‘The arm of a large tree was fixt upon as a gallows’. Arthur Bowes Smyth, Surgeon Lady Penrhyn, First Fleet  Journal, Australian Documents Library, 1979

1788 –  27 February, Sydney Cove: On that day four (4) convicts John Ryan, Thomas Barrett, Henry Lavell and Joseph Hall were accused ‘on shaky evidence’ of robbing or conspiring to rob food from the government storehouse. Found guilty all were sentenced to death with the execution to take place later that day.

These four (4) men were mates their strong friendship  forged during three (3) difficult years imprisoned in Dunkirk a prison-hulk moored in the River Thames. While under the ‘gallows tree’ pressure was brought to bear on John Ryan the youngest; ‘he turned king’s evidence [and] his irons were removed’.

At 5pm, Marine Captain James Campbell approached Mr Brewer the Provost Marshall with a twenty-four (24) hour stay-of-execution for Hall and Lavell. Their nooses were removed, no longer part of the action, they became part of the audience.

Only Thomas Barrett the lifer who was the ringleader [was] launched into Eternity.

‘The body hung for an hour and was then buried in a grave dug very near the gallows’. Lieutenant Ralph Clark, First Fleet Journal, Australian Documents Library, 1979  See: Act 1 – From Here To Eternity

1788 – Thursday 28 February, Sydney: Twenty-four (24) hours passed, time was up for Joseph Hall and Henry Lavell. At 3pm both stood again under the ‘gallows tree’.

As the day before at Thomas Barrett’s hanging all convicts and naval personnel assembled with the battalion paraded ‘in case an insurrection should take place’.

This time the assembly huddled together in pouring rain. Convicts watched in silence, fleet Chaplain Reverend Richard Johnson prayed over Hall and Lavell as the rituals of execution – nooses and blindfolds – were performed; ‘all the time it rained as if heaven and earth was coming together’. Clark. ibid.

The battalion as before paraded with fixed bayonets but their drums and fife, so loud and intimidating the day before, muffled now by the din of pelting rain.

At 5pm Hall and Lavell hand-over-hand climbed the ladder into the murder tree. Pushed out onto a platform ‘fixt between the branches’ both prepared to suffer a slow lingering death as they had witnessed Thomas Barrett die the day before.

The action halted. Marine Captain David Collins, the garrison’s judge-advocate, handed Provost Marshall Brewer a reprieve  signed by ‘His Excellency Governor Arthur Phillip’.

In lieu of death Hall and Lavell would be chained indefinitely onto a rocky island in Sydney Harbour on a reduced ration. The Eora Peoples knew the place as Mattewanye, convicts for obvious reasons called it Pinchgut, we know it as Fort Denison.

Exhausted, sodden and hungry this very diverse crowd dispersed unaware, next day they would stand on the same soggy ground to witness the final act of savage cynicism in this trilogy of terror. See: Catch 22 – James Freeman

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