Thursday, 3 April 2014

Rebellion at Castle Hill in 1804

By 1800, the colony at Sydney was not yet self-sufficient in food and was dependent on imported food. In an effort to remove this dependency Governor King expanded the Government farm at Castle Hill and by 1804, there was a significant concentration of 474 convicts on the farm.[1] It was rare for so many convicts to live and work together and there is little doubt that this situation aided preparations for insurrection by bringing together seasoned campaigners in rebellion. The previous year, Governor King, influenced by the uneasiness of the Irish convicts, had allowed the Roman Catholic clergyman Father James Dixon to preach mass to the Irish.[2] The first public mass was celebrated in Sydney on 15 May 1803 and others followed later at Parramatta and the Hawkesbury. King was so pleased at the salutary effect on the Irish Catholics that he decided to pay Dixon a salary of £60. But after praising the experiment in a dispatch of 1 March 1804, he soon ended it determined to enforce the convicts’ attendance at Anglican services because he believed that, especially after the rising of Irish convicts, seditious meetings took place when Catholics met to attend Mass.[3] In part the Irish rebels were fired by news arriving in the colony of Robert Emmett’s uprising in Dublin in 1803.

Sydney in 1804

By 1804, most of the Irish leaders of the previous attempts at rebellion had been imprisoned and moved to outlying areas of the colony such as Norfolk Island. Dispersal had worked well for the authorities but with each new rebellion plan, new Irish leaders rose among the convicts more aware of what not to do next time. The leaders of rebellion on 4 March 1804 were Phillip Cunningham and William Johnston. Cunningham was a veteran of the 1798 conflict in Ireland and the mutiny of the convict transport ship Anne. From his experiences in Ireland and NSW he understood that secrecy and a non-traceable but effective communication were essential to a successful rebellion.[4] Cunningham’s emphasis on secrecy was so successful that it was not until the day before the rebellion that the authorities knew of its existence. On the evening of 3 March, one of the Irish convict overseers turned informant. On Sunday 4 March, the day of the rebellion, two more informants came forward and provided names. John Griffen was one of the informants and had been relaying a message to the pike-maker Bryan Furey that the rebellion was on for Sunday night. Since Furey did not get the message the areas of Sydney, Parramatta and Windsor did not rebel. Castle Hill was the only district that rose in rebellion.

Despite this intelligence, the authorities in Parramatta and Sydney did not act immediately and on 4 March 1804, John Cavenah set fire to his hut in Castle Hill at 8.00 pm. This was the signal for the rebellion to begin. With Cunningham leading, 200 rebels broke into the Government Farm’s buildings, taking firearms, ammunition and other weapons. Initially there was mayhem as buildings were ransacked to cries of ‘Death or Liberty’. Two English convicts dragged the Hills District flogger, Robert Duggan from under his bed and George Harrington an English convict beat him unconscious. A constable was saved from a musket ball in the face when the musket of John Brannon misfired. Another constable was saved in similar circumstances when Jonathon Place’s musket also misfired. Cunningham gathered the rebels and reprimanded them for their lack of disciplined behaviour. The rebels then went from farm to farm on their way to Constitution Hill at Parramatta gathering firearms, supplies and drinking any liquor they found. The looting of farms gave the rebels over 180 swords, muskets and pistols. In 1804, this was close to one third of the colony’s entire armoury.[5]

Within an hour of Cavenah firing his hut, word of the rebellion had reached Parramatta causing considerable panic and by 11.00 pm Governor King in Sydney was aware of the situation. In Parramatta, Samuel Marsden, an obvious target for the rebels, fled the town by boat with his and John MacArthur’s family.[6] In Sydney, Major George Johnston rounded up a NSW Corps contingent of twenty-nine soldiers and force marched them through the night to Parramatta.[7] Governor King immediately set off for Parramatta and arrived around 4 am on 5 March where one of his first actions was to declare martial law in the affected districts. [8]

I do therefore proclaim the Districts of Parramatta, Castle Hill, Toongabbie, Prospect, Seven and Baulkham Hills, Hawkesbury and Nepean to be in a STATE of REBELLION; and to establish Martial Law throughout those Districts....[9]

