S.T. Gill: A Phony Controversy
(Frank Campbell, 21st July 2016.
The author was an academic for twenty-six years, teaching Australian history among other things. He has been a freelance art historian/art authenticator for the past twenty years. For fifteen years he reviewed non-fiction books monthly in The Australian (1994–2008). New book “Face Value: the assassination of portrait painting 1850–1870” now available as ebook on Amazon etc, and in hardback)
buy Face Value at http://smarturl.it/facevaluekindle http://smarturl.it/facevalueprint http://www.gettextbooks.com/isbn/9780994604323/ https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/657809 https://gum.co/XfltT
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Could a hundred historians be wrong? Was the famous Australian colonial artist S.T. Gill a child convict and not a respectable free settler? Babette Smith suggests Gill and his father faked his background to avoid convict shame.
But this research proves beyond doubt that this ripping yarn is just that, a yarn.
It’s a case of mistaken identity. The artist Samuel Thomas Gill (1818–1880) has no connection whatever to the real convict Samuel Gell (1816-after 1844). Two unrelated families. Two utterly different careers.
Smith told her tale to two audiences and the media in 2016. The media enjoyed it. But Smith knew all along that the “convict Gill” was often listed as Gell in historical records. The name Gell is rare, Gill is common. Smith did not mention “Gell” to her listeners.
Instead of checking genealogical records, Smith assumed Sam Gell was S.T. Gill. The real Sam Gell was Birmingham born and bred. Son of a brass worker, the family disintegrated around 1832. Both sons were convicted and transported. Brother Joseph became a notable storekeeper in Geelong, Victoria.
The dramatic story of the Gells deserves better than to be falsely merged with S.T. Gill’s fascinating life.
The true story is revealed below. No apology for the detail, because that’s where the devil is. Time for an exorcism.
Was the famous colonial artist S.T. Gill, son of a Baptist minister, really a convict forger?
This claim has generated much media attention since historian Babette Smith presented papers in Sydney and Ballarat earlier this year. Typical of the press coverage is the following:
“Smith says art historians have been openly hostile to her theory that Gill was a 13-year-old forger transported to Sydney in 1833, rather than a free settler to Adelaide…
But Ms Smith, a University of New England lecturer who has written books on convicts… believes he kept a dark secret…
… in Ballarat she will tell the Australian Historical Association’s conference… that the artist was the Samuel Thomas Gill who in 1832, age 13, was convicted in Birmingham of forging cheques at a solicitor’s office.” (Ballarat Courier, 5th July 2016)
The received history is straightforward
Samuel Thomas Gill (1818–1880) was born in Somerset and migrated to South Australia on the Caroline in 1839 with his free-settler middle-class family. His mother died soon after arrival and his father left circa 1842 to establish a farm on Section 863 in the Adelaide Hills at Coromandel Valley, and in 1843 a school. An advertisement places S.T. Gill, artist, in Gawler Place in 1840. The SA census of 1841 has Samuel T. Gill living in rural District B, probably with his younger brother John Ryland, though their ages are reversed. Their father Samuel is in Carrington Street, central Adelaide. District B was a roughly 20 x 25 km rectangle south of Light’s original Adelaide street grid, from its Greenhill Rd boundary to latitude 35" 10' South (Christie Creek, Noarlunga district) and west of Mount Lofty.
Several directories place S.T. Gill in Adelaide in the early 1840s. John Howard Angas’(1823–1904) diary entry for October 29th 1844 states: “Out with Mr. Gill the artist who has come from town to take some sketches…” (Grishin, 2015, p.238) This was two months before Samuel Gell escaped from Southport Probation Station in Van Diemen’s Land.
Smith claims the real S.T. Gill escaped from Van Diemen’s Land in late 1844, making his way to Adelaide. The evidence for Gill in England and South Australia between 1833 and 1844 is strong. An extant sketchbook with some seventy drawings and watercolours by S.T. Gill dates from 1835. It also contains four works by his father, an amateur artist. Then there is the passenger list of the Caroline, which includes S.T. Gill. Smith discounts this as deception, likewise the 1840 advertisement, placed Smith says by Gill’s father as a ruse. She rejects the evidence of many S.T. Gill works dated by experts to 1840–44, saying that these pictures were either post-dated to deceive and/or art historians are wrong about the dating. She also claims that pre-1844 works were done by S.T. Gill at Shoalhaven in the Illawarra, while Gill the convict worked for his master, Alexander Berry. Essentially, Smith contends that the colonial record was faked or obscured in a family conspiracy to eliminate convict shame.
