Thursday, 24 April 2014

The Rum Rebellion: introduction

Just before sunset on 26 January 1808, the twentieth anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet, over 300 soldiers of the New South Wales Corps, the 102nd regiment of the British army expressly created to protect the new colony, gathered on the parade ground in front of their barracks in what is now Wynyard Square.  The officers of the Corps had held a rare full dress dinner at the barracks two nights and the following day, decided to arrest and depose Governor William Bligh, fourth Governor of the colony.[1]  The soldiers were led in formation from the parade ground by their commander, Major George Johnston, with drawn sword in one hand and the other arm in a sling, an injury caused when he fell out of his carriage drunk on the way home after the regimental dinner. Guns loaded, bayonets fixed, sweltering in their scarlet woollen coats, with banners flying and the regimental band playing The British Grenadiers, the column marched down High Street, across the new stone bridge spanning the Tank Stream and up Bridge Street to Government House, a show of force designed to impress and more importantly intimidate the general populace.  There was no possibility of resistance. Bligh’s personal guard had already been suborned and the two naval vessels under his command were out of port.  Bligh was taken by surprise and kept under house arrest for a year and it was a further year before Governor Lachlan Macquarie arrived with his own 73rd regiment to enforce the removal of the NSW Corps. This was the so-called ‘Rum rebellion’.

Under what circumstances is resistance to established authority permissible?  The founders of the colony in NSW thought in terms of the Lockean model of the formation of government. Locke maintained that individual liberties were paramount but that in the progression from a state of nature to civil society some of these liberties would be sacrificed in return for the protection that government could give especially in relation to property. If government acted in a despotic way, the governed could reclaim their original rights through rebellion. The story of what happened in Sydney at the beginning of 1808 is full of contrasting personalities in open conflict, different perceptions of reality and vested interests in sharp conflict. At this distance of time, it is sometimes difficult to avoid an impression of children squabbling. At its distance in London, the British Government of that time appears to have had a similar impression.


[1] Mackaness, G., The Life of Vice-Admiral William Bligh, 2 Vols. (Farrar & Rinehart), 1937, Vol. 2, pp. 95-334 covers his rule in NSW, the rebellion and its aftermath. See also, Shaw, A.G.L., ‘Bligh, William (1754-1817)’, ADB, Vol. 1, pp. 118-122.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

The Castle Hill Rising: some conclusions

Unlike the Eureka rebellion at Ballarat, Victoria in 1854, Australian historians have been slow to recognise the 1804 convict revolt as a legitimate expression of political resistance. Established in 1788, the fledgling British colony of NSW was small and isolated, but with a significant component of political rebels among its convict population. As a result, NSW had a strong undercurrent of republicanism and a persistent anti-authoritarianism to British rule. According to Patrick O’Farrell, the Irish were led to rebel by semi-mystical impulses, ‘frustrations, sickness of heart, and impulses of affront: in a word pride.’[1] Lynette Ramsay Silver also implies that the rebels were merely homesick romantics. More recently historians Ann-Maree Whitaker and Ruan O’Donnell have recognised the political imperatives that shaped rebellion.

With the exception of Joseph Holt’s Memoirs, edited and published in 1838 twelve years after his death and decidedly critical of seditious activities, the accounts of the planned or actual Irish rebellions in the first decade of the nineteenth century were written by those who sympathised with or supported the actions of the authorities. The rebels themselves have little or no voice and where it is evident it is generally mediated through the voice of the authorities in despatches, reports and accounts. Reliance on ‘official’ sources poses particular problems especially since official attitudes towards Irish ‘politicals’ from the early 1790s was broadly negative. This can be seen David Collins’ comments on fractious character of Irish convicts in 1798 and 1799 and of the need to take firm action against them

The Irish prisoners who had arrived in the last ships from that country had about this period become so turbulent and refractory, and so dissatisfied with their situation, that, without the most rigid and severe punishment, it was impossible to derive from them any labour whatever.[2]

A numerous body of the Irish convicts, many of whom had but lately arrived, insisted that ‘their times were out’, and could not be persuaded that they were mistaken by any remonstrance or argument. They grew noisy and insolent, and even made use of threats; upon which a few of the most forward and daring were secured, and instantly punished; after which they were ordered to go back to their work. They had also taken up the idea that Ireland had shaken off its connection with England, and they were no longer to be considered as convicts under the British government. This was a most pernicious idea to be entertained by such a lawless set of people, and requiring the strong arm of government to eradicate it.[3]

More problematic was the political ideas circulating among Irish convicts in early 1798 especially their belief in their ultimate liberation through French intervention. To the authorities, isolated in NSW, this posed a major threat.