Cunningham’s plan involved burning the MacArthur property of ‘Elizabeth Farm’ in order to draw the Parramatta garrison out of the town. Once this was done the rebels in Parramatta would rise up and set fire to the town as a signal. The Castle Hill rebels would gather at Constitution Hill and then raid the barracks for more arms and ammunition. From there the rebels would march to Windsor and join up with the rebels in the Hawkesbury before marching on Sydney. At dawn on 5 March, rebels were still straggling in to Constitution Hill. Phillip Cunningham and William Johnston were busy drilling the rebels on the hill while they were waiting for the signal from the uprising rebels in Parramatta. The signal never came. Cunningham’s messages to the Parramatta and Windsor rebels had not got through. Cunningham decided that the rebels would head down the Hawkesbury Road to Windsor to meet up with the rebels from the Hawkesbury. Had Cunningham effected this, King maintained it would have increased his force by a further hundred rebels.[10]

Major Johnston’s group of twenty nine soldiers of the NSW Corps and fifty members of the ‘Active Defence’ militia[11] pursued the rebels through Toongabbie and Sugar Loaf Hill until they were only a few miles away from the rebels. Major Johnston sent Father Dixon ahead in an effort to convince the rebels to surrender but he also wanted Father Dixon to slow the rebels down so his foot soldiers could make up the few miles difference. When Father Dixon failed to halt the rebels, Major Johnston and Trooper Anlezark rode to the rebels to attempt to persuade them to take the Governor’s offer of clemency. After Major Johnston challenged the rebel leaders to come forward, Phillip Cunningham and William Johnston separated from the 233 rebels and spoke with the Major. It was agreed that Major Johnston would bring back Father Dixon to talk with them again.

This delay gave sufficient time for the NSW Corps soldiers and militia to catch up to the rebels. When Major Johnston and Trooper Anlezark returned with Father Dixon they knew that their troops were not far behind. Once again Phillip Cunningham and William Johnston walked out to meet them while the rebels formed ranks. Johnson asked the rebel leaders what they really wanted and Cunningham replied ‘Death or Liberty’ adding, according to one account, ‘and a ship to take us home’. With these words Major Johnston held a pistol to William Johnston’s head and ordered him to move toward the soldiers and militia that had appeared over the rise. Anlezark did the same with Cunningham.

A painting by an unnamed artist depicting the action at Vinegar Hill.

Major Johnston without any other preliminaries, ordered his men to charge and open fire. Over fifty armed civilians, a mounted trooper, and 29 military men, most capable of firing 780 prepared rounds of ammunition in 10 to 15 minutes, were pitted against 233 rebels. Although the odds were technically with the rebels, with the precision and economy of movement that came from practice and military training, the soldiers formed ranks and for fifteen minutes carried out their duty precisely as ordered. Leaderless, caught completely unawares and totally unprepared, the rebels weakly returned fire before fleeing in all directions leaving fifteen dead. After the battle, several prisoners were murdered by the soldiers and militia until Major Johnston intervened and threatened his troops with his pistol. During the battle, William Johnston escaped his captor’s attention and fled into the bush. Cunningham was not so lucky and was struck by the sword of Quartermaster Thomas Laycock and left for dead as the soldiers rounded up the rebels. Amazingly Cunningham survived the blow and, critically wounded, was picked up by soldiers the next day. In the official reports that followed the battle neither Major Johnston’s actions nor Laycock’s was mentioned. [12]

Vinegar Hill, charge of the 5th Dragoon Guards on the insurgents, by William Sadler

Retribution was swift as King believed that punishing the leaders would pacify the convicts who had followed them. The 1804 Rebellion is referred to as an Irish rebellion or ‘Australia’s Irish rebellion’. This is misleading as the group of rebels on Vinegar Hill included convicts and free men like Charles Hill of different nationalities. Of those hanged, several were English convicts. King’s decision meant that most of the rebels were not punished, a pragmatic decision as the captured rebels were still needed to work the Government Farm. Phillip Cunningham was summarily hanged from the staircase of the public store at Windsor on 6 March. It has been suggested that Cunningham was already dead prior to his ‘execution’ as all the other leaders faced a court martial four days later. The other possible explanation is that he was not expected to survive the trip to Parramatta and he was executed before he could die of his wounds, a position possibly supported in correspondence between Johnston and King.[13]. The rest of the leaders were brought before a court martial. William Johnston who had surrendered to the authorities pleaded guilty. John Neale admitted he was in the rebel group. Jonathon Place denied all charges and the rest claimed they had been forced to join the rebellion. William Johnston and Samuel Humes as leaders in the rebellion were ordered hung in a public place and then for their bodies to be hung in chains. Six others were executed: Charles Hill and Jonathon Place at Parramatta on 8 March, John Neale and George Harrington at Castle Hill the following day and John Brannan and Timothy Hogan in Sydney on 10 March. The Sydney Gazette of 18 March 1804 reported on the background of the ‘Principal Offenders’

