Brothers in Arms

Isaac Riches was fourteen when first confined at Great Yarmouth Gaol in 1841. Picked up as a rogue and vagabond, allegedly in the act of stealing wood chooks, he was sentenced to six months imprisonment or payment of a fine. His parents, Christopher and Maria Riches, must have paid the surety for a week later Isaac was released. Within a year he would be back, remanded with another boy for stealing a till and 4 shillings from a shop.[i]

Sarah Martin’s Register ‘Brief Remarks After Departure’ Isaac Riches – middle entry

Sarah Martin’s Register ‘Brief Remarks After Departure’
Isaac Riches – middle entry

Isaac’s prison teacher, Sarah Martin, looked sympathetically on the lad, as she did many young first-timers. He had received neither moral nor religious instruction, she regretted, and ‘never heard the words “Thou shalt not steal”’. Bombarded by her questions – ‘“What becomes of wicked people when they die?” and “Did you ever learn who Jesus Christ is?”’ – Isaac could only stutter ‘“No”’ and ‘“I don’t know I am sure”’. Asked what he did on Sundays and if his parent attended worship, the boy replied, ‘“Father go out – I don’t know where. I play about.”’[ii]

Sarah Martin’s concerns about Isaac’s neglect seemed to have been confirmed by the appearance of his elder brother Christopher at the gaol, remanded aged 15 for removing sand from the shore without license. [iii] The boys’ father drove the scavenger’s cart, the teacher noted. His sons were infested with vermin and so, she regretted, she could not recommend them to a Sunday school. [iv] Perhaps the teacher remembered Riches senior from when he too, as a boy, served time in the prison for carting sand off the Yarmouth Denes.[v] Christopher, ‘a nice boy – so docile and ready to learn and obey’, she feared, could only become more ‘neglected, ignorant and wicked’ without his ‘absolute removal from his parents’.[vi]

In her concerns for the Riches brothers, the prison visitor expressed the widely-held view at the time that parental neglect was a primary cause of ‘juvenile delinquency’ rather than innate wickedness in the young. If they could be rescued early from depravity and ‘evil connections’, children destined to become ‘hardened criminals’ might instead, with care and instruction, be ‘reclaimed’. To such ends, children were consigned to reformatories, industrial schools, and even transportation.[vii]

Black Horse Row (Row 3) where the Riches family lived in 1841

Black Horse Row (Row 3) where the Riches family lived in 1841

Sentencing the Riches brothers to seven years transportation in 1845 for stealing rope from a ship, the Yarmouth magistrates appear to have taken this view. ‘No interest in the fate of these youths was shown by their parents,’ found the Recorder. Listing Isaac’s five prior convictions, and eleven by Christopher, the Recorder claimed ‘it was again useless to throw them upon society, to commit other depradations.’[viii] Ostensibly for their own good as well as society, the brothers were condemned to exile. Were Mr and Mrs Riches in court to hear the verdict? They would never see their sons again.

What did Christopher and Isaac make of their parents? We have to wait till the boys reached Van Diemen’s Land before we get a glimpse of their reactions to their punishment and feelings for their family. They arrived together in May 1846, following a three month voyage aboard the convict ship Joseph Somes. [ix] Like all convict exiles entering the penal colony, they were interrogated about their offending history and family ties. Stripped to the waist, their bodies were inspected for distinguishing characteristics. The results of this verbal and physical examination were written up in each convict’s ‘conduct record’ which tracked their movement and behaviour through their sentence. Designed to monitor and police prisoners, these registers enable us to overhear convict voices.[x]


Christopher’s imprisonments at Yarmouth listed in
Gaol Receiving Book (Y/D 41/28) 12 September 1845

Christopher was the first brother to face interrogation. He categorically denied any previous convictions despite eleven imprisonments at Yarmouth. Yet prior to the theft for which he was transported, Christopher had not been convicted of stealing. The charges of stealing manure and a basket, on which he was remanded, had not been proven.  Most likely he viewed these ‘offences’ as part of his legitimate trade as a ‘dirt gatherer’, along with other ‘misdemeanours’  for which he was fined or imprisoned: removing soil, digging up the road, cruelty to the donkey he worked. Even if his treatment of the poor donkey suggests he laboured over-zealously, Christopher had followed industriously in his father’s profession of scavenging.

