The second of the children of my 4 x great grandfather James Blanch to marry was his namesake, James, the third surviving child of his first marriage to Jane Barlow. Born in Soho in November 1784, James Blanch junior was living in Mile End Old Town, and probably already working as a Custom House officer, when he married Sarah Empson at the parish church of St Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney, on 2nd September 1813. The names of the half dozen or so witnesses to the marriage are blurred, but they appear to include ‘James Blanch senior’, the groom’s father, and Mary Ann Blanch, his half-sister. Sarah’s origins are unknown, but we can deduce from later records that she was born in 1791. This means that she was twenty-two years old and James twenty-eight when they were married.


Custom House, London, in 1820

Just five months after the wedding, on 16th February 1814, James Blanch would appear in the dock at the Old Bailey, indicted along with his Custom House colleague John Brennan ‘for feloniously stealing, on the 20th of January, ten yards of Russia duck, value 30s. the property of our Lord the King’, as well as on a second count ‘for like offence, stating it to be the property of George Hall,’ and two other counts ‘stating it to be the property of other persons.’ Russia(n) duck is a kind of cloth, apparently a fine white linen canvas. James Blanch and John Brennan had both been stationed on board George Hall’s ship, the Lord Harlington.

The transcript of the trial is worth reproducing in full:

GEORGE HALL. I am master of the ship the Lord Harlington, from St. Petersburgh to London. I brought a general cargo, among other things Russia linen. My vessel laid in the London Docks for being unladen. The two prisoners were Custom-house officers stationed on board my ship. 

Q. About what time was your cargo delivered – A. She was cleared the 9th of this month, and in the course of delivering the goods I was two pieces of Russia duck deficient. The bale was opened for the purpose of getting it out of the place; it was stationed in my state-room; it was too large to get it out whole, therefore they took it out by pieces, and on my finding that I was two pieces of Russia linen deficient I mentioned it to Blanch.

JOSEPH BECKWITH. I am an apprentice on board the Lord Harlington.

Q. Were you in the docks in that ship in the month of January – A. Yes. On Tuesday the 18th, Luke Rochford was clearing the forecastle, I saw the two pieces of Russia duck in the shot locker; this bag was underneath the two pieces of Russia linen in the shot locker. About eleven o’clock in the forenoon I saw it again in the same place in the shot locker.

Q. What time was it you saw it first – A. A little after breakfast, and I saw it again between three and four in the afternoon in the same place. I saw part of it in the same place; part was gone; about half a piece apparently was gone. 

Q. When was it you saw a half piece – A. On the 19th, the next day. I perceived a piece and a half was left, and that half a piece was gone. On Wednesday I saw the other half piece underneath the bed cabin. It was about one o’clock I saw it underneath the bed cabin. I first saw a piece and a half, the next day I saw the half piece.

Q. About what o’clock did you see the half piece – A. About one o’clock I saw the half piece underneath the bed cabin in the forecastle; that was a few yards from the shot locker. On Wednesday I mentioned it to Blanch; the other prisoner was on shore. I told him on Tuesday I saw the two pieces underneath the shot locker, that it had been removed. Blanch said Brennan was on shore; we should tell him of it; he added that it would be better to tell the captain, and we should not be blamed, and then they would make a seizure of it. He said there were two boys who had run away, it might be imputed to them, and they would be transported for it. We waited till Brennan came on board; Brennan came about twelve o’clock; then Brennan sent a man to call me in the cabin; I went into the cabin; I found the two prisoners in the cabin. Brennan said they would take the two pieces of Russia linen; they would give me a few shillings out of it, and they would do the best they could with it. 

Q. How soon afterwards did you miss the Russia duck out of the place where you saw it – A. Directly after this conversation I went to the place where I had seen it, and found it was missing.

GEORGE NORTH. I am mate of the Lord Harlington. I was informed where the Russia duck was; I was directed by the Captain to watch who should take it away from that place; for the purpose of seeing that, I placed myself close to the bulk head, forward; I then commanded a view of the sleeping place of the two prisoners; they were in bed at the time I was stationed there. I saw Brennan get out bed. I saw one of the prisoners take the Russia duck from under the bed cabin; he placed it in the clew of his hammock. The other was by at the time. Then Brennan got on his back; he was partly dressed. I cannot say which of them laid it on his back; they were both together. Blanch tied his breeches with rope yarn; the waistband would not meet.

Q. Then the Russia duck was in the waistband of his breeches – A. Yes. I then went on deck, and sent for a police officer; the officer came, and found the duck on his person.

Mr. Alley. Smuggling is done as secret as possible – A. Yes.

MR. CLARK. I am a Thames police constable. The captain came for me. I took this piece of Russia duck from Brennan’s back; it was fastened round his waistband with rope yarn. This is the half piece I took from his back; the other has not been found. When I found it upon Brennan he said it was the first thing he had done ever since he had been in the employ.

Q. to Captain Hall. Was that the Russia duck that was on board your vessel – A. Yes; it is ten yards.

Blanch’s Defence. This piece of Russia linen the two boys that run away from the ship, they said they bought it in Russia; they asked us to buy it; we gave them twelve shillings for it. 

Brennan said nothing in his defence. 

Brennan called five witnesses, who gave him a good character.

BLANCH, GUILTY , aged 29.

BRENNAN, GUILTY , aged 32.

Transported for Seven Years.

Having been convicted, James Blanch and John Brennan were confined in the prison hulk, the Retribution, moored at Woolwich. The records state that Brennan was pardoned in 1818, but James Blanch was transported to Australia on the Mary Anne on 7th July 1815. He actually arrived in Sydney on another ship, the Fanny, on 18th January 1816.