A report prevailed at this time among the labouring people, particularly the Irish, who were always foremost in every mischief and discontent, that an old woman had prophesied the arrival of several French frigates, or large ships of war, who were, after destroying the settlement, to liberate and take off the whole of the convicts. The rapidity with which this ridiculous tale was circulated is incredible. The effect was such as might be expected. One refractory fellow, while working...at Toongabbie, threw down his hoe, advancing before the rest, and gave three cheers for liberty. This for a while seemed well received; but, a magistrate fortunately being at hand, the business was put to an end, by securing the advocate for liberty, tying him up in the field, and giving him a severe flogging.[4]

Colonial paranoia increased once evidence of planned rebellion became evident after 1800 but how real was the threat from Irish convicts?  The Defenders and United Irishmen transported between 1795 and 1806 provided leadership to those convicts, many Irish but including English transportees, who were prepared to take direct action to overthrow the colonial authorities. Although it was the Irish convicts who were a particular concern to Hunter, King and Bligh, it is important not to over-exaggerate their significance while under-estimating the involvement of convicts of other nationalities. In addition, the Irish convict leadership had considerable experience in planning and implementing rebellious activities. This explains why successive governors sent leaders or presumed leaders, whether there was concrete evidence of sedition or not, to the more isolated penal settlements on Norfolk Island and VDL. This had the effect of disrupting any planning for insurrection. Finally, hatred of the British in Ireland was transposed to NSW and this meant that Irish leaders had a willing supply of convicts who were prepared to support their actions. That support came from non-Irish convicts is a reflection of the punitive and arbitrary nature of convict life. Where they were concentrated in one area, as on the Castle Hill farm, Ireland’s cause helped bind these men together.

However, there were major problems for those seeking rebellion. First, keeping planning secret was a major difficulty and only the Castle Hill revolt in 1804 saw planning converted into action. Convicts were always willing to ‘split upon each other’ and this allowed the authorities to intervene before matters spiralled out of control. Secondly, the objectives of rebellion such as the rallying cry of ‘Death or Liberty’ or demands for a ship to go home were idealistic and unrealistic. Although these may have been the aims of rebel leaders, there is little evidence that they were widely held by the rank-and-file, many of whom claimed that they had been forced into rebellion.[5] Thirdly, as in Ireland during the 1798 rebellion, when faced with even inferior military force, the rebels could not translate numerical strength into military victory. Finally, the hoped for French aid was illusory as it was never part of French strategy and, during the critical period from1801 to 1804 war in Europe had been suspended.

It was the British government that was constantly afraid of convict rebellion and disorder though this did not stop it sending political prisoners to NSW despite the concerns of successive governors. For the authorities, a colony composed largely of convicts was inevitably turbulent and rebellious, something reflected in Hunter’s and King’s despatches. In his reports on NSW and VDL, Bigge considered that the best security against rebellion was the higher standard of living that convicts generally enjoyed in NSW than in Britain and the opportunities and rewards open to those with industry and skill. Some convicts ‘bolted’ but only a few rebelled.


[1] Ibid, O’Farrell, Patrick, The Irish in Australia, p. 38.

[2] Ibid, Collins, David, An account of the English colony in New South Wales, Vol. 2, p. 54.

[3] Ibid, Collins, David, An account of the English colony in New South Wales, Vol. 2, pp. 102-103.

[4] Ibid, Collins, David, An account of the English colony in New South Wales, Vol. 2, p. 77.

[5] The major source for the attitudes of ordinary rebels comes from after the rebellion had failed. Faced with possible hanging, it is hardly surprising that many claimed they had been coerced into rebelling. This was evident in other rebellions, for instance, after Newport in 1839 many of those arrested claimed coercion as a defence.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

A possible insurrection in 1807

Michael Dwyer had been involved in the 1798 rebellion and later made contact with Robert Emmet but was reluctant to commit his followers to march to Dublin unless the rebellion showed some initial success. The subsequent failure of Emmet’s rising in 1803 led to a period of repression and renewed attempts by the Government to wipe out Dwyer’s forces. In December 1803 Dwyer finally capitulated on terms that would allow him safe passage to America but the government reneged on the agreement holding him in Kilmainham Jail until August 1805, when they transported him to NSW as an unsentenced exile.

