‘He [ Barrett] 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 Barrett was the first person hanged in European Australia. A plague on the corner of Harrington and Essex Street in Sydney’s Rocks area marks Barrett’s fleeting presence in and dramatic exit from Australia.

Barrett fashioned the ‘Botany Bay Medallion’ AKA the ‘Charlotte Medal from a ‘silver coloured metal kidney dish’ belonging to Dr. John White who, as Chief Medical Officer would have certified Barrett’s death. See: From Here to Eternity 

White an excellent medical administrator was nevertheless a flawed character exemplified by the controversy over the Watling Collection of paintings that remains currrant to this day.


Barrett, probably the son of Irish immigrants, was born in London in 1758. His profile is not that of the usual illiterate dead-beat English common criminal. Unusual for those times he could read and wrote a find hand.

In September 1782 Barrett stood at the Old Bailey accused of stealing ‘a silver watch with chain’ and some clothing from an unoccupied house, described as ‘up for rent’.

Found guilty as charged, sentenced to death, 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’  and transferred 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 a transport merchant. Government  issued Moore a contract to ship one hundred and forty-three (143) prisoners to America where their ‘service’ was to be sold at a regular ‘slave scramble’.

Male prisoners reprieved death and sentenced ‘for transportation to America‘ were purchased by plantation owners. They worked alongside Negro slaves purchased in Africa and shipped to America for a life-time of labour in Britain’s profitable colonial plantations.

At Rye off the Sussex coast Herbert and Charless were among prisoners who ‘rose on the crew’ and escaped. 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  Censor where they met up with Thomas Barrett.

The well educated brothers determined to find out what ‘transportation to America’ meant in practice and delegated the task to their mother.

She fought tirelessly to have them released after becoming aware, since King George I’s Transportation Act of 1717-18, convicts transported to America were sold to plantation owners; legally their ‘service’ was sold.

Few prisoners returned to England. Some survived their sentence and made good. Most, when cast adrift, turned to crime and died either destitute or in prison. Benjamin Franklin compared them to ‘rattle-snakes’. See: Britons, Never Never Shall Be Slaves

One (1) of Mrs Kellan ‘pitiful letters to Evan Nepean and Lord Sydney on behalf of her sons’ survives. Quite possibly it is the only one of its kind written for a convict sentenced ‘for transportation to America’. It is especially poignant as later one (1) of her sons was hanged in Sydney.

So 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. See: Mutiny on Swift and Mercury. 

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 all were reprieved even Thomas Barrett. Although deemed the ring-leader 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’.

All were sentenced for transportation but this time the destination was ‘beyond the seas’. Most returned to the hulks to await shipment to where-ever.


By the end of May 1784 Thomas Barrett and Charles Kellan found themselves once more on a Thames River hulk. This time it was 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. His mother’s appeal had saved Charles who received a full pardon. Herbert, blind in one (1) eye, boarded the ‘First Fleet’ transport Scarborough.

Barrett along with Joseph Hall boarded Charlotte, another 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 in 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.

‘At Rio de Janeiro…he [Barrett] was involved in passing some forged quarter dollars 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 while  the fleet re-provisioned at Rio de Janeiro Thomas Barrett managed to get into mischief; ‘passing forged quarter dollars’ fashioned from buckles and buttons given him by marines.

That he attempted the Rio scam at all tells a lot about Thomas Barrett. First and foremost he had friends in both camps. Optimistic and resilient, his spirit unbroken by two (2) death sentences and five (5) terrible years of imprisonment; three (3) of them spent in overcrowded, filthy, decaying floating- prisons moored along the Thames River.

1788 – 18-20 January, Botany Bay: Eight (8) months after leaving England, within thirty-six (36) hours all eleven (11) vessels lay at anchor in Botany Bay. Phillip assessed the bay difficult to defend with insufficient fresh water for permanent settlement.

1788 – 21 January:. Armed with Cook’s 1770 charts he set off with marines and sailors in three (3) longboats to explore the surrounding country-side. They rowed south as far at Point Sutherland but did not find the sandstone bluffs Cook had sighted, named Port Jackson, but did not enter.

Turning north around mid-afternoon the rowers sighted the towering headlands that matched Cook’s description and entered a vast harbour.

Phillip wrote ‘Botany Bay, offered no Security for large Ships, here a thousand Ship of the Line may ride in the most perfect Security’.  

The next five (5) miles heading into choppy seas was to that point the sailors most difficult task. Presented with a myriad of inlets Phillip eventually settled on a snug deep-water cove he named after Lord Sydney the then Home Secretary.

1788 – 23 January, Botany Bay: By evening they were back in Botany Bay with good news – the ‘First Fleet’ had found a home. Phillip who had commanded a ship in the War of American Independence (1775-1783) was elated.

