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Sunday, 29 March 2020

Henry Handel Murphy (dates unknown) and Murphy’s Law

As we don't know when Murphy was born or died, his admirers celebrate the anniversary of his leaving Sydney on March 29.

* * *

While Murphy’s Law is commonly quoted in laboratories all over the English-speaking world, few have heard of the tragic life of the original Murphy, a man whose life makes one of the saddest stories in the history of science.

The disasters and near-disasters began surrounding him almost as soon as he was born, and dogged him all of his days. For example, Murphy was to be named after the novelist Charlotte Bronte, and was only saved the ignominy of being called Charlotte because the registry clerk who handled the case was cross-eyed.

As an adult, Murphy began to study the mathematical theory of disasters, parallelling the much later ‘catastrophe theory’ almost exactly. Failing to get recognition for his work in Europe, Murphy packed his belongings into a large crate, together with some of his new patent magnets, and sailed for Australia in the sailing vessel Dunbar.

His magnets were another failure, as they tended to change their polarisation without warning, and sometimes even to develop identical poles at both ends, at which point the magnets would repel themselves into a small heap of iron filings.

There are those who maintain it was Murphy’s magnets (the ones which survived the long trip) that caused the Dunbar to be wrecked at the Gap near Sydney, when they affected the ship’s compass. We will never know now: but we do know his records of his disaster theory were all destroyed in the wreck, save for a few tantalising scraps which he painstakingly wrote out in his old age, only to see them eaten almost immediately by a passing rat.

Soon after his arrival in Sydney, Murphy married, and soon the union was blessed with several children, causing the strongly religious and ecstatic Murphy to make his often-misquoted comment “Thank Heavens for small Murphies”.

Murphy's shovel refurbisher
Needing to earn money to keep his family, and unable to hold down permanent employment, Murphy began work on his classic text on agricultural instruments, The Book of Shovels, although most extant editions incorporate his other two works in this genre, the slim volumes entitled Westward Hoe and The Rake’s Progress. “I believe in calling a spud a spud,” said Murphy of this work.

He also worked briefly as a mender of implements, but his "refurbisher" was ahead of its time, requiring electricity which was, at that time, not available in Australia.

The seminal influence of Murphy on the old cobblers of Sydney who worked in chamois leather will be apparent to anybody who has read the chapter entitled ‘The Soft Shoe Shovel’, while the recovery of Australia’s film industry shows the influences he had on the interpretation of the work of that fine cinematographer, Charles Shovel.

But Murphy’s finest influential hour comes in his definitive interpretation of the explorers X. Hume and Shovell. These two fine examples of the sun-bronzed pre-Anzac gave rise to the expression digger and browned which many years earlier had been expressed in the music of Bach, according to some commentators.

This of course, is totally wrong, for Bach’s music was notably contrapuntal, and, in spite of the claims of his more strident critics, Murphy was admirably unopposed to puns. His critics even offer quotations to prove their case, but we now know that what Murphy actually said was that the bun was the lowest form of wheat. Regrettably, it seems that the agricultural reporter to whom he spoke had been keeping an ear to the ground, and still had mud in his ears.

That said, his music was very modern and most of his works were destroyed by outraged music lovers. For example, the illustration on the left shows the only surviving portion of his Coffee Can't Hurt Her, scored for prepare lagerphones and unprepared soprano.

It is believes that this fragment represents the moment when the trap door opened under the lagerphone players. It seems that they were less prepared than they should have been.
In the end, Murphy turned from rural themes to the study of suburban agriculture, and he wrote a short treatise (To the Victa Belongs the Soils) on what he mistakenly took to be a New Zealand invention, the Rotorua moa. Shortly after, Murphy left Sydney on the brig Hesperus, and was never seen again.

* * *

Post script : If you are going to make your way in the world of science, you need to be able to recognise nonsense when you run across it. I suggest that you analyse the strange tale of Henry Handel Murphy, and identify the key points that you believe to be true facts, and the key points that are complete nonsense.

Much of the pseudo-science you encounter will be like this: a mixture of easily checked facts, and a great deal of rubbish. If you were fooled, perhaps you should read the section on pseudo-science in other places. Or come and talk to me about the swamp land I have for sale . . .

Monday, 23 March 2020

Bolters, part 8 of many

The secret city.

Let us begin with three comments from original sources. The first two accounts cover a mass departure in 1791, the third reveals that 12 years later, the lesson of the first party’s suffering was yet to be learned.

The first party that essayed this undertaking consisted of twenty persons, who set out on the journey in August, 1791; but through want of signposts, or some other essential, on the way, they became bewildered in the woods, and returned to the settlement so squalid and lean, that the very crows would have declined the proffer of their carcases. [1]
Three of these miserable people were some time after met by some officers who were on an excursion to the lagoon between this harbour and Broken Bay [Narrabeen Lake?]; but, notwithstanding their situation, they did not readily give themselves up, and, when questioned, said they wanted nothing more than to live free from labour. These people were sent up to Parramatta, whence, regardless of what they had experienced, and might again suffer, they a second time absconded in a few days after they had been returned. Parties were immediately dispatched from that settlement, and thirteen of those who first absconded were brought in, in a state of deplorable wretchedness, naked, and nearly worn out with hunger. Some of them had subsisted chiefly by sucking the flowering shrubs and wild berries of the woods; and the whole exhibited a picture of misery, that seemed sufficient to deter others from the like extravagant folly. [2]
It has been reported, by persons who were careless whether, they asserted facts or falsehoods, that the natives of the interior have made mention of a set of people whose manners and customs strongly resembled our own; and others, willing to give a still more improbable colour to the imposture, asserted in addition that these distant inhabitants were possessed of bells, churches, masted vessels, a sterling specie, and every other requisite that might seem calculated to convey the idea of civilization. [3]

When the convicts of the First Fleet came ashore, they had little idea of where they were in the world, and for a short while, those who ran away thought China was nearby — or at least within walking distance. Just a few hills away, and they would be in another country, they told each other.

