THE SHORT LIFE OF FIRST FLEETER THOMAS BARRETT
On a wall behind the Four Seasons Hotel
in Sydney a plaque commemorates the spot where the first
convict in the colony of New South Wales was hanged. The
area was once known to locals as ‘Gallows Hill’. The
execution took place on February 27, 1788.
As well as being the first convict
executed in the colony, Thomas Barrett is
believed to be the first person to craft a significant
piece of colonial art.
Born in London about 1758, little is
known of his early life. Records indicate Thomas was
found guilty of theft in July 1782 when he appeared at
the Old Bailey. He allegedly stole silver mugs, trays,
cutlery and a wine strainer from a home belonging to
William Lewis. Despite three witnesses testifying to
seeing Barrett close to the house at the time of the
robbery, he was found not guilty.
The following September he was caught
running from the home of Ann Milton, after
allegedly having stolen a silver watch, a chain and some
shirts. Not so lucky this time, he was found guilty and
sentenced to death. His sentence was commuted to
transportation for life and he was sent to the
Mercury transport on 26 March 1784 from a Thames
Two weeks later the convicts mutinied
near Torbay, and Barrett, one of the ringleaders,
escaped. He was recaptured near Plymouth and gaoled at
Exeter to await execution. Apparently he had saved the
steward’s life and prevented the captain from being
injured during the mutiny so he received a reprieve from
his death sentence and was ordered to life
transportation once again.
By 1787, Barrett now aged about 29
boarded the ship Charlotte, one of eleven ships
that sailed with the First Fleet in May of that year.
No profession is recorded on Barrett’s papers but his
penchant for stealing silver suggests he may have been
an engraver before he was sentenced, or it may be a
skill he picked up from other prisoners. Whatever the
truth he put those skills to use, aided by other
prisoners, by forging coins on the voyage using metal
from belt buckles, buttons and spoons.
When the ship docked in Rio de Janeiro he
tried to pass the coins to traders but was discovered.
The surgeon aboard the Charlotte, John White,
admired Barrett’s ‘great ingenuity and address’, and
said that the only thing that gave the scam away was the
poor quality of the metal. A search of the convict
quarters failed to reveal the equipment used.
White later commissioned Barrett to make
a medal commemorating the voyage of the Charlotte,
which Barrett carved in the six days from when the
Fleet arrived at Botany Bay and moved to Sydney Cove.
Once known as the Botany Bay Medallion and made
from a silver medical kidney dish, the medal was
inscribed with a picture of the Charlotte on one
side, with details of the voyage on the other, including
starting and finishing co-ordinates and the distance
travelled. (The medal has had various owners since, but
in 2008 the Australian National Maritime Museum acquired
it at auction for $750,000.)
Although Barrett had earned a place as a
convict artist he found himself on the wrong side of the
authorities just four weeks after the First Fleet
arrived in 1788. He conspired with three other
prisoners, Henry Lovell, John Ryan and Joseph
Hall, to steal food, including butter, peas and
pork, from the government stores. Called before a court
martial the convicts were condemned to death.
The problem was that nobody wanted to be
the executioner. One of the prisoners, John Ryan, who
had turned state’s evidence against the others, was
forced into the role of executioner. Hall and Lovell
were given a reprieve to banishment but Barrett was
taken to a large tree on the hill in what is now The
Rocks and hanged. His body was left to hang for an hour
to discourage others, the location being between the
male and female convict camps, a site of maximum
exposure, with the burial taking place nearby.
This article, submitted by #8445.1 Judith
O’Donohue, first appeared in the Spring 2019
Hawkesbury-Nepean Chapter Newsletter.