Dwyer arrived in Sydney on 14 February 1806 in the Tellicherry and was given free settler status.[1] He arrived with his wife and two eldest children. He was given a grant of 100 acres of land on Cabramatta Creek in Sydney adjacent to grants to his comrades Hugh ‘Vesty’ Byrne, John Mernagh, Arthur Devlin and Martin Burke. Michael Dwyer was quoted as saying that all Irish would be free in this new country. This statement had been used against him and he and several others in the group were arrested in February 1807 and imprisoned.[2] Bligh reported to William Windham, on 19 March, 1807

No arms have been found, or any positive overt act committed, our information leading only to declared plans which were to be put into execution by the Irish convicts, headed by O’Dwyer and some of the Irish state prisoners, as they are here called.

It appears that, in order to avoid detection, they determined to rest their success on seizing the arms of the loyal inhabitants ; and to effect this, the Irish servants of the inhabitants were on a certain time fixed to massacre their respective masters, and the principal persons of the colony, and then to possess themselves of their arms.

Of this determination, I continued to have proofs more or less, when I determined on seizing the persons represented as the ring-leaders, and effected my purpose. O’Dwyer I have put on board the Porpoise. Byrn (sic), Burke, and some others are in jail for trial, and will be brought forward as soon as our evidences are all arranged and prepared.[3]

On 11 May 1807 Dwyer was charged with conspiring to mount an Irish insurrection against British rule. An Irish convict stated in court that Michael Dwyer had plans to march on Parramatta. Dwyer did not deny that he had said that all Irish will be free but he did deny the charges of organising an Irish insurrection in Sydney. On 18 May 1807, Dwyer was found not guilty of the charges of organising an Irish insurrection in Sydney. Bligh informed Windham of his actions on 31 October 1807

...they have since been tried, and the fact, in my opinion, proved, yet they were acquitted - except two, who were sentenced to corporeal (sic) punishment. The whole being prisoners for life I immediately divided the gang and sent two of each to the settlements of Norfolk Island, the Derwent, and Port Dalrymple, and kept two here. The two men who informed of this conspiracy gave their evidence so steadily as to induce me to give them free pardons, and they remain here without any apprehension of being molested by the disaffected Irishmen.[4]

The Sydney Gazette reported

Michael O’Dwyer, Hugh Byrne, Martin Burke, John Merner (sic), Thomas McCann, Arthur Devlyn (sic), and Walter Clare, were put to the bar ..., for contriving and intending to disturb the peace of this colony, by instigating many persons to revolt from their allegiance, and to rise in open rebellion, with them to overthrow His Majesty’s Government therein, as well upon the 27th day of August last as at other subsequent periods, prior to the prisoners being taken into custody.

The evidence on the part of the Crown was clear and connected. It appeared upon the most respectable testimony, that the conduct of many of that description of prisoners, who had been exiled for treasonable and seditious practices, had been untoward and highly disrespectful to their masters, at and about the above stated period, and that,, from this sudden change of conduct, in addition to the various informations that were communicated by persons whose veracity was to be depended upon, no other inference was deductible than that the projected insurrection was on the very point of bursting forth, and that the devoted victims to delusion and artiface were confident of a successful issue.

The prisoners were allowed every assistance requisite for their defence; which after some exculpatory argument, concluded with a point blank denial of the charge.

The Court was then cleared; and after a minute revision of the evidence, reopened; when Thomas McCann and William Morris were found guilty, and the others were acquitted. - The prisoners were taken from the bar, and ordered to be brought up to receive their sentence the following day....Thomas McCann and William Morris were again brought forward, and addressed by the JUDGE ADVOCATE; who remarked to them, notwithstanding the malignancy of the crime they were convicted of upon testimony clear and incontrovertible, yet the penalty incurred did not extend to the lives of the delinquents; but the security of society from such foul, sanguinary, and abominable devices, rendered necessary the most exemplary punishment: The Court did therefore adjudge and sentence them to receive one thousand lashes each; the Court recommended further, that as delinquents of the most dangerous principles and character, be removed by the most speedy conveyance to some remote place, where the baneful influence of their detestible principles might not be disseminated among other ignorant & incredulous persons.

