Burglaries, Bankruptcy and an Unfortunate Death: The Challenges of the Hamilton Watchmaking Family – Part 1

The Hands of Time February blog will be in three parts, with the initial segment telling some of Hobart convict watchmaker Thomas Hamilton’s narrative. Subsequent parts will delve into the stories of two other family members.


The Hamilton family ran clock and watchmaking businesses in Hobart for four decades, from about the late 1830s until the late 1870s. They faced many challenges: burglaries, fire, bankruptcy, problem drinking, a will dispute, other legal action, and a shooting death. Their story in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) began with Thomas Hamilton (senior), who arrived as a convict in March 1832.

Thomas was born to John Hamilton and his wife on 6 March 1800 in North Berwick, Haddingtonshire (East Lothian), Scotland. Aged 31 and married with one child, Thomas was served a fourteen-year transportation sentence for three theft charges. Newspaper reports told the story of his misdemeanours with two accomplices described as common thieves with previous convictions. The crime occurred in Edinburgh, where Thomas had returned a few years earlier after working in London in jewellery and lapidary. He had not changed his ways, and reports described his character before transportation as bad and indifferent.

On 22 March 1832, the convict ship Gilmore (1) arrived in Van Diemen’s Land carrying 223 convicts, including Thomas Hamilton. His convict record describes the red-haired Scotsman of short stature as only 5’3”, with a fair complexion, a large head, red hair and whiskers, light red eyebrows, and a relatively wide mouth. Hobart watchmaker and Scotsman David Barclay utilised Thomas’s horological skills and Joseph Forrester’s silversmithing skills during their convict sentences. The pair made local news in March 1833. Thomas was a witness to his workmate Joseph Forrester trying to convince an intoxicated Archibald Simpson to complain to Barclay about their conditions. Forrester wanted to be paid for his work and claimed Barclay had promised to pay him ten shillings a week while he was assigned to auctioneer John Christopher Underwood. Barclay declared this untrue under oath, and the outcome for Forrester was three months in gaol and hard labour. He reacted strongly and said he would abscond into the bush if ever sent back to Barclay. For this, he received an extra twelve months gaol and hard labour at Nottman’s road party in the north of the colony, followed by a return to Barclay’s service.

By 1839, Thomas had a watchmaking shop in Hobart, received a conditional pardon in July 1840, and an absolute pardon in September 1843. He advertised his business for the first time in August 1842 on Liverpool Street, two doors from Elizabeth Street. At some stage, his wife Ann and young son Thomas Alfred journeyed to Van Diemen’s Land from England.

During the 1840s, Thomas suffered burglaries at his workplace and home, and relocated the business to other premises in Liverpool Street. By the decade’s end, he was insolvent with the stock up for sale, plus Ann Hamilton was experiencing ill health. She died in January 1850, aged 43. The postponement of Creditors’ meetings until June 1850 must have relieved Thomas at this challenging time.

In the 1850s, Thomas remarried, the business recovered from insolvency and experienced several more burglaries. His second wife was Ann Giddings, the widow of the late convict James Gray Giddings. Ann’s surnames during her lifetime were Cross, Giddings, Gray, and Hamilton, but mysteriously not Drought, the surname of her alleged father, the Reverend Robert Campbell Drought.

Thomas (senior) died on 17 January 1865 at Liverpool Street, Hobart; the cause of death recorded was ‘Delirium Tremens and convulsions’ – possibly related to alcohol. His burial took place at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Cemetery. Two wills caused some drama with widow Ann applying for probate to settle the dispute between herself and Thomas Alfred (junior). In the 1852 will, Ann was the sole beneficiary and an executor, with watchmaker and jeweller Charles Jones of Liverpool Street, another executor. A later will dated 1858 named son Thomas Hamilton (junior) as the beneficiary of £500 and his father-in-law James Blackman as the executor. The outcome acknowledged the existence of both wills, with Ann Hamilton awarded entitlement to the whole estate minus £500.

© Sallie Mulligan, February 2024.

To follow: Part 2 – Ann Hamilton.

References: https://handsoftime.com.au/listings/hamilton-thomas-senior/