Smith also believes that rural labourers depicted in Gill’s early watercolours are wearing convict clothing, not what one would expect in free-settler South Australia. To others, including this writer, the clothing illustrated by Gill is typical of the clothing worn by rural workers in the 1840s. Further, the landscape of the early Gill watercolours which Smith believes were painted in the Shoalhaven district does not resemble the longer-settled, fertile, well-watered farmland of the Illawarra. But it does look very like the hardscrabble, dry, just-settled Adelaide Plain and nearby hills.
The bald fact is that none of this evidence or rebuttal makes the slightest difference to the identity of S. T. Gill. The convict cheque forger is well-recorded in both England and Australia. His name is Samuel Gell. If basic historical method had been followed, genealogy would have been explored first. There would have been no controversy.
The confusion derives from the similarity of the names Gill and Gell. Gill was and is a fairly common name in 19th century Britain and Australia. Gell is rare. Current figures suggest Gill has a frequency of 1/1100 surnames in Britain and 1/1800 in Australia. Gell occurs 1/53,000 in both Britain and Australia. Without being too definitive, the ratio seems reasonable: Gill is fifty times commoner than Gell. Although the G is typically hard in Gill and soft in Gell, that may not have been so two centuries ago. There is ample scope for error in written records. Hence each record needs to be carefully scrutinised and placed in context. The very rarity of the Gell name, particularly in Birmingham, enabled Samuel Gell’s family to be pinpointed.
Note that Samuel Gell the convict is never once listed as Samuel Thomas, S.T. or Samuel T. Gell or Gill.
But in the very first mention of the cheque forger, he is listed as Samuel Gill. In a brief mention of his case soon after his arrest, the Leamington Spa Courier of 28th January 1832 reported that the prisoner was “committed to the County gaol” on 28th January 1832:
“Samuel Gill, charged with having at Birmingham, tendered to James Taylor, a forged warrant, for the payment of £20, with intent to defraud James Taylor and others.”
At the committal hearing, a more thorough episode, Gell’s name is reported correctly. On 4th Feb 1832, the same newspaper stated that
“On Monday, Samuel Gell, a youth scarcely fifteen, and lately in the service of Mr Griffiths, solicitor, of that place (i.e. Birmingham), was examined on a charge of forging a cheque for £20 upon Messrs Praed and Co, bankers, of London, and the case against him being proved, he was committed for trial. It appeared in evidence, that having received the proceeds, he left Mr Griffiths abruptly, and was detected in a second attempt of the kind in Liverpool, where he was apprehended.”
At the Warwick Crown Court trial, Wednesday March 28th (Birmingham did not at this date have assizes), the prisoner appeared before Justice James Parke for having
“forged a cheque dated 17th December 1831 to the order of John Edward Latimer, with intent to defraud James Taylor, and others, bankers, of Birmingham…
The prisoner, a clerk in the employ of Mr Griffiths, solicitor, of Birmingham, presented the forged order at the bank of Messrs Taylor and Lloyd…Mr Latimer, also a clerk in Mr Griffith’s office…”
Latimer testified that the cheque was in “Gell’s writing”. Gell “absconded the same day he received the cash”, and was arrested in Liverpool.
Griffiths said he was familiar with the handwriting of both Gell and Latimer, and that Gell had been employed for a year. His opinion of Gell’s character was “very favourable”.
The jury asked for “mercy”. Automatic sentence was death, commuted to transportation for life.
Justice Parke said the crime was of “the greatest magnitude” and of “infinite importance to this great commercial country”. (LSC, 31st March 1832)
The prisoner was also recorded as Samuel Gell in the Birmingham Gazette of 2nd April 1832, and other newspapers.
