Praxell Alford Hinwood – Rebel with a Cause?
“As sure as fate I will burn down all your house and your farm things, and no one shall keep me from it…” This horrific threat was made in March 1845 by a 30 year old woman from Codford St Peter, with the unusual name of Praxell Alford Hinwood. She addressed these words to the prosecutor at the Wiltshire Assizes, where she was on trial for the felony of writing a threatening letter. The upshot of the trial was a sentence to transportation to Tasmania, or Van Diemen’s Land, for ten years. So how did Praxell come to this unhappy fate, and what happened to her next?
Praxell was born on 29 May 1815 and christened on 15 August 1815 at Codford St Mary church. She was one of the daughters of William, a labourer and afterwards a blacksmith, of Codford St Peter, and his wife Sarah. She had six siblings and her eldest brother was also a blacksmith. Her unusual name is possibly a corruption of ‘Praxis’, a Classical name meaning “Action”, which is highly appropriate in the light of her life thereafter! At some point in her childhood she learnt to read and write – possibly locally at a day school in Codford St Peter, or at a Sunday School. (There were Sunday schools associated with the Codford Congregational Chapel which opened in 1811, which would have taught reading and writing as well as scripture.)
In the 1841 census we find her living in the Warminster Union workhouse together with her illegitimate one year old son, Francis John Hinwood. Warminster Union workhouse was built in 1836 on a site in Sambourne, south of the town, as a place where up to 300 paupers from local parishes could be placed to carry out hard work such as breaking stones. This was designed under the ‘Poor Law Amendment Act’ of 1834 to be a deterrent from becoming a burden to their parish in terms of claiming assistance known as poor relief. Segregation of the sexes resulting in splitting up of families meant that many people hated and feared the workhouse in equal measure. For agricultural labourers in particular, who were used to being in work on a seasonal basis and using ‘outdoor relief’ from the parish to help them during the winter when work was sparse, the idea of the workhouse seemed unfair, irrational and the source of much anger. Praxell clearly shared this anger, as her later actions reveal.
Rebellion was in the air more widely at this time - in 1843 the Rebecca Riots were in full flow in rural Wales, and there were Chartist uprisings elsewhere. In June 1843 Praxell wrote a letter to the Master of Warminster workhouse, Benjamin Merchant, as follows: ‘Bloody Merchant, I have sent you a few lines to inform you that sooner or later shall be your blood or ours for there are more than two window breakers on the look out for you, so you must look out for we are determined to do it and you shall not walk out in Warminster streets but a very few more times for you may depend on it shall be your blood or ours, and we don’t care for none of you[r] damn’d police nor you neither for it is time the Devil had you and he shall, for you are not fit to live on the earth nor you shall not damn’d purse-gut bloody bugger, and that is your name, and that is what you are, so mind what is said as a thief in the night sudden destruction shall come upon you” Signed: two symbols of rakes.
I find the use of “we...” interesting here – was Praxell the ringleader of a group of discontented inmates or was she acting alone?
The sentence was six month’s imprisonment for Praxell at Fisherton Gaol although the Quarter Sessions archives show she spent the time in Devizes Prison.
Imprisonment did not crush Praxell’s spirits, and she was up to her old tricks again in Feb 1844 when she broke some workhouse windows, although she was discharged for this crime. The Guardians’ minute book for 6 May 1844 (H15/110/7) simply states that they had received a letter from the Women’s Penitentiary at Bath refusing to admit Praxell, with no comment on what she’s done to deserve admission. Then in October 1844 in the Quarter Sessions Calendar of Prisoners (A1/125/70) we find her back in Devizes Prison for two months, for “misconduct in a workhouse.” I had a look in the Guardians’ minute book for this period but I couldn’t find anything explicit – the entry for 2 Dec 1844 states that owing to the “continued insubordination of the inmates at the workhouse” a special meeting was to be held. At that meeting the fact that “so many women having scaled the walls of the workhouse with the Union clothes” had taken place was raised, but no names were given, frustratingly. The answer from the Guardians was to put spikes on top of the walls!
Things turned more serious on 6 Dec 1844 when Praxell sent a threatening letter to Thomas Slade Whiting, a Guardian of the Poor of Codford St Peter, threatening to burn down his house and his crops, enclosing part of a burnt match with the letter.
