‘The death penalty was brought to Australia with the First Fleet’. Mike Edwards, The Hanged Man, The Life and Death of Ronald Ryan, 2002.

1788 – 18/20 January, Botany Bay: About 750 (570 male and 193 female) of England’s convicted criminals, reprieved death on condition they be sent into exile, reached Botany Bay in the middle of January 1788; among them Thomas Barrett, Henry Lavell, Joseph Hall and John Ryan.

‘In determining the daily ration no distinction was drawn between the marines and the convicts…the standard adopted was that of the troops serving in the West Indies’. Wilfrid Oldham, Britain’s Convicts to the Colonies, Library of Australian History, Sydney 1990

1788 – 26 January, Sydney Cove: The fleet relocated nine (9) miles (14km) north to Sydney Cove on the 26th of January.

1788 – 27 January:The landing of a part of the marines and [male] convicts took place the next day, and on the following, the remainder [of the men] disembarked’. Marine Captain Watkin Tench, Sydney’s First Four Years, ed. F.L. Fitzhardinge, Angus and Robertson, Sydney 1961

1788 – 27 February, Sydney: One (1) month later – 27 February – Barrett, Lavell, Hall and Ryan stood beneath‘ a large tree fixt as a gallows’. 

Britain’s invasion and colonisation of New Holland brought Australia’s First Nations starvation, disease and a racist caste system based on colour. Well practised retribution was meted out when any dared to challenge the predators who stole their land and plundered their resources.

‘Imagine if we had suffered the injustices and then were blamed for it’. Paul Keating Redfern Speech, Paul Keating, 10 December 1992.

Although the myriad injustices that followed Britain’s invasion and dispossession stand in plain sight, because of widespread ignorance in mainstream non-Aboriginal Australia, they go largely unrecognised and unacknowledged, even if acknowledged, the First Australians are ‘blamed it’.

Infuse universal terror’; the punitive way the English dealt with their own people reveal them malicious and vindictive in the extreme.

If for no reason other than the fate of four (4) Englishmen provide insight and shed light on the ‘terror’ meted out to Australia’s First Peoples their brutal intersecting stories need to be told. See: ‘Terror’ Arthur’s Algorithm

1788- 27 February, Sydney Cove: How was it Thomas Barrett, Joseph Hall, Henry Lavell and John Ryan came to be standing under that‘gallows tree’ and how was it that Thomas Barrett died alone that day?

1788 – 27 February, Sydney: Hanged from a make-shift gallows Thomas Barrett died a slow agonising death at 5pm on Wednesday 27 February 1788.

Marine Lieutenant Ralph Clark, wrote in his journal; ‘I dont think that he had the least thought that he was to suffer…the body hung for an hour and was then buried in a grave dug very near the gallows’. See:  From Here to Eternity – Thomas Barrett: 

Barrett was ‘the maker of the Botany Bay Medallion…a skilfully engraved metal medallion inscribed with a brief description of the voyage…and a representation of the Charlotte at anchor in Botany Bay’. Mollie Gillen, Founders of Australia, Library of Australian History, Sydney, 1985


1718 – England: Under the Transportation Act of 1717[18] Britain exported 50,000 convicted criminals, at the rate of 1000 a year, to her American colonies. Once there the transporting merchant, who had purchased them from the government, sold them on. More accurately to cover costs and make a profit the merchant sold their ‘service’.

Convicts lock, stock and labour, were offered for sale at regular ‘slave scrambles’. Most were purchased by plantation owners. Few had skills, most men worked in tobacco and cotton fields alongside Negro slaves shipped in from Africa. Women worked as farm labourers or  employed as house servants.

1775 July, Lexington:  In 1775 conflict between Britain and America, the War of American Independence (1775-1783), interrupted the convict trade.

1776 – April, London: Legislation, the Hulks Act, allowed male convicts reprieved death ‘for transportation to America’ to be held over  and confined on decaying diseased ships – hulks – moored along the River Thames. Female prisoners were excluded from hulks.

