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

Sydney Cove 1788 – 27 February:   One (1) month after disembarking from the ‘First Fleet’  convict Thomas Barrett was hanged from;  ‘the arm of a large tree…fixed upon as a gallows’

A small plaque at the corner of Harrington and Essex Streets in Sydney’s Rocks area marks Barrett’s fleeting presence in Australia.

Barrett’s execution was public theatre staged to instil terror into all spectators; be they convict, soldier, sailor or the silent unseen locals – The First Australians.

‘In determining the daily ration no distinction was drawn between the marines and the [male] 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, 1990

On ‘shaky evidence’ Thomas Barrett aged about 30 years, was accused, in company with three (3) others, Henry Lavell, Joseph Hall and John Ryan, of stealing food from government stores.

it is a matter of record the day before – 26 February 1788 – they had received their full ration.  Nevertheless at twelve (12) noon the four (4) men appeared before a hastily convened court.

London – 1782:  Six (6) years earlier, at different times during 1782, each had appeared at London’s Old Bailey on various charges. Found guilty and sentenced to death.  On that occasion each had the death sentence forgiven on condition they be marked ‘ for transportation to America’.

Sydney – 1788:  All were found guilty as charged and sentenced to death. On this occasion the execution was to take place before nightfall.

‘Britain’s decision in 1786 to occupy New South Wales was party to compensate for the loss of the American colonies to which unwanted convicts (some 50,000, before the Declaration of Independence in 1776) had been sent, and party to protect Britain’s control of the sea route to Asia via the Southern Ocean’. Professor Martyn Webb, University of Western Australia, The Oxford Companion to British History , ed John Cannon  

Between 1717-1775 : Britain  ‘simply and cheaply’ exported 50,000 convicted criminals reprieved death on condition of  ‘transportation to America’. 

Most were sold to plantation owners. To be precise their ‘service’ – labour – was purchased for the term of sentence  Seven (7) fourteen (14) years or for life.

In 1775 conflict, America’s Revolutionary War of Independence brought an abrupt halt to the lucrative British-American convict trade.

The Hulks Act of 1776 allowed prisoners ‘for transportation to America’  wait out the war in gaols and on rat and lice  infested rotting decommissioned ships – hulks – moored along the Thames River.  

Barrett, Lavell, Hall and Ryan spent nearly three (3) appalling years confined on the hulk Dunkirk and formed strong bonds.

The Back Story  American Revolution 1775-1783

Did General George Washington’s Patriot rebels win America’s War of Independence?

‘The American Revolution as John L. Gray notes in his forward, was just one theater in a world war. Although the Revolution had began in 1775 as a small series of skirmishes between British troops and American militia at Lexington and Concord Massachusetts, by the time of the siege of Yorktown, in 1781, Britain was becoming overwhelmed by the effort of fighting five [5] separate nation-states around the globe – France, Spain, the United States., the Dutch Republic, and the kingdom of Mysore, in India’. Essays in The American Revolution – A World War, David K. Allison, Laarrie D. ferreiro, Smithsonian. ? 2013

The planned (1786) invasion of New Holland (1788) was Britain’s first move in repositioning for ‘unfinished business’.

The inevitable future, wider global conflict; initially the French Revolutionary War ( 1793) and ‘ultimately the Napoleonic Wars 1803-1815’. 

‘New Holland is a good blind, then, when we want to add to the military strength of India’. Anon. To Evan Nepean, Historical Records of New South Wales.  

Paris – 1783:  The Treaty of Versailles (September 1783) brought a formal end to the American war. Britain lost her ‘thirteen [13] middle colonies’  – Connecticut, North and South Carolina, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia and with them the right to send convicted criminals to America.

England – August 1786:  In the House of Commons Edmund Burke’s vehement opposition put paid to Africa as a penal destination. Following at least two (2) attempts to surreptitiously resume convict transportation to America failed with heavy loss of life; ‘His Majesty ‘thought it advisable to fix on Botany Bay’. See: Mutiny on Swift and Mercury

Portsmouth – January 1787: As early as January 1787 male prisoners were removed from the hulks to board Alexander one of six (6) chartered transports ‘bound for Botany Bay’.


