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

1788 – 27 February, Sydney Cove: 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

Earlier that same dayon most shaky evidence’  convict Thomas Barrett aged about 30 years, was accused – in company with three (3) others – Henry Lavell, Joseph Hall and John Ryan – of robbing or conspiring to rob the government stores-house.


‘In determining the daily ration no distinction was drawn between the marines and the convicts except in respect of alcoholic liquors which the Government decided should not be supplied to the convicts.

Apart from the allowance of spirits, 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 previous day – 26 February – all received their full ration.

1788 – 27 February, Sydney: Nevertheless at twelve (12) noon the four (4) appeared before a hastily convened court, found guilty as charged and sentenced to death with the execution 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 each was sentenced to death, reprieved and commuted ‘for transportation to America’.

Britain between 1717 and 1775, at the rate of 1000 per year, exported 50,000 convicted criminals 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.

Thereafter 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 of confinement on the hulk Dunkirk and formed strong bonds. See: Mutiny on Swift and Mercury

1783: America’s Patriot rebels won the war. Britain lost her ‘thirteen [13] colonies’ and Congress legislated to stop the profitable convict trade.

1786 – August, London: When Africa proved unsuitable as a penal destination 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 one or other of six (6) chartered troop ships, part of a large squadron of eleven (11) ships destined for Botany Bay and the invasion of New Holland.

1787 – 13 May, Portsmouth: The convoy, known in Britain and Australia as the ‘First Fleet’, departed England on 13 May 1787.

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.

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, raised the Union Jack and without consent of the First Nations’ Peoples took ‘effective occupation’ of New Holland; ‘a fifth Great Continental Division of the Earth’.

1788 – 27 February, Sydney: A month after disembarkation – 3pm on 27 February 1788 – all convicts were mustered near;‘a large tree fixed upon as a gallows to see the deserved ends of their companions’.

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

And so it was with Barrett”s execution.’ In case an insurrection or an attempt at rescue should take place’ the battalion paraded under arms with fixed bayonets.

Governor Phillip’s selection of Barrett was deliberate. ‘Insurrection’ with the French at Botany Bay Sydney was in a state of ferment,. Barrett charismatic, a natural leader known to have friends among the marines, was seen as someone who could unify the two groups and take advantage of such dangerous instability.

By 5 pm everything was prepared Thomas Barrett, Joseph Hall, Henry Lavell and John Ryan stood together under a ‘large tree’. 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. Reverend Richard Johnson the fleet Chaplain halted his sing-song prayers as Marine Captain James Campbell strode to the front of the parade-ground. 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.

‘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 amateur’s hands shook so much he botched placing the noose around Barrett’s neck so Brewer pushed him aside and finished the job.

A little after 5 o’clock Barrett, bound and blind-folded ‘mounted the ladder’ to stand on a platform rigged between the branches. The reluctant hangman was made to push Barrett over the edge and ‘launch [him] into Eternity’. 

Who hanged Thomas Barrett ?

Dr White’s account of this despicable scene make it highly likely John Ryan, already compromised – ‘he turned evidence’ – was forced to take the life of his friend. See: A Vicious Circle – The Hangman’s Noose

Thomas Barrett was not hanged from a drop-gallows or even from a gibbet but from a rope hitched over a tree branch; ‘ the wretchedness of the captive were acted out…which every citizen might see’. Byrne. ibid.

In fearful silence the audience aghast 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



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.

Unlike La Perouse and his men the anniversary of Barrett’s fleeting presence in Australia goes unremarked yet both are linked to Australia’s military history.

Why was Barrett executed?I t is one thing to forget history quite another never to know it.  See: The Ketch Connection – Thomas Barrett 1788, Michael Barrett 1868, Robert Ryan 1967, Melbourne









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