An early Launceston convict clockmaker, James Puckridge

One single handkerchief changed the course of James Puckridge’s life in 1816. Did the alleged theft of the handkerchief warrant a seven-year transportation sentence to Van Diemen’s Land, or were clockmaking skills needed in the young colony?

James hailed from a family of talented and famous clockmakers. He undertook his apprenticeship with his father, Charles, and other extended family members also followed in the trade. His maternal great-uncle George Graham married Thomas Tompion’s niece, Elizabeth Tompion. Known as the Father of English Clockmaking, Thomas Tompion was a pioneering clock, watch, and scientific instrument maker and inventor. After George completed his clockmaking apprenticeship in London, he was invited to enter Tompion’s service and became chief assistant after about 12 years. George inherited the business of Thomas Tompion in 1713 and was a well-known and prestigious clock and instrument maker and inventor. When George Graham died in 1751, he was buried in Tompion’s grave in Westminster Abbey.

Recorded as a 25-year-old watchmaker and assigned police number 21, James Puckridge arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in September 1817. During the 1820s, he was appointed a constable at George Town and Launceston in the north of the colony. April 1822 saw the death of James’s father, Charles, clock and watchmaker of Fleet Street, London. James was a beneficiary and recorded on the will as living abroad; his father left him all his working tools, movements, and watch hands. By 1824, James had completed his seven-year sentence and was recorded as Free by Servitude. He was a subscriber for building a Wesleyan Chapel in Launceston in 1825.

James was among the party led by surveyor and explorer John Charles Darke in January 1826 involved in the pursuit and apprehension of Thomas Jefferies, convict bushranger, murderer, and cannibalist. Jefferies was sentenced to death and hung at the old Hobart Gaol on 4 May 1826, the same day as bushrangers Matthew Brady, Patrick Bryant, John Perry, and John Thompson. Because of his involvement and presence at the capture of Jefferies, James took the opportunity to apply for a land grant. The application was unsuccessful as Commandant Colonel William Balfour thought James did not have the means to farm land despite owning four bullocks.

By 1845, James advertised as a clockmaker, watchmaker, and jeweller in Charles Street, Launceston, opposite the Commercial Bank. He stated he had been a watch and clockmaker in Launceston for 28 years, dating back to his arrival in 1817. Like many other convicts with trades, James likely undertook clock and watchmaking work before occupying premises and having the means to advertise.

Did the first clergyman of St John’s Church, Reverend John Youl and constable James Puckridge meet in George Town where Youl was chaplain from 1819 to 1824, creating a connection for future work in Launceston? James may be one of a few contenders involved in installing Launceston’s first Town Clock in the late 1820s in the tower of St John’s Church.

On 2 September 1846, James and convict Mary Ann Smith were married by Henry Dowling at the York Street Baptist Chapel in Launceston. Mary Ann was recorded as 22 and James as 48, a reduction of about seven years from his actual age. The marriage was rocky from the start. Six weeks after their marriage, Mary Ann gave birth to a daughter on 21 October 1846 at the Launceston Female Factory. The Cornwall Chronicle of 28 November 1846 referred to James as ‘Poor old Puck’ when reporting court proceedings against Mary Ann for misconduct. The Magistrate stated James could not expect much happiness from ‘such an ill-sorted match,’ Mary Ann was sentenced to three months hard labour in the Launceston Female House of Corrections. In February 1847, James, with a young baby in his arms, applied for protection against being annoyed by Mrs Puckridge and lodged another complaint in September of the same year. The Magistrate, running out of patience, told James he could not expect his wife to live with him because of his infidelity. The couple’s trouble continued, and Mary Ann was sentenced to seven years in the Female House of Corrections in 1849 for theft. Her young daughter Rebecca was admitted to the Queens Orphan School on 22 November 1850, recorded as Rebecca Smith. By this time, James Puckridge was in Geelong, Victoria. Mother and daughter were reunited on 28 October 1854.

James Puckridge died at Fyans Street, South Geelong, Victoria, on 23 September 1853. His death record states he was a servant, and the cause of death was ‘the decline of age.’ Despite being recorded as about 70, he was 62. His burial occurred in the old Church of England section of the Geelong Eastern Cemetery in an unmarked grave – a stark contrast to his great-uncle George Graham’s resting place in Westminster Abbey in London.

If it wasn’t for the one troublesome handkerchief in 1816, James Puckridge may have followed in the footsteps of his renowned relatives.

© Sallie Mulligan, September 2023.


Clockmakers’ Company Masters & their Apprentices (transcription from Atkins’ list of 1931), Jeremy Lancelotte Evans.
Thomas Tompion his life and work, R W Symonds, 1969.
TAHO: CON31/1/34, CON13/1/1, CON52/1/2, CSO3/1/3 File No. 8581 1826 [James Puckeridge]; CON40/1/10 [Mary Ann Smith];
RGD37/1/5 no442 Marriage 1846.
Web: Old Bailey Online, Reference No. t18161204-66 1816; Ancestry: England Births & Christenings 1791; Census & Population Muster, Port Dalrymple 1820; London, England, Wills & Probates DL/C/482 Will 48 1822 [Charles Puckridge]; England Deaths & Burials 1822 [Charles Puckridge]; Australia & New Zealand Find A Grave Index 1853; The Worshipful Co. of Clockmakers, Clockmaker Masters & their Apprentices; The Puckridges,; Friends of the Orphan School,; Births Deaths Marriage Victoria, Registration No. 696/1853; Geelong Cemeteries Trust online database.
Newspapers: Cornwall Chronicle 27 February 1847, 29 September 1847; Geelong Advertiser 8 December 1849, 16 February 1850.
Note: Records for James Puckridge and Thomas Jefferies show many variations of surname spelling.