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

‘In the late eighteenth century it looked like the bad old killing days were returning….I estimate that some 35,000 people were condemned to death in England and Wales between 1770 and 1830. Most were reprieved by the king’s prerogative of mercy and sent to prison hulks or transported [163,000] to Australia. Professor V.A.C Gatrell, The Hanging Tree, Execution and the English People 1770-1868, 1994.

In England hangings were public performances. A ‘foul carnival’ played out before rowdy, rag-tag festive holiday crowds out for a good time.

‘Eight times a year at Tyburn or Newgate, once or twice a year in most counties, terrified men and women were hanged before large and excited crowds.

Audiences of up to 100,000 were occasionally claimed in London, and of 30,000 or 40,000 quite often. A hanging was one of the great free spectacles of London. When famous felons hanged, polite people watched as well as vulgar. Gatrell. Op. Cit.            


‘In St. James nearby is a tablet commemorating the victims of the 1867 bomb’. Richard Byrne, Prisons and Punishments of London. 1992

1867 – 13 December, Middlesex:  Friday shoppers hurrying to a near-by market took no notice of  wheelbarrow  propped against the out wall of London’s Clerkenwell House of Detention.

The barrow was packed with gunpowder and when it ignited produced an explosion powerful enough to demolish not only a substantial section of the gao’s exercise hard but many of the ramshackle slums opposite

exploded with great force, demolishing several houses and killing six (6) people. The explosion caused havoc in a nearby market injuring upwards of fifty (50) men, women and children.

Although Michael Barrett a young Irishman was not in Middlesex at the time of the bombing he was charged ‘on the most shaky evidence’ with conspiring to commit the crime and found guilty.

Michael Barrett a young Ulster Fenian who had actually been in Glasgow at the time of the Clerkenwell, served as a target of convenience and like the Manchester three [3] was found guilty on the most shaky evidence. On 26 May 1868, he was the last man to be publicly executed in England.

Nearly 2,000 local people collected outside Newgate gaol at 11.00 a.m for the execution, singing ‘Rule Britannia’, ‘Champagne Charlie’ and ‘Oh, my, I’ve Got to Die’. Thomas Keneally, The Great Shame, A Story of the Irish In The Old World And The New, Random House, 1998.

1868 – 26 May, London: Michael Barrett found guilty as charged was sentenced to death. On 26th May 1868 in a large open area fronting Newgate prison an ‘enormous crowd’ came to watch ‘a dead man dance’.

At Barrett’s execution feelings ran high many called for blood but not all were convinced of his guilt.

‘The bastard pride in the [condemned man’s] animal courage and the brutal delight that he died game made the law and its ministers seem to them [the crowd] the real murderers, and Barrett to be a martyed man….And indeed this crowd did cry out at Barrett’s executioner….Shame! – Down with him – Bah, bah, murderer bah. Daily News, The Times 27 May 1868, cited in V.A.C. Gatreel, The Hanging Tree. ibid.

1868 – May, England: Michael Barrett’s hanging was England’s last public execution. In May 1868 legislation, The Capital Punishment Within Prison Act, came into effect putting an end to the macabre spectacle of public hangings.

Michael Barrett was buried inside the walls of Newgate. When the prison was demolished in 1903 his remains were re-interred in the City of London Cemetery where a plaque marks his final resting place.


1787-1868: Thomas Barrett was among the first of 163,000 England’s common criminals who, between 1787 and 1868, were ‘transported to Australia’.

1787 – 13 May, Portsmouth: Barrett sailed from England in Charlotte (1) one of eleven (11) ships under command of Captain Arthur Phillip RN.

This large armed squadron with an overwhelmingly male complement of 1500 souls, one-half  convicted criminals, known in Britain and Australia as the ‘First Fleet’ sailed from Portsmouth bound for Botany Bay in the island continent of New Holland.

1788 – 18/20 January, Botany Bay: In an amazing feat of seamanship, within 36 hours between 18 to 20 January, the fleet reached Botany Bay.

