When people talk about the convicts sent to Australia across the early years of colonisation, there are two dominant stories that emerge. There’s the story of the unjustly treated convict: driven, by poverty, to steal basic supplies such as clothing and food to provide for their family. There’s also the story of the terrible villain: the foul murderer despatched to the far side of the world, ridding England of those who would commit the worst crimes.
The truth is somewhere in between. Sydney’s early days as a gaol saw a large amount of criminal activity with some crimes perpetrated by accidental criminals and other offences committed by career crooks. Theft was rampant. There were numerous assaults. Drunkenness provoked more than one ugly brawl. But what about murder? There were doubtless many acts of violence committed upon the First Nations people but how long did it take for colonists to start killing each other? The answer might surprise you.
In November 1788, a soldier met an untimely, non-work related end when he ‘died at the hospital of the bruises he received in fighting with one of his comrades, who was, with three others, taken into custody and afterward tried upon a charge of murder’. The men responsible for the unexpected death would, however, be found guilty of manslaughter and not murder with ‘each sentenced to receive two hundred lashes’. So, while violence was not uncommon, murder was a relatively rare act and not all of the murders committed in colonial Sydney were solved.
Some people just disappeared. It’s possible a murder was committed in late 1788 when a soldier suddenly went missing. There was another case of a missing person in April 1793, just over five years after the First Fleet arrived. David Collins recording that some people:
… were taken up at Parramatta on suspicion of having murdered one of the watchmen belonging to that settlement; the circumstances of which affair one of them had been overheard relating to a fellow-convict, while both were under confinement for some other offence. A watchman certainly had been missing for some time past; but after much inquiry and investigation nothing appeared that could furnish matter for a criminal prosecution against them.
The first convict in the colony believed to have been a victim of murder, dying at the hands of his fellow colonists, was John Lewis in January 1794. An enthusiastic gambler, Lewis regularly boasted of how he kept his illicit earnings stitched within his clothing. Again, the event is noted by David Collins who wrote that:
… an elderly convict, employed to go out with the cattle at Parramatta, was most barbarously murdered. … [The body was found] … covered with logs, boughs, and grass. Some native dogs, led by the scent of human blood, had found it, and by gnawing off both the hands, and the entire flesh from one arm, had added considerably to the horrid spectacle which the body exhibited …
Some brief inquiries were made in an attempt to identify those who were responsible for the incredibly violent crime but it was decided by authorities that the case would not be solved unless one of those responsible gave themselves or one of their gang members up.
Another unsolved murder case is the killing of Constable Joseph Luker, bludgeoned on the night of 26 August 1803. Luker was investigating the theft of a small, portable desk when he was attacked. The assault was brutal, with various weapons used including the stolen desk, the frame of a wheelbarrow, Luker’s cutlass and cutlass guard. Ex-convicts Constables William Bladders and Isaac Simmonds were charged with murder but found not guilty. Constable John Russell was indicted for breaking and entering but found not guilty due to insufficient evidence. Known thief Joseph Samuels was also indicted for breaking and entering. Samuels confessed to robbery but not to murder. Another known thief, Richard Jackson also confessed to robbery and, as a witness for the Crown, implicated Samuels, before being declared innocent. Samuels was convicted of robbery on 20 September 1803 but nobody was convicted of Luker’s murder.
Crime, from petty thefts to dreadful murders, is always unsettling. Unsolved crimes are especially disturbing. They leave a gap in the narrative. There is no neat, final chapter offering justice for the victim or resolution for the community.
Check the subject heading Crime for more historical crimes in Sydney on the Dictionary of Sydney:
John Cobley, Sydney Cove, 1788. (1962; repr., Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1980)
John Cobley, Sydney Cove, 1793-1795: The Spread of Settlement. (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1983)
David Collins, An Account of the English Colony of New South Wales (1798; repr., Adelaide: Libraries Board of South Australia, 1971)
Bruce Swanton, A Chronological Account of Crime, Public Order & Police in Sydney 1788-1810. (Phillip: Australian Institute of Criminology, 1983)
Louise Steding, Death on Night Watch: Constable Joseph Looker, 1803 (Sydney: In Focus, 2016)
The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (Sydney: Government Printer, 1803–1842)
Dr Rachel Franks is the Coordinator, Education & Scholarship at the State Library of New South Wales and a Conjoint Fellow at the University of Newcastle. She holds a PhD in Australian crime fiction and her research on crime fiction, true crime, popular culture and information science has been presented at numerous conferences. An award-winning writer, her work can be found in a wide variety of books, journals and magazines as well as on social media. She’s appearing for the Dictionary today in a voluntary capacity. Thank you Rachel!