In confessing his former offences, Isaac seems to have drawn the same distinction between legitimate, work-related forms of appropriation and illegitimate theft from the person. He did not mention his first imprisonment for stealing wood chooks but admitted stealing money from a shop, a watch from a gentleman, and seven days ‘for picking my mothers [sic] pocket’.

The last admission provides a startling insight into the relationship between working-class families and the law in the early nineteenth century. Isaac had been remanded for a week at his parents’ request despite the family’s history of imprisonment.[xi] It was not uncommon for relatives to appeal to the authorities to deliver a beating or short confinement to wayward children, particularly adolescent sons.[xii] Most likely it was persistent bad behaviour on Isaac’s part which had led them to prosecute their son. When they could, Christopher and Maria Riches had paid any fines their sons incurred while working at the family trade. But they had drawn a line at thieving, despite their low reputation with the prison teacher and magistrates.

Convict love token National Museum of Australia

Convict love token
National Museum of Australia

Whatever disputes had taken place in the Riches household, Isaac appears not to have borne a grudge against his parents for his vibrant tattoos, described by the convict clerk, show a young man who defined himself by his family ties and felt at ease among them. Above his elbow he had depicted a ‘Man and Woman’ next to his parents’ initials MR and CR. His younger brother Robert seems to have been part of a family portrait – ‘RR two men above elbow Woman Man, Man Woman [and] Girl’ – for the Riches boys had two younger sisters. Whether or not this was a family portrait, as the figure of the girl suggests, the grouping was associated with merriment, appearing near to wine glasses and ‘CR man with smoking pipe’.

Isaac’s commemoration of his family was accompanied by many of the familiar insignia of the tattooed convict: ‘Sun anchor & mermaid’, the blue dots on the back of the hands denoting gang membership, rings on his fingers. They did not, however, include the more ominous symbols alluding to ill-fate, such as the half-moon, but rather conveyed companionship and high spirits. Above all this conviviality is intimated by ‘two men arm in arm’. I like to think this was an image of Isaac and Christopher, finding comfort in each other, as they left behind their family to face exile in a foreign land.

Isaac Riches;s conduct record (top part) His tattoos are entered in the 'Marks' section

Isaac Riches’s conduct record (top part)
His tattoos are entered in the ‘Marks’ section

Isaac’s tattoos:

MR CR Man & Woman above elbow Woman IR two men arm in arm C[H?] [N?]R Sun anchor & mermaid below Rt arm 7 dots on back of Rt hd Ring on 2nd finger Rt hd RR two men above elbow Woman Man, Man Woman Girl wine glasses [&?] CR man with smoking pipe heart and darts anchor below left arm Several blue dots on back of left hand ring on 1st of 2nd finger left hand.

[i] Gaol Register, 26 May 1841 and 3 February 1842

[ii] Sarah Martin’s Register, 1841, no. 130.

[iii] Gaol Register, 14 June 1841.

[iv] Sarah Martin’s Register, 1841, no. 140.

[v] Norfolk Chronicle, 14 July 1832.

[vi] Sarah Martin’s Register, 1841, no. 140.

[vii] Heather Shore, Artful Dodgers: Youth and Crime in Early Nineteenth-Century London (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2002); Helen Rogers, ‘“Oh, What Beautiful Books!” Captivated Reading in an Early Victorian Gaol’, Victorian Studies (2012) 55.1, 57-84.

[viii] Norfolk Chronicle, 18 October 1845.

[ix] Christopher Riches, 17981, per Joseph Somes (1), 1846, CON33/1/77, CON14/1/35; Isaac Riches, 17982, ditto. Most of the Van Diemen’s Land convict records are held at the Archives of Tasmania, Hobart, and many are searchable online at Transcriptions of all the Conduct Records can be searched at

[x] Ian Duffield, ‘“Stated This Offence”: High Density Convict Micro-Narratives’, in Lucy Frost and Hamish Maxwell-Stewart (eds), Chain Letters: Narrating Convict Lives (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2001), pp. 119-35

[xi] Gaol Register, 15 June 1842

[xii] David Philips, Crime and Authority in Victorian England: The Black Country, 1835-1860 (London: Croom Helm, 1977).

6 thoughts on “Brothers in Arms

    • Thank you Alison for being first person to comment on my blog! Isaac’s tattoos were wonderful. How he depicted his family is such a contrast to the way that Sarah Martin and the magistrates saw them. I have lots more tattoos to explore – soon hopefully! Helen

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