1782: Britain lost the war to George Washington’s Patriot rebels. The shooting war was over by the end of 1782. After eight (8) years of conflict England’s gaols and prison-hulks were overflowing with prisoners ‘for transportation to America’ but with nowhere to go.

1783 – September, Paris:  In September 1783 The Treaty of Versailles brought it to a formal end. Under its terms Britain lost her ‘thirteen (13) colonies’ and the right to export criminals there.

However in August 1783, before pen was put to paper, the Home Office charged with finding a destination for an increasing army of convicted criminals, decided to  take up where it had left off in 1775.

Government issued a ‘transport’ contract to George Moore a merchant who, prior to the war, specialised in shipping convicts to America. Whitehall took this decision despite being aware, as early as July 1776, the American Congress had legislated to ban any future importation of those Benjamin Franklin dubbed ‘rattle-snakes’.

1783 – 16 August, America:  Moore’s vessel Swift sailed for America with one hundred and forty-three (143) convicts in mid August. Most prisoners, including Joseph Hall, were taken from various prison-hulks moored along the Thames River.

Joseph Hall: His Back-Story

1782 – 9 January, London: In company with two (2) others, Hall appeared in the Old Bailey at the beginning of January 1782 charged with demanding money with menaces. The victim gave damming evidence; ‘they said if I did not give them money they would blow my brains out’. 

Found guilty and sentenced to death the three (3) were reprieved, commuted ‘for transportation to America’, and sent to the hulks to await shipment.

1783 – 6 August, America: Joseph Hall with his robber mates were among one hundred and forty-three (143) prisoners crammed onto Swift when it sailed for America. Not far along into the voyage some forty (40) or so prisoners ‘rose on the crew’ and drove the ship into shore at Rye on the Sussex coast.

Hall with one (1) of his partners-in-crime escaped in the confusion. All were recaptured and charged with ‘return before expiry’. Under the Transportation Act of 1718being at large within the kingdom…return before expiry’ attracted the death penalty.

Eight (8) men were executed. The remainder received a reprieve again commuted ‘for transportation to America’. Hall, sentenced to fourteen (14) years, found himself imprisoned once more on a Thames hulk.

1784: Meantime in early 1784, Lord Sydney of the Home Office issued George Moore another contract for shipment of one hundred and seventy-nine (179) convicts on Mercury another of his ships.

1784 – March, America: Towards the end of March 1784 Joseph Hall, Thomas Barrett, Henry Lavell and John Ryan, were taken from various prisons and hulks to board Mercury ‘for America’.

1784 – 4 April, Gravesend: By the time Mercury set sail on 4 April 1784 our four (4) men were ready to take advantage if an opportunity presented. In rough seas off the Devon coast at Torbay, led by Thomas Barrett, some convicts ‘rose on the Mercury crew’.

A number fell into the sea from commandeered lifeboats. Some drowned others, including Joseph Hall, were plucked from the freezing waters by HMS Helena.

1784 – May, Exeter: Barrett, Lavell and Ryan escaped into the Devon countryside. A few made it as far as London but all were eventually recaptured and thrown into Exeter gaol. A special Commission was established to investigate the mutiny and punish the escapees, it sat at  Exeter Guildhall.

The Commission ruled prisoners rescued by HMS Helena; ‘had not left the kingdom [were] remanded to former orders’. Those who made it onto dry land, charged with ‘being at large within the kingdom, were condemned to die.

All death sentences were repealed on condition the prisoners be exiled ‘from the realm’. For transportation beyond the seas’ they went to various gaols, most returned to the hulks.

1784 – June, Thames River: After Mercury the lives of Thomas Barrett, Joseph Hall, Henry Lavell and John Ryan followed a similar trajectory. Reunited on the hulk Dunkirk during three (3) difficult years unsurprisingly they formed strong bonds.

1787 – February, Botany Bay: In 1787 each was selected for transportation ‘beyond the seas’  – this time to Botany Bay on the ‘First Fleet’.

