THOMAS BARRETT: ‘He may have been the maker of the Botany Bay Medallion…a skilfully engraved metal medallion inscribed with a relief description of the voyage dated 20 January 1788 and a representation of the Charlotte at anchor in Botany Bay. Mollie Gillen, Founders of Australia, Library of Australian History, Sydney, 1990

1788 – February 27, Sydney Cove: Thomas Barret was the first person executed in Australia. Dr John White, Chief Medical Officer of the ‘First Fleet’, almost certainly witnessed and probably certified Barrett’s death. See: From Here to Eternity 

It is believed Barrrett engraved the ‘Botany Bay Medallion’ AKA the ‘Charlotte Medal’ fashioned from a ‘ silver coloured metal kidney dish’ said to belong to Dr. White.

Probably the son of Irish immigrants Barrett was born in London in 1758. His profile is not that of the usual ‘First Fleet’ illiterate, dead-beat common criminal. Unusual for those times he could read and, judging by the ‘Botany Bay Medallion’, wrote a fine hand.

He appeared at the Old Bailey in September 1782 accused of stealing ‘a silver watch with chain’ and some clothes from an unoccupied house described in court papers as ‘up for rent’.

Found guilty as charged and sentenced to die he spent the following twelve months on ‘death row’ in one of London’s appalling prisons.

On 11 September 1783 Barrett’s death penalty was commuted ‘for transportation to America’ for the term of his natural life. He was then assigned to Censor a Thames River prison-hulk to await shipment. There he met up with the rakish Kellan brothers.

Charles and Herbert Kellan had, a month earlier August 1783, boarded Swift, a convict transport owned by George Moore. Government had issued Moore a contract to ship one hundred and forty-three (143) prisoners to America. The brothers were among a group of prisoners who ‘rose on the crew’ and escaped from the Swift at Rye on the Sussex coast.

Once there they would be sold at a regular ‘slave scramble’. To be more precise their value lay in the sale of their labour.

a convict

A month earlier –  – were among xile in America on t-ship owned by George Moore.

All were recaptured, charged with ‘being at large within the kingdom’, and sentenced to death. Eight (8) were executed. The remainder were forgiven death on condition of ‘transportation to America’ and returned to the hulks.

The Kellans boarded the hulk Censor where they met up with Thomas Barrett. Well educated the brothers determined to find out what ‘transportation to America’ meant in practice.

They delegated the task to their mother. After becoming aware, since the Transportation Act of 1717-18, convicts transported to America were sold to plantation owners she fought tirelessly to have them released.

One (1) of Mrs Kellan ‘pitiful letters to Evan Nepean and Lord Sydney on behalf of her sons’ survives.

Prisoners ‘for transportation to America‘ worked in the tobacco and cotton fields alongside Negro slaves purchased in Africa and shipped to America to labour on Britain’s profitable colonial plantations.

Some prisoners survived their sentence and made good. A few returned to England. Cast adrift when released most went bad and died destitute. Benjamin Franklin compared England’s convicted criminals to ‘rattle-snakes’. See: Britons, Never Never Shall Be Slaves

So when in March 1784, when Charles Kellan and Thomas Barrett were ordered with one hundred and seventy-seven (177) others to board Mercury, another of George Moore’s ships, they knew it was bad news but perhaps with opportunity.

Opportunity knocked. At Torbay on the Devon coast a mutiny similar to that on the Swift, took place .Charles and Thomas led the charge and in the confusion some, though not all Mercury’s prisoners, took the opportunity to escape.

All were eventually recaptured. Charged on two (2) separate counts  ‘return before expiry’ & ‘being at large within the kingdom’ all were sentenced to hang.

Ground-hog day, reprieved death, sentenced for transportation, this time ‘beyond the seas’, most returned to the hulks to await shipment to where-ever.

Thomas Barrett, although deemed a ring-leader of the ‘Mercury’ mutiny, was not executed. In the heat of battle he had shown compassion; ‘his intervention had saved the steward’s life and prevented the captain’s ears from being cut off’. See: Mutiny on Swift and Mercury. 

By the end of May 1784 Thomas Barrett and Charles Kellan found themselves once more on a Thames River prison-hulk the dreaded Dunkirk where they were joined by three (3) other Mercury escapees, Joseph Hall, Henry Lavell and John Ryan.

1787 – 11 March: Portsmouth: Five (5) years after his original sentence (1782) Barrett parted company with Charles Kellan. Along with Joseph Hall he boarded Charlotte, one of six (6) ships chartered by the British Government to transport seven hundred and eighty (780) convicted criminals ‘beyond the seas’ to Botany Bay, New Holland – now Australia.