So there is no doubt that a youth was convicted of cheque forgery at Warwick Assizes in 1832 and transported to Australia for life. But this boy’s name was not Samuel Thomas Gill, it was Samuel Gell. The court and/or reporter’s error in naming the prisoner “Gill” at his first brief appearance is just that, an error. Genealogy establishes that fact, as do the later British court and convict records. Neither did the Gell family of Birmingham have anything whatever to do with the Gill family of Devon, Somerset and Cornwall. In the 1830s, Rev Gill’s family lived in and near Plymouth, and before that in various places in the South West.
Samuel Gell was born in Birmingham on 8th December, 1816. He was eighteen months older than S.T. Gill. Gell’s age is usually recorded accurately in the court and convict records.
The following is a summary of the Gell family of Birmingham in British records:
SAMUEL GELL Jr Baptismal Records
Records of St Philip’s Church, Birmingham. Born on 8th Dec. 1816. Baptised 5th April, 1825.
Church Baptismal record: Father: Samuel. Mother: Mary (née Mary Ann Fowler, baptised 29th Sept 1800, St Philip’s Birmingham, daughter of William and Mary Fowler). Samuel Sr. was a Brass Founder of Brearley Street, Birmingham. In 1829 the Gells are at Staniforth Street, Samuel Sr. listed as a Brass Founder.
SAMUEL GELL, from British Convict Transportation Registers
Convicted at Warwick Assizes, Life, 24th March 1832 (later incarcerated on the boy’s prison hulk Euryalus, at Chatham).
NSW Settler and Convict Registers
Samuel Gell sailed on the Lord Lyndoch, 30th May 1833. Arrived Sydney 18th Oct. 1833, on the Lord Lyndoch. (Apparently also held on the Sydney prison hulk Phoenix- not confirmed)
Convict Indents register 1833
Printed indentures of convicts. Samuel Gell, arrived on the Lord Lyndoch, 1833.
Samuel Gell: Can read and write. “Attorney’s boy”. Age: 17 (correct). Protestant. Native place: Birmingham. Height: 4’ 7 ½”. Complexion: “Brown”. Hair and eyes, brown.
Convict General Muster 1837
Samuel Gell, aged 21 (correct age). Master, Alexander Berry, Illawarra.
Prisoner Entrance Book 1840
Samuel Gell, no. 1572, arr. 1833, Lord Lyndoch. Labourer. Protestant. “Native Place: Birmingham”. Bond. Trial at Wollongong. 12th August 1840.
1841 Trial in Sydney
Samuel Gell convicted of theft of food from Patrick Macavoy’s house on 13th January 1841 at Shoalhaven. Gell’s master is “Mr Perry” (i.e. Alexander Berry). Australasian Chronicle, 20th February 1841. Sentenced to seven years in a penal colony. Sent to Norfolk Island on 19th May 1841 where he remained until 1844.
In this version in the Sydney Herald, 20th February 1841: Mr Berry is again “Perry”, and Gell is now Gill:
“Before the Summary Jurisdiction of the Court. — Robert Hannan and Samuel Gill, both of whom had been previously subjected to Colonial sentences for stealing, with William Brook and William Aitkins, all runaways from Mr. Perry’s establishment, were convicted of stealing. Hannan and Gill were each sentenced to betransported to a penal settlement for seven years.”
“Remarks” on record in NSW, Norfolk Island and VDL (CON33–1–55, index no 2647)
Undated (1837): Absconding from work gang. Absent three weeks. “I took a pair of government boots with me”.
23rd July 1837: 12 months for “larceny and dishonest conduct”.
23rd December 1839: 50 lashes for absconding.
22nd December 1842: 100 lashes and imprisonment for “insubordinate conduct” etc.
Gell left Norfolk Island on the Lady Franklin on August 29th 1844 for Hobart.
Description in 1844 in CON33–1–55 index no. 2647, 1844 (Tasmanian Archive, selected descriptors only given below)
Height: 5’ 1 ¾”
Protestant. “Can read and write”
Hair: Dark brown
Native Place: Birmingham
Distinguishing marks: Nose inclined slightly to left. Scar on left arm below elbow.
Absconded from Southport Probation Station 20th December 1844. Escaped on a fishing boat. “Supposed to have been lost at sea.” ( Southport is 104 km south-west of Hobart.)