Philip Cunningham the Principal Rebel leader, who was executed at Hawkesbury, was one of the Prisoners by the Ann, and was remarkably active in the mutinous transactions on board that vessel which rendered a recourse to rigorous exertions necessary to the safety of the Officers and crew. Some time after his arrival he was sent up to the Settlement at Castle Hill, whence he was appointed overseer of the Government Stone-masons and such was the...indulgence shown him, that in the Course of little more than a twelvemonth he had nearly erected on his own account, a stone building of considerable value.

Samuel Humes officiated as overseer of the Carpenters, and had a convenient house, and received also many indulgences that might have awakened a sentiment of gratitude in his breast which would have prevented his disgrace and untimely exit.

John Place was the only survivor of the three who embarked on the fatal enterprise of crossing the Mountains, under the ludicrous supposition of an unknown Settlement there existing, and was pardoned on account of the pitiable and deplorable plight in which he was found. He was afterwards corporally punished for a second time absconding in order to subsist in the woods, and his restless and relentless disposition at length drew down upon him the provoked vengeance of the Law.

Charles Hill, although several years a free man had lost all sight of character, and was in consequence frequently implicated in theft and misdemeanor. He rented a farm, and might have procured an honest and comfortable livelihood, but the hope of plunder could alone induce him to join the infatuated people, and his atrocious designs obtained their due reward.

The same edition also reported

Francois Girault, a Frenchman, in obedience to HIS EXCELLENCY’S positive command, quitted the Colony, in His Majesty’s ship Calcutta, having been charged on evidence strongly presumptive with secretly abetting and encouraging the late Revolt. This man resided at Parramatta, and had for several months past devoted much of his time to trafficking as a pedlar to and from Castle Hill during which intercourse he too probably obtained an undue influence among the people at the Settlement, and availing himself of an unhappy credulity, desseminated gradually the seeds of dissention and discontent, but ingeniously in the end found means to avoid open detection and to escape condign punishment.[14]

Many of the remaining leaders were flogged with either five hundred or two hundred lashes and then sent to the new penal settlement at Coal River (Newcastle).[15] Finally, Joseph Holt and Maurice Margarot were arrested on suspicion of involvement. Holt was kept in gaol before sent to Norfolk Island on 19 April, on the instructions of the magistrates who decided that, although there was insufficient evidence to convict him of treason before a criminal court, ‘the tranquillity of the colony’ required such a measure. Margarot also joined Holt in exile at Norfolk Island. Other suspected rebels who had not been openly involved in the rebellion were also sent to Norfolk Island without proof of their involvement.[16] By August 1804, King was sufficiently confident to write to Lord Hobart

I am happy to inform your Lordship that no late circumstances of that kind have occurred to disturb the tranquillity of the colony, notwithstanding which I rather hope than am confident that anything of the kind may never happen again-nothing so daring I think ever will; yet, altho’ every exertion is made to counteract their being misled, I am sorry to say that a few disaffected characters will always be endeavouring to poison the minds of the greater part of those who have been sent here for sedition and rebellion in Ireland, who, notwithstanding the lenity shewn them so lately, have been endeavouring to resume their wild plans, which has rendered it necessary to put the worst of that class under greater restrictions than has hitherto been the case.[17]

However, Johnston took a more sanguine view, if only to support his argument that the NSW Corps should be reinforced

Should Insurrection again appear, it may not be in the feeble way in which the last broke out; therefore, a stronger hand must be applied to put it down; or should it be found necessary to form other Settlements where a Military Force would be required, or to augment the Detached Posts already out, the King’s Service must materially suffer, either by weakening Head Quarters so as to render due subordination to the Government unfortified, or defering that Service till a representation was made Home.[18]


[1] King to Major Johnston, 25 February 1803, HRNSW, Vol. 5, pp. 51-51 suggests that there were already problems at Castle Hill with only ‘200 refractory convicts’.

[2] Parsons, Vivienne, ‘Dixon, James (1758-1840)’, ADB, Vol. 1, p. 309. For, King’s proclamation and regulations governing Roman Catholic congregations, 19 April 1803, see, HRNSW, Vol. 5, pp. 97-98 and King to Hobart, 9 May 1803, HRA, Series I, Vol. 3, pp. 104-105; King to Hobart, 9 May 1803, HRNSW, Vol. 5, p. 116.