Henry Lavell: His Back Story

1782 – 1 September, London: Henry’s crime was not run-of-the mill for a ‘First Fleeter’. On 11 September 1782, then a presentable young man aged about eighteen (18) years, Henry Lavell appeared in the Old Bailey charged with forgery.

1782 – 4 December, Old Bailey: The judge adjourned the case and remanded him in custody. When Lavell reappeared in the dock three (3) months later, 4th December 1792, the indictment read; ‘forging a bearer bond for (10) guineas and presenting it at the bank’.

Found guilty Lavell’s death sentence was commuted ‘for transportation to America for the term of his natural life’. He spent nearly a year in one of London’s filthy gaols either Newgate or Fleet River prison.

1783 – October, Thames River: The following year, October 1783, he was transferred to an even more appalling prison – a Thames hulk.

1784 – 26 March, America:  Henry was among one hundred and seventy-nine (179) prisoners who boarded Mercury for the voyage to America.

As with Swift in 1783, some Mercury convicts including Lavell and our ‘Three  Musketeers’ –  Barrett, Hall and young John Ryan; ‘rose on the crew’ took over the ship at Torbay, escaped into the Devon countryside, were recaptured and returned to the hulks.

John Ryan: His Back Story

1784 – 14th January, London: In the depth of a bitterly cold London winter, John Ryan, then aged about fourteen (14) years, stood in the Old Bailey dock charged with theft of a woollen coat. Found guilty, sentenced for seven (7) years ‘transportation to America’, he was lodged in Newgate to await shipment.

1784 – 30 March, Torbay: John Ryan escaped Mercury at Torbay. From then until Wednesday 27 February 1788 at Sydney Cove, his life was in lock-step with Thomas Barrett, Henry Lavell and Joseph Hall.

Why in 1788 were these four (4) men at Sydney Cove thirteen thousand (13,000) miles (21,000 km) from their homeland?

‘The administration gave no consideration to the date of expiry of sentences, and several of the First Fleet had been tried as early as 1781 and 1782. As seven years transportation was the most common sentence, many had already served five-sevenths of their time on embarkation, and six-sevenths on disembarkation at Sydney Cove’. Dr John Cobley, Crimes of the First Fleet, Vol. 1, 1982.

After the Swift and Mercury debacles, Britain looked to Africa. At least two (2) attempts to send convicts to fort settlements at Goree and Cape Coast Castle, ended in failure with heavy loss of life.

1785: Two (2) more attempts were at the planning stage when, in late 1785 Edmund Burke in the House of Commons led parliamentary opposition to Africa. It is said his passion and eloquence put an end to Africa as a penal destination. See: Amigos – Three Amigos + One

1786 – August, London: On the advise of just one (1) man, Joseph Banks the celebrated Royal Society botanist who accompanied Captain James Cook to Botany Bay on the Endeavour voyage in 1770, Britain’s Treasury commanded the Admiralty assemble a large fleet of ships.

Known in Britain and Australia as the ‘First Fleet’ its task was to transport 1500 souls, not to America a voyage of six (6) weeks, Africa four (4) weeks, but a voyage of eight (8) months across thirteen (13,000) thousand miles (21,000 km) of ‘imperfectly explored oceans’ to New Holland ( Australia) on the other side of the planet. See: Apollo 11 – Fly Me To The Moon

1787 – 11th March, Portsmouth: Lavell and Ryan left Dunkirk in March 1787 and boarded Friendship, one (1) of six (6) transports chartered to make the long voyage to Botany Bay.

A day or so later Thomas Barrett and Joseph Hall were taken off Dunkirk and clambered aboard Charlotte another troop transport.

1787 – 13 May, Botany Bay: The ‘First Fleet’ sailed from Portsmouth with a complement of 1500 souls under command of Captain Arthur Phillip RN in mid-May 1787. All males were fed as combatants ‘serving in the West Indies’. 

