John Arscott was a carpenter and a native of Truro, Cornwall, England, being baptised on 22 March 1767, as the probable son of Samuel Arscott and Mary Barnes. John was sentenced at Bodmin Assizes Cornwall, on 18 August 1783 to seven years’ transportation to America, for three crimes: (a) For burglariously breaking and entering the dwelling house of Philip Polkinghorne about 1 in the night and stealing 2 silver watches value 40s. (b) For burglariously breaking and entering the dwelling house of George Thomas about 1 in the night and stealing 30 pounds weight of tobacco value 30s. (c) For burglariously breaking and entering the dwelling house of George Thomas about 1 in the night and stealing 15 pounds weight of tobacco value 15s and other goods value 4s. The first two charges: Guilty of stealing the goods not guilty of breaking and entering the house in the night. Third charge: Not guilty no prosecution. John was aged 17 when received on the Dunkirk hulk, where he behaved tolerably well. On 11 March 1787 he was discharged to Charlotte and transferred to Scarborough at Portsmouth on 6 April.
Following the Fleets’ arrival, John was in demand for his carpentry skills. He also found time to erect and furnish a comfortable hut for himself. One mark against is name occurred on 10 June 1788 with an entry in John White’s journal: John Ascott and Patrick Burn, two convicts were brought before the criminal court and prosecuted by Lieutenant G William Maxwell of the ‘Sirius’, and Mr Kelter, the Master of the same ship, for having, a few nights before, in a riotous manner, with many more of the convicts, attacked some seamen belonging to the men of war, and behaving in an insolent and contemptuous manner to them. After a long and judicious hearing, the prisoners were acquitted, as the charge brought against them was by no means substantiated.
John was amongst other convicts and marines transferred to Norfolk Island in March 1790 because of the shortage of supplies in the settlement. After a stormy passage the Supply and Sirius arrived at the Island but could not land in Sydney Bay, adjacent to the settlement. Captain Hunter sailed around to Cascade Bay on the northeast side of the island, where he landed all the marines and some of the convicts. The remainder were put ashore two days later. On 19 March Sirius sailed to Sydney Bay to discharge her cargo. Disaster unfolded when the wind blew her backwards onto the reef, and she was holed. After the Sirius struck, the masts were cut away to reduce the stress on the hull, but the heavy surf threw the vessel well in upon the reef.
When the sea moderated, two convicts volunteered to swim to the wreck and liberate the livestock. Following the release of the livestock, the convicts got drunk after discovering the ship’s cellar, and set the Sirius alight in two places. John distinguished himself by going off in the surf and boarding the ship, ordering the convicts off and thus saving the wreck of Sirius from further destruction by fire. He earned high praise both from Major Ross and later from Governor Phillip who rewarded him with early emancipation, though it was later discovered that his term of transportation had already expired when the pardon came through.
John returned to Sydney aboard Supply on 30 May 1791, and on 26 October sailed in the Atlantic when the ship was sent to Calcutta for provisions; he was discharged on her return in June 1792, and probably returned to his carpentering.
By special permission on 8 December 1792 John married Catherine (Fryer) Prior who have been sentenced to death with Mary Braud/Bryant and Mary Haydon at Exeter on 20 March 1786 for a highway assault with theft of a silk bonnet and other goods. On 13 April she was reprieved to seven years transportation and sent to the Dunkirk Hulk. Her conduct on the hulk was tolerably decent and orderly. On 11 March 1787 Catherine was discharged to the Charlotte. As the Fleet lay at anchor at the Cape of Good Hope, Catherine bore a son on 14 November (probably by John Arscott) and he was baptised John Matthew Prior at Port Jackson on 10 February 1788. John Matthew Prior was buried on 18 March 1788.
John and Catherine sailed for England via Bengal in the Shah Hormuzear on 24 April 1793 in the company of the Chesterfield. The ships dropped anchor in the Torres Strait on 3 July. A party from the two ships went ashore at Tate’s (Darnley) Island in search of water and barter, but were attacked by natives, who at first seemed friendly; five of the party were killed and their provisions and equipment stolen; John and two others survived. All were believed lost when boats from the Shah Hormuzear and Chesterfield were able to land and discover the tragedy.
John and his two companions had managed to escape in a small boat and decided to make for Timor. After a long and arduous voyage, John and one companion arrived at Batavia on 10 October 1794. Here John discovered that his wife Catherine Prior Arscott had died the previous year of ‘spotted fever’, two days before the Shah Hormuzear made port there (Batavia) in September 1793.
John Arscott disappears from all further records.
Cobley, John, The Crimes of the First Fleet Convicts
Descendants of Convicts Group: Newsletter The Mail, November-December 1984, Notorious Convict, Arscott John (sourced from the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol.1 (MUP), 1966)
White John, Journal of the Voyage to New South Wales – Surgeon General to the Settlement Gillen Mollie, The Founders of Australia – A Biographical Dictionary of The First Fleet