Perhaps they believed it for a while, but then they switched to a more promising tale. This concerned a mythical colony of white people, vaguely located “three or four hundred miles south-west of Sydney”. There were even written travel instructions circulating, complete with a compass rose to make them appear absolutely genuine.

Nobody had been there, so the “route” was drawn with no knowledge of the country. We know now that a south-west path running that far would take escapers through the rugged Snowy Mountains and down into eastern Victoria, somewhere between Albury, Shepparton, Sale and Mallacoota. The country on the way is not for the faint-hearted, but nobody knew that.

Governor John Hunter was a decent sort of person. As an educated man, he knew there could be no mysterious white civilisation out in the wilderness. He worried that many gullible convicts would die in agony or end up returning to an almost equally agonising punishment after pointless travels.

He wrote to a magistrate at Parramatta, instructing him to go to Toongabbie, where most of the believers were working. As it would be impossible to reason the convicts out of their beliefs, the magistrate was to tell them that four picked men would be allowed to start out and satisfy themselves of the impossibility of escape in that direction.

More importantly, three experienced men would be sent with them as guides, to make certain that they returned safely. On the day, a large mob turned up, all agitating to be allowed to go, but in the end, they selected four of their number.

The convicts were determined not to be fooled by the governor. They had hatched a cunning plan to hijack the expedition, with a larger body absconding, meeting the explorers at a pre-arranged spot, murdering the guides and then proceeding to the safety of the fabled white colony.

Luckily for them, this scheme was discovered and four soldiers were added to the party, scotching the plot. One of the guides was a former convict named John (or James, according to some accounts) Wilson, who had spent much of his time with the first inhabitants.
Wilson was a bushranger in the old sense of the word. He had served his time, but then largely turned his back on those of his own nation and learned to live in the bush, taught by his new friends.

His friends gave him an Indigenous name and people said his body was ‘marked and scarred after their fashion’, which, taken together with his being named, suggests that he was an initiated man. Wilson came back to visit the whites from time to time and told tales of wonders he had seen in the bush, but the settlers in Sydney all thought he was a liar.

It didn’t matter: Wilson knew his way around the bush, so he went with the party when they set out on 14 January 1798. Ten days later, the soldiers returned with three of the convicts.

The soldiers had been instructed to return when they reached the foot of the mountains, but the three convicts said they had seen and suffered enough, and begged to be allowed to return with them.
The rest of the party arrived back at Prospect Hill, on the outskirts of the settlement, on 9 February, praising Wilson for keeping them alive. They said they had seen creeks and a large river, but like Wilson’s yarns, some of their tales must now be taken with a grain of salt.

They claimed to have met few natives, but those they saw were dressed in skins from head to foot (unlikely in summer), and they reported seeing a fat mountain wallaroo. They returned with a specimen of a lyrebird and reported dining on ‘a kind of mole’, apparently a wombat, but that was the limit of their achievements.

Wilson died soon after, speared by men of his adopted tribe for breaking one of their customs in attempting to take possession of a woman. (As an accepted member of the Indigenous community, he was expected to know and obey these customs, but it seems that even if he knew, he did not obey.) In Wilson, Australia lost either a good bush wanderer or an excellent storyteller, or maybe both. He remains as a good example of what the early bushrangers (in the original sense of the term) could do.

[1] Peter Cunningham, Two Years In New South Wales, vol. 2, 1827, 196 – 7.
[2] David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, volume 1, 1798, 154 – 5.
[3] The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 3 July 1803, 2 – 3,

Thursday, 19 March 2020

Bolters, part 7 of many

An escapee in Cape Town.

When surgeon John White first landed, he wanted to examine the local wildlife, but he was busy at first, setting up sick-tents. For a while, the only natural history work he could do was by looking at what others caught or shot.

In the course of the last week, all the marines, their wives and children, together with all the convicts, male and female, were landed. The laboratory and sick tents were erected, and, I am sorry to say, were soon filled with patients afflicted with the true camp dysentery and the scurvy. [1]

Later on, White acquired an artist, but only because Thomas Watling was charged with forgery in Scotland. He was, to be blunt, less enthusiastic about being in Australia, even if the authorities were keen to send him there. He was a competent artist, and he probably used his skills to forge guinea notes.

After denying the charge and then considering the evidence and knowing that the punishment for being found guilty was death, Watling asked to be allowed to submit voluntarily to transportation. This was a plea bargain of sorts: it guaranteed him some world travel, but ensured that he would not hang, as he might have done if he had gone to trial and been found guilty.

The authorities agreed, he made his plea and he was sentenced. He and other prisoners were being moved on a small ship to a Plymouth hulk, but when the others plotted to take over the ship, he informed on them.

