Alonzo Johnson, Strolling Player

NOTE: The following history of Alonzo Johnson is compiled from newspaper accounts and archive records. He was convicted and transported for committing an unnatural crime in 1844 in Newcastle, but his 'criminal' career began at least as early as 1838, when he was charged with theft, followed by several larceny convictions thereafter. The very interesting feature of the case is that his occupation was that of a "stolling player", that is, a travelling or itinerant actor – when he was transported to Australia his trade was given as that of "Comedian". At one point, shortly before his arrest, he was said to have gone about town dressed in women's clothes. The other interesting feature of the case is that while he was serving his sentence in the penal colony in Tasmania, he was again charged with inciting another convict to the commmission of an unnatural act, for which he was sentenced to nine months' hard labour in chains. Clearly he was a man not to be defeated by the legal system. This is also the story of his consenting partner, a painter one year younger than he. The two men were caught while sharing a room in a lodging house, so their relationship was more than just a one-night stand.

9 June 1838

Monday, June 4.
CHARGE OF FELONY. – Alonzo Johnson was brought up on a charge of having, on Saturday night, pulled a bell knob out of the door of the Odd-Fellows' Hall. This case was postponed till a future day. (Westmorland Gazette)

16 June 1838

Tuesday, June 12.
A STROLLING "BEGGAR'S OPERA." – Alonzo Johnson, a young man, not apparelled in the first style of fashionable elegance, was brought up in the custody of a police constable, on a charge of feloniously stealing from Nelson's Tavern, Highgate, a bell pull with a brass-ring handle.
          Mr. Hogarth, the innkeeper, stated that about eleven o'clock on Whit-Saturday, whilst he had a large company in the front room, William Bell, a labourer, came to inform him that a person of the description of Johnson had taken the bell-pull away. Mr. Hogarth, upon going into the room, found that it was not there, and gave information to police-constable Armstrong, who went with him and found the prisoner in one Thompson's who keeps a lodging-house in Copper Lane. Mr. Hogarth charged the prisoner with having the bell-pull; he did not deny having it, and took it out of his pocket, saying that another person had given it to him. Armstrong then took him into custody. Mr. Hogarth valued the vell-pull at 5s., a sum, he said, below its intrinsic worth.
          Upon being interrogated, Alonzo Johnson said he was about 18 years of age; that his parents, who were both dead, had been tragedians, and that he had followed that profession himself. He had been with a Mr. Jones' company in Newcastle, in February, since which time he had been in Carlisle, seeking employment, and from the latter place he had come here. On Whitsun Saturday he went into the room in which the company were in the Nelson Tavern; they asked him to sing a song, but as he could not sing he spoke a piece from George Barnwell
[a character in the 18th-century tragedy The London Merchant.]
          William Bell, labourer, son of Adam Bell, Kendal, said he saw the prisoner with the bell-pull round his arm the handle of which he used as a quizzing glass; shortly after the prisoner went out, another person came and told witness that the bell-pull was missing, when the latter said he supposed that the prisoner was the thief. Witness then informed Mr. Hogarth of the circumstance.
          The prisoner having no question to put, Mr. Hogart, Bell, and constable Armstrong were bound over to prosecute at the ensuing Quarter Sessions of the peace, till which time the prisoner was committed to the House of Correction. (Westmorland Gazette)

14 July 1838

          ALONZO JOHNSON, aged 17, was found guilty of stealing a bell pull at Kendal, and sentenced to one calendar month's imprisonment, with hard labour. (Carlisle Patriot)

Alonzo's one-month imprisonment for larceny in 1838 after conviction at the County Sessions 6th July, is confirmed by the Westmorland Register of all Persons charged with Indictable Offences at the Assizes and Sessions held within the County during the Year 1838. It states his age as 17 (meaning he was born in 1821), and says his knowledge of reading and writing is Imperfect. [TNA/CCC/HO27/01215939.]

