Wednesday, 1 July 2020

The incomplete life stories of David Duffy and Benjamin Prophett

Neither Benjamin Prophett nor David Duffy cuts the same heroic figure within Chartism as William Cuffay.

However, the fact that both men were arrested and brought to trial (along with more than 20 others) just days before the great Kennington Common Chartist meeting of 10 April 1848, does demonstrate that Cuffay was hardly unique as a black man in early Victorian London.

Sun newspaper report,
10 April 1848
Both Prophett and Duffy were first named by David Goodway in his London Chartism 1838-1848, based on contemporary reports in The Times (17 March 1848) and the Weekly Dispatch (16 April 1848). Other papers also carried news of their cases.

Benjamin Prophett, it was reported, was known as “Black Ben”; he was a “man of colour” and a seaman.

David Anthony Duffy, also a man of colour and an unemployed seaman, was, it appears known to the police as a beggar at the Mint – a well-known Southwark slum – where he went about “without shirt, shoe or stocking”.

Prophett and Duffy were arrested when, following a Chartist meeting called by the journalist GWM Reynolds at Kennington Common on 13 March, sections of the crowd attacked and looted shops including a pawnbroker’s, tailor’s, baker’s and confectioner’s.

But what more do we know of the two men?

I have spent some time searching online records, including the British Newspaper Archive, Ancestry and FindMyPast in the hope of finding more about them. The results so far have been sparse.

Both men can be found in the Newgate Calendar of Prisoners (National Archives HO77/55), which records their separate trials at the Central Criminal Court.

Duffy, whose age was given as 21, was found guilty on 8 April of “feloniously breaking and entering the dwelling house of Thomas Grey, and stealing therein 200 watches, and other articles, his property”. He was sentenced to be transported for seven years.

Prophett convicted of breaking and entering
Prophett, aged 29, was found guilty of “feloniously breaking and entering the dwelling house of Alfred Thomas, and stealing therein 1lb weight of cigars, and other articles, his property”. He was sentenced to transportation for 14 years – a far harsher sentence than that given to others convicted alongside him.

It is, of course, impossible to know at this remove whether either or both men were Chartists by conviction, or were simply there because of the opportunities the crowd offered for profit. There appears to be no mention of them in relation to other Chartist activities, but this proves very little.

The only other reference to Duffy I have found has been an entry in the Board of Trade’s seamen’s register, the original of which is in the National Archives (BT113/103).

Seamen's register entry for Duffy
This lists a David Anthony Duffy as having been born at St Thomas in the West Indies (possibly St Thomas parish in St Kitt’s). With a date of birth of 20 May 1824, and assuming this to be a more accurate date than that given in court, he would have been a few weeks short of his 24th birthday at the time of his arrest, and stood at just over 5ft 8ins. He had first gone to sea as a boy, and by the time the register entry was made in 1845, had risen to become a seaman.

While Prophett was also said at the time to be a seaman, there appears to be no entry for him in the same register. However, other official records do exist.

Both men would have been taken after their convictions to Millbank Prison on the banks of the Thames, which by this time was used as a holding place for all those facing transportation.

The prison hulk "York"
On 27 December, however, Prophett was one of 70 men moved by order of the governor of Millbank to the York, a prison hulk. Formerly a Royal Navy ship, it had been demasted  and converted in 1819 and typically housed 500 prisoners. In 1848 there was a serious mutiny by prisoners held on board – presumably, given how late in the year Prophett was transferred, before he arrived.

I am not sure how long Prophett stayed aboard the York, or on what ship he left England. But it seems that in his case transportation was not, as it was for so many, to Australia, but to Bermuda.

Between 1823 and 1863, 9,000 convicts, all men, were sent to Bermuda, where they were put to work building their own prisons, the naval dockyard and Grey’s Bridge. Some 1,260 men died serving their sentence – but Prophett was fortunate to miss outbreaks of Yellow Fever in 1846 and 1856.

In 1855, after completing half of his sentence, Prophett was sent back to England on the Sir George Seymour. This was standard practice – unlike in Australia, where many transported prisoners stayed on after completing their sentence, those sent to Bermuda were not permitted to settle.

The prison register (PCOM2/36) lists Prophett as a married man, but gives no details of family or other connections. It records that he was unable to read or write, and says that since his return on 23 March 1855 he had been held at Newgate Prison. He was discharged on licence on 18 April.

And there the trail turns cold again. There are entries for a Benjamin Prophett born in 1819 in census and poor law records into the 1880s, but these give a place of birth in Ireland. Perhaps Prophett changed his name, or his biographical details.

There is, too, a Benjamin Prophett who appears in passing as a witness to a fire in Mint Street (Express, 23 February 1864), which would certainly be a good fit. This Benjamin Prophett lived opposite the affected building and was with his wife at the time of the fire. Maybe this is our man.

Prison register recording Prophett's return to England and discharge on licence.

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