Mark Jeffrey – Wood Ditton’s notorious burglar
This is the story of Mark Jeffrey, a remarkable man who was born in Wood Ditton in 1825 and died in Launceston Tasmania in 1903. While still a young man he fell into a life of crime and violence for which he was severely punished, but in his later years he repented and turned to religion.
Mark’s father John Jeffrey worked for a Doctor Norton at Newmarket from whom he rented a house and a piece of land, working as a market gardener. When the doctor died the family lost the house and land and father took to drink. Both Mark and his younger brother suffered severe beatings, and this determined Mark (15) to leave home taking his younger brother Luke (12) with him.
The boys headed north, making a living as Cheapjacks, buying cutlery, clothing and other cheap goods and either selling them at a large profit or exchanging them for horsehair obtained from farms, another profitable commodity. Mark was already a big strong lad who was very handy with his fists, and he used his ability to make money as a pugilist in boxing saloons. They toured the country visiting many towns and villages and had reached Sheffield before deciding to return to Wood Ditton in 1845 to visit their family.
There they learned that their mother had eloped with William Surridge after having suffered enough of her husband’s violent temper. By this time Mark had grown to six feet and weighed nearly 15 stone, his brother not much less. During this time, he visited The Blackbirds in ‘Outer Ditton’ about a half mile from where his mother was living so from this description it seems that their home was in Little Ditton.
They set off on the road again and by chance caught up with Surridge in Lincolnshire, where Mark gave him ‘a good belting’ as he had also badly treated their mother. At St. Ives, they met Tom Hart who persuaded them that burglary was a life that would give them rich pickings with little fear of being caught. Hart’s brother John had just been released from gaol after serving a sentence for burglary and together they planned their future operations.
At Cambridge they purchased the tools necessary for their nefarious work and decided to dress up in ghostly apparel when carrying out their acts of burglary in order to scare off anyone they might encounter. This consisted of white flowing jumpers, long white leggings, white face masks with eyelet holes and white cotton gloves.
Their first successful job was at the house of a Mr Jones, the owner of a large estate at Ten Mile Bank near Littleport. Luke and Mark had worked there with their father and knew that a considerable amount of cash as well as gold, silver and jewellery were kept on the premises. With the proceeds of this and more burglaries they had plenty of money to spend and they mixed with the low life in Littleport and at Barnwell Cambridge, a world of drinking, fighting, crime and prostitution. They had not forgotten their mother, however, and sent her money, which she was reluctant to accept, fearing it had been obtained dishonestly.
After their fifteenth burglary they were apprehended at Baldock and eventually brought to trial at Cambridge Assizes. Mark had managed to obtain an eminent counsel and owing to conflicting evidence he was hopeful he would be acquitted. His defence was blown, however, when Queen’s Counsel produced documents giving details of all fifteen cases, provided by his fellow conspirator John Hart.
This caused one of Mark’s not infrequent outbursts of violent temper and he attempted to attack Hart in the courtroom until being forcibly restrained. This weighed against him and despite his comparative youth he was sentenced to fifteen years transportation to a penal colony.
While awaiting transportation Mark and his brother were sent to Millbank prison where at first, he accepted his punishment. He was put to work in the prison tailoring workshop but by strange chance found himself sitting at the opposite bench and facing John Hart, the very man who had brought about his conviction. Again, his temper got the better of him and he spoke to Hart in such menacing terms that Hart’s countenance visibly changed, and he fell to the floor as though suffering a seizure.
Within three days Hart was dead, without Mark having touched him physically. The picture of Mark (above) perhaps gives an idea of how he could strike terror just by his appearance. He was at first charged with manslaughter in that he had frightened Hart to death, but this charge was dropped after he argued that Hart had brought about his own death and deserved it too.
It was during this time that Mark had learned to read and write, and he turned to the Bible and pondered the Ten Commandments. This led to him refusing to work on the Sabbath, claiming that God had forbidden it. Despite pleas from the prison governor nothing would persuade him to change his mind resulting in solitary confinement in ‘the black hole’. Another frequent cause of his outbursts of temper was when he considered he had not been given sufficient to eat.
He was allowed one brief visit from his heartbroken mother. Towards the end of his confinement at Millbank Mark nearly died of a bout of cholera and this resulted in him being separated from his brother Luke of whom he was very fond. Before transportation he was sent to the hulk ‘Warrior’ lying at Woolwich, from where he was put to laborious work in the dockyards. Corruption among the prison warders over the allocation of food again resulted in more violent attacks by Mark and more severe punishment. He became so depressed that he pleaded with the authorities to be hanged, but they had worse punishment in store for him.
Mark arrived at Hobart Tasmania in 1850 aboard the sailing ship ‘Elisa’ after a long and stormy passage. He then continued on to Norfolk Island, a remote island in the Pacific to the east of Australia. From there he was sent back to Tasmania, where he was to spend most of his convict days in the penal settlements at Port Arthur or Hobart.
He was allowed to work and earn money on local farms and received much help and encouragement from some of the prison officials but his continued flare-ups over feelings of injustice, his disobedience and violent temper continued to get him into more trouble. He was convicted of manslaughter after a fight which resulted in the death of a fellow prisoner and was sentenced to a further term of life imprisonment.
He spent long periods in solitary confinement wearing leg-irons, which eventually gave him much pain and ulcers, at one point it seemed that he would have to have a leg amputated. While working on ‘Dead Island’, just off Port Arthur, he thought he had dug his own grave, which he carefully tended, patting down the sides with a spade to kill marauding worms.
It seems that Mark finally realised that he was punishing himself more by his disobedience and from 1887 to 1889 he committed no further misdeeds.
His better behaviour together with his health problems resulted in his transferral to the Invalid Depot at Launceston Tasmania, an asylum for the indigent, as a ‘Ticket of Leave Man’. He enjoyed some freedom and became locally well known as ‘Big Mark, the Great English Burglar’, a man who enjoyed talking in gentle terms about his life and regrets. Always active, he returned to his old trade and made a little money peddling cheap goods. It was while at Launceston that he wrote his book ‘A Burglar’s Life’.
Mark had become deeply religious and realized that his temper had been the cause of a great deal of his wretchedness. With a deep humiliation over a wasted manhood, he spoke forgivingly of the prison officials who had helped him both bodily and spiritually, expressing the wish that “when they ‘cross the bar’ the ‘Pilot’ will greet each one with those welcome words I so long to hear myself – ‘Enter thou into the joy of the Lord'”.
Mark died in 1903, when 78 years of age. His brother Luke had been transported, together with Tom Hart, to Fremantle Western Australia where he shot himself in 1883, aged about 55. The brothers had never met since their time in Millbank prison. The book ‘A Burglar’s Life’ was first published in 1893 and a new edition was published in 1968 by Angus & Robertson Ltd.
We are indebted to Wendy Farrington from Merredin Western Australia for many of the details of Mark Jeffrey’s life that she has gleaned from the Tasmanian State Archives and during research into family history. Wendy has visited the now derelict penal settlement at Port Arthur and handled the leg-irons still preserved there. She remembers there were two types, light and heavy, but she could hardly lift even the ‘light’ ones. Wendy also hopes to find Luke’s grave in Fremantle but as he committed suicide it is unlikely to be marked.
There are several websites giving information about the horrors of the Port Arthur penal colony which can be accessed by entering ‘Tasmania penal colony’ into the Google Search engine, try this one.