3 June 1843

TUESDAY [May 30]
LARCENY. – Alonzo Johnson, an old police customer, was brought up by Mr Grossmith and P.C. Furness, charged with stealing in the house of Thomas Simpson, in the Wool Pack Yard, Kendal, a quantity of wearing apparel, which the officer found in his possession. – Remanded till Friday. (Kendal Mercury)

1 July 1843

WESTMORLAND GENERAL QUARTER SESSIONS. – . . . Alonzo Johnson (22) stood charged with stealing a black silk cloak from Elizabeth Simpson of Kendal. . . . (Westmorland Gazette)

8 July 1843

Alonzo Johnson (22) stood charged with stealing a black silk cloak from Elizabeth Simpson of Kendal. Pleaded guilty. Sentenced to six calendar months' imprisonment, with hard labour. (Westmorland Gazette)

8 July 1843

ALONZO JOHNSON (aged 22, reads and writes imperfectly) pleaded guilty to having on the 29th May last, stolen from the premises of thomas Simpson, of Kendal, one black silk cloak, and one linen apron, and was sentenced to six months' imprisonment. (Carlisle Journal)

Alonzo's conviction for larceny in the County Sessions for 30th June 1843 and sentence of 6 months is confirmed by the Westmorland Register of all Persons charged with Indictable Offences at the Assizes and Sessions held within the County during the year 1843. It gives his age as 23. And says he was "before convicted of felony". [TNA/CCC/HO27/01344390.]

Saturday 23 March 1844

Two men, one named Alonzo Johnson, who states that he belongs [to] Leicester, and who has been going about the town some weeks dressed in women's clothes, and the other, named David Denham, the son, it is said, of a painter in this town [Newcastle], were yesterday committed for trial at the Assizes, on a charge of sodomy. (Newcastle Journal)

Friday 29 March 1844

Committed. – Alonzo Johnson and David Denham, the former a strolling player, and the latter a painter, living in this town [Newcastle], were brought up in custody of P. Cs. 42 and 125, charged with having committed an unnatural crime, on the night of Thursday, or early on Friday morning, in the house of Andrew Collins, Burnt-house entry, Side. They were first discovered by a brother-in-law of Collins, who was sleeping in the same room with the prisoners, and he immediately informed the police, who took them into custody. Mr Maxon, surgeon, was immediately sent for, and he stated he had no doubt whatever that they were both guilty of the charge. They were committed to take their trial at the assizes. (Newcastle Courant)

26 July 1844

The commissions of assize for Northumberland and Newcastle will be opened on Wednesday next. . . . The following is a list of prisoners for trial in this town:– . . . David Denham, for an unnatural crime; Alonzo Johnson, for an unnatural crime; . . . (Newcastle Courant)

Saturday 3 August 1844

ALONZO JOHNSON was charged with having, on the 21st of March, at a lodging-house in the Burnt-house Entry, Side, Newcastlle, made an assault upon David Denham, and carnally knew him in an indecent manner; and DAVID DENHAM was charged with assisting him in the commission of the offence. The evidence was of precisely such a character as might have been expected. Up to that of the surgeon, it was scarcely likely to produce conviction; but Mr. Mason, surgeon to the police-force, spoke positively to his conviction that both parties had held unnatural intercourse with each other. Mr. Granger defended Denham. The learned Judge very carefully examined and commented on the evidence – the case involving, as his Lordship said, the lives of the prisoners. The Jury retired a few minutes before four, and after an absence of half an hour returned a verdict of Guilty against both prisoners, against whom judgment of death was recorded. (Newcastle Journal)

A royal official wrote to the Lord Chief Baron to confirm that Her Majesty Queen Victoria has trasmuted the sentence on Alonzo and his partner [Correspondence and Warrants, HO13, 85, p. 116]:

The Lord Chief Baron
                    22 Aug. 1844
My Lord
Now having certified to the Queen that at the Gaol delivery holden in & for the Town and City of Newcastle upon Tyne on the 31 day of July last, David Denham & Alonzo Johnson were convicted before you of Sodomy & severally [i.e. seperately] rec'd Judgement of Death for the same. And having humbly recommended them to H. M. [Her Majesty] as fit objects of the Royal Mercy, on condition of their being transported beyond the seas for the term of their respective natural lives. Her Majesty has therefore been Graciously pleased to extend the Royal Mercy to the said David Denham & Alonzo Johnson on the said condition, & has commanded me to so signify the same to you, that you may give the necessary directions accordingly.
I am etc.
J.R.G. Graham
[Prison Registers, Correspondence and Warrants, HO13, piece 85, page no. 116. TNA/CCC/2A/HO13/00203280]

Saturday 7 September 1844

The sentence of death, as recorded at our last assizes, against Alonzo Johnson and David Denham, for being found guilty of unnatural crimes, has been commuted to transportation for life. (Newcastle Journal)

Saturday 14 September 1844

During this week, Mr. Thompson, governor of the gaol, has received intelligence that her Majesty has been graciously pleased to commute the sentence of death, as recorded at our last assizes against Alonzo Johnson and David Denham, to transportation for life. (Carlisle Journal)

Notice that Johnson and Denham were to be removed from Newcastle Prison and transferred to Millbank Prison (to await transportation) took place on 4 September 1844. [Correspondence and Warrants, HO13, piece 85, page 152. TNA/CCC/2A/HO13/00203580].