Ryan the youngest of the group and Henry Lavell sailed to their exile 13,000 miles (21,000 km) from home on the Friendship.

1787 – 13 May, England: The ‘First Fleet’, an armed convoy of eleven (11) vessels with a complement of 1500 souls, one-half of them convicted criminals, under command of Captain Arthur Phillip RN, sailed from Portsmouth England bound for Botany Bay by way of Tenerife, Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town. See: Apollo 11 – Fly Me To The Moon.

‘He [Barrett] was involved in passing some forged quarter dollars at Rio de Janeiro, ingeniously made from some pewter spoons and old buttons and buckles belonging to marines’. Gillen. op.cit.

1787 – 6 August- 4 September, Brazil: For a month, between 6 August and 4 September 1787, the fleet re-provisioned at Rio de Janeiro where Thomas Barrett managed to get into mischief; ‘passing forged quarter dollars’.

That he attempted the Rio scam at all tells a lot about Thomas Barrett. Optimistic and resilient his spirit unbroken by two (2) death sentences and five (5) terrible years of imprisonment; three (3) of them on England’s overcrowded, filthy, diseased prison-ships moored along the Thames River.

1788 – 18-20 January, Botany Bay: Eight (8) months after leaving England the ‘First Fleet’  lay at anchor in Botany Bay. Captain Arthur Phillip was elated. He had succeeded in what he knew to be the main game, getting to New Holland before the French.

1788 – 24 January:Phillip noticed two French ships in the offing…there would seem to be “some justification for the saying that England won Australia by six days”. Edwards Jenks, History of Australian Colonies, cited in British Colonial Policy, Hugh E. Egerton, 1928.

Captain Phillip immediately boarded HMS Supply and quit Botany Bay for Port Jackson, Sydney Cove, nine (9) miles (14 km) to the north of Botany Bay where, to clinch Britain’s victory over France he ‘hoisted His Majesty’s Colours’ – the Union Jack. See: Britain By A Short Half-Head

‘New South Wales had been formally annexed by Cook in 1770. If La Perouse had arrived at Botany Bay before Phillip, and had fronted him with a French annexation, the act would have been equivalent to declaration of war on Great Britain’. Prof. G.A. Wood, The Discovery of Australia, 1969 edition.

1788 – 26 January, Sydney Cove: Phillip ordered the fleet follow as soon as the prevailing foul weather allowed a safe departure. But the high winds and cross- currents that had prevented La Perouse’s ships – La Boussole and L’Astrolabe – from entering the bay held up the English fleet’s departure until mid-morning on the 26th of January.



The English fleet’s departure was not without drama and danger to both vessel and life. Two (2) ships cut across each other causing damage and there was another near miss.

Late that afternoon Captain Hunter, before he too left Botany Bay for Sydney Cove in the fleet’s flagship HMS Sirius, met with La Perouse.

Hunter explained the fleet’s dire supply position and made it clear the English had no food to give the needy Frenchmen. He was however able to assist La Perouse gain safe anchorage in the area of Botany Bay now known as Frenchmans Bay at the Sydney suburb of La Perouse.

1788 – 26 January, Sydney Cove:  In the evening of the 26th January the entire English fleet had assembled in Sydney Cove , where three (3) days earlier – 23 January – Governor Phillip had claimed victory over France.

1788 – 27-28, January: The male convicts and marines disembarked over the following two (2) days to clear the ground and erect tent lines for the officers and women.

‘In one place, a party cutting down the woods; a second setting up a blacksmith’s forge; a third, dragging along a load of stores or provisions; here an officer pitching his marquee, with a detachment of troops parading on one side of him; and a cook’s fire blazing up on the other….as far as the unsettled state of matters would allow confusion gave place to system’. Marine Captain Watkin Tench, Sydney’s First Four Years, ed. F.L. Fitzhardinge, Angus and Robertson, 1961

1788 – 6 February: Eleven (11) days later the female contingent landed. Of the fleet’s seven hundred and fifty (750) convicts only two hundred and twenty-one (222) – 189 convicts, 32 wives of marines and the Chaplain’s wife were women.See: G for Genocide

Sexual tensions were high and it is said that ‘dark and stormy night’ a sexual orgy took place in the women’s camp. Given the overwhelmingly male population competition for heterosexual partners, would have been intense. Statistically the reported ‘orgy’ must have been  homosexual in nature.

1788 – 7th February: With all the ‘pomp and circumstance of glorious war’ Captain, now Governor Arthur Phillip RN, claimed British sovereignty over New Holland ‘from the Northern extremity of the coast called Cape York…to the Southern extremity…South Cape’.