Her reasons for this behaviour are explained by Whiting who was able to act as prosecutor at the committal. “The Prosecutor from knowing the bad habits of the Prisoner in the workhouse and her violent character there, at the recommendation of the Guardians took her out of the workhouse and gave her employment at weekly wages but in time he was obliged to get rid of her and she again became an inmate of the workhouse from whence she was again sent to Prison for breaking the windows there and it was on her way from Prison that she made the threat to Jane Hinwood that she would sent the letter to Mr Whiting…” (H15/205/2)
When committed to the gaol to stand trial, Praxell had nothing to say but she made up for that in March in front of the Assize court, according to the local newspaper:
“The learned Judge told her she was at liberty to say what she pleased. In a moment, the expression of her face was changed. Her eye lighted up with the fire of anger and revenge, and, turning towards the prosecutor, with her hand extended in a menacing posture, she addressed him in a clear and sharp voice: ‘You have unjustly charged me with writing this letter and have used me most shamefully, and besides you have ground down the poor in your parish, like a wretch, as you are. Now, mind, if I ever do live to come out of my confinement, as sure as fate I will burn down all your house and your farm things, and no one shall keep me from it. I have spoken my mind and I will do it.’”
The jury found the prisoner guilty – there were no less than eleven witnesses at the work house who had seen Praxell handling the letter – and sentenced her to ten years’ transportation – in response the prisoner cheekily said “Thank you my Lord and I hope you sit there till I get back!” The views of her opponents are summed up by one of the legal team, Merewether, who wrote (also H15/205/2) “I am glad Coleridge will try her again as he may recollect her, and we may get rid of her this time…”
Home Office archives at the National Archives, Kew, (published by Ancestry.co.uk) show that Praxell travelled with 169 other convicts on a voyage to Tasmania which lasted from 26 July to 7 November 1845.
Sadly, her life did not improve on arrival there.
A conduct register for prisoners in the Tasmanian national archives which is published online (http://search.archives.tas.gov.au/) is very enlightening:
Praxell’s trade is given as housemaid – her parish of origin simply ‘St Peter’s Wiltshire’… (ie Codford St Peter) She was transported for ‘sending a threatening letter’ after having been convicted before of a similar offence, as well as breaking windows and fighting. She is described as single with one child, who accompanied her on the voyage, whose father is named C. Pothecary. (Interestingly, in the 1841 census there is an Alfred Pothecary listed in the Warminster workhouse so it is possible he is the father, or a relative.)
The surgeon on the voyage, Charles Nutt, described her as: “Indolent. Impudent and a very violent temper.” The register also gives us a sense of her appearance:
4 feet 11 ½ “ tall; age 30; fair complexion; large round face with a large nose; brown hair; hazel eyes…”
Underneath the physical description we learn the sad outcome of Praxell’s story – she went absent without leave on 1 May 1847 and was sentenced to two months’ hard labour. Hard labour meant what itLaunceston convict graveyard sounds like – back-breaking work such as breaking stones, building roads, and demanding physical labour. Shockingly, Praxell died at Launceston just a week later - 8 May 1847.
The Launceston convict graveyard where she lies buried has recently been flattened and turned into a park. Another Tasmanian online source tells us that Praxell’s son, Francis John George Hinwood was admitted to the Queen’s Orphan School in Hobart, Tasmania, in November 1845, so he was separated from his mother a whole two years before her death.
Francis was discharged and apprenticed to a John Warburton of Hobart in April 1856, but later Tasmanian and Australian trade directories do not mention him by name so, if he survived, perhaps he changed it – perhaps one of our overseas readers knows his descendants, and can tell me what happened to him?
In creating this blog I must acknowledge the assistance of Dr Samantha Shave of Lincoln University who first drew Praxell to my attention at a Wiltshire Local History Forum event in May 2017. Samantha has raised interesting questions about whether Praxell should be seen as a political prisoner rather than simply a local trouble-maker, since she was part of a wider, national movement of working class rebellion in the 1840s. In this research we are constrained, as so often, by the fact that the letters and archives left behind were mainly created and kept by Praxell’s enemies rather than her friends and family, so we only have one side of the story. Nevertheless, what a story it is, as I hope you will agree! Love her, or hate her – you certainly couldn’t ignore Praxell Alford Hinwood.
Claire Skinner, Principal Archivist
- Tags: Assize, Benjamin Merchant, Board of Guardians, Calendar of Prisoners, Chartist, Codford Congregational Chapel, Codford St Peter, Devizes Prison, Dr Samantha Shave, Fisherton Gaol, Hobart, Home Office, Launceston convict graveyard, Lincoln University, Praxell Alford Hinwood, Quarter Sessions, Rebecca Riots, Sambourne, Tasmania, The National Archives, Warminster Union, Warminster workhouse, Wiltshire, Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, Wiltshire Assizes, Wiltshire Local History Forum, ‘outdoor relief’, ‘Poor Law Amendment Act’