Two (2) warships, HMS Sirius & HMS Supply, six (6) troop transports Friendship, Charlotte, Alexander, Prince of Wales, Lady Penrhyn & Scarborough with three (3) stores-ships Fishburn, Borrowdale & Golden Grove.

An invasion fleet is an accurate description of the ‘First Fleet’. See: When was an invasion fleet not an invasion fleet? When It Was The First Fleet

1788 – 27/28 January, Sydney: Barrett, Lavell, Hall and Ryan landed in Sydney Cove in January 1788.

1788 – 27 February, Sydney: A  month later – Wednesday 27  February – the four (4) friends stood in chains under‘ a large tree fixt upon as a gallows’. 

They were accused ‘on shaky evidence’ of robbing or conspiring to rob the government store. ‘Shaky’ because records show ‘without distinction’ – except for alcohol – the full ration for ‘troops serving in the West Indies’ had been issued the previous day making it highly likely this was a ‘convenient’ trumped-up charge.  Nevertheless all were found guilty and sentenced to die before sunset.

Pressure was brought to bear on John Ryan the youngest; ‘he turned king’s evidence [and] his irons were removed’. Then there were three (3) Barrett, Lavell and Hall.

‘When they arrived near the tree Major Ross recd. a respite of 24 hours for Lovall & Hall . Marine Lieutenant Ralph Clark, First Fleet Journal.

Hall and Lavell were given a stay-of-execution for twenty-four (24) hours. They were to return to the ‘gallows tree’ next day‘. See: Act 2  Blind Man’s Bluff – Hall & Lavell

‘but Barrett who was a most vile Character was turn’d off abt. Half past 6 pm’… I dont think that he had the least thought that he was to suffer but when the Provos Martial [sic] put a handkerchief about his head he turned white as a sheet. Clark. ibid.

No hangman came with the ‘First Fleet’ a fellow-convict was forced to kill Thomas Barrett.

‘It was sometime before the man could be prevailed upon to execute his office nor would he at last have complied if he had not been severely threatened by the Provost Marshall Mr Brewer and Major Ross threatened to give orders to the marines to shoot him’. John White, Chief Medical Officer, First Fleet Journal.

Given Surgeon White’s harrowing account of Barrett ‘s execution and the macabre sensationalism of the following two (2) days  evidence, albeit circumstantial, suggest a compromised John Ryan – ‘he turned king’s evidence’ – was forced to kill his friend.

‘The body hung for an hour and was then buried in a grave dug very near the gallows’. Clark. ibid.

1788 – 28 February, Sydney: Next day – Thursday 28 February – in torrential rain, the grotesque drama continued. At 3 pm, twenty-four (24) hours having passed, Joseph Hall with Henry Lavell stood under the ‘gallows tree’.

After prayers and rituals of execution, Hall and Lavell hand over hand followed each other up a ladder into the tree and out onto a platform ‘fixt between the branches’. They prepared to die a slow lingering death as they had witnessed Barrett suffer the previous day.

1788 – 28 February: For the second time, again at the very last moment, Hall and Lavell had their nooses removed. Reprieved death they were sentenced to be chained for an indefinite period onto a small rocky outcrop in Sydney Harbour and given reduced rations. The convicts called it Pinchgut we know it as Fort Denison.

1788 – 29 February, Sydney: Next day – Friday 29 February 1788 – came the third act of this gruesome drama albeit with different players.

‘For here was an opportunity of establishing a Jack Ketch who Should, in all future Executions, either Hang or be Hanged’. See: Ketch Connection

‘In extreme misery’ four (4) prisoners William Shearman, Daniel Gordon, John Williams and James Freeman shuffled in chains to the ‘large gallows tree’.

As on 28 February – and, previously at Barrett’s hanging, exhausted convicts assembled. Again the battalion paraded with musket, bayonet, fife and drum. Shearman, Gordon and Williams were granted conditional pardons, their nooses were removed and they joined the audience.

James Freeman stood ‘with the rope about his neck’ – a young man not yet twenty-one (21) – heard his death sentence confirmed.

