James Stone - Wrestler

James Stone 1798 – 1841

Farmer and one time wrestler (My great great grandfather)

JAMES STONE was born at Knowle Farm, Crediton, Devon and baptised at Crediton on the March 28th 1798, the second son of JAMES STONE and ELIZABETH nee FRANCIS. He died July 28th 1841 near Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. He married ANN GIBBINGS on the November 1st 1828 at Coldridge, Crediton, Devon. She was the eldest daughter of RICHARD GIBBINGS and DOROTHY nee LUXTON. She was born at Chilverton Farm, Coldridge and baptised at Coldridge 23rd September 1800. She died July 9th 1874 at Chilverton Farm, Coldridge, Devon as a result of injuries sustained after falling from a carriage.

James was born at Knowle but in 1804 moved to Furzedown farm Copplestone in the parish of Colebrooke with his parents and siblings. This farm had been in the hands of the Stone family for nearly 100 years. As a young man James became a noted wrestler and at that time was generally reckoned to be second only in the Devonshire style of wrestling to his great friend Abraham Cann, who was styled “Champion of all England” in 1828. In the wrestling ring, James was known as “The Little Elephant”, because of his prodigious strength, and although weighing over 13 stone, he was only 5ft- 4in tall. After his marriage in November 1828, it appears James gave up wrestling to concentrate on farming. During his wrestling career, James had visited many parts of the country, travelling as far north as Leeds and wrestling in London at The Eagle Tavern on several occasions. James’s father, James Snr, had died in 1822, leaving Furzedown to James and his mother. Eventually, after his marriage, they sold Furzedown to the neighbouring gentleman and landowner Mr Robert Madge of Copplestone House. They then purchased Hooke Farm from James’s sister Mary and her husband Samuel Hooke, who had severe money problems. This ended the Hooke family connection with the farm which reputedly dated from the 1300s. Hooke farm had formerly been an outlying part of Colebrooke parish but by the early 19th century had become part of Cheriton Bishop parish.

James continued to farm Hooke with his wife and a rapidly expanding family. By 1839 they had produced seven children, (one dying in infancy) and another one on the way. It was about this time that James apparently began to feel his future lay elsewhere. No doubt in his travels he had heard about Australia and the new land settlement schemes which were being put forward.

The legend which has been handed down was that he had been persuaded by John Sillifant of Coombe House, Colebrooke, gentleman, a large landowner in Colebrooke Parish, to take advantage of one of these schemes. However, this now seems unlikely, as Sillifants interests lay mainly in Western Australia around Perth and James Stone’s destination turned out to be Sydney, New South Wales. This story had added credence, because of a novel by Henry Kingsley entitled “The recollections of Geoffrey Hamlyn” published around 1858. (The Hamlyn family had owned the Paschoe estates at Colebrooke since 1611 although no Geoffrey Hamlyn has featured)

This novel set partly in Devon around a village called Drumston, easily identifiable as Colebrooke, and partly in Australia near Sydney. Drumston was the abode of a farmer and accomplished wrestler by the name of James Stockbridge identifiable as James Stone, even mentioning some of the local villages by name. James Stockbridge was persuaded to travel to Australia with some of the local gentry, where he was eventually murdered near Sydney. Henry Kingsley, the author of this novel, was the younger brother of Charles Kingsley and during their youth, they had spent time at the Colebrooke vicarage where the incumbent was an old friend of their father, The Rev Charles Kingsley snr. During the late 1840s, Henry visited Australia and was there at the time of the gold rush c1850. The novel received many plaudits as the first and possibly the best colonial novel dealing with Australia.

However, it now seems likely that during his travels as a wrestler, James may have become acquainted with a certain Samuel Furneaux Mann or his associates. Samuel Mann was of West Country origins, and by 1840 appeared to own or have control over a large area in the New England district to the north of Sydney. He was in constant touch with South West England and would have regular shipments of goods including cider from Plymouth. Samuel provided employment for numerous convicts on his estates, some nearing the end of their terms of transportation or “ticket” as it was known. A man such as James, with his undeniable physical strength and strength of character together with a reputed placid temperament would be an ideal person to supervise the work of these individuals.

It was during the late 1830s James took the decision to move to Australia, and appears to have made arrangements for his wife Ann and the family to follow in due course if all went well. As was customary with gentlemen at that time before making a voyage, James made a will at Plymouth in July 1840, probably shortly before embarking. As there appears to be no trace of James on the regular passenger ships of that time, it is possible he may have sailed with one of Samuel Mann’s shipments. The following spring he was to be found working as a sheep/cattle station manager for Samuel Mann to the north of Sydney.

