subject that interests you. 👍🏼 👏🏻

Carolyn Retallick
Carolyn Retallick

It does! I will look out for it!


Carolyn Retallick
Carolyn Retallick

What a tragic story! To be sent to Oz for such a paltry crime, which I know thousands were - I read the Esme prequel btw. It’s obvious Moses was a good man, just very poor! I have ancestors that went to Oz, but none, as far as I know, went as a punishment, but I guess there could be one or two hidden in the paperwork. 😐

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