He had succeeded in what he knew to be the main game getting to New Holland before the French and claiming the island continent for the British Empire.


France had supported George Washington’s Patriot rebels with money, men and munitions to such an extent that Britain could quite rightly blame France for the loss of her American empire –  the colonies of Connecticut, North and South Carolina, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Virginia.

For Captain Arthur Phillip and his fellow Royal Navy Officers, particularly galling even aside from the French  Navy’s successful blockade of the England Channel that disrupted Britain’s long supply lines, was the pivotal role Admiral de Grasse played in bottling up the English Navy during the Battle of Yorktown.

There in October 1781 General Lord Cornwallis, hemmed in and starved of reinforcements was forced to surrender to a combined French and American force.

It is little wonder such profound humiliation aroused great passion in every Royalist and, especially as it was known that France puffed up by success, had revived her ‘enthusiasm for war’.

‘Phillip intended losing no time in relocating the settlement and told the fleet to prepare for departure next morning’. John Moore, First Fleet Marines , 1786-1792, Queensland University Press, 1987

Who could have conceived the ‘consternation’ and passion ‘next morning’ would bring to Botany Bay?

 ‘All were ready to depart at daybreak on 24 January when, to everyone’s consternation, two (2) French ships were sighted standing off the heads’. Moore. op.cit.

1788 – 24 January, Botany Bay: HMS Sirius, with gun-ports open, refused  L’Astrolabe and La Boussole entry. Comte Jean-Francois La Perouse took his ships back out to sea.

‘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. See: Britain By A Short Half-Head

‘Phillip’s wariness was well-placed‘. Three days earlier – 22 January – Phillip had entered Sydney Cove but had not raised ‘English Colours’.

Now on the 25th ‘Phillip was alarmed’ for he had no idea where La Perouse had gone and ordered a party south to Point Sutherland to fly the Union Jack. .

‘Raising the flag was one of the acts recognised as an assertion of a prior claim against other colonial powers eyeing off same land’. Professor Larissa Behrendt, The Honest History Book, Invasion or Settlement, ed. David Stephens & Alison Brionowski, New South Books, Sydney 2017

1788 – 25 January, Sydney Cove:  At first light Phillip aboard HMS Supply prepared to quit Botany Bay immediately but foul weather held up departure until after midday.

To Phillip’s intense relief there was not a French ship in sight when, at 7 o’clock that night, Supply dropped anchor in Sydney Cove.

1788 – 26 January, Sydney Cove:  Next morning at dawn  Captain Phillip and a party of marines landed; ‘hoisted His Majesty’s Colours’ and clinched the deal – Britain’s victory over France. See: Only Men ? Aside from seagulls how many white birds were on the ground at Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788 – None

‘There would be some justification for the saying that England won Australia by six days’. Professor Edward Jenks, History of the Australian Colonies, cited Hugh Egerton, A Short History of British Colonial Policy, Methuen & Co. Ltd, London, 1928  

The fleet was under orders to follow Supply to Port Jackson as soon as safety allowed. High winds and cross- currents made for a dramatic exit; two (2) collisions and a near miss. By 8pm  – 26 January – the entire English fleet were riding alongside HMS Supply.

‘Owing to the multiplicity of pressing business necessary to be performed immediately after landing, it was found impossible to read the public commission and take possession of the colony in form, until the 7th February [1788]’. Marine Captain Watkin Tench, Sydney’s First Four Years, ed. F.L. Fitzhardinge, Angus and Robertson, 1961

‘As far as the unsettled state of matters would allow‘ Phillip turned his attention to the urgent strategic problems thrown up by the presence of La Perouse and his men.

The preparation of a functional tent settlement was left to the military who reluctantly supervised the convicts’ labour.

‘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’. Tench.ibid.

1788 – 6 February: Eleven (11) days later the fleet’s female contingent landed from the ships that had been home for nigh on a year.

Of the fleet’s seven hundred and fifty (750) convicts only two hundred and twenty-one (222) were women; 189 convicts (22 children) 31 wives of marines (23) children and Mary wife of Chaplain Richard Johnson. See: G for Genocide

It is said that dark and stormy night ‘the men got among the women’. No doubt there was intense competition for heterosexual partners but given the overwhelmingly male population, the ‘noisy orgy’ must have been homosexual, predominately male. See: Brokeback Mountain

1788 – 7th February: With all the ‘pomp and circumstance of glorious war’ Captain-general 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

‘As part of this world wide European expansion, the British invaded and settled Australia. Stephen Gapps, The Sydney wars, Conflict in the early colony 1788-1817, New South Press, Sydney, 2018

Historians have largely ignored both the importance of the French arrival and its consequences.

