Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Pre-famine Irish transportation: New South Wales

John Dunmore Lang noted that the Irish were sent almost exclusively to NSW. He went on to observe that no less than one-third of the total population of the colony of NSW in 1837 was composed of Irish Catholics, of whom nineteen-twentieths were convicts or emancipated convicts.[1] One observer noted the difference between national groups: Scottish convicts were considered the worst and Irish the best in VDL and NSW. He thought that this was because English law was more severe for minor crimes: ‘A man is vanished from Scotland for a great crime, from England for a small on, and from Ireland, for hardly no crime at all.’ [2]

The first ship to sail directly from Ireland carrying convicts under sentence of transportation was the Queen that arrived in Port Jackson on 26 September 1791.[3] From 1791 to 1798, most offenders were petty criminals from Dublin and Cork but with some representatives of ‘Defenders’, a largely Catholic movement in the rural counties bordering Ulster.[4] 200-300 Defenders landed in Port Jackson in the pre-Rebellion period and comprised at least half of all Irish political prisoners who arrived in NSW before 1806. [5] After the 1798 and 1803 rebellions, many of the 500-800 individuals transported were political prisoners, members or supporters of the revolutionary Society of United Irishmen. In 1801, Governor King described the Irish political prisoners who arrived on the Anne and those that had preceded them and ‘desperate and diabolical’[6] and a year later he asked the British government not to send any more Irishmen there and few as possible of those convicted of sedition and republican practices, otherways, in a very short time this colony will be composed of a few other characters, which must necessarily draw on anarchy and confusion...[7]

His concern was borne out two years later when Irish convicts, many transported for their part in the 1798 Irish Rebellion, played a leading role in the Castle Hill Rebellion.[8]

From 1803 until the 1820s, there was a return to the predominantly urban emphasis of the early phase. From the late 1820s to the onset of famine migration many of those transported were rural offenders, some members of agrarian organisations such as the Whiteboys and ‘Terry Alts’.[9] Robert Holmes, a farm servant, for example was transported for life in 1819 for attacking and robbing the house of Pat Roche of Kilmallock, County Limerick. In 1829, Peter Gray, a twenty-seven year old ploughman was transported for life at Sligo for administering unlawful oaths. The following year he was hanged at Bathurst for bush-ranging and participating in an uprising in the town.[10] Between 1821 and 1840, 636 people from County Clare were transported to NSW, principally for petty crime, stealing bread, butter, clothing, killing sheep for meat, done largely in the name of survival. More serious crimes, including the stealing of cattle, earned life sentences. These convicts sent home word about the superior kind of life available in the colonies setting the pattern for subsequent emigration especially from Tipperary, Clare and South East Galway. [11]

Many of the early convicts eventually became established members of their communities. John Grant is a good example of Irish success in NSW.[12] Born in 1792 in Moyne, County Tipperary, in August 1810 he was sentenced to transportation to Australia at Clonmel for the attempted shooting of his landlord’s son. The man had apparently seduced, with her apparent consent, John’s sister Mary, and he, perhaps falsely, claimed that John had tried to shoot him. Apparently the courting couple heard that John and his brother Jeremiah were after them, and fearing the consequences, decided on a plot to remove John and Jeremiah. The landlord’s son fabricated a story that John had fired a loaded gun at him on 22 March 1810 and had missed. However, their sister had a change of heart and murdered her lover, as he was the only man who could testify against John. So the ‘justice of mercy’ was dispensed. The sister was hanged in the Spring Assizes, John was sentenced to life transportation to Australia and Jeremiah got away with 12 months in prison.

John left Falmouth on 21 January 1811 on the Providence, arriving in Sydney on 2 July. He had the good fortune to be assigned immediately to William Redfern[13], an emancipated assistant surgeon and worked on his farm at Campbelltown, rising to the position of overseer by 1817. Soon afterwards he petitioned Governor Macquarie for ‘mitigation of his sentence’ stressing that he was a family man and a trusted servant of Redfern. His petition was successful, he was granted his ticket of leave, and on 31 January 1820 was granted a pardon conditional that he stayed in Australia. He seems to have been accepted by the community, as he was appointed constable of Campbelltown within three months of becoming a free man. Twice in 1821, there are references to the government paying him to do work; for example he was paid £75 for tree felling and burning off. But like many of his contemporaries he looked west to the Blue Mountains for fame and fortune. Macquarie promised him 50 acres and in March 1821 he settled on land at the foot of Mount Victoria naming his property Moyne Farm, after his home in Ireland. The government assigned him a considerable number of convicts to clear the land. He is found selling wheat to a government store in Hartley in 1823. Over the years he acquired land to the west, and the 1828 census shows him occupying 150 acres (25 cleared, 11 cultivated) at Hartley where he also had 10 horses, 370 cattle and 2,440 sheep. In addition at Belabula, near Bathurst he had 5,500 sheep on 4,000 acres under an annual licence with 56 convicts and ticket of leave men working for him. Over the next thirty years, he acquired a considerable quantity of land. In 1853 his eldest son John married Julia Finn of Hartley and he gave them Moyne Farm plus 160 acres as a wedding present. He lived on his estates at Merriganowry on the Lachlan River where he owned several thousand acres. He died on 13 December 1866, aged 74, after several years of illness leaving an estate worth £3,000