‘But while under the ladder, with the rope about his neck, he was offered a free pardon as condition of performing the duty of the common executioner as long as he remained in this country, which after some little pause, he reluctantly accepted’. Chief  Surgeon John White, First Fleet Journal

A vicious story with a vicious ending. See Catch 22 – James Freeman

There can be no doubt the sadistic rigmarole of these three (3) days was staged by Governor Arthur Phillip RN not only to impress the ‘might of British law’ on the assembled convicts and soldiers, but to induce ‘terror’ into a watching, unseen Aboriginal audience.

‘The pattern of conflict in Australia ran parallel to the pattern of settlement. From the early days around Sydney Cove the hostility of the Aboriginal peoples to the depredations of the whites was clear to all….To deny the existence of a state of war is to deny the status of combatants to Aboriginal peoples, with all the important attendant psychological ramifications’. Jeffrey Grey, A Military History of Australia, The British Period 1788-1870, 2001

In silence the warriors moved away certain they faced a dangerous treacherous enemy. The cruel antics and malicious twists and turns of these three (3) days made them very aware, these people could not be trusted.

To survive against such overwhelming odds they would have to tread carefully to defend their land and protect their resources. Any gesture of friendship offered by these white strangers, would be self-serving. In this the First Nations’ People – were not wrong.


1790 – March, Sydney: ‘We had now been…[thirty-four (34) months] from England in which long period…no supplies…no communication whatever having passed with our native country since the 13th of May 1787, the  day of our departure from Portsmouth. Marine Captain Watkin Tench, Sydney’s First Four Years, ed. F.L. Fitzhardinge, Angus and Robertson, 1961

1790 – March, Sydney: The ‘First Fleet’ Robinson Crusoes had now been stranded at Sydney Cove since January 1788. See: Abandoned and Left to Starve Sydney Cove from January to July 1790

1790 – 6 March, Norfolk Island: ‘No supplies’ a desperate Governor Phillip could wait no longer in order to save them from starvation he ordered HMS Sirius and HMS Supply evacuate 50% of ‘his people’ to Norfolk Island. Among them Joseph Hall, John Ryan and Henry Lavell.

1793, Sydney: Joseph Hall returned to Sydney in 1793 and died there, date unknown.

1796: Norfolk Island: John Ryan was recorded living on Norfolk Island in 1796.

1801: England: Henry Lavell’s story ended very differently. In 1801 he was living in Sydney and about that time received a full pardon and returned to England.

‘I can assure you there is in some of them [Aboriginal women] a proportion, a softness, a roundness and plumpness in their limbs and bodies…that would excite tender and amorous sensations, even in the frigid breast of a philosopher’. George Worgan, First Fleet Surgeon, letter to his brother in England.

When in 1801 Henry Lavell sailed away he left behind a son, James Lavell born in 1788.

While each man’s story in its own way throws light on the plight of the First Australians post 1788 it is Lavell’s story, coupled with the writings of Surgeon George Worgan, that hold particular significance.

Like the death penalty, smallpox and syphilis, the seeds of the ‘Stolen Generations’ came with the ‘First Fleet’. See: The Ketch Connection

1828: In ‘First Fleet Families’ compiled by James Hugh Donohoe, Henry Lavell is named as father of James Lavell the name of his Aboriginal mother is not known. The 1828 census records James Lavell living in Sydney but made no mention of his mother.

1788- 1868: Gender disparity characterised the transportation of British criminals to Australia. Between 1788 and 1868 Britain transported 163,000 convicts to Australia. Of these only 25,000 were women with one-half of this number (12,500), going directly to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). See: G for Gender

An even worse demographic applied in West Australia where Britain shipped zero (0) female and ten thousand (10,000 ) criminals to swamp a small population of free Englishmen.

The magnitude of this imbalance of the sexes threatened the future biological integrity of Australia’s First Peoples. Such gross gender disparity constitutes the crime of genocide. See: G for Genocide

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply