Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Michael Frayne - A 14 year old burglar.

Michael Frayne - 14 year old burglar from Dublin


Michael Frayne was my great great great grandfather. He was convicted of burglary and robbery in Dublin, Ireland in 1836, aged just 14 years.  Despite having no prior convictions, Michael Frayne was transported to Australia aged 15 years, on board the convict ship St Vincent, which arrived in NSW on January, 5, 1837.  The most significant thing about having a convict on the family tree, is the wealth of fascinating information available with regard to that ancestor. Whilst one might deem it scandalous to have a criminal in the family, it is important to realise that many convicts who were transported to Australia were petty thieves, caught in the act of attempting to survive. Although undoubtedly, some convicts were indeed hardened and contemptuous criminals, even they possess a captivating appeal and are ancestors for which I am certain most family historians will inevitably develop some intrigue if not affection. What is momentous about uncovering a convict in your past, is that there is possibly no other ancestor for whom you will find as many enlightening records, nor the extent of  information about,  than a felonious forebear. 


On August 1, 1836, in Dublin, Ireland, 14 year old Michael Frayne was arrested on a charge of burglary and robbery. He would most likely have been seized off the streets by the feared Irish police, known as peelers, and detained in custody  to await trial. The Irish police force was the world's first, having been established by Robert Peel*, an Englishman, and Chief Secretary in Dublin in 1814. In their dark blue coats, deliberately designed so that  they were able to mingle unnoticed in the crowded streets of Dublin,  the Irish police force was a determined force to be reckoned with. Equipped with truncheons and handcuffs and tall hats, the peelers were unsympathetic to the plight of common folk who struggled to survive against a background of agricultural depression,  rioting and gang violence.  

Irish 'Peelers'

At his trial on August 26, 1836, Michael was found guilty of the charge of burglary and robbery and was sentenced to death. One can only imagine the boy's terror as his judgement was handed down, and in turn, the mixed relief he must have felt when this  punishment was commuted to life and transportation. In 1837, Michael's conviction was not the first skirmish with the law, for the family of the Sarah and Michael Frayne.  Ten years earlier, in 1826, Michael's older brother, Lawrence had been transported to NSW Colony , on board the ship Regalia. Lawrence Frayne, aged 17 had received a life sentence  for the crime of stealing a piece of rope. Conceivably,  the one glimmer of hope for young Michael Frayne, as he waited to be transported to an unknown place on the far side of the world, may have been the possibility of seeing his brother Larry again. 

At the time of his arrest, and with no prior convictions, young Michael Frayne was employed as an errand boy and a car (carriage) driver in Dublin. Unable to read or write, Michael was living in a city in which economic, political and religious circumstances did not make life easy for a young Catholic boy. In 1836, Michael Frayne, at the age of 14 years, stood  5'8" tall. With dark brown hair,  hazel  eyes and a complexion that implied the   freshness of youth,  Michael stood on the cusp of manhood. His adult life ahead of him  and under different circumstances, life may have held a very different future for this boy. His young body bore none of the typical scars or markings which would indicate a troublesome lad, however, it is not difficult to understand how due to circumstances of his birth and life, the young catholic boy found himself on the wrong side of the law.

A haunting image which reminds me of Michael

As in England, prisoners in Ireland were housed on de masted ships known as   hulks to alleviate the problem of over crowded prisons. The hulks were moored in estuaries and rivers and like the English hulks in the River Thames, were infamous for the squalid conditions in which prisoners were harboured. When Michael Frayne was escorted on board one of the moored hulks, to await transportation, he would have suffered the humiliating and inhumane treatment which was commonly suffered by convicted felons. Michael's head would have been shaved first, and after being fitted with a loose, ill fitting, calf length shift, the boy's legs would have been shackled tightly in irons. 

On the hulks, prisoners spent much of their time below deck in crowded and filthy disease ridden conditions. In this dark, dank hostile place, 14 year old Michael, would have found himself living  alongside criminals of all ages. In addition to petty thieves and political prisoners, he would have found himself in the company of hardened criminals who included murderers and rapists. Little comfort would have been found in a place of such degradation where the foul stench of human excrement and rotting food would have permeated the air. One can only imagine the distress felt by Sarah and Michael Frayne at the thought of losing a second of their sons to a harsh and distant Penal Colony from which they would never return.

A demasted hulk off Howth Head Ireland [6]


Michael Frayne arrived in Port Jackson, NSW,  Australia, on January, 5 1837. His journey on board the convict ship, St Vincent, departed Cork on September 18, 1836. The voyage which lasted 115 days, was under the mastership of James Muddle. On board were 224 male convicts from the hulks at Cove of Cork  and Kingstown.  78 of these convicts were embarked from the hulk Surprise, and 120 were from taken from the hulk Elsen.  Michael Frayne and the other convicts on this ship, were under the guard of Lieutenant Donald Stewart,  of the Third  East Kent Regiment, Lieutenant Sculley, 80th Regiment, as well as 30 rank and file 80th and 28th regiments. Also on board the St Vincent were 10 free male  settlers. These were sons of convicts who had been previously transported, and including one John Sealy aged only 12 years,  were setting out to begin new lives in the Colony. In addition, the St Vincent carried, 6 free women and 7 children. The Medical Superintendent on the St Vincent, Andrew Henderson, recorded a journal of the voyage in which he wrote that in general the health and appearance of the convicts on embarkation was good and continued to be so for the rest of the voyage. On this voyage, only three deaths were recorded. Michael Frayne was fortunate that his passage  to Australia was not fraught with the outbreaks of cholera which plagued many of the hulks and  convict ships which departed Cork in the 1830's.  Henderson's journal states that he had never expended so little medication as on the 1837 voyage of the St Vincent.

A Plan of the St Vincent which appeared in the Illustrated London News


In 1821, Michael Frayne was born into an Ireland troubled by economic, religious and political turmoil. The Irish parliament had been abolished under the Acts of Union in 1801, and merged with Britain, an amalgamation which culminated in widespread discrimination against Irish Roman Catholics. The city of Dublin, Michael's birthplace, although a major city in Ireland at the time of Michael's birth, was overpopulated and not prospering. Ireland's population was growing but the economy was steadily in decline. Ireland possessed a harsh penal system under which women and children were commonly imprisoned. The threat of torturous punishment and hard labour, however was little deterrent for hungry men, women and children forced to beg or steal to survive.

Dublin early 1800's (Alan Clancy)


St Paul's Church Arran Quays

Michael Frayne was baptised on June 4, 1821 in the Catholic Parish of St Paul's, Arran Quay** in Dublin. At  this time, in Ireland, the official religion was Church Of Ireland and there were few Catholic Parishes. The photograph above,  is of  St Paul's Church, Arran Quay, designed in 1835 and built in 1837. Prior to the construction of this large church, masses for the Parish of St Paul, were held in a barn. It is in that simple barn, which served as a church,  that Michael was baptised.  The Catholic Parish of St Paul, Arran Quay first opened a register for births, deaths and marriages in 1731. Although not baptised in the above church, Michael would have watched its construction.  Michael parents, Michael Frayne and Sarah (Sera) Phoenix had another son, a year later, named Peter who was also  baptised in the Parish of St Paul's, Arran Quay on July 7, 1822. I have yet to find a birth or baptism record for Michael's brother, Lawrence, however, another son was born to Michael and Sarah Frayne in 1817. John Frayne was baptised in the Roman Catholic parish of St Catherine on May 19, 1817. 

A description of the new St Paul's Catholic Church appeared in the Catholic Penny Journal, January, 10, 1835

* Sir Robert Peel, second Baronet, (1788-1850), served two terms as the British Prime Minister,  from 1834 to 1835 and from 1841 to 1846.

**Arran Quay is a part of the two roadways and quays which run along the north and south banks of the River Liffey, in Dublin City. Arran Quay was a densely populated area in the early 1800's with many young families living in crowded and destitute conditions. As many as 8 or 10 people shared small dwellings and often more than one family shared a small dwelling, living in difficult circumstances. It does not require much imagination to understand how young Michael Frayne found himself in trouble with the law.

Houses on the River Liffey, Aran Quay

Arran Quay, Dublin City


  • www.rootsireland
  • New South Wales, Australia, Convict Indents, 1788-1842
  • New South Wales, Australia, Gaol Description and Entrance Books, 1818-1930


  1. I love all the background to Michael's story, thank you for another very interesting post, Sharn.

    1. Thankyou for your kind comment. Convict ancestors make for good great stories.

  2. Thanks for another fascinating story, Sharn. And as an aside... Police Staff Files at Queensland State Archives reveal that large numbers of 19th century applicants had previously been policemen in Ireland.

    1. Thanks Judy, yo always have a wealth of fascinating informaion at your fingertips!

  3. I'm a 'Michael Frayne' myself. Family is from Tipperary