Romford shipping merchant who hid his convict past

Prof Ged Martin

Prof Ged Martin - Credit: Archant

He might have only been a labourer – but John Petchy was ambitious. Unluckily, the young Romford man was caught in 1810 over handling stolen goods and sentenced to 14 years’ transportation.


Tasmania - Credit: Archant

It would be two years before he left England, one of 200 convicts crammed into the 549-ton convict ship Indefatigable in June 1812.

But the ship was clean and safe and only one man died on the 137-day voyage to the penal colonies of Australia.

In October 1812, Petchy reached Van Diemen’s Land. The prison island was a hellhole, where Aborigines were massacred and convicts flogged.

To avoid the evil reputation of “VD land”, apologists called it “Tasmania” after the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman and this became its official name in 1855.

Petchy spotted that “trusty” prisoners were needed to operate the system and, by 1816, he was a warder in Hobart’s prison! The government gave Petchy a land grant and convicts to clear the gum trees and he sold the firewood to the prison.

A female prisoner became his housekeeper and, soon, his wife.

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Tanning was still an important industry in Romford and Hornchurch with skilled workers making saddles and leather breeches.

Petchy realised that wattle bark produced an extract that could be used in tanning.

In 1824, his sentence served, he sailed to England with a cargo of wattle extract, hoping to develop a new trade. Did he revisit Romford?

The Society of Arts gave him a medal but he lost money on the venture.

Back in Hobart, he decided that the answer was to reduce unit costs by sending a larger cargo in a bigger vessel.

That meant crossing to mainland Australia in 1826 to charter a ship in Sydney’s magnificent harbour.

The Sydney Gazette hailed Petchy as “a very respectable, old and opulent inhabitant of Tasmania.”

In early Australia, you were labelled by the ship you arrived on – it signalled whether you were a convict or a free settler.

Petchy, said the paper, “came as a passenger on the Albion”. The ex-con had reinvented himself.

He became a leading Hobart entrepreneur, investing in a brewery, a tavern, shops and whaling ships.

In 1839, Petchy built Australia’s largest ship. It was only 389 tons but it took him to Britain on business again.

The high point of a long and stormy return voyage in 1840 was a short visit to Rio de Janeiro. The Romford man was seeing the world.

Petchy’s shipping business survived the threat of bankruptcy in 1843.

Owning several harbour ferries, he moved to Kangaroo Point, across the Derwent estuary, and became a successful wheat farmer.

Today, Hobart’s test match ground is nearby.

In December 1850, Petchy competed in Hobart’s summer regatta. His racing yacht capsized.

Fifty years later, Taswegians still remembered the lifeless body of the “poor old gentleman” being dragged from the water.

The Australian Dictionary Of Biography calls Petchy “resourceful if not always scrupulous”.

A Romford education had given him a good business brain and Havering’s traditional tanning industry inspired one of his biggest business gambles.