In pursuance of their sentence, the prisoners having received a part of their corporal punishment, have been sent away to different settlements, where the remainder will be inflicted....The odious project which has thus been happily laid open, has been in agitation for upward of a twelvemonth; the secret informations received by Government rendered vigilance necessary, and every precaution that had been adopted was immediately succeeded by a change of measures among the principal agents in the work of intended massacre - and had their plots succeeded to their wish, dreadful indeed had been the fate of all, whom reason, loyalty, and humanity must inspire with sentiments of abhorrence and disgust at their intended plan of operation.[5]

Bligh regarded the Irish and many other nationalities with contempt and disregarded the first trial acquittal of Michael Dwyer. Dwyer was stripped of his free settler status and transported to Norfolk Island and later to VDL. On 27 May, 1807, Bligh sent O’Dwyer and Morris to Norfolk Island with instructions to the Commandant, Captain Piper

Michael O’Dwyer and William Morris, two convicts for life, being found to be persons necessary to be removed from this settlement, you are hereby required and directed to receive the two said men, and victual them accordingly, taking care that they are not suffered to quit Norfolk Island unless by authority from under my hand. And the said William Morris, having received five hundred and twenty-five lashes, pursuant to his sentence of one thousand, you are hereby required to direct the remaining part of four hundred and seventy-five lashes to be inflicted according to the warrant sent herein by the Judge-Advocate.[6]

After Governor Bligh was deposed in the Rum Rebellion in 1808, the acting Governor of NSW, George Johnston who was present at Dwyer’s acquittal in the first trial ordered that he should be freed. Michael Dwyer later became Chief of Police in 1813 at Liverpool, NSW but was dismissed in October 1820 for drunken conduct and mislaying important documents. In December 1822, he was sued for aggrandising his farm with Ann Stroud’s. This spurred Daniel Cooper to demand restitution of some £2,000 invested in Dwyer’s popular Harrow Inn. Bankrupted, Dwyer was forced to sell off most of his assets but this did not save him from several weeks’ imprisonment in the Sydney debtors’ prison in May 1825. Here he evidently contracted dysentery from which he died in August 1825.


[1] See, O’Donnell, Ruan, ‘Dwyer, Michael (1772?-1825)’, ADB, supplementary Vol. p. 110 and Lawlor, Chris, In search of Michael Dwyer, (Chris Lawlor), 2003.

[2] O’Dwyer, B.W., ‘Michael Dwyer and the 1807 plan of insurrection’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 69, (1983), pp. 73-82 remains the only account of the supposed insurrection.

[3] Bligh to W. Windham, 19 March 1807, HRNSW, Vol. 6, pp. 259-260.

[4] Bligh to Windham, 31 October 1807, HRNSW, Vol. 6, p. 363.

[5] Sydney Gazette, 7 June 1807.

[6] Bligh to Windham, 31 October 1807, HRNSW, Vol. 6, p. 354.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

‘Morally repugnant’: the new language of politics?

So this weekend we have two news stories to which the term ‘morally repugnant’ has been applied.  Supermarkets have been urged to end ‘buy one get one free’ deals to cut the ‘morally repugnant’ amount of food being thrown away by shoppers…and this from the House of Lords itself regarded by many as a ‘morally repugnant’ and undemocratic institution.  We also have the continuing saga of Maria Miller’s expenses, her vacuous and remarkably short apology—‘contemptuous’ as far as Labour is concerned--and ‘hints’ or as the press would have it ‘veiled threats’ from her advisors to the press that Leveson is within her remit…yes it’s another ‘morally repugnant’ expenses scandal!  Now I’ve always believed that at the heart of politics should be a moral imperative but this may well be politically naive of me.  There’s little moral about the rough and tumble of politics as individuals seek to clamber their way up the greasy pole to political power even if you believe—genuinely of course—that achieving power will allow you to do all those ‘good’ things that you’ve always said you wanted to do.  Making political decisions is rarely moral and when it is—I think we have the moral high ground or there is a moral principle at stake here—I tend to see it as an appeal for populist support for a policy that is indefensible in other ways.  

In fact, political discourse over the last decade has been replete with moral outrage…for instance, over bankers (probably justifiably), utility companies for ripping of the consumer, over those ‘unwilling’ to work or live on welfare as a career choice and individuals and organisations that do not pay their ‘fair share’ of taxation and not to mention MPs’ expenses.  What has been done about it?  Welfare reform certainly but then it’s always easier politically to hit those unable to defend themselves economically but bankers and tax-avoiders have been largely unaffected as long as they can stomach the moral outrage, which of course they can by simply ignoring it and energy companies have simplified their tariffs but, to most people, they still remain a foreign language.  The Miller case demonstrates that MPs should, under no circumstances, police themselves and be allowed to overrule the Parliamentary Commissioner of Standards…as several commentators and the public has said, if we did that we’d be sacked.  That a rich society like Britain still has high levels of individual and child poverty is morally repugnant, that bakers can give themselves obscenely large bonuses is morally repugnant, that we have a political class seemingly bent on acting in its own interests irrespective of its effect on ordinary people is morally repugnant…throwing a lettuce away may be environmentally and economically wasteful but it’s hardly morally repugnant. 

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.