An Irishman and an Englishman: Convicts, Business Partners, and Friends

Last week, an interesting clock with a Van Diemen’s Land label came across our path. It piqued our interest, as one of the two surnames was unknown to us and not on our website, Hands of Time, The Index of Clock and Watchmakers in Tasmania.
The website is six months old and constantly updated as new information becomes available.
I started delving into archival records and piecing the jigsaw puzzle together.
So, who were Wilkinson and O’Leary, and how did they come to be in Launceston running a clock and watchmaking business in the 1850s?

Wilkinson & O’Leary clock label, circa early 1850s (Photo: David Miller).

Irishman Arthur Leary from Cork (later known as O’Leary) arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in 1849 as a convict. Despite being sentenced to seven years transportation in June 1847 in Dublin for stealing a cow, his plea to be transported further afield was a few years away. Arthur and his accomplice, Patrick Toole, were both in their 20s; they begged for transportation for fear of starvation, unemployment, and knowing they would need to steal again to survive. Ireland was in the grip of The Great Famine, also known as the Great Hunger, caused by the destruction of potato crops struck by disease. The year 1847, known as Black 47, was seen as the worst year of the famine. It was a time of terrible suffering and desperation and disastrous for the population of Ireland.

For the two young men, transportation to another country took time. They were incarcerated in the Kilmainham Prison in Dublin for three months, then moved to Spike Island in Cork Harbour. The convict prison on Spike Island, previously a monastery and military fortress, opened in 1847, so Arthur and his accomplice were among the first inmates. Known as Ireland’s Alcatraz, the gaol was the largest in the world and was a significant temporary depot for convicts waiting for transportation to Australia and Bermuda. It was probably not what Arthur and Patrick had in mind when they implored for transportation.

Arthur finally arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in January 1849 on the Pestongee Bomangee (3), recorded as a 26-year-old labourer and carver. Granted a ticket of leave soon after arrival, he would have had the freedom to work and support himself. However, in March 1851, he was charged with idleness and loitering around Hobart Town streets and sentenced to two months imprisonment with hard labour. A witness at the trial was a young ticket-of-leave man, William Wilkinson. It is evident from a newspaper report that the two men were friends and had business dealings together. William defended and vouched for Arthur working in Hobart Town. An example of Arthur’s engraving work, a proof impression with East India Tea Company in red lettering and the royal coat of arms, evoked the magistrate to comment, ‘there was no doubt the man could work well, but the question was if the work was not too good!’ Witness Mr John Moore, printer and Guardian newspaper proprietor, testified employing William Wilkinson and claimed he did not know Arthur.

William Wilkinson hailed from Hull in Yorkshire, England, and in 1847, at the age of about fourteen, was sentenced to seven years transportation for breaking into a dwelling house. In July 1850, he arrived in Van Diemen’s Land on the convict ship Blenheim (3), recorded as a labourer. So, William and Arthur Leary would have become acquainted in Hobart Town around late 1850 to early 1851.

By 1852, the two men are partners in a business, Wilkinson and O’Leary, in Launceston. Advertising as clockmakers, watchmakers, jewellers, engravers, and goldsmiths induces the question of their skills for this type of work. Apart from Arthur’s engraving expertise, had they learned other crafts in previous employment, or did they employ additional workers? The enterprise continued for about three years, operating from Wellington Street and two locations on Elizabeth Street. In late 1852 they moved from Wellington Street to more central premises on Elizabeth Street facing Mr Sandersons. Two years later, they relocated to an even more central location on Elizabeth Street next to the Italian Grocery and Tea Warehouse. Services offered included clock, watch, and jewellery repairs, jewellery made and engraved to order, desk and bottle stamp manufacture, and creation and lettering of seals. In July 1853, the business was robbed in the middle of the night by Constable Thomas Riley, who, despite being allowed to go free, was dismissed from the police force and ordered out of town.

During the years of their business partnership in Launceston, both men married. Arthur witnessed William’s marriage to Ellen O’Connor on 23 November 1853 at St Joseph’s Church. On 9 November 1855, Arthur married Irishwoman Mary Keleher of County Clare, also at St Joseph’s Church. After only five weeks of marriage, William’s wife Ellen claimed refusal of maintenance and being turned out of her home by her husband. William, ordered by the court to pay £1 a week at the police office for her use, responded, ‘It was too much.’ Around this time, William and Arthur warned the public they would not be responsible for any debts incurred in their names without written permission.

The Examiner (Launceston) 10 October 1857.

By mid-August 1855, Arthur O’Leary advertised under his name only. He remained in Launceston, adding hair plaiting and gold electroplating services to his business. A son, Olan, was born to Arthur and Mary in 1867. Arthur died on 30 June 1869 at his Bourke Street residence with heart disease and death from the visitation of God, recorded causes. Widow Mary petitioned for water to be connected to her house on Cataract Hill so she could earn a living from washing. A daughter, Mary Gertrude, was born in 1870 following Arthur’s death. Mary (senior) outlived both her children and died at the age of 88 in 1925.

William Wilkinson’s whereabouts after 1855 are, at this stage, unknown.

© Sallie Mulligan, Hands of Time, July 2023.


The clock label:
The Wilkinson and O’Leary business label is placed over the original American manufacturer’s label. The manufacturer’s name is yet to be determined; the clock is wooden-cased, known as an Ogee (OG) shelf clock. The clock label is the first we have encountered in 30 years of business and research, showing Van Diemen’s Land. Wilkinson and O’Leary’s years of business fit with the authorisation of change of name from Van Diemen’s Land to Tasmania in late 1855.

Transcription of text on clock label:
‘Wilkinson & O’Leary,
Watch and Clock Makers.
Elizabeth Street,
Launceston, Van Diemen’s Land.
DIRECTIONS:– To wind up the clock, put on the key with the handle, turn towards the figure 6, and wind steadily until the weight is up.
Set the hands to the required hour by turning the minute hand forward, never backward.
If the clock should strike wrong in consequence of its running down, or other accident, it may be made to strike right by lifting a wire directly under figure 7.
This is done by means of a screw at the end of the Pendulum; shortening the Pendulum to make the clock run faster, and lengthening it to make it run slower.’


TAHO: CON33/1/92, CON33/1/95, CON18/1/47, CON14/1/33, CON14/1/39, CON52/1/6, RGD37/1/12 no1126 Marriage 1853, RGD37/1/14 no896 Marriage 1855, RGD35/1/38 no962 Death 1869.
Web: Ancestry: England & Wales Criminal Register 1847; Findmypast: Dublin Evening Packet & Correspondent 24 July 1847, Irish Prison Register 1847; Tasmania Convict Records 1848-1849;; University College Cork, Ireland, Dept. of Archaeology.
Cornwall Chronicle 13 January 1849, 13 October 1852, 22 January 1853, 30 July 1853, 6 August 1853, 4 & 7 January 1854, 7 January 1854, 22 April 1854, 4 September 1867; Hobart Town Advertiser 28 March 1851; The Brittania & Trades’ Advocate 31 March 1851; The Examiner (Launceston) 30 July 1853, 6 August 1853, 17 January 1854, 28 October 1854, 11 August 1855, 25 August 1855, 17 November 1855, 24 November 1855, 12 January 1856, 23 February 1856, 25 July 1857, 10 October 1857, 19 February 1859, 10 July 1869, 10 August 1869, 2 March 1925; The People’s Advocate or True Friend of Tasmania 10 May 1855, 28 May 1855, 6 August 1855, 13 August 1855, 13 November 1856.