This was risky, because he would be known as an informant. He got away with informing, but the act of tattling failed to pay a dividend, because he failed to win the remission he asked for. It was denied by Hay Campbell, the Lord Advocate, who wrote to Evan Nepean in about 1789:

As to Watling…his crime was deeper, viz., forgery. He will be an acquisition to the new Colony at Botany Bay, tho’ perhaps it may be right to recommend him to the attention of those in Command there on acct. of the merit he had in this late affair. [2]

In other words, Watling was a criminal who might make good in the new colony, and he was sent to Sydney in the transport Pitt in July 1791. Then he escaped at Cape Town, which was a Dutch colony back then, though he was soon recaptured by “the mercenary Dutch”, as he called them.

They held him for seven months before handing him over to the next suitable British ship, and he finally arrived in Sydney on 7 October, 1792 in the transport Royal Admiral. Then he got lucky, because he was assigned almost immediately to Surgeon John White, who badly needed a skilled artist.

As chief surgeon of the First Fleet, White’s had first to treat the colony’s sick, but in his spare time, he was naturalist to Arthur Phillip when the governor went exploring. By April in 1788, most of the First Fleet’s ill were out of danger, and White travelled with Phillip, several officers, three soldiers and two seamen, to Manly Cove. Heading north, their path was blocked by swamps and thick bush.

This is my home territory, so I can assert that the swamps must have been where Manly Golf Club is now. Going along the coast they went north to a “small salt-water lagoon, about two miles [3 km] away”, where they saw black swans. This was probably Curl Curl Lagoon, now usually called Queenscliff Lagoon.

They saw a kookaburra (which White correctly recognised as a kingfisher) and White admired Aboriginal rock engravings, but that was about it. Until Sir Joseph Banks sent out some of his chosen young men, collecting would be haphazard. White sent many drawings and specimens back to England, and in late 1788, he sent back the journal he had been keeping since he joined the First Fleet.

It was edited and published in 1790 as Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales, with 65 engravings, apparently created in Britain from sketches and preserved specimens. White may also have been responsible for the specimens and drawings used in Arthur Phillip’s The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay. That came out in 1789, and both books sold well.

Until White left Sydney at the end of 1794, Thomas Watling was his convict servant. In a letter to his aunt, Watling said his work involved painting the “non-descript productions of the country”, meaning he was painting the undescribed species, as and when they were found.

There is a puzzle, though. White’s book came out in 1790, and Watling only arrived in Sydney in 1792, yet some of the book’s engravings have matching paintings in the “Watling Collection” which now rests in the zoological library of the British Museum (Natural History).

Watling’s task was to deal with the way dried herbarium specimens change or lose their colour. Before photography was invented, painters would prepare a nice water-colour picture, with accurate colours. An engraver would copy the painting onto a metal plate that could be used to print black-and-white images. Then young women and girls would set to work with water-colours, adding the same colours, referring to the original painting. [3]

However it happened, the painting always came first, but many of the paintings in the collection have been extensively annotated in John White’s hand-writing, so White probably gathered up the collection and took it to England in 1794.

But how could Watling have created the paintings before he reached Australia? The answer, said Rex and Thea Rienits [4], is easy: they argued that Watling was no use as a natural history painter when he arrived, so White would have set him to work, copying the plates as paintings.

When White returned to Britain, he wanted to stay there, but he was told either to return to Sydney or resign his colonial post. He chose to resign and planned a second book, for which he probably wrote a manuscript, since lost. Probably today’s “Watling collection” would have become the drawings in that book.

White served as a surgeon in the Sheerness and Chatham shipyards until 1820, but back in Sydney, Watling was still a convict, at first assigned to David Collins, the Judge-Advocate. In September 1795, Governor John Hunter became the second governor of the young colony, and Watling’s prospects looked up, because Hunter, also an able artist, took him over.

After a year of service to the governor, Watling had a conditional pardon which was made absolute seven months later. He was free to go, and so he left, taking with him a child whose mother is unknown. He probably went to Calcutta, where there was a miniature painter called Thomas Watling for a while.

He was certainly in Scotland in about 1804, where he was charged with forging seven five-pound notes in 1806, but he got off with the Scots verdict of ‘not proven’. He later went to London, where he sought assistance from the former Governor Hunter, by now an admiral.

You have to wonder what his life might have been, had he, on escaping in Capetown, fallen in with a Dutch naturalist who needed a painter?

[1] John White, Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales, 1790, entry for January 29, 1788, available as, on page 70.

[2] Ilay Campbell, in a letter to Evan Nepean. (It was in my files with no source.)
[3] For an excellent free example, see John White, Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales, 1790, available as

[4] Rex and Thea Rienits, Early artists of Australia, 47.

Sunday, 15 March 2020

Bolters, part 6 of many

The curious tale of Samuel Burt

Burt had been found guilty of forgery, and forgery was a hanging offence, a capital crime, as the lawyers say. Mysteriously (until you know the background), the government wanted Burt to accept a reprieve and a sentence of seven years as a prisoner.

