The Crimes of the First Fleet Convicts.


My chief reason for compiling this book was to make accessible the details of the crimes committed by each of the First Fleet convicts. I thought it desirable to do this because, in the convict lists in Australia, the crimes are referred to only generically as "felony", " larceny", etc., and because confusion persists concerning the types of crime committed. Some have suggested that breadwinners were transported for the trivial theft of some food to sustain starving children; others that a significant number of the earliest transportees were removed for political reasons. In an attempt to clarify the reasons for transportation, the pages that follow contain all the names of the First Fleet convicts, in the alphabetical order of the most usual spelling of them, with the charge that was the cause of the sentence in detail in which it appears in the source document. The numbers in the text apply to the references that conclude each entry.

In addition to the charge, the place and date of the trial and the name of the transport in which each convict embarked have been included. Age and occupation have been added when these details are available. Next are listed the documents ( see Appendix A ) in which that convict’s name appears, with the appropriate page number. This has been done so that every convict can be identified easily in every document in which his or her name is included. In this section, bracketed entries refer to variations from accepted usage, variations of the spelling of the Christian name or surname, variations in the date of trial, or, for example, if a convict was transferred to a different transport. However, it must be made clear that no attempt has been made to include every variant in the parentheses. The entry for each convict ends with a list of the sources from which the information is derived; in other words, each entry has its own bibliography in Appendix D. If name marked "q.v." cannot be found in the text, reference should be made to this appendix. However, in this list of alternative spellings, all variants of the prefix "Mac ‘ have not been included.

Seven hundred and seventy-eight convicts embarked into transports during the early months of 1787. The charges for seven hundred and thirty-three have been found. From these charges it is certain that the First Fleeters were not " more sinned against than sinning" and that no convict in the First Fleet was transported for a purely political crime. Some of the crimes appear trivial to us in the twentieth century, but the State imposed harsh penalties in the eighteenth in an attempt to protect property. On the other hand, judges and juries seem to have exerted themselves strenuously to mitigate the harshness


of the laws. Other facts of interest have emerged. Neither youth nor old age was a disqualification; both the very old and the very young embarked. The administration gave no consideration to the date of expiry of sentences, and several of the First Fleeters 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 at embarkment, and six-sevenths on disembarkment at Sydney Cove. Its curious that the first Governor, Captain Arthur Phillip, was not provided with a list of these sentences and thus had no means of knowing when each convict became free.

As anticipated, difficulties arose in dealing with the mass of material about these people. There is considerable confusion with the dates of the trials, as various dates are given in different sources in many instances. Variations in the spelling of names have been confusing, and the charges " return from transportation" troublesome. Each of these problems warrants a brief note.


It is not possible to traverse all the variations of dates in detail. Reference to some common alternatives may serve to illustrate the problem as a whole.

(a) 9th October 1782 and 10th September 1783 are frequently given as alternative dates for trials at the Old Bailey. The sessions in October 1782 began on the sixteenth of the month and not on the ninth: no explanation of this variation from normal is obvious. In addition, it is frequently clear from other evidence that both these dates have been used in error. In many such cases, Lieutenant Ralph Clark’s Journal contains a month of trial and brief details of the charge. Often a coincident charge has been found for a convict of the same name not in October 1782 or September 1783 but at the time recorded by Clark. Unfortunately, this additional information is available only for convicts in the Friendship.

( b ) Frequently the date given is not the of the trial but the date on which ( i ) a convict previously sentenced to death was reprieved (and this occasionally happened some years after the trial ), or ( ii ) a convict previously sentenced to transportation to one place had his destination altered. The dates 10th September 1783 ( see above ) and 23rd February 1785 appear frequently as dates of trial, because, on those days, many convicts were reprieved or had their destination changed.

( c ) When the date given was for a trial on the charge of  "return from transportation" ( see below ) confusion was frequent. In these cases, the convicts had been sentenced to transportation and had embarked in the Swift or the Mercury. They mutinied, were recaptured and were then tried again for "return from transportation". The mutineers from the Swift were tried at the Old Bailey and the date of their earlier trial was usually referred to. But, with the Mercury mutineers, most of whom appear in the records for Exeter on 24th May 1784, no indication was given of the date or place of their previous trial, details of which could only be found if some evidence of that trial existed in other sources. Fortunately most of the Mercury mutineers were transported in the Charlotte or in the Friendship. In the latter


case, Clark’s Journal often provided the evidence of the previous trial. The many trials for "return from transportation" explain the high frequency of 24th May 1784 as a date of trial at Exeter and increase the number of trials at the Old Bailey on 10th September 1783.