1788 – 26 January, Sydney Cove: The ships sailed nine (9) miles (14 km) north of Botany Bay to Sydney Cove where, on 26th January Captain, now Governor Phillip raised the Union Jack and ‘using a form of words’  claimed New Holland ‘from Cape York …to South Cape‘ for Britain and the Empire.

1788 – 27 February, Sydney Cove: Convict Thomas Barrett  was hanged (1) month after disembarking from the ‘First Fleet’. The executions of Thomas Barrett – Sydney 1788 and Michael Barrett – London 1868 share common elements.

Both men were [accused on] shaky evidence’ of committing a crime ‘in company [both] served as a target of convenience’. In both cases the ‘company’ escaped death. Questions of motive – judicial justice or judicial murder – hang over both executions.


1782 – September – London : Six (6) years earlier – September 1782 – Thomas Barrett  reprieved death was sentenced ‘for transportation to America’.

1783 – September – London: Barrett spent a year in one of London’s noisome prisons before being lodged onto a Thames prison-hulk in September 1783.

1784 – April – America: An attempt by the Home Office in April 1784 to transport one hundred and seventy-nine (179) prisoners, including Thomas Barrett, to America on Mercury a convict transport.

1784 – April – Torbay:  Mutiny intervened before the ship left English waters. Some convicts ‘rose on the crew’ and escaped into the Devon countryside.

All who escaped were recaptured and sentenced to death. Barrett, despite being named a ring-leader, was reprieved and commuted ‘for transportation beyond the seas’ then imprisoned on Dunkirk a prison-hulk moored in the Thames.

1787 – March, Portsmouth: Thomas Barrett was removed from Dunkirk in March 1787 he boarded the troop transport  Charlotte bound for Botany Bay.

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

1787 – 13 May, Portsmouth: The ‘First Fleet’ sailed by way of Tenerife, Rio in Brazil and Cape Town in Africa. The voyage of 13,000 miles (21,000 km) took eight (8) months.

1788 – 26 January, Port Jackson: Captain, now Governor Arthur Phillip RN, established a permanent military and naval outpost of Empire at Sydney Cove deep within Port Jackson on 26 January 1788.

1788 – 27 February, Sydney Cove: One (1) month later – Wednesday 27 February 1788 – Thomas Barrett, Joseph Hall, Henry Lavell and John Ryan were accused of stealing or conspiring to steal food from the ‘kings’ storehouse. Found guilty all were sentenced to death and for execution later that same day.

‘The Way of War is a Way of Deception, When Deploying troops Appear not to be’. Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Penguin, 2009

1788 – February: The weekly ration for all males –  Governor – official – marine regardless of rank and convict alike, stood at: 7 lb bread or flour (3.2 kg);  7 lb salted beef  (3.2 kg) OR 4 lb salted pork (1.8 kg); 3 pints dried pease – dahl – (1.7 litres); 1/2 lb rice (227 g) OR an additional 1 lb flour (454 g); 6 oz butter (170g).

Thomas Barrett and his co-accused had no need to steal food as records reveal the day before they were said to have committed their crime, along with every other male Englishman –  they received a full weekly ration.

1788 – 27 February, Sydney: Nevertheless towards evening on the 27th the entire English population – convict, military and civil – was forced at gun-point to watch as the four (4) accused men stood together under; ‘the arm of a large tree…fixt upon as a gallows’. Surgeon Arthur Bowes Smyth, First Fleet Journal, Australian Documents Library, 1979  See: From Here To Eternity.

‘Barrett, Lovell and Hall & five other prisoners were brot. from the Quarter Guard Tent heavy iron’d abt. 6 o’Clock p.m.

[the] three former for execution; the Arm of a large Tree…was fixt upon as a Gallows. To this tree the eight unhappy wretches were conducted wt. a party of Marines walking before them well arm’d & Mr. Johnson the Clergyman attending them, a large Party of Marines were drawn up opposite the Gallows & all the Convicts were summon’d to see the deserved end of their Companions’. Arthur Bowes Smyth. ibid.

Only Thomas Barrett, ‘maker of the Botany Bay Medallion, a skillfully engraved metal  medallion inscribed with a brief description of the voyage dated 20 January 1788 and a representation of the Charlotte at anchor in Botany Bay’ died that day.

