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Jim’s Australiana Spot – 2UE - JUNE 23, 2014

convict con men part 1

Thomas Barrett was a petty thief, amateur engraver and counterfeiter. In September 1782, when he was in his early 20s, he was apprehended running from the house a lady named Ann Milton in London and found to have in his possession a silver watch and other items valued at 72 shillings. He was sentenced to death at the Old Bailey on 11 September and the sentence was immediately commuted to transportation for life to the American colonies.

Barrett, and 178 other convicted felons, left the port of Dover aboard the transport Mercury in March 1784, bound for the colony of Georgia. After just a few days sailing, however, Barrett was apparently one of the ringleaders of a mutiny in which the convicts took charge of the vessel and attempted to sail to Ireland.

Adverse weather caused them to abort their plan and they then returned to the Port of Torbay, in Devon, where many of them managed to abscond from the vessel before they could be apprehended. Most of the runaways were rounded up and tried for crimes including mutiny and being 'criminally at-large'. Of the 108 rearrested, two were hanged and a further 24 were tried for mutiny.

Barrett was again sentenced to death but reprieved after evidence was tendered to the court that he had intervened to save the life of a crew member and had also prevented the captain's ear from being taken off with a pair of scissors by other mutineers. He spent four years on the prison hulk Dunkirk at Plymouth before joining the convict transport Charlotte, as part of the First Fleet 'bound for Botany Bay'.

There were 67 convicts from the Mercury mutiny on the First Fleet.

Barrett spent his time on the voyage to Rio engraving coins that had been rubbed flat and made into love tokens for fellow convicts to give to the female convicts aboard the Charlotte. When the fleet arrived at Rio, it became apparent that he had been able to make more than a few love tokens. He had forged quite good dollar coins as well. Surgeon General John White, obviously impressed by Barrett's skill and, gave the convicted amateur engraver a commission. White gave Barrett a silver kidney dish from his personal medical equipment and asked the convict to create a medallion commemorating the voyage of the Charlotte.

Barrett, skillfully produced a silver medal 74mms in diameter that shows the Charlotte at anchor in Botany Bay on one side and has the details of the voyage engraved on the other:

At an auction held by the coin and medal dealers Noble Numismatics in 2008, the Australian National Maritime Museum acquired the medal with a bid of $750 000. When the buyer's premium was added the medal actually cost almost  $1million.

Less than a month after arriving at Sydney Cove he and three others, driven by hunger no doubt, robbed the government food store, taking an amount of 'beef, butter and pease'. Two were 'banished to some uninhabited place', one was flogged and forced at gunpoint to hang the fourth, as an example to the assembled community.

No prizes for guessing the identity of the fourth food thief. Thomas Barrett, designer and engraver of artworks worth in excess of $1million, gained a further permanent distinction in our history - being the first man hanged in New South Wales and the first European executed on Australia's east coast. I suppose that, if you are sentenced to death three times, you are probably lucky to be hanged only once.


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