Proper names were often spelt as they sounded and several variation of many names occurred. This has occasionally caused difficulty in identification. Another problem is exemplified by the name of one of the judge’s, Sir William Henry Ashurst. This name is often spelt with one "h" as with two, and I understand from contemporary sources that the judge himself accepted the alternative usage. As it appeared accurate to use either, the spelling in the source document has been followed.

Most duplicated names are distinguishable by variations in places and dates of trial. The notation "sic" has been used to indicate variations in the spelling of proper names and - although not invariably- when an unusual spelling or meaning of a word in common use occurred.



Many of the First Fleet convicts were charged with "return from transportation". Because of some remaining doubts, which are referred to in notes in the text, it is impossible to be precise about the number of these trials, but there are approximately eighty. In addition, there were a small number of prisoners, who had left England but had apparently escaped from custody, who were tried for being "found at large".

All of the convicts charged with "return from transportation" were mutineers from the Swift or the Mercury. One convict, William Blatherhorn ( q.v. ), participated in both mutinies. The brief account of the uprisings which follows has been taken from contemporary sources.


(a) The Swift Mutiny. These details are extracted from the trial of David Hart, one of the mutineers but not a First Fleet transportee. He was tried by the first Middlesex jury before Mr Baron Hotham at Justice Hall in the Old Bailey at the sessions which began on Wednesday, 10th September 1783.


John Owen sworn......

What became of him after that [ the day of his original trial in April]? On the 16th August, he , with others, was delivered on board the Swift, at Blackwall.
Were you present at the delivery? I was.
Who did you deliver him to? To the mate of the ship who is here.

Thomas Bradbury sworn........

I am the mate of the Swift.
Where was the Swift bound last August? To America, to Halifax.
With a number of convicts? Yes.
How many had you on board? One hundred and forty-three, men and women.
Do you remember taking on board the prisoner, David Hart? I remember him perfectly well.


Where did he come on board? At Blackwall.
Do you recollect the day when he came on board? The 16th of August, I believe.
When did the ship sail from Blackwall? The next day down to the Galleons, where we received the remainder on board from the ship Censor, we left the Downs on 28th of August, and the 29th in the morning, the prisoner and the rest of them, who had been confined between decks, made what they called a rush; they came all at once into the cabin [sic], and secured the captain and myself, and all the ship’s company, and the fire arms.
Did you see the prisoner amoungst [sic] them? I did.

Did you see them come on deck? No, I was in the cabbin, and in about a minute afterwards they rushed into the cabbin.
Tell us what yourself [sic] saw? I saw them secure the arms, I saw them with the arms in their hands, the prisoner was amoungst them, and had either a musket or a blunderbuss in his hand.
How long was this a doing? It was done in a minute.
How did they get their liberty? The night before, they had sent a letter to the captain, desiring he would take their irons off, he said he would not, they said if he would not they would take them off themselves, he said he would fire on them, they said fire and be dammed, and then went to work, and everyone took their irons off with as much ease as if they had none on.
Did you know on board the ship, that they were taking off their irons? Yes.
Could you prevent it? No.
How many did your crew consist of? Eighteen; after they had secured us, they bore away, and went a little to the east of Dunganness [sic], between that and Rye, they let go the anchor, and hoisted the boats out, and went on shore, as many as could clearly get into the boats got on shore, with the arms along with them; that was on the 29th the same day they made the rush, it was six o’clock in the evening that they went on shore.
How many got on shore? Forty-eight.
What became of the rest? The rest remained on board with us.
When did you get your liberty? About twelve o'clock at night, we informed them of the dangerous situation they were in, in case any wind should come and that they would lose their lives, and then they agreed to let the sailors up, and we bore away, and about half past three as they had been drinking pretty freely, they began to grow drowsy, and went below, and there was not above half a dozen left on deck, and we searched them and got possession of the ship, and brought her into Portsmouth.
Did you see the prisoner escape? I cannot say I saw him get into the boat, but I knew he was gone.
He was not on board the ship after that time? No, he was not.
Were forty-eight all that the boats would hold? The boats would have held more I believe, but they would not take any more they were so desperate; there was not one of them that was compelled to go, far from it, for there were several knocked down that wanted to go.1

( b ) The Mercury Mutiny. The account of the trial of those of the Mercury mutineers who were recaptured on shore gives no details of the mutiny itself, but described the fate of the ninety people involved.


