No book on the early artists of Australia would be complete without a large chapter on him; the "Watling Collection" of drawings held in the British Museum (Natural History) in South Kensington comprises nearly 500 items; another 69 held there called the Banks MS 34 Collection are almost certainly by him; the original scientific descriptions of many Australian birds are based on his work; and a picture by him, the earliest known oil painting of Sydney sold for £31,000 in 1976, more than three times its estimate; yet in Scotland he is virtually unknown. Perhaps Watling's master John White, Surgeon of the Colony, is to blame, for in notes on the back of a drawing he writes, "The pride and vanity of the draughtsman has induced him to put his name to all the drawings, but should you publish them I think the name may be left out". This then is the remarkable story of Thomas Watling.
He was born in Dumfries in September 1762 the son of Ham Watlin, a soldier. Both his parents died when he was an infant and he was brought up by his maiden aunt Marion (also called May) Kirkpatrick who lived near the English Chapel in English Street. He showed skill as an artist and started his own Academy where he taught "drawing to ladies and gentlemen for a guinea a month".
In March 1788 he moved briefly to Glasgow where he was employed as a coach and chaise painter. He clearly found his wages of a guinea a week too little for he was arrested in Dumfries on 27th November and charged with forging at least 12 Bank of Scotland one guinea notes.
Despite being a capital offence forging was a common practice in the late 18th century. The notes were printed on an ordinary type of paper and relied heavily on the intricacy of the artist's copperplate flourishes to deter forgers. The notes were delivered to local banks in books of 100 or 200 and each note had a counterfoil. A rough scissors cut was used to separate the note from its counterfoil and if, when a note was presented at a bank for payment, there was some doubt it was genuine it could be checked that it matched its own counterfoil. Scottish bank notes had a high reputation as bank shareholders did not have limited liability in the event of a bank failure and a forged note tendered by an innocent person was always honoured by a bank. This was not the case in England. So the incentives for the forger were high and the punishment harsh.
For some reason forgery was particularly prevalent in Dumfries and it is also interesting to note that the Dumfries money coach of the Bank of Scotland was the only one in Scotland to carry firearms!
Watling, who was described later by his aunt as "a very young man of unripe years" was really in hot water. His lodgings had been searched and a half finished guinea note was found in a drawer. He denied everything but later on that same day he admitted that in March he had made two bank of Scotland guinea notes, in July he had made three more and in October he had made another one. He tried to implicate a Dumfries engraver John Roberts. He told John Welsh the Sheriff Substitute who examined him that the notes were done in vermilion and not black and as such could not be passed off as genuine. He said that Roberts was paying him for the notes and had told him they were not for circulation but merely an experiment.
Two days later he petitioned the Dumfries Justices of the Peace that he could not remember what he had said two days ago but the answer he meant to give was that he was not guilty of any crime and he did not wish to incriminate anyone else. In any case he believed that forgery was not imitating a note but also using it fraudlently and there was no proof of the latter. He therefore asked them to free him.
He had little chance of success. His evidence against Roberts, who may well have been implicated, was contradictory and the colour vermilion was known to be one of the stages of printing the note. Inks at that time were quite weak and real notes were overprinted several times to increase the density of the ink.
Trial was fixed for 14th April 1789 but Watling clearly realised what inevitably would happen. The Crown had cited no less than 45 witnesses to give evidence including the influential David Staig, the agent for the Bank of Scotland for Dumfries and Provost of the Burgh. Even the advert for his Drawing Academy with its elaborate flourishes was to be produced to show that he had the skills necessary to forge a note. In the morning he filed a petition requesting transportation stating that he could not "remain longer in this country with any degree of credit". His petition was granted and on the same day he was sentenced to fourteen years transportation to the new colony founded a little over a year previously - Botany Bay in Australia.
He had saved his neck. What happened next gave him a chance of freedom. With
6 other prisoners he was transferred from Dumfries to Edinburgh Tolbooth where
he was put on a small ship the 'Peggy' of Leith which was bound for Plymouth.
During the journey some of the other convicts on board became mutinous. The
Captain of the 'Peggy', Robert Smith, takes up the story, "I was obliged to
have 5 of the ring leaders of them chained to the Learge Cadge in the hold,
but it was of No Use As they cut ther Irons in the Night time, and they Tryed
to Weary us out for want of Sleep by Singing and hurraying the whole Night,
their Intention was to Murder us All but to carrie the Ship into a harbour
and Escape. I must not forget to Inform You that the reason of their not
getting their wicked and Crewal plote put in Execusion was Owing to Information
Received from the lad Named Watling who was Accused of forgery which from his
behaviour since he came on board I belive to be false. I was also Much
obliged to [a] Mr Paton. As I may trewly Say it is to these Men I am indeted
for My Own life and those of the Ships Company".
I must not forget to Inform You that the reason of their not getting their wicked and Crewal plote put in Execusion was Owing to Information Received from the lad Named Watling who was Accused of forgery which from his behaviour since he came on board I belive to be false. I was also Much obliged to [a] Mr Paton. As I may trewly Say it is to these Men I am indeted for My Own life and those of the Ships Company".
Smith took a personal interest in the two men's cases and a copy of his account was forwarded to Ilay Campbell the Lord Advocate.
Ilay Campbell sent the letter on to Evan Nepean an Under Secretary at the Home Office together with a covering letter, "As to Watling his Crime was deeper [Paton had stolen two cows] viz Forgery. He is a young Man, unmarried, & an ingenious Artist, he will be an acquisition to the new Colony at Botany Bay, tho' perhaps it might be right to recommend him to the attention of those in Command there".
As a result Paton was granted a free pardon and Watling because of his potential skills received nothing. There then followed what must have been a most distressing period for Watling and one which thousands of unfortunate convicts experienced - imprisonment on one of the notorious hulks in Plymouth harbour. These ships had been used to transport criminals to America but the War of Independence stopped this and their dilapidated hulks were moored in large ports and used instead as floating prisons, a practice that lasted nearly a century. Watling wrote that the wanton cruelty on board rivalled the Spanish Inquisition.
He was held on the 'Dunkirk' where he wrote several petitions in a sanctimonious style which he was to put to good use later on.
One reached the Lord Justice Clerk via the Home Secretary who enquired of Lord Hailes who had tried Watling. Hailes felt that the only mistake he had made was to make the sentence too short! Watling's letters were in vain, he was transferred to the 'Lion Hulk' and finally in June 1791 he set sail for Australia on the 'Good Ship Pitt'.
He wrote to his Aunt in Dumfries from the Cape of Good Hope on the 13th December, "Your loved Watling is at liberty!" He had escaped when the 'Pitt' stopped at the tip of Africa! He adds cryptically, "I hold it imprudent to commit to paper how I have obtained emancipation. I will only say that the ship 'Pitt' lyes opposite my window and means to sail by Sunday next " His luck was out and on 28th December he was recaptured after being betrayed by the "mercenary Dutch".
After spending seven months in an African prison he was put on the 'Royal Admiral' and reached his final destination, Port Jackson, Australia on 7th October 1792.