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French and Italian convict watchmakers in early Launceston

In the 1830s and 1840s there was a small community of French and Italian watchmakers and jewellers in Launceston. Three arrived as convicts and two others were free settler tradesmen. The second French Revolution in 1830 caused political conflict in France and also set in motion turmoil in neighbouring Italy.

Perhaps a life in England offered a less uncertain future but for some it resulted in transportation to a British penal colony on the other side of the world.

Charles Brentani, real name Carlo Brentani, was an Italian trader who advertised watchmaking services and worked with skilled watchmakers and jewellers during his time in Launceston.

He bought and sold a variety of other products at his shop and was for a period in partnership with fellow Italian Ferdinand Riva, a jeweller and watchmaker.

Born in Lake Como, Italy, in 1816, Charles Brentani’s parents were hotel owners Domenico and Mary Ann Brentani and their hotel was apparently popular with English holidaymakers.

When Carlo was still a youth, he and his older brother Giovanni were sent to live in England. The brothers anglicised their names to Charles and Joseph and there is a suggestion that Charles Brentani was sent away to learn silversmithing but it seems he fell into criminal activity.

This is explained in a paper in the Victorian Historical Journal of June 2016 (Volume 87, Number 1), entitled Frankenstein, Convicts and Wide-awake Geniuses: The Life and Death of Charles Brentani, by historian Douglas Wilkie.

Dr Wilkie writes that the brothers were probably part of a gang of thieves that included Ferdinand Riva, and brothers Lawrence and Julian Cetta. All were from Lake Como.

In 1834 Charles Brentani and Lawrence Cetta were charged with stealing silver spoons, silver plate and other articles on a Sunday morning from the house of a church minister.

In October 1834 they were tried in West Riding, York, found guilty and sentenced to transportation for seven years each. Ferdinand Riva, who was born about 1806, appeared at the same court on charges of receiving stolen money and watches.

He was found guilty and sentenced to 14 years transportation. Riva had previously been imprisoned for theft and left behind a wife and child.

Brentani and Riva travelled to Van Diemen’s Land with 298 other convicts on the ship Aurora while Cetta was one of 306 convicts sent to Sydney on the Mary Ann.

When the Aurora arrived in Hobart in October 1835, Charles Brentani was recorded as a 19-year-old single labourer and hawker. He was sent to work at several convict stations and spent time on a work gang before being granted a ticket-of-leave in May 1840.

There were a few transgressions on his convict record but after he was granted a certificate of freedom in October 1841 he was able set up in business in Launceston with his older friend Ferdinand Riva.

When he married Ann Campbell, an immigrant from Ireland, at the Church of St Joseph, Launceston, in August 1844 the witnesses were French watchmaker Alexandre Duchene and his wife Eugenie.

Charles Brentani seems to have been a personable young man with a good business sense and his partnership with Ferdinand Riva flourished until it was dissolved by mutual agreement.

In August 1845 both businesses advertised separately with “C. Brentani” located a few doors along from his former shop where “F. Riva” was still trading.

Later in 1845 the Brentanis departed Launceston for Melbourne where they set up a similar business in Collins Street and again enjoyed considerable success.

Charles Brentani bought land in Melbourne and became a respected citizen while Ferdinand Riva remained in Launceston and also acquired property.

Ferdinand Riva, also known as Fernandino Riva, was about 28 and ten years older than his friend Charles Brentani when he arrived in Hobart. He gave his occupation as a labourer, weather glass maker and silversmith.

Before he received his ticket-of-leave in 1842 he was assigned to Charles Brentani but by 1844 he was advertising watchmaking services under his own name.

Ferdinand Riva’s wife Catherine and son joined him in Launceston and he received a conditional pardon in 1845. In 1850 he was a buyer and seller of gold and in 1851 he advertised that he could repair piano accordions and flutinas (button accordions).

French watchmaker Alexandre Duchene arrived in Van Diemen’s Land about the same time as Charles Brentani and Ferdinand Riva.

Said to be from Paris, he was sentenced to 14 years transportation in August 1836 for being an accomplice to his wife Eugenie Lemaire in the theft of 59 yards of lavender silk from a shop in London.

The couple were described as very fashionable and well connected and “believed to form part of a gang of foreign swindlers who have for a long time committed the most expensive depredations upon the jewellers and silk-mercers at the west end of London.”

Born in 1803, Alexandre Duchene arrived in Van Diemen’s Land on the convict ship Henry Porcher on 15 November 1836.

His wife Eugenie Lemaire, who it was said had friends in high places, was sentenced to transportation for life but this was reduced to 14 years, apparently after the intervention of her “highly placed” friends.

She was 23 years old when she was sent to Sydney with 97 other female convicts in December 1836 on the ship Sarah and Elizabeth, arriving at Port Jackson on 23 April 1837.

Both Alexandre Duchene and Eugenie Lemaire received very favourable treatment while under sentence. Alexandre was assigned to Launceston watchmaker James Barclay who, with other prominent persons, supported his efforts to have his convict wife relocated to Van Diemen’s Land from Sydney where she was initially assigned to the Superintendent of Convicts at Parramatta.

When Alexandre Duchene was granted his ticket-of-leave in August 1841 he opened a watchmaking and jewellery shop in Charles Street, Launceston.

The couple entered the business and social life of Launceston but in October 1841 a terrible fire, which claimed three lives, destroyed their home and shop in Charles Street.

While the Duchenes lost all their possessions in the fire and were uninsured, by December 1842 they had rebuilt their businesses and had expanded their new premises at 106 Charles Street.

There were two other French watchmakers in Launceston at this time – Jules Charet and Joseph Doiron. After the disastrous fire of November 1841, Joseph Doiron had set up his business in a new shop built on the former site of the Duchene’s home in Charles Street.

Eugenie Duchene received a conditional pardon in 1844 and when her husband Alexandre was granted an unconditional pardon in 1848 the couple left Van Diemen’s Land.

Their business ventures in Launceston had been successful but they thought the growing town of Melbourne, where Charles Brentani and convict silversmith Joseph Forrester had already established business, offered better prospects.

In early 1849 Duchene, Brentani and Forrester, all former convicts from Van Diemen’s Land, were involved in the discovery of gold in Victoria.

Extract from DOING TIME: Stories of Convict Clock and Watchmakers of Van Diemen’s Land.


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