“Struck off strength 31st Dec. 1853”. (i.e. removed from the Government convict list permanently.)
Samuel Gell Jr Family
Father: Samuel Gell, born late 1791 in Birmingham
No certain death date, but died after 1829. A Samuel Gell, of Lichfield Street, Birmingham St. Mary, mechanic, aged 50, born in Birmingham, is listed in the 1841 census. This is the only Samuel Gell in the 1841 census living in Warwickshire. He apparently resided in a tenement house with nine others, including a rag-gatherer, a “traveller”, a labourer, and a family headed by a pan-maker. But given the absence of street numbers, it is possible that the address refers to the 650-inmate Birmingham Workhouse in Lichfield Street. No children or wife listed. He may have been a relative of Joseph Gell of 54 Hill Street, Birmingham, 45 years, Parish clerk of St. Philip’s Church, married with seven children. He was Registrar of Births and Deaths for the parish in 1837, when he lived at 28 Cannon Street. Joseph was buried at St. Philip’s on 16th June 1849, aged 55.
Samuel Gell Sr was the son of Thomas (born c. 1770, Birmingham St. Philip) and Margaret Gell; Samuel baptised on 2nd January 1792, at St Martin’s church, Birmingham. (Church of England Baptisms, 1538–1812). He was baptised again on 27th June 1796 at the same church, parents the same. (Both repeat and late baptisms were fairly common at this date. The less likely possibility is that the 1792 baptism was of a child of the same name who died. At times the next child of the same gender would be given the same name)
Mother: Mary Ann (see above p.4) Born in 1800. One unconfirmed report of her death in 1834. Apparently not in the 1841 census.
Children: Samuel Gell, born 8th Dec. 1816. Joseph Gell, born Sept. 1st 1819, died Geelong, Victoria, 11th Dec. 1886. Mary, born Sept 22nd, 1820. All born in Birmingham.
Baptismal records, St Philip’s Church, Birmingham 1829:
Brother Joseph and sister Mary baptised together on 20th April, 1829.
Samuel and Mary, parents. Samuel listed as “Brass Founder”. Address: Staniforth Street Birmingham. Both Brearley and Staniforth streets are in inner Birmingham, 400 metres apart. There were many brass foundries throughout the 19thC/20thC in Birmingham. Five are listed in Brearley Street alone in 1896. Mostly small workshops.
Gell Family Catastrophe: “My father forsook me when I was young”
This spare record of the Gell family disguises the catastrophe that befell them in 1830–32. Samuel was arrested for a capital crime in December 1831. His brother Joseph stole a cap in 1833, convicted and sentenced to be “once privately whipped”. He later stole a loaf and was finally sentenced to seven years transportation for stealing beef. By 1836, both brothers were Australia. The story of Joseph Gell is as vital as his brother’s in determining S.T. Gill’s true identity.
Of their sister Mary there is no record after 1829. Her mother Mary Ann may have died in 1832 or 1834. Records are unclear. She is absent from the 1841 census. The huge Birmingham workhouse in Lichfield Street may have claimed both parents- records not yet checked.
But the most graphic report on the tragic fate of the Gell family comes from Joseph Gell himself. In the convict record the scribe notes Joseph’s lament: “I know nothing of my family. My father forsook me when I was young”. This comment appears to have been made in Hobart in 1837, when Joseph was eighteen. Note that Samuel Gell Sr was forty in 1831. He had endured decades of manual labour in the worst conditions of the Industrial Revolution. Brass foundries were highly toxic environments due to metal fumes, which cause neurological and pulmonary damage. A recession also stalked the land.
Joseph Gell: Summary of Convict Record
Convicted of larceny at Warwick Assizes, 1833. Sentence: whipped. Aged 13. 1834: Three months imprisonment for theft of a loaf.
The Leamington Spa Courier of 6th July 1833 reported on the Nisi Prius Court at Warwick Midsummer Assizes, which sat on 2nd July:
“Joseph Gell was convicted of stealing one cap, the property of Charles Gillam (shopkeeper). The prisoner, with two other lads, was standing on Temple Street. On the morning of the robbery (the three boys were observed by police officer Hipkiss). Hipkiss “then apprehended the prisoner, with a new cap on his head, which he stoutly asserted he had bought.”