So why did Thomas Barrett hang? See: The Ketch Connection: Michael Barrett  London 1868, Thomas Barrett Sydney 1788, Ronald Ryan Melbourne 1967  

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

Thomas Barrett was ‘a target of convenience’.

‘Of all the places in the world this is the greatest nest of rascals; it is impossible to trust any one of our men, much more any of the convicts; in short, there is no difference between soldier, sailor, or convicts; they are six of the one, or half a dozen of the other….I took a stick out of one of the serjeant’s hands and gave him a sound thrashing…I will give him the same every day for this month to come’. Marine Lieutenant Ralph Clark, First Fleet Journal.

At Rio Barrett had thumbed his nose at authority. Now at Sydney when revolt threatened Governor Arthur Phillip chose Thomas Barrett, a proven leader of men with many friends among ‘the nest of rascals’ to serve as ‘a target of convenience’?

As Lieutenant Clarke pointed out the ‘baddies’ vastly outnumbered the ‘goodies’ and ‘the Mercuries’ who numbered approximately one hundred (100) ‘were the most feared of the convicts’.

February 27: On Wednesday 27th February 1788 just a month after disembarking in Sydney Cove, four (4) ‘Mercuries’ Thomas Barrett, Henry Lavell, Joseph Hall and John Ryan were accused of robbing or conspiring to rob the government stores-house.

The charge however deserves investigation. It is a matter of record ‘on that very day they had received a week’s supply of provisions’. All male convicts were rationed as ‘troops serving in the West Indies’.

Judge-Advocate Captain David Collins hastily convened a court composed of six (6) military officers who found all four (4) guilty as charged. Condemned to death, their execution was scheduled to take place before sunset.

February 27: At 5pm, ‘the unhappy wretches’ were conductd wt. a party of Marines walking before them …with a large party of Marines drawn up opposite the Gallows …in case an insurrection should take place …& all the Convicts were summon’d to see the deserved end of their Companions’. Arthur Bowes Smyth , Surgeon Lady Penrhyn, First Fleet Journal.

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

Then there were three (3) Barrett, Hall and Lavell

When they arrived near the large tree fixt as a gallows… [Marine] Major Ross recd. a respite of 24 hours for Lovall and Hall’

Then there was one (1) Thomas Barrett stood alone under the ‘arm of the large tree’.

‘Abt. 1/2 after 6 o’clock pm he express[ed] not the least signs of fear till he mounted the ladder  then he turn’d very pale & seem’d very much shock’d’. Marine Lieutenant Ralph Clark, First Fleet Journal

No hangman came with the ‘First Fleet’ a fellow convict was forced to kill Thomas Barrett. Although from this distance in time, evidence must be considered circumstantial, it is highly likely John Ryan whenseverely threatened…the marines threatened to shoot him’ executed his friend

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

From his writings we know John White, was obsessed with art and having supplied the ‘silver coloured metal kidney dish’ admired Barrett’s skill as an engraver.

But there can be little doubt it was Marine Lieutenant William Dawes who provided the technical information and supervised Barrett’s engraving of the ‘Botany Bay Medallion’ and developed both admiration and respect for him.

Given Barrett’s demeanour; Clark says; ‘he turn’d very pale & seem’d very much shock’d’ did he believe or, had been led to believe, this association would save him from the ‘fatal tree’ ? See: Marine Lieutenant William Dawes, ‘The Eternal Flame & ‘Terror’.

Verbatim accounts of Thomas Barrett’s execution on the 27th February and the proceedings of the 28th – Hall and Lavell – See Blind Mans Bluff and the 29th February – James Freeman – See: Catch 22  have been preserved and held in the archives of the Supreme Court of New South Wales. Facsimiles published in 1913 are in the Mitchell Library, Sydney.

2008 – July, Sydney: The medallion survives. In July 2008 it was purchased for one million (1000,000) dollars AU and is on permanent display in the National Maritime Museum at Darling Harbour, Sydney.

2018 -27 February, The Rocks: Thomas Barrett’s fleeting presence in Australia is marked by a small plaque at the corner of Harrington and Essex Streets in Sydney’s Rocks area. The anniversary of his death – 27th February – passes un-remarked.


‘Military and police raids against dissenting Aboriginal groups lasted from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries. These raids had commenced by December 1790’. Professor Bruce Kercher, An Unruly Child, A History of Law in Australia, Allen and Unwin, 1994

Barrett’s execution; a vicious story reveals the ignition point of another – the dispossession of Australia’s First Nations’ Peoples and the devastation of their land and culture – the weapons of choice – guile, guns, gender, greed and grog. S


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