[1] Lang, John Dunmore, Transportation and Colonization; or The Causes of the Comparative Failure of the Transportation System, (Bell and Bradfute), 1837, pp. iv-v, 471. Sir Richard Bourke to Lord Stanley, Secretary of State for the Colonies, 30 December 1833, cit, Burton, William Westbrooke, The State of Religion and Education in New South Wales, London, 1840, Appendix X, pp. lx-lxi, thought the figure was ‘a fifth’.

[2] Henderson, John, Observations on the Colonies of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land, Calcutta, 1833, p. 9.

[3] Ibid, Reece, Bob, Irish convicts: the origins of convicts transported to New South Wales, pp. 231-273 considers Irish transportation to 1795. For the early transportees, see, Donohoe, James Hugh, Convicts and exiles transported from Ireland, 1791-1820, (J.S. North Pub.), 1997 and The Catholics of New South Wales, 1788-1820 and their families, (Archives Authority of New South Wales), 1988.

[4] On radical Irish politics in the 1790s see, McDowell, R.B., Ireland in the Age of Imperialism and Revolution, 1760-1801, (Oxford University Press), 1979, Smyth, Jim, The Men of no property: Irish Radicals and popular politics in the Late Eighteenth Century, (Macmillan), 1998, Dickson, David, Keogh, Daire and Whelan, Kevin, (eds.), The United Irishmen: Republicanism, Radicalism and Rebellion, (Lilliput Press), 1992 and  Elliott, M., Partners in Revolution: the United Irishmen and France, (Yale University Press), 1982. Pakenham, Thomas, The Year of Liberty; the great Irish Rebellion of 1798, (Hodder & Stoughton), 1969 and O’Donnell, Ruán, Robert Emmet and the Rising of 1803, (Irish Academic Press), 2003 provide accounts of the two rebellions.

[5] 519 male prisoners were disembarked from the four ships carrying Defenders to NSW between 1793 and 1797.  Kiernan, T.J., The Irish Exiles in Australia, (Clonmore & Reynolds), 1954, p. 9. See, O’Donnell, Ruán, ‘‘Desperate and Diabolical’: Defender and United Irishmen in early NSW’.

[6] King to Portland, 10 March 1801, HRNSW, Vol. 4, p. 319.

[7] King to Portland, 21 May 1802, HRNSW, Vol. 4, pp. 764-766.

[8] Silver, Lynette Ramsay, The Battle of Vinegar Hill: Australia’s Irish Rebellion, (Doubleday), 1989, revised ed., (Watermark Press), 2002; the 1804 Rebellion is often called by Australian historians an Irish rebellion or ‘Australia’s Irish rebellion’. This is misleading as the group of rebels on Vinegar Hill included convicts and free men of many nationalities. Of the leaders hanged, several were English convicts. It is true, however, that the Irish convicts were punished more heavily for the rebellion than the English convicts. See below, pp. 495-526.

[9] Peter Mayberry’s database on Irish Convicts to NSW 1791-1835 identifies 754 individuals transported for agrarian unrest after 1816.

[10] He was evidently part of the Ribbon Gang that took part in an insurrection in late 1830. It was not widespread despite the wild rumours that circulated at the time nor was it popular with convict servants in general. The number of the gang (twelve in total) was exaggerated and reports of convict uprisings in other places all proved unfounded. It might correctly be called a rebellion because the main object of the insurgents was to wreak revenge for past injustices, not to seek personal freedom.

[11] Curley, S., ‘Clare Convicts before and after the Famine’, in Rees, Bob, (ed.), Irish Convicts: The Origins of Convicts Transported to Australia, (University College Dublin), 1989, pp. 81-112.

[12] For genealogical information on the Grant family and their emigration to Canada and Australia, see,

[13] William Redfern was a leading surgeon in early colonial NSW and had been transported in 1801 four years after the Spithead naval mutiny; Ford, Edward, ‘Redfern, William (1774-1833)’, ADB, Vol. 2, pp. 368-371.

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