Yet Governor Phillip, with the recent loss of America weighing heavily, rightly saw the French as a menace to King and Country.

The English men, women and children banished to the end of the known world however saw in the French a glimmer of hope.

Given this dichotomy it seems impossible to overplay the seriousness of the crisis Phillip faced.

He sent Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King RN, a trusted friend who had served with him during the American War and Marine Lieutenant William Dawes, the fleet’s scientific officer also veteran of that conflict, to Botany Bay where La Perouse and his men were now at anchor.

King, after dining with La Perouse on La Boussole, formed the opinion, on leaving Botany Bay, La Perouse intended to occupy Norfolk Island 1650 kms to the west of Sydney.

1788 – 14 February, Norfolk Island: Just seven (7) days after claiming British sovereignty over New Holland HMS Supply sailed to Norfolk; ‘to secure the same to us, and prevent it being occupied by the subject of any other European power [[with] King as commandant…a surgeon, a midshipman, a sawyer, a weaver, two marines and sixteen convicts of whom six were women’.

The French presence triggered a cascade of events that, included the drama of Thomas Barrett’s execution. See: The Ketch Connection: Michael Barrett  London 1868, Thomas Barrett Sydney 1788, Ronald Ryan Melbourne 1967  T

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

Why was Thomas Barrett hanged?  ‘the [eighty] Mercuries…were the most feared of the convicts’ with ‘insurrection’ in the air Governor Arthur Phillip chose his ideal ‘criminal’.

‘Killing a criminal achieved many ends simply and cheaply…for maximum effect there had to be maximum ceremony…a prolonged public display in which the power of authority and the wretchedness of the captive were acted out in a procession which every citizen might see’. Richard Byrne, Prisons and Punishment of London, Grafton – Collins, London.

At Rio Barrett, a proven leader of men with friends among the marines, had thumbed his nose at authority.

‘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  come’. Marine Lieutenant Ralph Clark, First Fleet Journal

February 27: On Wednesday 27th February 1788 just a month after landing 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. All male convicts were rationed as ‘troops serving in the West Indies’ andon that very day they had received a week’s supply of provisions’.

Judge-Advocate Captain David Collins hastily convened a court composed of six (6) military officers. Each was found guilty as charged and  condemned to death, the execution to take place before sunset.

1788 – February 27, Sydney Cove:   At 5 pm ‘All the Convicts were summon’d to see the deserved end of their Companions…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 or rescue should take place.

When they arrived near the large tree fixt as a gallows’ pressure was brought to bear on John Ryan, youngest of the four  ‘he turned king’s evidence [and] his irons were removed’.

Then there were three (3) Barrett, Hall and Lavell; ‘Major Ross recd. a respite of 24 hours for Lavell and Hall. Arthur Bowes Smyth , Surgeon Lady Penrhyn, First Fleet Journal.

Then there was one (1) Thomas Barrett stood alone.

‘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 take the role of executioner.

‘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 Officer, First Fleet Journal.

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

Marine Lieutenant William Dawes had provided the detailed technical information and supervised Barrett’s engraving of the ‘Botany Bay Medallion’.

Given Dawes later actions, December 1790, it is probable he found Phillip’s tactics ‘killing a criminal achieved many ends simply and cheaply’ questionable.  See: Marine Lieutenant William Dawes, ‘The Eternal Flame & ‘Terror’.

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

‘Maximum ceremony’ –  ‘ maximum effect’ Thomas Barrett’s execution was first of three (3) malicious acts played out over the following three (3) days.

Acts not only designed 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.

We can only imagine the thoughts and feeling of all onlookers. Unseen Aborigines on their home-ground watched in silence as the sadistic ritual unfolded.

Fear-filled strangers, convict and guard, newly arrived in a bewildering place 13,000 miles (21,000 km) from home, where nothing but the gallows was familiar.

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  are held in the archives of the Supreme Court of New South Wales. Facsimiles published in 1913 can be found in the Mitchell Library, Sydney.

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

Arguably European Australia’s most iconic artefact this writer believes its uniqueness has not yet been fully realised.


‘The European colonial expansion between and twentieth centuries led to frontier wars on every continent’. Gapps. ibid.

Barrett’s execution as a diversion served as a template for the death of another convict

1790 – December, Botany Bay: ‘John M’Entire the governor’s game-keeper (the person of whom Baneelon had, on former occasions, shown so much dread and hatred)’ provided the ignition point for Britain’s ‘frontier wars’. See: John Mc Intyre – Death of A Sure Thing

‘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


Despite Mrs Kellan’s pleas to save her son Herbert Kellan was hanged at Sydney in 1806.


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