Equally mysteriously (again, until you know the background), the prisoner asked to be hanged, and here is how the discussion went in court, at the end of a long day’s proceedings. Notice how politely but firmly, Samuel Burt told the Court (that means the judge) that he wanted to die. [1]

The judge was probably weary after hearing cases and sentencing the guilty all day, but he had this one more task. He needed to persuade this young man to choose going to Botany Bay over being hanged. The youth had already refused one offer of the King’s mercy.

Prisoner:        My Lord, I thank your Lordship; but in the present case, I have an unquestionable right to my own opinion, and as death would be preferable to me, I am determined to persevere in applying for the execution of my sentence.
Court:             You should be aware that if the King’s mercy is rejected and abused, when you come to a better temper of mind, which the fear of death will certainly produce, you may have then no opportunity of applying for that mercy which you now refuse.
Prisoner:        I am still determined to persevere in the same opinion.
Court:             I shall remand you to prison, and give you till the first day of next session to consider of it, and if you then refuse his Majesty’s pardon, you may expect immediate execution.
Prisoner.        Very well my Lord.

Now here is the background: Samuel loved a young lady, but she did not love him enough to agree to marry him. Perhaps this was because he was an apprentice gold-beater, and apprentices were not allowed to marry until they had “served their time” and completed their apprenticeships.

Whatever the reason, Samuel decided that he would sooner die, but he must have felt it was wrong to commit suicide. He was clearly an educated young man who found another way to become dead, a cunning scheme, which as cunning schemes often do, back-fired.
He forged a bank draft for 100 pounds, which was a great deal of money in those days. He then went to a bank where he was well-known, and cashed the draft. The bank suspected that the document was forged, but gave him the money because they knew him. He then sent his master the following letter:

“Sir, I take this opportunity of informing you, that I have this morning forged on your banker, for the sum of an hundred pounds; I am ready and willing to resign myself into the hands of justice, life is a burden to me, and as I have forfeited it to the laws of my country, I am ready and willing to resign into the hands of him that gave it me.” S. Burt, July 17th, 1786.

Later, the full story came out in The Times on 19 October 1790:

The circumstances of Burt’s case were rather remarkable; being rejected by a woman whom he wished to marry, he committed a forgery, and immediately afterwards surrendered himself at Bow-street, declaring to his friends that he had done it for the purpose of getting hanged. Being considered as an object of compassion, he was offered his Majesty’s most gracious pardon, which he twice or thrice refused. The lady at length consented to marry him; he then became as solicitous to live as he had before been for death; but during her repeated visits to him in Newgate, she caught the gaol fever and died. [2]

By the time she died, Samuel’s case had been settled, and he had to go to New South Wales. The transport Scarborough had carried convicts as part of the First Fleet, and now the ship was ready to go again, with Burt among the inmates. During the voyage, a plot was hatched by some of the convicts to over-power the guards, take control of the ship and escape. Burt gathered the details and reported it to the ship’s officers who squashed the plan.

Arriving in Sydney, he became a storeman, and was so reliable that on 31 January 1794, he was given an unconditional pardon, When the colony’s Judge-Advocate, David Collins noted this, he mentioned that Burt’s actions on the Scarborough were “at the risk of his own life”. [3]

I have to wonder: did Burt take that risk deliberately, hoping once again, that he might die? We will never know, but he reached Sydney, he lived, he worked hard, and he was pardoned. He received a grant of 16 acres of land at Bulanaming (near Newtown in Sydney’s inner western suburbs today) on 8 January 1794, but after that, he seems to have disappeared. If he has descendants today, they probably regret not being able to claim descent from a “First Fleeter”. [4]

[1] Samuel Burt’s tale can be found at ‘Old Bailey Online’, The original trial reference number is t17860719-31, his refusal has the reference number o17870110-3 and his pardon is at o17870221-2.
[2] The Times, 19 October, 1790, 4, column 1.
[3] David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in NSW, volume 1, 286.
[4] One source for information says that Burt’s grant was recorded on Fiche 3267 of the Colonial Secretary’s papers. These are now generally on microfilm and in many libraries. I found the entry in my local library, on the first page of the B’s, on Roll 2560.

Thursday, 12 March 2020

Bolters, part 5 of many

Filling the First Fleet

Before you could have convicts escaping in Australia, you had to get them here. The British newspaper-reading public learned of their government’s plan to settle felons in Australia in 1786, but The Times’ location of Botany Bay on the west coast tells us that Australia was still an unknown land. (For readers outside Australia, Botany Bay is on the east coast.)

This settlement is to be formed at Botany Bay, on the west side of the island, where Captain Cook refreshed and staid some time on his voyage in 1770. As he first sailed around that side of the island, he called it New South Wales…[1]

It went on: there would be 680 male felons and 70 females, 12 marines and a corporal in every transport, a naval escort, and a few of the ships would remain to get the garrison of 300 men established. There would be provisions for two years and “implements for the culture of the earth, and hunting and fishing, and some slight buildings are to be run up immediately till a proper fort and town-house are erected.”[2] It took The Times another three weeks to decide that this was a good thing.

[It] must meet with the approbation of all moderate men. No measure has been yet devised, which so effectually combines the punishment and the security of the felons. [3]

After that, the Botany Bay plans were almost daily news. Some people talked about the place, others sang about it, but even if you hear it said on television or if you read the words in story books, no convict’s sentence featured the phrase “transported to Botany Bay” until June 1791. Botany Bay was occasionally mentioned in court before that, but only informally. [4]

Instead, they would be sentenced to be transported “to the Eastern coast of New South Wales, or some one or other of the islands adjacent” (or as ordinary folk understood it, to “Botany Bay”). The strange wording was a legal tactic to prevent appeals if the settlement planned for Botany Bay had to be located elsewhere.

