The story of Robert Abel provides an interesting insight into the British court system in so far as he was sentenced to transportation for seven years but was not convicted of any crime.

At his Old Bailey Trial in Sept 1784 ‘Robert Abel and William Rellions were indicted for feloniously assaulting William Rough, on the King's Highway, on the 4th day of July last, and putting him in fear and danger of his life, and feloniously taking from his person and against his will, 5 s. in monies numbered, and two copper halfpence, value 1 d. his monies .’

Rellions was apprehended the following Wednesday but Abel was not arrested until about six weeks later.  Nonetheless, Rough testified they were the two men who had robbed him.  While Rellions confessed that ‘I am the lad that did the robbery’, he exonerated Abel, claiming that Rough ‘has sworn to this lad wrongfully’


In his defence Abel testified ‘I know no more of the robbery than the child unborn’, but when asked if he had any friends to provide a character witness, he said ‘I have nobody living but a brother, and he is just come home from sea’.

Although instructed by the Judge, Baron Eyre, to ignore Rellion's testimony as it could be accorded no validity in law, the jury convicted both defendants, and Eyre sentenced both to death.

Both Abel and Rellions were due to be executed on Wednesday 17 November 1784.  Two days before, the Recorder of London, James Adair, requested a stay of execution as there appeared to be doubt as to Abel's guilt, as it ‘depended wholly on the recollection of the prosecutor, Rough, at some distance of time, under circumstances not very favourable to recollection, and confirmed by no circumstances whatever on the trial’.  Midford Young, an undersheriff, reported that Rellions claimed William Collop, not Abel, had been concerned with him in the robbery, a fact confirmed by Collop.


After a strict enquiry, the Undersheriff, together with Reverend Villette, Ordinary of Newgate, confirmed that Rellions and Collop both stated that Abel was innocent, and that ‘the prosecutor [Rough] was a common labourer, living in Gravel Lane, the known haunt of the lowest and worst of the people, swearing under the temptation of sharing a reward of £40 for each prisoner, whom he should be able to convict.  The case as to Abel rests wholly on his evidence not confirmed by any circumstances whatsoever, swearing to a person, at the distance of 6 weeks whom he had never seen but once, in a sudden in the fields, at 10 o’clock at night [although it was a moonlit night] and when he admits that he was much stunned by the first blow he received from Rellions.  He speaks also throughout his evidence, of the persons who robbed him as two men.  Rellions and Collop were stout lads of about 20, but Abel is I[‘m] informed a boy of 17, very slight and low of stature.’

However, the Recorder considered Abel to be ‘a bad boy’, who had ‘connected himself with thieves and pick pockets’.  He therefore did ‘not wish him to be turned loose upon the public’, and suggested that transportation for 7 years would be the best course of action.


On 5 April 1785  Abel was sent to the Ceres hulk and later transferred to the Censor hulk where he remained until 6 January 1787 when he was transferred to the  Alexander on which he travelled to Port Jackson.

At Port Jackson, in February 1788, he had fifteen and a half pounds of flour stolen from the hut he shared with Michael Dennison and William Waterhouse.

On 12 June, 1790 Abel received 200 lashes for stealing sugar from the transport ship Lady Juliana


On 20 February 1794 Abel received a 30 acre land grant at Bulanamming, near Cook River, which he later sold to Thomas Moore.

In 1795 Abel left the Colony on the Endeavour bound for India. The ship sank off New Zealand.  Abel was among those rescued and was taken to Norfolk Island in January 1796. He did not remain on the island and there are no further records of him.


 #5129.1 Don Cornford.

References and Sources

Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.0, 11 March 2014), September 1784, trial of ROBERT ABEL WILLIAM RELLIONS (t17840915-18).

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