Sydney Town, 1 March 1788 :—  James Freeman was pouring sweat. He stood under the gallows tree with a rope around his neck, beside the ladder that he would soon have to climb and have kicked from under him. All because he’d been starving, from doing as much work as three men since they’d arrived! His twenty-year-old heart pounded as he shook with the fear of impending pain. He didn’t want to die.

Just two nights earlier Thomas Barrett had the dubious honour to be the first to be hanged here, but the job had been botched and he’d continued to kick in agony for some time while they’d all had to watch. James hoped the convict or Red Coat that was appointed to carry out his punishment would do so a lot more efficiently, but he dreaded otherwise.   

His partner in crime William Shearman, supposedly his chum, had said James had been the one to obtain the flour. James had said he’d found it in the woods but no-one believed him. He remembered how his mouth had been salivating for the large pudding they’d planned to share once William had boiled it up in the big copper. Now he was too scared to feel anything as normal as hunger.

The air suddenly resounded with the beat of the Red Coats’ drum, making him jump. It was pounding out his final minutes on earth. Earlier, the battalion had marched him and William here under arms to receive their punishments, alongside two other convicts, Daniel Gordon and John Williams. The others were there for stealing wine and also condemned to death.

Reverend Johnson now stood beside them reading from the bible, entreating them to repent with each verse, but James did not hear a word as his short life swept through his mind. He just hoped he’d get to see his Ma and Da in the after-life, if there really was one.


All noise halted and the crowd of convicts and guards looked around in surprise. Major Ross, head of the Royal Marines, strode over to them and spoke to some of the soldiers. A declaration was then read out:

     “To the Judge Advocate, and to the Provost Marshall of the Territory of New South Wales and to all others whom it may concern.

By his Excellency Arthur Phillip Esquire, Captain General and Governor in Chief in and over His Majesty’s Territory of New South Wales and its Dependencies &c. &c. &c.

Whereas James Freeman was at the Criminal Court of Judicature, held at Sydney in Port Jackson on Friday the twenty ninth Day of February in the year of Our Lord, One thousand seven hundred and eighty eight, tried & convicted of Felony, & received Sentence of Death for the same.

And whereas some favourable Circumstances have been represented to me in his Behalf, enducing me to extend Grace & Mercy unto him; and to grant him a Pardon for his said Crime:

In Pursuance of the Power & Authority vested in me, I do hereby grant him the said James Freeman, a Pardon for the said Offence, on Condition of his becoming the public Executioner for & during the Term for which he was transported to this Country, & of his residing within the Limits of this Government, for & during the Term of his natural Life – on pain, that if the said James Freeman doth return to & appear within any part of the Kingdom of Great Britain or Ireland during the Term or Time above specified, the Pardon so to the said James Freeman, hereby conditionally granted shall in such Case be wholly null & void.

Given under my Hand & the Seal of my Arms, at Government House, Sydney, in the Territory of New South Wales, this first Day of March, in the year of Our Lord, One thousand seven hundred & eighty eight.”

It was a reprieve. James thought for a moment then reluctantly accepted with a nod. He didn’t have any real choice. Two marines helped remove James’s halter. William also had his sentence changed, to 300 lashes, while Gordon and Williams were sent to bread and water rations on the tiny island aptly known as Pinchgut, situated in the harbour. Governor Phillip wasn’t keen to kill off any of his workers that day.

James would later realize that he’d only been reprieved because of his youth, strength and size - his ability for the tough jobs that were needed so desperately by the new colony. In fact it was his second reprieve from death, as the first one had sent him here. He was decidedly free but at what price? This Freeman could never be truly free again.

James was now the first to have his conditional pardon written in the Pardons Register for the colony of Australia. But he was also never to leave the colony even if one day he could afford to. By this time he had already served four years of his seven year sentence that had originally been pronounced as the death penalty at the English Hertfordshire Lent Assizes.

Held at the St Albans Gaol when first captured, James went on to other Hertfordshire prisons after his sentencing had been changed, his age then said to be only 16 years. He was next conveyed to the Ceres hulk which lay off Woolwich, on the south bank of the River Thames in South East London. Finally he embarked on the Alexander with another 194 male convicts, for their banishment to the other side of the world. They sailed on board the largest transport ship of the First Fleet, mastered by Duncan Sinclair.