[3] King to Hobart, 1 March 1804, HRNSW, Vol. 5, p. 324.

[4] Silver, Lynette Ramsay, The Battle of Vinegar Hill: Australia’s Irish Rebellion, (Doubleday), 1989, (Watermark Press), 2002 remains the only substantial study. Sydney Gazette, 11 March 1807 contained a detailed account based on King’s despatch.

[5] W. Pascoe Crook, a missionary provided a detailed account of the early stage of the rebellion, HRNSW, Vol. 5, pp. 314-315 while George Suttor to Sir Joseph Banks, 10 March 1804, HRNSW, Vol. 5, pp. 350-352 is more detailed on its aftermath.

[6] Surgeon Thomas Arndell had written from the Hawkesbury to ‘the Reverend Mr. Marsden, or in his absence, the Officer commanding at Parramatta’, 4 March, 1804: ‘Revr. Sir, From Strong and confirmed information I have every reason to believe that many of those deluded prisoners that call themselves United Irishmen and others had an Insurrection in project this night, and I beg you will be so kind as to forward some ammunition with the bearer sent on purpose for our Defence here’ HRA Series I, Vol. 4, p. 567. This warning may account for Marsden’s escape.

[7] For Johnston’s account of events see his succinct report to Lieutenant-Colonel Paterson, 9 March 1804, HRNSW, Vol. 5, pp. 348-349.

[8] See, King’s proclamation of martial law, 5 March 1804, p. 345. The statement in the Sydney Gazette is more of a summary.

[9] HRNSW, Vol. 5, p. 346.

[10] King to Hobart, 12 March 1804, HRNSW, Vol. 5, pp. 355-356.

[11] Sydney and Parramatta also raised militias to defend the towns from the rebels. Neither of these forces took part in the Battle of Vinegar Hill. The ‘Parramatta Loyalists’ militia numbered thirty six and remained in Parramatta. The ‘Sydney Loyalists’ did not march with Major Johnston and remained in Sydney during the rebellion.

[12] Vinegar Hill was not a formal location in 1804. The battle between the rebels and the soldiers became commonly known as the ‘Battle of Vinegar Hill’ after the Irish battle in 1798. Common usage of the name Vinegar Hill began to appear in the 1810s and 1830s in the Rouse Hill area. But there is no formal Vinegar Hill on a map. There have been competing thoughts for the location of Vinegar Hill. Originally it was thought to be Rouse Hill, George Mackanass challenged this in the 1950s marking the location of Vinegar Hill as the crossroads between Windsor Road and Schofields Road. In the 1980s, several other local historians came to the same conclusion as did the NSW Commissioner for the Department of Planning and the Environment in 1982. Lynette Ramsay Silver points to the letter of Major Johnston which talks of his troops turning at the ‘Government Stock Fence’ to the second hill from Half Way Pond. By her reckoning the Government Stock Fence is where Old Windsor Road and Windsor Road meet today and Old Ponds Creek is known today as Second Ponds Creek. For Silver, the location of the battle is approximately at the crossroads of Schofields Road and Windsor Road. The area occupied by Castlebrook Lawn Cemetery satisfies the criteria in every respect and in 1988 a sculpture commemorating the battle was dedicated at Castlebrook Lawn Cemetery by former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.

[13] Johnson to King, 6 March 1804, HRNSW, Vol. 5, p. 345 states that ‘C_______, who is one of the rebel chiefs, who was supposed to be dead on the field, was brought in here alive, and I immediately - with the opinion of the officers - ordered him to be hung up.’

[14] The same edition of the Sydney Gazette included a report that war between Britain and France had restarted. There is an unproven but significant implication that Girault was a French agent.

[15] Lieutenant Menzies to King, 15 June 1804, HRNSW, Vol. 5, pp. 385-386 gives brief details of a conspiracy at Newcastle. See also, King to Hobart, 14 August 1804, HRA, Series I, Vol. 5, pp. 1-2.

[16] King to Under-Secretary Cooke, 20 July 1805, HRNSW, Vol. 5, pp. 663-667 detailed how political prisoners and especially Margarot were treated.

[17] King to Hobart, 14 August 1804, HRA, Series I, Vol. 5, p. 1.

[18] Johnston to King, 24 April 1805, HRA, Series I, Vol. 5, p. 448.

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