‘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’. Dr John Cobley, Crimes of the First Fleet, Vol. 1. Angus and Robertson, 1984

Portsmouth – May 1787: On the 13th of May 1787 a fully funded expeditionary force of eleven (11) ships, known in Britain and Australia as the ‘First Fleet’, departed England for Botany Bay and the invasion of New Holland.

‘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’. Cobley. op.cit.

Botany Bay – January 1788: After a voyage of eight (8) months voyaging across 13,000 miles (21,000 km) of ‘imperfectly explored oceans’ via Spanish Tenerife, Portuguese Brazil and Dutch Southern Africa, the fleet arrived in Botany Bay between 18 – 20 January 1788. See: Australia – Britain By A Short Half-Head: Captain Arthur Phillip & Comte Jean-Francois La Perouse

‘When Leaving Botany Bay Phillip noticed two [2] French ships in the offing…there would seem to be some justification for the saying “Britain won Australia by six [6] days”. Edward Jenks, cited H.E. Egerton British Colonial Policy, Menthuen, 1928

24 January:  At dawn Comte Jean-Francois La Perouse with two (2) ships La Boussole and L’Astrolabe appeared in the entrance to Botany Bay.

Port Jackson26 January:  The English fleet sailed nine (9) miles north from Botany Bay to a safer, sheltered anchorage in Sydney Cove deep within Port Jackson where ‘English Colours’ were raised.

‘Phillip planted the flag at Sydney Cove…to make  sure the French did not make the claim first’. Larissa Behrendt, cited The Honest History Book, David Stephens & Alison Brionowski, NewSouth Press, 2017 

Sydney Cove – 7February:  Proclamation Day – Captain now Governor Arthur Phillip RN raised the Union Jack of Queen Anne and ,without consent of the First Nations’ Peoples, took formal ‘effective occupation’ of New Holland the ‘fifth Great Continental Division of the Earth’.


27 February: Barrett, Lavell, Hall, Ryan stood under the ‘large tree fixed upon as a gallows’. The convicts were mustered ‘to see the deserved ends of their companions.

‘In case an insurrection or an attempt at rescue should take place….The battalion paraded under arms with fixed bayonets  Arthur Bowes Smyth Surgeon Lady Penrhyn, Journal ed. Fidlon and Ryan, Australian Documents Library, 1979

Pressure was brought to bear on John Ryan, youngest of the four (4) friends; ‘he turned king’s evidence…his irons were removed’.

A commotion came from stage right. Marine Captain James Campbell strode to the front of the parade-ground causing Reverend Richard Johnson the fleet Chaplain to halt his sing-song prayers.

Campbell drew Provost Marshall Henry Brewer aside and handed him a twenty-four (24) hour stay-of-execution for Hall and Lavell. See: Act 2 – Blind Man’s Bluff.

‘The ‘lifer who was the ringleader’ Barrett stood alone.

‘I dont think that he had the least thought that he was to Suffer but when the Provos Martial put a handkerchiff about his head he turned as white as a sheet’. Marine Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark, First Fleet Journal, Australian Documents Library, 1979


An actor was missing from this grisly production. London had failed to send a hangman – ‘a Jack Ketch’. A convict was forced to kill Thomas Barrett. See: The Ketch Connection – Thomas Barrett 1788 Sydney-  Michael Barrett 1868 London – Robert Ryan 1967 Melbourne

‘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’. Dr John White, First Fleet Journal, Australian Documents, Library, 1979

The man’s hands shook so much he botched placing the noose. Brewer pushed him aside and finished the grisly job. Bound and blind-folded Barrett ‘mounted the ladder’ and out onto a platform rigged between the branches.