Preparations to send the First Fleet began well before it sailed, as we can see if we take a close look at one day, early in 1787, when Elizabeth Hayward and Elizabeth Beckford, the oldest and youngest women convicts in the First Fleet, agreed to be sent to Australia for seven years. Later that day, another 26 men and women accepted transportation rather than hang but one prisoner firmly refused any offer of clemency. We will come to him later.

On that day, 10 January, 1787, the two Elizabeths faced separate theft charges at the Old Bailey. Elizabeth Hayward was 13 or 14 when she left England, so she must have been only 12 or 13, that day in court. She was the youngest female convict in the first fleet, sentenced to be transported for stealing a gown worth 4 shillings, a bonnet worth 2 shillings and a cloak worth 1 shilling. The Old Bailey records show that Hayward, an apprentice, was accused of taking these items from her master, Thomas Crofts, and pawning them. [5]

Elizabeth Beckford was charged with stealing twelve pounds weight of Gloucester cheese, value 4 shillings (40 cents today, but worth much more in 1787), the property of Henry Austen. The report says “The prisoner was taken instantly with the cheese”, meaning she was caught red-handed. She was sentenced to be transported for seven years. [6]

The convict transport Lady Penrhyn carried women convicts and a few children. At some time between 1 and 10 June 1787, Arthur Bowes Smyth, the transport’s assistant surgeon, wrote a list of his ship’s convicts in his journal. He wrote then that “Elizabeth Haward” was 13. Three pages before that, he had listed Elizabeth Beckford as 70, but a month afterwards, he gave her age as 82. At either of those ages, she was the oldest female convict. [7]

The two women were undoubtedly thieves, but before we judge them harshly, young people used to be apprenticed at about the age of 12. They got almost no pay, and usually, their families paid the master a fee called a premium. An apprenticeship lasted quite a few years, and for the first one or two, the apprentice did menial tasks like sweeping and cleaning, work only marginally related to the trade they were supposed to be learning. Apprentices lived in the master’s house, and were fed by the master, but there was little joy in the life of an apprentice.

There was no joy, not even a dim glimmer of hope for joy left for older people. There was no aged pension, and an old man or woman with no family or savings had to steal, or go into the workhouse. The inmates there would be fed horribly, treated worse, and exposed to terrible diseases. Remember those diseases, because they figure in the next story...

So perhaps we should not blame the two Elizabeths too much for stealing, though it was a risky choice, because being caught was also dangerous. If prisoners avoided hanging, the gaols of Britain were filled with deadly diseases like tuberculosis, spread by coughing, and “gaol fever” (we call it typhus today) which was spread by lice. Anyhow, the two Elizabeths gratefully accepted their fates and both left England in the transport ship Lady Penrhyn. Who knows, perhaps the idea of a new life in a new country gave them a shred of hope?

On 10 January 1787, a total of 96 people faced trial at the Old Bailey for various offences. By day’s end, 11 women and 19 men had been found not guilty, one woman and four men were sentenced to be whipped and gaoled, one woman and three men were merely gaoled, 17 men were sentenced to hang, while 12 women and 28 men were sentenced to transportation.

One year later, on 10 January 1788, the women convicts in Lady Penrhyn were cowering under the fury of a storm off the NSW coast, having been at sea since the previous May. Perhaps the survivors regretted their decision to accept transportation then, but they reached the calmer waters of Botany Bay some ten days later. By then, Elizabeth Beckford wasn’t there: she had died on the night of 11–12 July 1787, when Smyth gave her age as 82. [8]

Elizabeth Hayward was not the youngest person on board her ship. The convicts’ children listed by Smyth as being on board Lady Penrhyn were William Tilley (6 weeks), Mary Mullins (3), Mary Fowles (4), Jane Jones (8) and John Harrison, aged 15.

Elizabeth Hayward was flogged in Sydney for insolence, soon after arriving. She later went to Norfolk Island when John Hudson did, and she, too, was flogged there. (Norfolk Island was later a terrible place, where only the worst convicts were sent, but in the early days, the island was used to grow food for the main colony and it was slightly more pleasant then, though floggings were quite normal.)

Hayward left Norfolk Island in 1813 as the wife of Joseph Lowe, along with two of her children. A woman named Elizabeth Lowe died at Launceston, and was buried at St John’s, Launceston 29 October 1836, “aged 66”. That makes her about six years too young to be our Elizabeth, but such errors were not unusual, and that may be our last trace of the youngest woman convict. If so, she got a good life in the end.

At the end of the day, another 17 men and 2 women who had already been sentenced to hang, accepted transportation for life, while six men and a woman, also due to hang, felt transportation for seven years was a far better option, but as we saw earlier, one youth disagreed. He wanted only to escape his life.