Hipkiss told Gell he would be taken to Gillam’s shop to confirm this, upon which Gell changed his story, saying that another boy had stolen it and given it to him.
1835: Convicted of larceny (theft of beef) at Warwick Assizes General Sessions, on 17th March. Aged 15. 7 years transportation.
Prison Hulk Records
Estimated Birth Year
24 Apr 1835
17 Mar 1835
Colonial Convict Summary
15th January 1836. Incarcerated in the prison hulk Euryalus at Chatham, after a period in Newgate Prison. Transported on the Elphinstone to Van Diemen’s Land. 24th May 1836. Arrived Hobart: Oct. 1836.
Conduct Record and descriptions: CON31/1/16, CON23/1/2)
Joseph Gell (no. 1154), age 16 (1836), height 4’7”, Native Place; Birmingham, “Tailor’s boy”, Ship Surgeon’s report “always most superior…amiable boy”.
1837: sentence extended by two years for larceny from his master Mr. Henry of “17 Figs” and two bundles of cigars. 1838, twelve lashes for insolence and disobedience; 1839, nine months hard labour for larceny under £5; 1839, 25 lashes for neglect of duty; 12th Feb, 1841, larceny in Perth, sentence extended 12 months, assigned to Green Ponds. 1842, “misconduct in being out after hours and creating a disturbance- 4 days.”
Convict Muster 1844
Joseph Gell worked for A.F. Kemp, farm at Cross Marsh, near Lake Sorell. Nearest town: Oatlands. (presumably the A.F. Kemp who was Attorney-General of Tasmania) (NAME INDEXES:1394736) Final convict record for Joseph Gell: 16/4/1845. “Certificate” (ticket of leave), granted February 1844.
Note stating “Hobart, 4th March 1837” (presumably the date of his arrival in Tasmania)
Postal address given as “Morven P.O.”, 12th Feb. 1841. (Morven was near Evandale, just south of Launceston)
Joseph Gell in Victoria
Joseph Gell’s Ticket of Leave was granted on 7th February 1844. He is most likely to be the Joseph Gell for whom unclaimed letters were listed in the Geelong Advertiser in October and November 1844. It would have taken the penniless ex-convict some years to acquire the means and contacts to establish himself in Geelong. Joseph married the nineteen year old Johanna Einsporn in 1851 in Geelong. It was a fruitful union.
Johanna Marie Elizabeth Einsporn (21st May 1832–1909). Born at Schmollen, Prussia. Arrived Australia 1849.
Married Joseph Gell at the Presbyterian Church, Geelong, 5th May 1851
Mary Ann (1853–1855)
Elizabeth Jane (1858–1914)
Frederick Samuel (1861–1920)
Charles Henry (1863–1863)
William Edward (1865–1939)
Anna Marie Ernestine (1867–1868)
Arthur Edmund (1870–1871)
Emily Louisa (1874–1952)
Florence May (1877–1936)
In the 1850s the Gell family lived in Ashby, now part of Geelong West, then at 9 Noble St.,Chilwell (Newtown, Geelong) in the early 1860s, moving to Germantown (now Grovedale, name change 1915 due to WWI) in the late 1860s, just south of the Barwon River on the Torquay road.
Joseph Gell, Storekeeper: Yankee Notions
Joseph Gell became well-known in Geelong as a storekeeper. The tailor’s boy left his drapery shop to his tailor son Joseph (1854–1917) on his death in 1886. Joseph Sr. in fact had a varied, not to say chequered, career as a storekeeper. To establish a business required capital, and this presumably came from Joseph’s shearing and other rural labour, skills he learned as a convict on Tasmanian farms. He most likely arrived in Geelong late in 1844. Established in 1836, Geelong was a modest town of less than 2000 population in 1844. But the rich plains nearby already supported prosperous graziers always in need of skilled labour. In 1852, Joseph Gell is recorded as working as a shearer. The Geelong Advertiser (GA) of 27th June 1853 reported that Gell appeared as a witness in a sheep-branding case. Gell stated that he was shearing for McVean in the previous year.