‘When they arrived near the tree Major Ross recd. a respite of 24 hours of Lovall & Hall. That left Barrett and Ryan. No hangman came with the fleet so a fellow-convict was forced to kill Thomas Barrett.

Who was ‘called upon to execute’ Barrett?

Was it John Ryan? The youngest of the four (4) long-time friends from Dunkirk days was already compromised. Under extreme pressure Ryan turned ‘king’s evidence’ and his shackles were removed.

‘It was some time before the man cd. be prevail’d upon to execute his office nor wd. he at last have comply’d if he had not been severely threaten’d by the Provost Marshall, Mr. Brewer and Major Ross threaten’d to give orders to the Marines to shoot him…but Barrett who was a most vile Character was turn’d off abt. half past 6 p.m’. John White, Chief Medical First Fleet Journal.   

The evidence, albeit circumstantial from this distance in time, points to John Ryan as the reluctant hangman.

Thomas Barrett climbed the ladder, but placing a rope about his neck proved too much for the unwilling hangman. ‘Mr Brewer was forced to position the noose about Barrett’s neck’. However it was the reluctant amateur who, at gun-point, was forced to launch Thomas Barrett ‘into eternity’.

Barrett’s execution was the first of three (3) malicious acts designed not only; ‘to bear witness to the might of the [English] law’ but to impress the might’ of that ‘law’ upon a silent, watching but unseen Aboriginal audience.

Thomas Barrett’s execution echoed that of Michael Barrett’s hanging; ‘He [Michael Barrett] died game and made the law and its ministers seem to them the real murderers, and …[he] a martyed man’. 

‘[Barrett’s] body hung for an hour and was then buried in a grave dug very near the gallows’.

We can only imagine the thoughts and feelings of the onlookers. Strangers, newly-arrived in a bewildering place 13,000 miles (21,000 km) from their homeland, where nothing except the gallows was familiar.

Aborigines on their home-ground watched in silence as a sadistic ritual unfolded slowly over the following (2) days

Thomas Barrett’s fleeting presence and dramatic exit from Australia is marked by a small plaque at the corner of Harrington and Essex Streets in Sydney’s Rocks area. See: A Vicious Circle – The Hangman’s Noose


‘In the early years of colonial New South Wales and Tasmania capital punishment was used as a sanction to a degree so frequent that it exceeded its use in England at that time and even approached its use there in absolute terms’. Mike Richards. The Life and Death of Ronald Ryan, 2002.

1967 – 3 February, Melbourne: Ronald Ryan was hanged in Pentridge Prison, Melbourne at the beginning of 3 February 1967. Ryan’s execution one hundred and seventy (179)  years after Thomas Barrett’s hanging in February 1788, was Australia’s last execution. 

‘While the extraordinary campaign to save him [Ryan] had not succeeded, he is remembered now as the man whose execution provoked an outcry that ensured that no person ever again in Australia would be put to death by the state’. Op. Cit.

Australia’s foundation myth – ‘amity and kindness’  –  nothing could be further than the truth.

‘Nineteenth century Australians fostered the belief in the uniquely peaceful settlement of Australia’. Jeffrey Grey, A Military History of Australia, The British Period 1788-1790, 2001

If for no reason other than it demonstrates how little ‘amity and kindness’ Britain brought to New Holland for its own people let alone the First Australians, surely the dubious circumstances surrounding Thomas Barrett’s death invites speculation and demand investigation.

Thomas Barrett, like Michael Barrett, ‘died game’ although deeply felt given the circumstances of his death – fixed bayonets- his death did not provoke an outcry’. There was no cry of ‘Shame’ it hangs in the air.


1868 – 9 January, Fremantle, West Australia: Hougoumont the last convict transport from England berthed at Fremantle on 9 January 1868. ‘Among Hougoumont’s company of two hundred and eighty-three (283) male convicts were sixty-three (63) Irishmen said to have been implicated in the ‘ClerkenwellFenian Conspiracy’. Keneally. ibid.

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