James had been born the youngest of six, in around 1768/1769. His parents, most likely the John Freeman and Susannah Tophill that married on 25th October 1756 at Rickmansworth, appeared to be so poor they were unable to contribute to the church’s funds, as was the usual custom, when he’d been baptized. Then the family’s survival went further downhill — his father died when young Jim was only 18 months old.

Those times were tough on the labouring class, particularly because of the industrial revolution; farming land was taken back and country folk enticed to the cities, resulting in a real decline in their quality of life.

The fact that James joined a gang of males older than himself can now be more easily understood when you consider his circumstances. Was he pressured into the acts of highway robbery he was charged with, knowing well at the time it was against the law as well as morally wrong, but not having any other way to keep in with his desperately needed friends? It was most probably a case of limited choices, having few other ways to survive or channel his youthful energy.

James’s first act that he had been pardoned to carry out, as official hangman and common executioner, was on 2 May 1788. A John Bennett was the lucky recipient; lucky only because James did what was required of him in a quick and capable manner, just as the governor had hoped. In total he finished the lives, as ‘finisher of the law’, of fifteen souls. These included six marines and a woman, Ann Davis. But there is also a record of him becoming inebriated, abusive and out of his hut after hours which shows he was not finding his occasional job easy by any means.

With his sentence finally completed and the arrival of the Third Fleet in July 1791, James’s life took a turn for the better. He met Mary Edwards, from the female convict ship Mary Ann, who had been sent out in the period when they were desperate for females. The crime of stealing shoes valued at 4 shillings and 6 pence, that she and her husband were accused of having taken together, resulted in only Mary being committed.

Within 14 months of Mary’s arrival in August 1792, James became the father of baby Mary. In December two years later, Bethia was born.

Sadly James’s lucky time didn’t hold out. Although Mary Edwards had been attracted and committed to him for some years, their relationship did not last.

Perhaps it was because he didn’t receive any land in the land of plenty, when so many others did. HHHHHhHHHHHHhhhhhhhhe’d broken the law twice during his colonial punishment and so paid the price by not being given a grant. Or maybe he became hard to live with, as his mental state deteriorated from the deaths he’d caused, into a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that was nowhere near to being understood then. But for whatever reason she left. Mary Edwards was able to pick and choose with a 10:1 ratio of men to women, and by 1800 she’d had another daughter, Susannah, this time to Abraham Martin.

A further blow was to be dealt to James in the form of his eldest daughter’s death on 5 October 1801, aged just eight. The Freeman family name was placed firmly on her burial transcription, unlike her birth record which has both of their last names, giving the appearance that James was the one that had to carry out that hard business. There is no cause of death recorded so who can say if or where blame was laid over it, between them?

James’s other daughter Bethia, only 2 ⅓ years younger than her big sister, would have felt her death cruelly too, as there is no doubt they would have been great friends at that age. However, when Bethia grew up to have her own children, she named one of her first born twins for her half-sister Susannah and the other one for her father James; her third born child became Mary for her mother and sister.

James continued to work physically hard as a labourer, keeping his slate clean, and doesn’t appear in any more of the documents until the NSW 1828 census. He was then reported as a James Thurman, aged 63 years, with an Absolute Pardon. After a lifetime of not enough food or oral hygiene, missing teeth would no doubt have forced him to pronounce his own name incorrectly; this was then recorded literally by the clerk collecting the data.

Written under the employment column of the census James was sadly listed as a pauper. Living with a farmer at Richmond, Thomas Miles and his family, and after a lifetime of hard physical toil that caused his body to break down without the benefit of land and sons to take care of his old age, he was finally forced to live off others’ charity. 

His end came only four years later when, after passing away in Windsor Hospital, he was buried on 28 January 1830 almost exactly forty two years from his arrival here. He was buried in an unmarked grave in the now truly historic St. Matthews Anglican Church at Windsor, in the charming Hawkesbury River district.

James left behind the legacy of what can so easily result from poverty and a lack of the proper emotional and family support. But by his only surviving daughter giving him ten grandchildren, his descendants grew to be numerous, though the Freeman surname was unable to be passed down. Through changing times the family has overcome what was once the shameful secret of having a convict hangman as a relative, for some generations, to where we can now celebrate James and his story.


Copyright by a descendant, Neridah Kentwell, July 2012

Fellowship of First Fleeters Membership No. 8111     

With thanks to Frances Bluhdorn and Lois Carrington (1928-2008) for most of the research.



Copyright Fellowship of First Fleeters