On 6th January 1859, the GA noted an indenture between Joseph Gell of Ashby, storekeeper, and various creditors. By October, Gill, of Moorabool Street (town centre) was in the Insolvency Court (GA 21 and 26 October), but was discharged from bankruptcy by the end of December (GA, 23rd Dec. 1859).
The “dissolution of partnership between Joseph Gell and Wm Andrews, storekeepers trading as Gell and Andrews”, was announced in the GA on 8th August 1861.
In 1862, Joseph Gell is listed as a “grocer and tobacconist” (GA, 21st June).
In the GA of 29th January 1863, Gell’s tailor/draper’s business moves to Chilwell (now Newtown, Geelong):
“JOSEPH GELL respectfully announces to his town and up-country friends that
he has removed to the premises known as the Yankee Notions Store, No. 9 Noble Street, Chilwell.”
The Yankee Notions Store soon succumbed. Ducker and Co. of Newtown advertised an “auction at demand of creditors of Joseph Gell: general grocery stores and provisions, washing machines, scales etc.” (GA, 22nd January 1864)
Perhaps general merchandise was not tailor Gell’s forte. Economic conditions were difficult. Geelong was by the 1860s stagnant again. It remained so for many decades, earning the sobriquet “sleepy hollow”.
1879 saw Gell’s final bankruptcy. All assets of Joseph Gell, “trading as J. Gell and Co.” of Geelong, were signed over to Robert Reid the Trustee to pay his creditors. (GA, 24th May 1879.)
Joseph Gell may have had a patchy career as a storekeeper, but on his death in 1886 he left the shop and a respectable estate of £978 to his heirs, about $A 230,000 in inflation-adjusted value. The desperate convict food-thief had prospered:
“JOSEPH GELL the Elder, late of Geelong, In the Colony of Victoria, Tailor, Deceased –Notice is hereby given, that after the expiration of fourteen days from the publication hereof application will be made to this honourable Court that PROBATE of the WILL of the above-named deceased may be granted to William Bradley, of Geelong, in the said colony, house decorator, and Joseph Gell, of Geelong aforesaid, tailor, the executor thereof.
Dated this 17th day of December, 1886
J. LONGVILLE PRICE, Yarra street. Geelong, proctor for the said executors” (GA, 18th December 1886)
The Reverend Gill’s Family in England
The superbly named Exeter Flying Post of 10th April 1817 reported that Samuel Gill, Baptist minister, married Miss Winifred Oke (1786–1840) at Redruth, Cornwall on 9th April 1817. Both were described as “of that place”, i.e. Redruth.
The Reverend Shufflebotham officiated.
The Gills had five children in England: Samuel Thomas, the future artist (1818–1880), John Ryland (1821–1892), William Carey (1822–1833), Mary Winifred (1823–1840) and Robert Richard (1825–1833).
The family can be placed in the following locations prior to the surviving members’ departure from England in 1839:
1817: Redruth, Cornwall. 1818: Somerset; 1821 and 1822: Swansea, Glamorgan. 1823: Penzance, Cornwall. 1825: Devonport (Plymouth Dock), Devon. 1833–39: Plymouth, Devon.
Samuel Thomas Gill was educated firstly at his father’s school in Plymouth and then at Dr. Seabrook’s Academy, also in Plymouth.
The Gill family boarded the emigrant ship Caroline in Plymouth. A most convenient departure point.
S.T. Gill: Convict Forger or Not?
No connection whatever between the Gill family and Birmingham has been established by Babette Smith. On the contrary, the Gills were busy in Plymouth in the relevant years before the arrest of Samuel Gell in Birmingham in 1831. Given that the Rev. Gill was well-established in Plymouth and the South West generally, and no doubt had many connections with local lawyers if either or both S.T. Gill’s parents wished to advance their son in a legal career. Why export their son to the perils of distant, industrial Birmingham, devoid of family support?
Art was another matter entirely. The Rev. Gill was a competent amateur artist and teacher, but his precocious son soon outgrew Dr. Seabrook’s Academy. Hence S.T. Gill’s departure for Hubard’s Profile Gallery in London, probably around 1834.
