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

One (1) month after disembarking from the ‘First Fleet’ Thomas Barrett was hanged.

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

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

‘The arm of a large tree was fixed upon as a gallows’. Arthur Bowes Smyth Surgeon Lady Penrhyn, Journal ed. Fidlon and Ryan, Australian Documents Library, 1979

1788 – 27 February, Sydney Cove:  Thomas Barrett a convict aged about 30 years, was accused on ‘shaky evidence’ in company with three (3) others – Henry Lavell, Joseph Hall and John Ryan- of stealing from government stores.

‘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, 1990

It is a matter of record  the day before  – 26th –  they received their full ration.

Nevertheless at twelve (12) noon the four (4) men appeared before a hastily convened court. Found guilty as charged and sentenced to death the execution was to take place before nightfall.

Six (6) years earlier, during 1782, the four (4) men appeared at different times in London’s Old Bailey on various charges. Found guilty and  sentenced to death, all were reprieved and commuted ‘for transportation to America’.

Britain between 1717 and 1775, ‘simply and cheaply’  exported 50,000 convicted criminals, at the rate of 1000 per year, to America where they were sold.

In 1775 conflict, the War of Independence (1775-1783), brought an abrupt halt to the lucrative British-American convict trade.

Prisoners sentenced ‘for transportation to America’ were held  to wait out the war in gaols and on derelict 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. See: Mutiny on Swift and Mercury

1783: General George Washington’s Patriot rebels won the war. Under terms of the Treaty of Versailles (September 1783) Britain lost her ‘thirteen [13] colonies’  – Connecticut, North and South Carolina, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia.

1786 – August, London:  Due largely to Edmund Burke’s vehement opposition to Africa as a penal destination in August 1786 government ‘thought it advisable to fix on 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.

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. Angus and Robertson, 1984

1787 – January, Portsmouth: As early as January 1787 male prisoners began boarding Alexander one of six (6) chartered troop ships.

1787 – 13 May, Portsmouth: The convoy of eleven (11) ships, known in Britain and Australia as the ‘First Fleet’, departed England on 13 May 1787 bound for Botany Bay and the invasion of New Holland.

1788 – 18/20 January, Botany Bay: 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 South 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

1788 – 26 January, Port Jackson: A week later the fleet sailed nine (9) miles north from Botany Bay to a safer, sheltered anchorage in Sydney Cove deep within Port Jackson.

1788 – 7 February, Sydney Cove: Captain now Governor Arthur Phillip RN raised the Union Jack and ,without consent of the First Nations’ Peoples, took ‘effective occupation’ of New Holland the ‘fifth Great Continental Division of the Earth’.

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

1788 – 27 February, Sydney: The convicts were mustered ‘to see the deserved ends of their companions’.

Thomas Barrett, Joseph Hall, Henry Lavell and John Ryan stood together under a ‘large tree fixed upon as a gallows

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 where; ‘the battalion paraded under arms with fixed bayonets In case an insurrection or an attempt at rescue should take place’.

Reverend Richard Johnson the fleet Chaplain halted his sing-song prayers. Campbell drew aside Henry Brewer the Provost Marshall and handed him a twenty-four (24) hour stay-of-execution for Hall and Lavell. See: Act 2 – Blind Man’s Bluff.

‘The ‘lifer’ [Barrett] who was the ringleader’ 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, Michael Barrett 1868, 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 finished the job. Bound and blind-folded Barrett ‘mounted the ladder’ out onto a platform rigged between the branches.

The reluctant hangman was made to push Barrett over the edge and ‘launch [him] into Eternity’ not from a drop-gallows or even a gibbet but from a rope hitched over a tree branch.

The wretchedness of the captive [was] acted out’. Aghast, the audience in fearful silence, watched him strangle slowly –  swing to and fro – twist, jerk, twitch and die.

‘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, he had ‘turned king’s evidence’ – was forced at gun-point to take the life of his friend. See: A Vicious Circle – The Hangman’s Noose

Why was Barrett hanged? ‘Killing a criminal achieved many ends’ Governor Phillip’s selection of ‘the lifer’ was deliberate.

Barrett, with friends among the marines, was someone who could take advantage of the dangerous instability caused by the arrival of Comte Jean-Francois La Perouse and two (2) French ships on the 24th January 1788.

Unlike La Perouse and his men whose extraordinary arrival – four (4) days after the ‘First Fleet’  – is commemorated each year the anniversary of Barrett’s fleeting presence in Australia goes un-remarked yet both are linked to Britain’s ‘frontier wars’.

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

‘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

It is one thing to forget history quite another to deliberately ignore it.

‘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.













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