Before he left, he had taken a short term tenancy on Wilson Farm which adjoined Hooke Farm and was owned by John Sillifant.(which may have been where the Sillifant connection originated). It was here that he left his wife Ann and family when he sailed for Australia. James’s brother Robert Stone of Crediton, a well-known shop keeper and local tax collector had been made the trustee of the Hooke estate.

Presumably, this had been arranged prior to the farm being sold when Ann and the family would eventually follow James to Australia.

Unfortunately, this event was never to take place. Late in 1841, Ann received a letter from John Sillifant informing her that James had been murdered during July “somewhere north of Sydney.”

Taken from The Australasian Chronicle a Sydney newspaper which was in circulation from 1839-1843 August 12th 1841

A very shocking murder was committed at Beardy Plains, New England, at the station of Mr.S. F. Mann, of George-street, Sydney, on July 28th. It appears that Mr Mann’s overseer, a man named James Stone, a native of Devonshire (and one of the celebrated wrestlers of that county), took one of the government men, named Homer, belonging to the station, to Scone, to be punished for some misconduct of which he had been guilty. Sometime after his return Moles entered the but in which Stone was, with a loaded musket in his hand, and instantly shot him dead. The murderer was immediately secured. The commission of this diabolical act has created a great sensation in this neighbourhood, as the unfortunate man Stone was much respected, and had a most exemplary character. He had a wife and a large family in England.

From the Sydney Gazette March 17th 1842

Maitland Assizes New South Wales Thursday, March 10th 1842 Before His Honour Mr Justice Burton and a jury. Mr Purefoy, at His Honours request, conducted the prisoner’s defence.

Thomas Homer assigned to Mr Samuel Furneaux Mann of Sydney was indicted for the murder of Mr James Stone, the superintendent overseer of Mr Mann’s station, at New England, by shooting him in the thigh on July 28th last.

From the evidence it appeared, that on the day named in the indictment, the prisoner was seen going towards the hut occupied by the deceased, having a gun in his hand; that a report was heard shortly afterwards, and on some person proceeding to the hut, Mr Stone was found bleeding profusely from the thigh. The prisoner afterwards exhibited considerable signs of sorrow, and on being questioned about the deed, said that “the devil had tempted him to the act”; that Stone had threatened to take him to court to prevent him (the prisoner ) obtaining his ticket of leave, for which he was due, having served eight years on that station. Four or five days afterwards, when he was in custody, the prisoner made a statement, saying that the gun was a bad one, and went off at half-cock by accident, while the deceased was in the act of pushing him out of the hut; but having thrown the gun in a water-hole, it could not be produced in corroboration of his assertion.

His Honour summed up, leaving it to the jury to decide whether the gun was discharged wilfully or not; contrasting the statements made by the prisoner himself, first that the devil had tempted him to it, and then four or five days afterwards that it was accidental.

The jury, after a brief deliberation, returned a verdict of “Guilty of wilful murder."

His Honour Mr Justice Burton immediately passed the sentence of death upon the prisoner, intimating there were no hopes of mercy for him.

From The Sydney Gazette Tuesday, April 14th 1842, this brief notice.

The execution took place on Tuesday, April 5th of the wretched man Thomas Homer. He had been convicted at the Maitland Assizes before His Honour Mr Justice Burton of the murder of Mr James Stone and paid the penalty of his crime at Newcastle Gaol. The unhappy criminal fully confessed his guilt, previous to his execution.

Because of the distance involved probate of James’s will was not obtained until 1853.

Meanwhile, after receiving the news of James’s death, Ann returned to Hooke Farm and continued farming there until the marriage of her eldest son James in 1861 to local farmers daughter Charity Ann Stoneman. The young couple then began to farm Hooke, and Ann returned “home” to Lower Chilverton Farm, Coldridge, where she acted as housekeeper for her two unmarried brothers Richard and Samuel Gibbings.

Ann died from a fracture of the skull after being accidentally thrown from a carriage at Lower Chilverton, Coldridge. She is buried in Coldridge churchyard and is remembered thus on the headstone of her brother Samuel who died some 20 years later in 1891.

_“Ann Stone sister of the above who died July 9th 1874, aged 74 years."

By Neville P. Enderson
© Neville P. Enderson