[1] News report, The Times (London, England), 14 September 1786, 3; Issue 529. The Times stories are located in a Gale database which is hard to access. I use it through the State Library of NSW: ask your librarian for help.
[2] Ibid.
[3] News report, The Times (London, England), 6 October 1786, 2; Issue 548.
[4] Search for “Botany Bay” (with the quote marks) at The first 40 entries will give the browser some curious insights.
[5] Old Bailey Records, ELIZABETH HAYWARD, SARAH PHILLIPS, Theft > grand larceny, Theft > receiving, 10 January 1787., Reference number t17870110-60
[6] Old Bailey Records, ELIZABETH BECKFORD, Theft > grand larceny, 10 January 1787. Reference Number: t17870110-67
[7] Arthur Bowes Smyth, Journal, 8 August 1787.
[8] Arthur Bowes Smyth, Journal, 9 July 1787, near the end of the page.

Wednesday, 11 March 2020

Bolters, part 4 of many

The youngest convict.

The convict transport Friendship carried the youngest male felon, a lad named John Hudson. Born about 1774, he was an orphan and chimney sweep, who was sentenced to seven years’ transportation at the Old Bailey on 10 December 1783, when he was described as a nine-year-old. By rights, given his crime, he should have been sentenced to death, but the judge had worked hard to save the boy.

The versions of convict trials we read in novels or see and hear in movies and on TV usually centre on a vicious ‘hanging judge’, a sneering brute, dealing out savage sentences to innocent heroes and heroines. While there were many, many offences for which the punishment was hanging, judges were commonly lenient and gentle, as we can see here.

Hudson was charged, among other things, with breaking into a house at night. If he had been in the house while it was dark, that was not mere breaking and entering, but burglary, a hanging offence. To avoid the jury deciding this way, the judge instructed them carefully as the Old Bailey records reveal. Note that the “prosecutor” here was the person robbed, not the lawyer conducting the prosecution.

The boy’s confession may be admitted, in evidence, but we must take it with every allowance, and at the utmost it only proves he was in the house; now he might have got in after daybreak, as the prosecutor was not informed of it till eight the next morning… his confession with respect to how he came there, I do not think should be allowed, because it was made under fear; I think it would be too hard to find a boy of his tender age guilty of the burglary; one would wish to snatch such a boy, if one possibly could, from destruction… [1]

The jury heard his message and obediently found the boy guilty of a felony but not guilty of burglary, and he was sentenced to be transported for seven years. Originally Hudson would have gone to America, and he was actually sent towards America in March, 1784, at a time when the newly independent United States of America was no longer accepting British convicts, but one man was still sending off ships of prisoners who might be sold in America as “servants”, effectively as slaves.

The planned destination of the transport Mercury is unclear, but just off the coast of England, the convicts took over the ship and sailed it into Torbay, where some of them went ashore to get drunk, though a few reached London before they were retaken. Some were hanged for the crime of “returning from transportation”, others like John Hudson were merely thrown into gaol, and later transferred to the hulk Dunkirk.

The boy spent a considerable time in the hulks before being transferred to Friendship, and was one of 67 Mercury veterans who sailed in the First Fleet. Hudson was sent to Norfolk Island in March 1790, where he received 50 lashes in February 1791 for being “out of his hut out of hours”, after which he disappears from the records.

[1] Old Bailey records, JOHN HUDSON, Theft > burglary, 10 December 1783. Reference Number: t17831210-19: this record is worth reading in full.

Tuesday, 10 March 2020

Bolters: part 3 of many

Black Caesar.

The man the colonists called Black Caesar appeared in the official records as John Caesar. His common name tells us one of the few things we know for certain about him: he had dark skin, and was probably of African descent. Some people said he came from Madagascar, but slave owners often gave their slaves the names of ancient Romans, so the name “Caesar” may mean that he or his parents had been slaves at some stage.

All we can say for sure is that he was one of at least four people believed to be of African origin in the First Fleet. The others were John Williams (alias ‘Black Jack’), Daniel Gordon and Samuel Chinnery.

In 1786, Caesar was a servant, living at Deptford, now a suburb of London. On 13 May, he went on trial, charged with stealing £12 from a dwelling house, and he was found guilty.

At that point, he had some luck, because many thieves back then were sentenced to hang for taking far less valuable loot. Instead, he was given seven years in gaol, sent to the hulk Ceres, and then shipped off to Botany Bay in the First Fleet transport Alexander.
In the new colony, Caesar was known as a good worker at first. Judge Advocate, David Collins wrote in his story of the early days, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales:

This man was always reputed the hardest working convict in the country; his frame was muscular and well calculated for hard labour; but … his appetite was ravenous, for he could in any one day devour the full ration for two days.[1]

Caesar’s problem was that everybody, large or small, got exactly the same rations, meaning the same amount of food each day. Because he was big and toiled hard, Caesar was always hungry, so he stole food. On 29 April, 1789, he was tried, found guilty of stealing and given a life sentence.

Two weeks later, he stole a gun and some food, and went bush. Caesar stayed close to the settlement, probably so he could steal food or tools. As a result, he was captured on 6 June and sent to work in chains, on Garden Island. His task was to grow vegetables, and he was allowed some of what he grew, on top of the usual rations. He behaved well, and soon he was allowed to work without the chains. Then on 22 December, he stole a musket, an iron pot and a canoe and went off into the bush again.

He now found himself up against the same problem that all the bushrangers faced: getting enough food. None of them knew how to find bush tucker, and so they had to steal. Caesar stole from settlers’ gardens and he also robbed Indigenous people of their food, but while this annoyed the locals he robbed, they weren’t all unfriendly to him. On 31 January, 1790, he was brought into the settlement by some of them after they found him near Rose Hill with spear wounds. They helped him back to Sydney so he could give himself up and get medical help.