1 Old Bailey Sessions Papers, 1782-3, p. 800, trial no. 600


Monday last [ 24th May 1784 ] came on at the Castle of Exeter, before Mr. Justice Heath, by special commission, the trials of the convicts who escaped, only from the Mercury transport in Torbay, which ended on Tuesday evening, only 24 being tried, all of whom were identified, and received sentence of death. The whole number expected to have been tried was 90, 66 of whom were taken in boats by the the crew of the Helena, who were entitled to 20/. for each man on conviction, but whom the Judge did not proceed to try because they were taken on the water, and therefore could not be said to be at large within the kingdom. This circumstance deprives the crew, who were exceeding active on the occasion, of their merited reward; and there is reason to fear that the ringleaders will escape justice, while those who were unfortunate enough to get ashore, though perhaps their original crimes bore no comparison, are sentenced to an ignominious death.2

Further details of the Mercury mutiny occur in the second trial of Charles Peet ( q.v. ). No complete list of the names of the mutineers has been found and not all of the twenty-four referred to above appear in the records of the Clerk of Assize. Many of the names are included in lists in the Quarter Sessions Papers in the Devon Record Office.

The documents described briefly in Appendix A have been mentioned. These are lists of convicts’ names with additional details which vary in different documents. Three lists correspond completely, with the apparently accidental omission of one name from one of them. Two others are lists for a single transport, Clark’s for the Friendship and Bowes’s for the Lady Penrhyn. The Orders in Council contain the names of many more convicts than actually sailed. The number of convicts in the three lists which correspond has been accepted as the true number of the convicts who embarked.

The sources in which the charges have been found are summarized and described in Appendix B, but I should refer generally to the trials of people accused of crimes in the eighteenth century in Britain. Broadly it can be said that most -not all- Middlesex prisoners were charged at the Old Bailey and full details of their trials were published in the Old Bailey Sessions Papers. At that time, defendants could not be represented by counsel or call evidence other than of character on their own behalf. These trials are therefore rather one-sided recitations of the doings of the miscreant.

Away from Middlesex, the accused were tried either at Quarter Sessions or Assizes. The separate authorities for these jurisdictions have been summarized by Windeyer.

For most of the subjects of the realm the royal justice was represented, not by the courts which sat at Westminster, but by the judges who, with pomp and ceremony, made their periodical visits to the circuit towns . . . The justices who went into the counties to hear the verdicts of the juries on the assizes were especially commissioned for that purpose . . . But their jurisdiction was derived, not from their position as judges, but from the special commissions which were issued to them. The word "assize" came to mean the sittings which the

2 The Western Flying Post or Sherborne and Yeovil Mercury, vol. xxxvi, no 1843, Monday. 31st May 1784.


commissioners of assize held at the circuit towns for the hearing of cases both civil and criminal . . . The criminal jurisdiction was based on two commissions. The commissions of oyer and terminer directed the judge to hear and determine all charges of treason and felony presented by the grand juries. The commission of gaol delivery required him to try all prisoners who were in the country gaols awaiting trial . . .

In 1363 justices of the peace were required to hold sessions four times each year. This was the origin of the Courts of Quarter Sessions in which all the justices of the county assembled to receive the presentments of the grand juries and to preside at the trial of accused persons. The jurisdiction of Quarter Sessions was very wide. It extended to all cases except treason; but cases of difficulty had to be sent to the assizes, and, in practice, all capital cases were tried by the judges of assize.3

In general, the records of the Clerks of Assize are held in the Public Record Office, London. The records of the Quarter Sessions courts are at country archive offices. When charges could not be found in these sources provincial newspapers were searched.

Finally, attention should be drawn to one rather curious fact. Perusal of documents relating to activities in the colony prior to the arrival of the Second Fleet reveals some names which do not appear in the basic lists of First Fleet convicts. A well known example is John Bennett, who was hanged in the colony in May 1788. This name appears in the Orders in Council, in Ross’s and Richard’s returns, and in the list of convicts in Clark’s Journal. It is not in Phillip’s list or in either of the lists at H.O. 10/6 or H.O. 10/7, and the number of convicts in these lists (with the one exception) corresponds with the numerical returns made periodically by Phillip. Various explanations are possible.

(a) that 778 was an inaccurate estimate of the people embarked.

(b) that "John Bennett" was an alias used by one of the people in the list. This seems unlikely from the plethora of aliases which are recorded for other people.

(c) that John Bennett, stowed away in the First Fleet on the assumption that life as a convict in a distant colony would be preferable to a fate awaiting him in England.

(d) that one male convict did not embark and was impersonated only on the voyage by John Bennett, for the reason given in ( c ).

As engaging as these questions are, I regret my inability to assess the relative likelihood of the above possibilities.


Killara, N.S.W.

July 1969


3 W.J.V. Windeyer, Lectures on Legal History ( The Law Book Company of Australia, 1957 ), 2nd edition, pp. 130-3.


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