According to the Millbank Prison Registers [Male Prisoners, Volume 1, HO24, 1], Alonzo Johnson and David Denham were received at Millbank Prison on 23 September 1844, from Newcastle upon Tyne Gaol, and were put into the same cell, 2.D.B. Denham was said to be age 22, and Johnson was said to be age 20 (I think the prison registrar got the ages wrong for both men; Johnson was about 24 and Denham was about 23). Both were convicted of Sodomy at Newcastle upon Tyne Assizes on 31 July 1844, and sentenced to be transported for life. Denham was described as a Painter and Glazier. This was his "First conviction; previous character good, not steady or industrious; deficient in intelligence and religious information." Johnson was described as a "Strolling Player". He was "Twice before convicted of Felony; has led a vagrant life from his youth; Temper & feeling good; Intelligence & religious information fair." Both were discharged from Millbank on 11 October 1844 and placed on board the Hyderabad bound for Norfolk Island.

According to his Tasmanian Convict Record [Conduct Record CON33/1/86; Indent CON14/1/29 Page 214; Muster Roll CON13/1/9; additional material from Tasmanian Archives Online,$init=CON33-1-86P110], the ship departed on 21 October 1844 and they arrived at Norfolk Island on 20 February 1845. Johnson was subsequently transferred to Van Dieman's Land on 1 May 1847. The Ship's Surgeon classed his health as "Inoffensive". His marital status was Single. He was said to be Protestant, and could read and write. His trade was given as "Comedian". His place of birth was given as Leicester. He was said to be age 25 at the time, to be five feet, 3 and three-quarter inches tall, to have a fresh complexion, a round head, light hair, light brown whiskers and light eyebrows, a "long" visage, medium forehead, hazel eyes, a long nose, small mouth, and long chin. He had a large scar on his left elbow, and a scar on his left leg. His period of labour was to be three years and eighteen months, and he was assigned the Gang of Norfolk Island Station.

Shortly after his arrival at the penal colony, on 22 April 1845, Johnson was formerly charged with having committed sodomy and placed at the Bar of the Criminal Court of Norfolk Island on 29 May 1845, but the Crown Prosecutor appeared and moved that he should be discharged, so a Proclamation of Discharge was issued. [$init=SC32-1-19P05JPG] Johnson was repeatedly punished for offences committed during his stay in the penal colony. On 3 March 1846 he was charged with bad conduct in neglecting his work. In 1847 he was charged with larceny under £5. In 1850 he was arrested for absconding, for which he was whipped and sentenced to hard labour. Later he was given 14 days' hard labour for being drunk. In September 1852 he absconded again, and was again sentenced to hard labour and to be kept under strict treatment. In August 1852 he was found drunk and given hard labour. In October 1852 he absconded and was given eighteen months' hard labour. In September 1853 he absconded and was again punished. In February 1854 he was found absent from his master's services without leave and reprimanded. In November 1854 he was given six months' hard labour for larceny, and recommended not to be allowed to be hired in the district. In May 1856 he absconded again, and was again given hard labour; in November he was given four months' hard labour for misconduct. In June 1858 he was given six months' hard labour for larceny, but was allowed to serve two months on probation of the sentence. In March 1858 he was again found absent from his authorised master, and punished.

Interestingly, on 4 June 1860 he was charged with "Misconduct in having tried to incite one Thos. Scott to commit an unnatural crime", for which he was sentenced to nine months's hard labour in chains, and "to be kept separate" (this is underlined in the record). In October 1860 he was given an additional 7 days' hard labour for "Indecent language". Finally, he was given a conditional pardon on 12 December 1865 and given his freedom.

According to the Tasmania Settlers and Convicts records, he settled in the Depot, Hobart, New South Wales. But even after his pardon, he continued to get into trouble. On 31 October 1873 he was given two months' hard labour for being idle and disorderly. On 17 September 1874 in Launceston he was given six months for larceny. At Longford, on 21 October 1875 he was given three months' hard labour for being idle and disorderly. Back in Launceston on 22 September 1876 he was given six months' hard labour for larceny. On 23 March 1877 he was given twelve months' hard labour for larceny. On 20 March 1878 he was given two years' hard labour for larceny. In Westbury, on 16 March 1780 he was given three months' hard labour for vagrancy. On 22 June 1880 he was given two years for obtaining goods by false pretences. This pattern suggests that he found it preferable to get himself into prison to having to find a job and accommodation outside of prison.