Caesar’s wounds healed, and he was sent to Norfolk Island for three years, where he farmed. Then he was sent back to Sydney and stayed quiet for more than a year, but in July 1794, he took off into the bush again. He was soon caught and punished, but he took his flogging without reacting, beyond declaring that “… all that will not make me better”.

Caesar escaped again in December 1795, and became one of probably six to eight other escapees who were loose in the bush at the time. Even so, everybody in the colony blamed Caesar for all the thefts. They complained bitterly of having suffered quite enough from Caesar’s thieving ways.

Important people, meaning the ones who had something worth stealing, demanded that something be done about such rogues, and on 29 January, 1796, Governor Hunter offered a reward of five gallons of spirits for Caesar’s capture. Our first thief/bushranger had barely a fortnight left to live, hiding out in the bush near what is now the Sydney suburb of Strathfield. David Collins told the story of Caesar’s end:

On Monday the 15th a criminal court was held for the trial of two prisoners, William Britton a soldier, and John Reid a convict, for a burglary in the house of the Rev. Mr. Johnson, committed in the night of Sunday the 7th of this month. The evidence, though strong, was not sufficient to convict them, and they were acquitted. While this court was sitting, however, information was received, that black Caesar had that morning been shot by one Wimbow. This man and another, allured by the reward, had been for some days in quest of him.

Finding his haunt, they concealed themselves all night at the edge of a brush which they perceived him enter at dusk. In the morning he came out, when, looking round him and seeing his danger, he presented his musket; but before he could pull the trigger Wimbow fired and shot him. He was taken to the hut of Rose, a settler at Liberty Plains, where he died in a few hours. Thus ended a man, who certainly, during his life, could never have been estimated at more than one remove above the brute, and who had given more trouble than any other convict in the settlement.

Mind you, some of the convicts, just by making it to Australia, had achieved an escape of sorts, evading the gallows. John Hudson is a case in point, but he needed some help to bring it off.

Mind you, some of the convicts, just by making it to Australia, had effected an escape of sorts, evading the gallows. John Hudson is a case in point. He comes next.

[1] David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, vol 1, 58.

Monday, 9 March 2020

Bolters, part 2 of many

Following a “native road” to freedom.

The convict system was expected to reform criminals, but reformation was to be achieved by a combination of faint promises of kindness and large amounts of cruelty. Sadly, the vague promises rarely won the convicts over, and the cruelty just made them more obstinate, or more willing to die, taking their chances on the run, generally as bushrangers.

Looking at the evidence, it is no surprise that so many convicts found the going too hard and “ran”, or as the locals called it, they bolted gaining the name “bolters”. Having bolted, the escapees had three options. They could steal a boat and try to leave Australia; they could try to get away on a ship; or they could take to the bush and survive as best they could.

Stealing a boat was fine in theory, but it had to be large enough to survive storms on a long voyage. The escapees needed a navigator, instruments and maps, tools, food and water, and lots of luck. One group escaped to Timor by boat, but for most convicts, it was too risky, and probably impossible.

Getting onto a ship was not the best of choices either, because ships were searched before they left port, as The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser reported in 1807:

[Thomas] Shirley and another prisoner found on board the Star when about to sail, were brought before the Bench with four others taken from on board the Lucy the morning of her departure, and severally charged with having attempted to escape the colony; and the charge being fully substantiated, they were ordered 200 lashes.

So taking to the bush was an attractive choice. Most convicts were willing to explore all the options, but among those, going bush meant they could limp back to a settlement again and take their punishment if they could not make a go of it. Besides, going bush offered a bolter the option of getting onto a ship later, when all the fuss had died down. They became, in one sense or another, bushrangers.

Until about the 1860s, criminal bushrangers were usually convicts or ex-convicts. Australia was founded as a convict settlement, and somehow we imagine early Sydney as a sort of giant gaol, but the convicts in the First Fleet outnumbered their guards by a ratio of about 3 to 1. There were no cells to hold the convicts, and from the start, the colony functioned as an open gaol where convicts fended largely for themselves, and were expected to behave themselves but they were free to run away.

That said, there was nowhere to hide, except in the first days of the new colony, when nobody knew how to find their way around in the bush. Things changed when the new arrivals realised that there were tracks through the bush, and that brings us to the very first bushrangers, a term with a different meaning in the first 17 years of the colony.

First, we need some background: Botany Bay was selected because Sir Joseph Banks, an influential figure, said it had nice green meadows, which were probably distant swamps.

When the faster ships of the First Fleet reached Australia in January 1788, they anchored in Botany Bay, waiting for the other vessels to arrive. Within a day or two, some of the officers had gone ashore and examined the ground near Botany Bay. They found only sandy soil and no water supply large enough for a settlement with 1200 people in it — especially as the settlement was likely to grow in the years to come. Clearly, Botany Bay was no place to start a colony.

A boat was sent to explore a harbour just up the coast to the north. James Cook had passed the entrance to this port in 1770, without looking in, but he gave it the name Port Jackson, though today, we call it Sydney Harbour. This was a far better place for a settlement, and orders were given to move just a few miles north.

