Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Tucker, James (1808–1888)

by Peter Scott

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

James Tucker (1808-1888?), convict and supposed author, was born in Bristol, England. Although one theory has him educated as a Catholic at Stonyhurst College, Lancashire, the James Tucker enrolled at that school in 1814-21 is recorded as having been born on 8 August 1803. The first indisputable reference to James Tucker is in 1826, when at 18 he was charged with sending a threatening letter to a cousin, James Stanyford Tucker, of Leytonstone, Essex. Under the name James Rosenberg Tucker, clerk, he was tried at the Essex Assizes on 3 March 1826, found guilty, and sentenced to transportation for life. He arrived at Sydney in the Midas in February 1827, and was sent next month to the Emu Plains Agricultural Establishment. By 1831 he was one of the prisoners attached to the Department of Public Works and in 1832-39 was employed in the Colonial Architect's Office. His ticket-of-leave, recommended by the Sydney bench of magistrates in 1833 and issued on 27 June 1835, was suspended in 1839 after he was convicted of drunkenness. However, in recognition of his efforts at a fire at the Royal Hotel in March 1840 he was again recommended for a ticket-of-leave, which was made out on 1 September 1840 for the district of Maitland. He lost it in 1844 when he was convicted of forgery. Sentenced to work in irons for a year, he was transferred to the penal settlement of Port Macquarie, where by September 1846 he was employed as a store-keeper to the superintendent.

Tucker is alleged to have written at Port Macquarie three works: 'Jemmy Green in Australia', a comedy in three acts; 'The Grahames' Vengeance', a historical drama in three acts by 'Otto von Rosenberg'; and 'Ralph Rashleigh or the Life of an Exile', by 'Giacomo di Rosenberg', the advertisement of which was dated 31 December 1845. The manuscripts of these works were first noticed publicly in the Sydney Morning Herald, 9 April 1892, the author being described as 'a convict, an architect by profession … who had been transported for forgery'. They had apparently been bequeathed by the author to Alexander Burnett, who had been overseer in the Road Department and 1838-41 clerk of works under the colonial architect, and who had them for some thirty years before his death in 1885. First published in 1929, Ralph Rashleigh was re-edited in 1952 by Colin Roderick, whose claim for Tucker's authorship has not been conclusively proved. The case for Tucker rests on internal evidence (the manuscripts are in Tucker's hand and the alias of Rosenberg is one he had used in 1826) and on the testimony of a resident of Port Macquarie, Charles Edwin Dick (1875-1953), who had in his youth heard of Tucker's activities from ex-convicts still living there (three other plays were named) and who had in 1889 perused the manuscripts of two other prose works. However, it had also been claimed that Tucker was merely a copyist of works originally composed by another and that the level of education required of the author of Ralph Rashleigh is not to be found in other examples of Tucker's hand, such as the blackmailing letter of 1826 and official Port Macquarie papers of 1846. Until further evidence is produced, the question of authorship is likely to remain in dispute.

In 1847 Tucker was granted a ticket-of-leave for the district of Port Macquarie, but in 1849 was arrested for absence from his district and sent to prison at Goulburn. Tickets-of-leave were again issued to him on 18 March 1850 and for Moreton Bay on 30 January 1853. After this date Tucker is not mentioned in convict records and his movements are not easily traced. It has been asserted that he was the James Tucker who died at Liverpool Asylum on 11 June 1866 aged 72; however, this man has been identified as a free assisted immigrant, who arrived in the Edward Coulson in November 1833. Another James Tucker, native of Bristol, who died at Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney, on 20 December 1888, apparently aged 84, had married Louisa Binks at St Laurence Church of England, Sydney, on 19 January 1853 and had at least two children: Valentine Kelso, born at Kelso on 2 November 1858 and Fanny, born at Sydney on 2 August 1864. When registering the birth of his son in 1858 Tucker gave his birthplace as Bristol and age as 49; these details coincide with those of the convict James Tucker.

Though their authorship remains in doubt, the works attributed to Tucker occupy a significant place in the history of Australian literature. In particular Ralph Rashleigh, the fruit of a creative talent of high order, is of considerable importance both for its intrinsic literary merit and for its value as a social document.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Roderick (ed), Ralph Rashleigh (Syd, 1952 and 1962)
  • C. Roderick (ed), Jemmy Green in Australia (Syd, 1955)
  • M. H. Ellis, ‘Who wrote “Ralph Rashleigh”?’, Bulletin, 9 Feb 1963.

Citation details

Peter Scott, 'Tucker, James (1808–1888)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/tucker-james-2746/text3885, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 20 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Rosenburg, Otto von
  • Rosenburg, Giacomo di
Birth

1808
Bristol, Gloucestershire, England

Death

20 December 1888
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Occupation