His name repeatedly appears in the Victoria Police Gazette. For example, in the issue for 11 May 1855 a notice appears to the effect that he absconded from the service of Mr. McVilley, Ross, on the 14th of the previous month, for which a reward of £2 was offered for recapturing him. During the week ending 3 October 1866 he was discharged from the Hobart Town House of Correction after serving a one-month sentence for "indecency" committed on 4 September 1866 In March 1887 he was convicted for "being an idle and disorderly person at Launceston on the 25th March 1887 in wandering abroad and having no visible means of support", and sentenced to three months' imprisonment. During the week ending 12 February 1868 he was discharged after serving a three-months' sentence for "destroying a shrub". On 20 June 1870 he was sentenced to one month for begging. On 5 April 1871 he was sentenced to six months for larceny (his hair at this time was described as "greyish" rather than his former light brown). On 8 February 1872 he was sentenced to six months for being idle and disorderly. On 19 August 1872 he was given one month for larceny. In the week ending 28 September 1872 he was given twelve months for larceny; on this occasion his trade was described as "cook"; he was discharged in the week ending 1 October 1873; his place of residence was now given as Kempton. On 31 October 1873 he was given two months for being idle and disorderly; he is described as "Wears his hair combed down back of his head." He was admitted as a pauper to the Cascades Invalid Depot in Hobart on 10 April 1875, and discharged at his own request on 12 July, making himself available for "light work". During the week ending 25 March 1876 he was given six months for larceny, and it was noted that he had a prior conviction in September 1874. During the week ending 23 September 1876 he was given six months for larceny; it was noted that he had used the name of "Hamlin Holloway". During the week ending 31 March 1877 he was given twelve months for larceny. During the week ending 23 March 1878 he was given two years for "larceny from a church". Then there was a long break before the week ending 13 January 1883, when he was sentenced to twelve months for larceny; his prior convictions are listed as "Many". On 11 August 1884 he was admitted to the Invalid Depot in Launceston as a pauper, and discharged on 22 August 1884. During the week ending 27 Augut 1884 he was given six months for larceny. During the week ending 10 March 1886 he was given one month for being idle and disorderly; he was now 66 years old. During the week ending 11 September 1886 he was given six months for being idle and disorderly. On 6 March 1888 he was admited to the New Town Charitable Instsitute as a pauper, and discharged with a pass on 15 January 1890. Finally his name disappears from the Tasmania Police Gazette, and other records as well.

And what about Johnson's partner, David Denham? According to his Tasmanian Convict Record, David Denham arrived on 20 February 1845 and was transferred to Van Dieman's Land on 8 April 1847. He was single, a Presbyterian, and could read and write. He gave his place of birth as Northumberland. According to the Surgeon's Report he was "Steady – Quiet". His trade was given as that of painter and glazier. He was five feet six inches tall, 24 years old, with a dark complexion, dark hair and whiskers, brown eyebrows, an oval visage, and hazel eyes. He was to be given 30 months' labour, 12 months at hard labour; he was assigned to the Gang at Norfolk Island. He committed only a few offences during his stay in the penal colony. On 3 June 1850 he was given one month hard labour after being found in the bedroom of his master's female servant without authorisation. Later that year he was given seven days of labour after being found absent without leave and drunk. On 23 June 1854 he falsely stated to his master that he was labouring under an illness that incapacitated him from work, for the purpose of getting away, for which he was given six months' hard labour in chains, and ordered not to enter service in the district of Launceston. Finally he was granted a conditional pardon on 28 April 1857. I have been unable to trace him after that date.

The Tasmania Death Registers (Deaths in the District of Hobart, 1892) record the death on 4 June 1892 at the New Town Charitable Institution of a man named Alonzo Johnson, described as having been born in England and being 72 years of age (which would fit with 'our' Alonzo). He is described as a school-master (which I think may have been a mistake, but perhaps he claimed this) and his death being due to Senile Debility. According to the Register of Burials, Johnson was buried in Hobart Public Cemetery on 9 June 1892, the funeral service conducted by Archdeacon Mason at 9.30 in the morning. He was listed as a Pauper [$init=AF70-1-18p241jpg]

SOURCE: Various newspapers, dates as given (some reports were repeated in several newspapers, but I have not included them all); archive records, including Assize records, prison registers, and Tasmanian Convict Records.)
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: I am very grateful to Stephen Wilson for calling my attention to several of the important archive records.

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton (Ed.), "Alonzo Johnson, Strolling Player", Homosexuality in Nineteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, 15 January 2020 <>.

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