Then just as the fleet was preparing to set off for Sydney Cove, two other ships appeared out to sea. Quite a few modern Australians know that these were commanded by Jean François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse, whose name lives on in the suburb of Laperouse on the northern side of Botany Bay. Most of them are adamant that if Lapérouse had arrived a few days earlier, we would all wear berets, speak French and eat croissants.

Nothing could be further from the truth, and the evidence is there in the records. Lieutenant Philip Gidley King, who would later be the governor of the colony, knew all about the French and Lapérouse, even before seeing the ships. He wrote in his journal that the ships flew the French flag and that one of them “… wore a chef d’escadre’s [commodore’s] pennant.” From this, he said, they realised that the ships must be La Boussole and L’Astrolabe, “… under ye orders of Monsieur de La Perouse, on discoveries.”

In other words, the English naval officers knew in advance that they might see Lapérouse’s ships at Botany Bay, and they had instructions to greet the French in a friendly way. Time was pressing though, so the First Fleet sailed for Sydney Harbour, leaving the French in Botany Bay to repair their ships and their boats, and to get fresh water and maybe some fresh meat.

There was some formal contact with the French over the next few weeks. Then Lapérouse and his ships disappeared after leaving Botany Bay, but before he sailed away, he left letters and reports to be forwarded home to France. The first British-French contact, though, was far less official than the meeting to give those papers to Governor Arthur Phillip.

The first fleet began landing its human cargo in Sydney on 26 January, 1788, and on 1 February, Lt. King and Lt. William Dawes, a marine officer, set off in a cutter, sailing north to the Heads before turning south to Botany Bay. There was a southerly wind blowing, which helped the crew at first, but they had to row all the way down the coast, once they left the harbour.

They arrived in Botany Bay at 10 am, had a friendly visit, during which Lapérouse told them of an earlier unofficial visit, made by our very first rangers of the bush: a number of convicts had already walked overland from Sydney Cove, following “the road to Botany Bay”, the clear bush tracks of the original inhabitants of Australia. The convicts had begged to be taken aboard, but the French commander had sent them off with threats, though he kindly gave them some food so they could get safely back to Sydney Cove.

Very early on, Ann Smith and a Frenchman called Peter Paris (or Parris) went missing. Surgeon John White thought a Frenchman might have found favour with Lapérouse, but he added that “… the French commodore had given his honour that he would not admit any of them on board … he [Parris] might have been concealed, through pity, by his countrymen, and carried off without the knowledge of the commanding officer”. [1]

Though these people stole nothing, the people who visited the French were bushrangers. Until about 1805, when people in Sydney spoke of bushrangers, they generally used the word differently from the way we do now. To the early colonists, bushrangers were just men who ranged the bush, finding their way through the scrub and home again, a matter that wasn’t too hard in a country that was populated and occupied by people whose feet had left easy tracks to follow.

Later white explorers often used much the same method as these first bushrangers, travelling along “native roads”, the tracks worn through the bush by generations of Indigenous feet. Meanwhile, back at Botany Bay, Lapérouse and his officers decided that what the convict visitors had done in one direction, Frenchmen could do in the other. Three of Lapérouse’s men walked over the same tracks and popped, unannounced, out of the bush at Sydney Cove.

This day 3 of the Frenchmen from the ships w’h lie in Botany Bay came here overland w’h fowling-pieces, under the pretence of shooting, but I rather think they came to take a view of the matters going on here. They have already erected a fort w’h 2 or 3 guns on shore at B. Bay. The Governor has forbid any one going over to Botany Bay. Two horses were sent over to conduct the French commodore and suit [sic] here.
— Arthur Bowes, Journal, HRNSW (2), 394.

Score one to bushrangers as way-finders — or maybe allow them to score two points, because the French had also ranged the bush! Faced with the inevitable, Phillip sent a horse over to Botany Bay, so Lapérouse could ride over in style and visit the new colony.

The old sense of ‘bushranger’ lived on. In November 1805, Governor King (as the former Lieutenant King now was) wrote to Sir Joseph Banks, describing the people he had sent out to find a way over the Blue Mountains. The men came back, complaining of rocky ground, heath and bogs, before they got tired and went back to the Hawkesbury. King told Banks:

The whole of their story is so contradictory that I should not have inserted these particulars but to prove what little confidence can be put in this class of what is locally termed bushrangers.

So in early 1805, bushrangers did not have to be thieves, robbers and runaways, but the tide was changing, and before the year’s end, the sense of “thieving scoundrel, roaming the bush” had largely replaced the earlier meaning. The old sense must have lingered alongside the new, given an 1807 Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser report, where the “bush ranger” John Campbell appears to have been living in the bush as a labourer, rather than as a robber:

Yesterday a Bench of Magistrates assembled, before whom appeared several settlers at and about the Northern Boundary, charged with having employed John Campbell, a bush ranger, in contempt of established local Regulations to the following effect, viz. “No person is to be employed unless he produce his certificate, if a freeman, or his ticket of leave if a prisoner: penalty to be levied on the employer 5£, and 2s. 6d. for each day the man has been employed.”

Yet, looking back, the man who was very definitely the first bushranger in the criminal sense, had already been dead and buried for more than 11 years.

Black Caesar is up next.

[1] John White, Journal of a Voyage to NSW, February 8, 1788, available as, p 72.