Prison hulk

Having served his time as a transported convict, James gained his Ticket of Leave in February 1821 and chose to remain in Sydney. His extremely patient and loyal wife Sarah sailed out on the Brixton and joined him there in 1822.

Julian Holland, in an article in the Australian Metrologist which first alerted my fellow researcher, the late Robin Blanch*, to our ancestor’s remarkable life-story, narrates the next stage of James’ career:

Blanch set up business in Pitt Street [Sydney] as a mathematical and philosophical instrument maker, brass founder, brazier, plater and general worker in silver and brass. By February 1822 he had moved to ‘a more commodious and centrical situation’ at 78 George Street. ‘J.B. makes, and has always for Sale, brass and plated harness furniture, parlour and chamber candlesticks, copper tea-kettles, brass cocks of all sorts, locks and hinges of every description, scales, beams, weights and steelyards, wire fenders, hand bells, ivory and wood rules, &c.’ He also advertised ‘Sextants, Quadrants, Compasses, Telescopes, and other Nautical and Optical Instruments repaired and accurately adjusted.—Umbrellas and Parasols made and repaired; Musical instruments repaired; and every article in brass, copper, silver or ivory, made to any pattern.’ Such were the diverse means by which Blanch began to prosper. By this time Blanch was aided in his work by assigned convicts, and before 1822 was out he was seeking an apprentice. His address then was 71 George Street, and in time he also acquired the adjacent properties, nos. 69 and 70. 

The range of his goods and services suggests that his skills as a mathematical instrument maker played a minor part in his business. While he could not have made a living at this alone, his skill was unique in the colony, and was on occasion valuable to the government. At the beginning of 1823 we find him being paid for the repair of compasses at the government dockyard and the following year he received 32 Spanish dollars and 50 cents for repairing mathematical instruments in the Surveyor-General’s Department.

How James Blanch was able to engage in this highly skilled trade, and achieve such remarkable success, is a mystery, given that he was previously employed as a Custom House Officer. To date, no record of an apprenticeship has come to light. Meanwhile, James and Sarah had started a family in Sydney. In 1822 their first child Maria Jane was born, in the following year they had a son James, in 1824 another daughter Sarah, and in 1827 another son William, who died in infancy.


James Blanch and family in the New South Wales muster of 1828

In 1826 the Blanch family appear to have been joined by James’ half-brother Joseph, aged seventeen, who had arrived in Australia on the London. It’s possible that Joseph worked for his brother James’ company. The 1828 muster or census for New South Wales finds James, forty-four, Sarah, thirty-seven, Maria, six, James, five, Sarah, four, and Joseph, nineteen, all living together in George Street, Sydney.


George Street, Sydney, in the early nineteenth century

Julian Holland resumes the story of James Blanch’s career:

With the passing of the Bill for preventing the use of false and deficient Weights and Measures in August 1832, a more substantial piece of precision work came to Blanch. ‘It then became a question whether the old or New English Weights and Measures Should be declared the Standard in New South Wales [Governor Bourke informed Lord Goderich in the Colonial Office in London], which question was decided by its being found upon enquiry that no Authorised Set of weights and Measures of the Old Standard could be procured; but, from the Commissariat, a standard Set of Imperial Weights and Measures, Sent out by the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury, has been obtained, which, being lodged in the office of the Colonial Treasurer, are declared the Standards of New South Wales, by which all Copies and Models are to be compared and verified.’ Bourke added that a Standard Yard had been obtained from the Surveyor-General’s Office.

Seven sets were required each consisting of a series of weights (1, 2, 4, and 8 drams, 1, 2, 4, and 8 ounces, 1, 2, 4, 7, 14, 28, and 56 pounds), a series of volume measures (half gill, gill, pint, quart, half gallon, gallon, peck, half bushel and bushel) and a standard yard.

Blanch had these ready by February 1833. Then balances and scales were required for ‘making a proper comparison of weights’. The provision of these also fell to Blanch, ‘the other Iron Mongers in the Town declined furnishing the Articles no one of them being able to make the same’. A note records the result: ‘The Surveyor General reports that the Colonial Architect considers the articles to be of as good quality as can be made in the Colony & the prices reasonable’. 

Sets were distributed to police offices in various regional towns – Parramatta, Windsor, Bong-Bong, Goulburn, Bathurst, Maitland – as well as one to the police office in Sydney. In the end the production of the weights and measures, and their distribution to the various towns, amounted to £323.11.6, rather more than the sum allocated, but no one seems to have complained.

The late 1830s have been described as ‘a period of dazzling but false prosperity’. Blanch shared in this, acquiring farms at Kissing Point, Brisbane Water and Illawarra in addition to the George Street properties. Blanch died on 27 October 1841 intending the various properties to provide for his wife and three children. His widow, Sarah Blanch, believed the value of his estate did not exceed fourteen thousand pounds.


Detail of Standard Yard made by James Blanch in Sydney in 1833 (private collection) – via ‘The Australian Metrologist’

James Blanch was fifty-six when he died. For what it’s worth, he is rated at No. 182 in a list of the all-time richest Australians. Quite something for a man who originally came to Australia as a convicted thief, and quite a contrast with his half-brother John, my 3 x great grandfather, who worked as a shoe and boot-maker in Bethnal Green.

(*Note: I’m indebted to Robin, and to Jan Addison, for sharing their original discovery of James Blanch’s conviction and his subsequent success.)