Hubard’s Gallery was a remarkable enterprise, well recorded on the Profiles of the Past website by a dedicated research group. The bizarre “gallery” moved around Britain and the world, but by the 1830s was sedately based at 109 The Strand, London, an ideal place for a budding artist. Here, Gill honed his skills in the art of the silhouette, then a popular, affordable form of portraiture. Gill was:
“…employed as draughtsman and watercolour artist, he would have been one of the artists who drew in, on the reverse of the paper, the details of clothing and hair to be shown on the finished silhouette. It is uncertain whether he was responsible for any of the bronzing on some of the examples. He certainly painted some of the coloured examples of the gallery’s work, and possibly the illustrated profile which is entirely embellished with Chinese white.” (Profiles of the Past website)
The Hubard Gallery ethos stressed rapid portraiture of the common people. This marked Gill’s entire illustrious Australian career.
Since Babette Smith believes S.T. Gill was a convict from 1831, she also believes Gill never worked at the Hubard Gallery. Another family ruse to throw colonial authorities off the convict scent.
What’s in a Name? Samuel Gell, aka Gill
Smith asserts that she had investigated the name contradiction:
“I followed through the Gell/Gill to make sure they were the same person. Definitely are. Other docs confirmed it.” (email to author)
But no evidence was provided.
There is one intriguing anomaly in the saga of the names: Samuel Gell’s Conduct Record. The name “Gill” is writ large. But the name has very likely been altered from “Gell”. The copperplate ink script of the period is constructed in a specific manner. The “i” is a fine upstroke overlaid by a thicker downstroke. The dot is a stab to the right above the “i”. Lower case “e” is formed in a single stroke in a loop, with the lower line of the loop drawn first. This pattern transcends individual hands. Dozens of examples in the same volume have been compared. Four examples of Gill and Gell are shown below. The altered example has the loop of the “e” filled in, and a laboured circular dot above the renovated “i”:
There is no need to point out to the reader the deviant example…
We can only speculate about why and when this was done. It may even have been at the instigation of Samuel Gell, asking the scribe to “correct” the record to confuse authorities in the event of his next escape…
If Samuel Thomas Gill was in fact Samuel Gell, then at his death at the age of sixty-two in 1880 he would have been around 5’1” tall, allowing for the usual loss of height through age of say, ¾”. But newspaper reports state S.T. Gill was “medium height”. In 1880 that suggests approximately 5’ 7”. Having dropped dead on the steps of the Melbourne GPO, an autopsy was performed on the unknown deceased. Gill’s height was recorded as 5’8” (Grishin, 2015, p. 16). Samuel Gell was 5’ 1 ¾” at age twenty-six.
There is no doubt that this needless controversy has been extended by the failure of Babette Smith to provide essential data. Considerable time was wasted by this writer pursuing the yet another Samuel Gill, who was transported in the same year as Samuel Gell, on the Waterloo. Reporting the death of this Samuel Gill (who died on the voyage) to Smith, she replied that she knew about the Wrong Gill, and also that “her Gill” was listed at times as Gell. Having earlier listened to the podcast of Smith’s Sydney paper, I asked why she had not mentioned Gell’s ship, the Lord Lyndoch. Convicts are always identified by their ship. She replied “For my own reasons”.
Having made it clear to Smith that evidence appeared to show that the convict she identified as “S.T. Gill” was Samuel Gell, I received the following:
“I need to know the crime of the Samuel Gell you’ve been following. Can you tell me that?
Documents about the man I’m following after his arrival in NSW make it plain that he was using the name Gill throughout his time in the penal system. That doesn’t tie in with what you’re telling me you’ve found.”
Consequently I sent Smith all my research to that point.
Her answer was: “I’ve taken a close look at it and have concluded however that it does not undermine my argument.”
“The Gill I’m following was the son of a gentleman. He was working for a solicitor when he forged a cheque. He worked as a clerk in Australia.
His age consistently matches STG.
The convict’s physical description includes a feature that appears to match that of the artist although I’m going to take some expert advice on that.