‘The wretchedness of the captive [was] acted out’.  Barrett did not die from a drop-gallows or even a makeshift gibbet. The reluctant hangman was made to push Barrett over the edge and ‘launch [him] into Eternity’. 

Aghast, the audience in fearful silence, watched him swing to and fro, twist and jerk as he strangled slowly from a rope hitched over a tree branch.

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

Who hanged Thomas Barrett ? Dr White’s account of this despicable scene make it highly likely,  John Ryan who ‘turned king’s evidence’  at gun-point was forced to take his friend’s life. See: A Vicious Circle – The Hangman’s Noose

Killing a criminal achieved many ends simply and cheaply’.  Richard Byrne, Prisons and Punishments of London, Grafton, Harper Collins, London

Governor Phillip’s selection of ‘the lifer’ was deliberate. Barrett had ‘friends’ across a wide range in this very singular population of marines, sailors, merchant-men and prisoners.

Phillip feared he could take advantage of the dangerous instability caused by the arrival of the Frenchmen with their ships on the 24th January 1788.

Although the extraordinary arrival of La Perouse and his men four (4) days after the ‘First Fleet’ is commemorated each year the anniversary of Barrett’s execution, a cruel but clever diversion on Governor Phillip’s part,  is never mentioned.

It is one thing to forget history quite another to deliberately ignore it. The physical presence of the French (1788) and news of the French Revolution (1790)  are both inextricably linked to Britain’s ‘frontier wars’.  Yet neither event excites the historian’s curiosity.

‘British troops…fought in one of the most prolonged frontier wars in the history of the British empire, and for the first half of their stay were probably more frequently in action than the garrison of any other colony besides that of southern Africa’. Dr. Peter Stanley, The Remote Garrison, The British Army in Australia, 1788-1870, Kangaroo Press, 1986


1790 – South Head, 1 January: ‘Every morning from day-light until the sunk sunk, did we sweep the horizon, in the hope of seeing a sail….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 – 3 June: Flag’s Up –  Lady Juliana ‘with London on her stern’ was first of four (4) vessels that made up  the Second Fleet – ‘Britain’s Grim Armada’.

‘Letters Letters was the cry….for the first time we heard of…the French Revolution of 1789, with all the attendant circumstances of that wonderful and unexpected event, succeeded to amaze us’.  Tench. ibid.

News of such a critical schism galvanised Governor Phillip.  It provided the opportunity to take revenge on the French, whose money, men, munitions and military know-how, had been responsible for Britain’s loss of her American ’empire in the west’.

‘The combination French and Spanish naval power had proven fatal for Britain in the American War …as Lord Sandwich admitted frankly’. Lord Sandwich, cited R.J. King, The Secret History of the Convict Colony, Sydney 1990

And New Holland was perfectly placed;  ‘I need not enlarge on the benefit of stationing a large body of troops in New South Wales they might be transferred thither…East Indies…before our enemies in Europe knew anything of the matter’. Anon. to Evan Nepean, Historical Records of New South Wales. Vol. 1



Especially so as in December 1790 with the recently arrived New South Wales Corps (June 1790) and arrival of a Dutch ship (December 1790) Governor Phillip was faced with a similar ‘unsettled’ situation. Again he chose diversion. See: John McIntyre –  Death of a Sure Thing



‘Despite the critical twenty-year role the New South Wales Corps played in shaping the colony, and the calls, since 1970 for a written history of the corps, there has been none’. Stephen Gapps, The Sydney Wars, NewSouth Press, 2018


Thomas Barrett fashioned 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, 1985

2008 –  23 July, Melbourne: In July 2008 the medallion was offered for sale at auction as the ‘Charlotte Medal’.

With assistance from Australia’s Cultural Heritage Account, the medal was purchased for one million [$1,000,000] AUD and is on permanent display in the National Maritime Museum, Sydney the institution that drove its purchase for the nation.

‘In case an insurrection should take place’




‘Killing a criminal achieved many ends 








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