In Governor Arthur Phillip’s great outdoor gaol in Sydney Cove, most eyes were on the convicts. It was logical to assume that those who had already proven themselves as felons were those most likely to offend in a new settlement. Yet, it was a military man, not a convict, who committed the first crime when a sailor illegally entered the Women’s Camp in early February 1788.
The military were also at the centre of an organised crime ring that started to unravel in mid-March 1789.
Private John Easty, of the marines, wrote that on 18 March 1789 ‘a Key was found Broke in one of the Locks att the Publick Store house’. The evidence was taken to William Fraser, a convict working as a blacksmith, who identified the key and stated that Private Joseph Hunt, a marine, had given it to him to alter.
Now, Hunt was a guy with a record. In March 1788, he’d been found guilty of striking a fellow marine. He was ordered to publicly apologise to his victim, or to receive 100 lashes. In February 1789, he was done for being absent from a sentry post and was sentenced to 700 lashes, to be delivered in two sessions. As Hunt’s body was still stinging from his brutal punishment, details started to emerge in the settlement about a series of thefts from the Government Stores.
Captain David Collins, the colony’s Judge Advocate, investigated the crimes. It was discovered that a group of seven marines, all swearing each other to secrecy, had procured keys to be altered so that they would fit the different locks on the three doors of the Government Stores. When one of the group members was rostered to guard the store, two more would enter and be locked in while they raided supplies of flour, meat, grog, tobacco and other items. Anyone else walking around would see the Stores locked and a guard on duty. This worked well, until one of the members decided to undertake a solo raid: he panicked and broke one of the keys off in a lock. The game was over.
On 20 March 1789, in exchange for a pardon, Hunt told all that he knew about months of thieving from the Government Stores, including the names of his co-conspirators. On 26 March 1789, Hunt and the men he gave up – James Baker, James Brown, Richard Lukes, Thomas Jones, Luke Haines (or Haynes) and Richard Askew (or Asky) – were tried for their crimes. It was a clear message that everyone was equal under the law. The seven marines were found guilty. Hunt got off, but the other six were sentenced to death and scheduled to meet the common hangman the next day.
There’s one last, shocking, twist to this story. Authorities were so keen to issue punishments for serious offences, regardless of who the perpetrators were (how times have changed), the gallows needed to carry out the hangings were erected before the men’s sentences were handed down.
And Hunt? Well, he was, let’s say, unpopular. He spent some time in Norfolk Island, then returned to Port Jackson before going back to England in 1791.
John Cobley, Sydney Cove, vol. I: 1788 (Angus & Robertson, 1962/1980).
John Cobley, Sydney Cove, vol. II: 1789–90 (Angus & Robertson, 1963/1980).
John Easty, ‘A Journal.’ State Library of NSW, 1787–93, DLSPENCER SAFE 374. View online at the Library: https://collection.sl.nsw.gov.au/record/94RxOZ01/520ODraNp7a0E
Watkin Tench, A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson (G Nicol and J Sewell, 1793). View online at the Library: https://collection.sl.nsw.gov.au/record/74VKJj8XZDE3/lJ0MxQZEx43oz
Dr Rachel Franks is the Coordinator of Scholarship at the State Library of NSW 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!
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