I have documentary sources that prove his early paintings are of convict farm labourers of whom there were none, certainly not a team of them, in South Australia. Only a few bullockys or drovers who accompanied their masters.
As I may have mentioned I’m currently investigating information that may prove that elusive family link despite obstruction from art historians and unco-operative family members.”
Smith also claims that “my Gill was variously Gell and Gill in England. On the hulk he is listed twice, once for each spelling. Once he arrives in Australia he is consistently Gill.”
This is simply incorrect. The English court, press and other records have Gell, with one or two exceptions, and in Australia he is not “consistently” Gill. Researcher Ian Dodd examined original Norfolk Island lists and found him twice, once as Gell and once as Gill. With some records yet to be revealed by Smith, Gell still has a handy lead. Not that it matters.
Smith expresses a common misconception about class in the earlier 19thC: that literacy and other attributes of gentility were confined to the middle and upper classes. In Dickensian Britain there was room for ambitious parents to school their children, and for the fortunate to enter clerical professions. With luck, assiduity and a high death rate, a brass founder’s son could even become a gentleman. Joseph Gell became a pillar of Geelong society, if a slightly rickety one. Perhaps never quite a gentleman, but colonial society usually cut more slack than its British parent. Samuel Gell was a hardened, brutalised convict, but he too may have climbed the status ladder.
In a final Dickensian irony, the talented gentleman S.T. Gill, still painting to the end, died alone and poor, a notorious alcoholic. He was convicted in Melbourne of passing a gambling token masquerading as a sovereign in the year before his death:
“…the prisoner came into the hotel with two other men and called for some brandy, for which he tendered…a coin which had the appearance of a sovereign. Change was given to him, but subsequently Mr. Dillon (publican), found he had cashed a metal counter having the words “Keep your temper” embossed on one side, and on the reverse a man on horseback which somewhat resembled the familiar St. George and the dragon found on the genuine coin. Mr Dillon promptly called a policeman…Gill, on being questioned at the watchhouse, was found to have in his possession seven more of the spurious counters…He sought to make it appear he had procured the counters for the amusement of his children, and that he had inadvertently tendered one in payment, while he also asserted he had not received any change. The Bench were not able to accept his version of the affair, and Mr Panton (Magistrate), while expressing his regret at seeing a man of such respectable antecedents occupying so humiliating a position to one month’s imprisonment, with hard labour.”(Argus, 16th May 1879)
This was a lenient sentence for a serious crime which could have earned transportation in Britain a few decades earlier. Age, reputation and status as a gentleman earned S.T. Gill the mercy denied to the juvenile Gell.
Contrary to his evidence in court, Gill had no children.
The chances are that Joseph and Samuel Gell, the former a free man in 1844, planned Samuel’s escape together. There is no evidence at all that Samuel Gell drowned at sea. Joseph was almost certainly in Geelong in late 1844. Samuel would have used a false name once outside the confines of Tasmania. Let the real research begin…
The futile attempt to merge S.T. Gill and Samuel Gell is rooted in a failure of method. To challenge identity, genealogy must be established first. Gell was ignored. The result here is that both men are traduced. S.T. Gill and his upright Baptist father did not weave a web of lies to cover convict shame, and the remarkable story of the intrepid Samuel Gell is reduced to rubble.
We owe it to Gill and Gell to preserve their real identities.
For an up to date illustrated biography of S.T. Gill, see S.T. Gill and his Audiences, by Prof. Sasha Grishin. National Library of Australia, 2015.
The National Library of Australia in conjunction with the State Library of Victoria is currently holding an important exhibition of S.T. Gill’s work. Open until 16th October 2016:
One benefit of the S.T. Gill “controversy” is that careful attention is paid to details usually overlooked. David Coombe of Canberra is examining the early Gill in Adelaide. Dating buildings in Hindley St Adelaide, subject of Gill’s well-known watercolour dated 1845, suggests that although the picture may have been finished in 1845, addresses and signs indicate preparatory sketches date from 1844. Too early for a convict Gill: “ It’s likely the scene was painted after the substantial completion of the new white stone Auction Mart front, but given the dating of the other subjects, it seems the scene was first captured before then”, writes Coombe. Coombe also identified the location of District B in the 1841 SA census.