#OTD in 1791 – First convicts from Ireland arrive in New South Wales, Australia.

After the end of the American War of Independence, Britain had to find new territory to send its convicts. New South Wales (NSW) was selected as a suitable penal colony. Legislation permitting transportation from Britain to N.S.W. was passed in 1784, and the Irish Act followed in 1786.

The eighteen year old, 400-ton ship Queen was one of those contracted to form the third convict fleet to sail from England to Port Jackson in the Spring of 1791. But, under its Master, Richard Owen and with Lieutenant Samuel Bow as naval agent it differed from the other eight vessels of the fleet as it was ordered to call at the port of Cork to collect convicts, the first such consignment of Irish transportees to go directly from Ireland to Australia.

For months before the appointed day of sailing the 136 men and 23 women destined for Botany Bay and in the jails of 24 different counties had been warned of their fate. Arrangements were being made to have them moved from Cork. On the morning of 26th February the Dublin newspaper The Freeman’s Journal carried the news that ‘the jailer of Limerick set off for Cork with a number of prisoners, where a large transport is preparing to carry all the convicts in the Kingdom to Botany Bay.’ In Dublin when the prisoners were being moved from the new jail a newspaper reported that ‘none of the women seemed to have less feeling for their situation than the men, and Rositer, the woman who had been condemned to die for robbing one of the rooms at the Linen Hall, called out to the soldiers ‘clear the way’ ’til she mounted her landau.’ One of her companions was Catherine Devereaux aged 30 also reprieved from a death sentence in Dublin. A total of 85 prisoners from that city were to be transported, fourteen of whom had life sentences, and the remainder terms of seven years. Before the vessel sailed three of the male prisoners had died, and one woman had escaped.

The cost of transporting an individual from Dublin was £17, plus the provision of rations for the passage, and the maintenance of the convicts for one year in the colony. Messrs Camden, Calvert and King, the English contractors who had supplied the Second Fleet, were again employed, but this was to be their last assignment due to the litany of complaints from the convicts.

In Cork, Lieutenant Blow, the Naval Agent who was to travel on the Queen issued a receipt to the Mayor and the Sheriff of the city for his dejected human cargo. The irony of that transaction was later revealed when the sheriff himself, Sir Henry Brown Hayes, was transported a decade afterwards for abducting an heiress. His home, near Sydney, Vaucluse, is now a National monument – but not on his behalf – rather on that of W.C. Wentworth, the successful son of an Irish convict.

The receipt of the convicts included four children, three girls, and a boy aged between two weeks and two years, whose mothers were from Dublin and on 7-year sentences, except for one lifer from Armagh. Of the 133 male convicts it has been estimated that about two dozen were agrarian offenders.

Some of the other crimes for which these transportees were exiled included ‘taking a drab cloth coat, value 10 shillings; for stealing a copper kettle, value 3 shillings, for stealing a pair of blankets, value 3 shillings; for stealing one silver spoon, value 2 shillings; for stealing a black hat value 2 shillings’; all of which rated seven-year sentences. James Black, a Dublin youth aged twelve, was found guilty of stealing a pair of silver buckles. He died within four months of arrival in Sydney. Also then transported was Robert Flanagan from Newry, who had been prosecuted for robbery. His case was unusual in that there had been a public subscription to pay the prosecutor, and five gentlemen wrote to the authorities requesting that Flanagan should be transported. Their letter, dated April 1791, stated that he was ‘a desperate, riotous and lawless villain, and a robber of most infamous character.’ It was eight years before the indent list for the Queen arrived in Sydney, by which time the majority of the prisoners’ sentences had expired.

When the Queen docked at Port Jackson on 26th September, it was found that seven prisoners had died en route. The surviving convicts were in poor physical condition and a magisterial inquiry was ordered. It revealed that the second mate who was responsible for issuing the rations, had ordered that the leaden weights should be scraped, to reduce them; consequently the 4 lb weight was found to be six ounces under-weight, and the 2 lb one almost 3 ounces likewise. He had also used 3 lb and 4 lb weights instead of 4 lb and 5 lb ones, and short rations of meat and fish were constantly given, causing the cook great difficulty in providing the different messes with even moderately adequate supplies. It was apparent that the agent, Lieut. Blow, did not supervise the ration issues, and when the prisoners decided to make a complaint to the guard commander he referred them to the agent. Finally the guard commander approached the lieutenant with the prisoners’ grievances, but he replied, ‘My dear fellow, what can I do?’ During the inquiry the bench of magistrates, which included Capt. David Collins from the King’s County in Ireland, found that the rations contracted for had not been supplied, and that ‘It appeared beyond a doubt, that great abuses had been practised in the issuing of the provision.’ But it would seem that no disciplinary action was initiated against the contractors or the ships’ officers, though Lieutenant Blow may have been reprimanded.

As they adjusted to life in the colony the new arrivals from Ireland would have met their fellow countrymen and women who had arrived on the previous fleets from England. They would also have encountered officials from home, such as Captain David Collins who had arrived on the first fleet. He was not very sympathetic to his countrymen, describing them as ‘race of beings (for they do not deserve the appellation of men) so extremely ignorant, and so little humanised as they were.’ He was commenting on the twenty men and a woman from the ‘Queen’ who had escaped from the convict settlement in November 1791, with the intention of walking to China. In an official report on the China attempt it was said that ‘though several of them have been brought in when so reduced that they could not have lived a second day if they had not been found, some of these very men have absconded a second time, and must perish.’

Another incident of Irish interest that month was the birth of a son at Parametta to Catherine Devereaux, the woman transported from Dublin. The infant was baptised on 18 December and named James Devereaux. In adult life, it is believed, he changed his name to Kelly and as Captain James Kelly of Hobart Town is remembered as a pioneer whaler, sealer, shipowner, pilot and explorer. It has been surmised that the child’s father was Kelly, a cook on the ‘Queen’ who might have taken that job to enable him to travel to Australia with his pregnant, but condemned, girl friend. Thus was created another footnote in the folklore of the new land which, before transportation ceased, was to receive about 45,000 Irish men and women. Now there is pride in having an Irish convict in one’s ancestry, and even a society which boasts ‘We are descended from Convicts!’ And each year about 20,000 young men and women from Ireland journey Down Under as visitors on working holidays, and some as emigrants.

Con Costello has written ‘Botany Bay’, the story of the transportation of Irish convicts to Australia 1791-1853. It is available from Mercier Press, Cork.

See: Queen Voyages to Australia and convict records

Photo: Botany Bay convicts at work


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