The Execution of Thomas Barrett
When 26-year-old Thomas Barrett appeared at The Old Bailey, London having stolen amongst other items a silver watch, metal chain and two shirts in Devon, 1782, Little did he know he would become the first man hanged in the newly established colony of New South Wales.
He was found guilty and sentenced to death, this sentence was commuted to King’s Pardon on condition of transportation. The prisons in England were brimming full, and due to the American War of Independence of 1776 the British Government had nowhere to send its wayward citizens.
A solution to this problem had to be found to these overcrowded prisons. That solution was to establish a penal colony in Australia.
Thomas Barrett the following year having escaped from gaol, appeared at the Old Bailey on a charge of being criminally at large. This time he was held successfully on a prison hulk before being sent to Australia in the first batch of convicts on board the HMAS Charlotte as a part of the First Fleet.
Barrett an accomplished engraver had an eventful journey out to Australia. When the fleet stopped to re-stock at Rio De Janeiro he was involved in passing some forged quarter dollars at Rio de Janeiro, ingeniously made from some pewter spoons and old buttons and buckles belonging to marines.
Dr White the surgeon on board the Charlotte asked Barrett to make a memento of the trip out and Barrett fashioned a medal out of a silver kidney dish. That medal still exists and was sold at auction to the National Maritime Museum in Australia in 2008, for a million dollars and is known as the Charlotte medal.
There would not be many incidences in the British Empire where the place of execution predates the first lock up, but in Sydney this was the case.
On the 27th February 1788, Barrett and three associates Ryan, Lavell and Hall were accused of plotting to rob the Government Stores of food.
Governor Arthur Phillip quickly gathered six Officers to form a court and to hear the charges. They soon found all of the accused guilty and condemned them to death. The execution was to be enacted before sunset that day.
Late in the afternoon, ‘the unhappy wretches’ were conducted wt. a party of Marines walking before them …with a large party of Marines drawn up opposite the Gallows …in case an insurrection should take place …& all the Convicts were summoned to see the deserved end of their Companions’.
There had been no provision for the position of Hangman on the First Fleet. Governor Arthur Phillip had not taken into account the complete and total distain for the office of Public Executioner the Marines stationed at Sydney had and such was the case, that not one of them would put their hand up to do the job.
Lieut. George Johnson Aide De Campe to Phillip and go between to the Naval Officers and the Marines, wholly supported his men in their in their in action. The execution was looking like it was going to be called off for that day until a solution to the impasse could be sought.
There was pressure put upon, Ryan, the youngest of the felons to turned Kings evidence against the others and his irons were removed, he was bullied into the role of hangman by the marines who threatened to shoot him, so the Governor could save face.
And so now there were three… yet to be hung.
At the peak of the hillside in what was to later become the corner of Essex and Harrington Streets, was the first place of Execution. On this location was a conveniently placed large gum tree, the boughs of which were selected for the purpose of gallows.
When the condemned men arrived there, it was learned that a 24 hour reprieve had been granted for Hall and Lavell.
And so now there was one, Thomas Barrett.
Barrett having already seen the others been let off lightly was under the impression that this whole day had been a show put on by Governor Arthur Phillip to keep all the prisoners in line. At 8.30 pm Barrett was told to mount the Ladder, he had not shown the signs of fear till he was up the ladder, then he turned pale and seemed shocked by the realization of the seriousness of his situation. The body of Thomas Barrett stayed suspended for an hour and was buried in a grave very near to the gallows tree.
Two days later the new courts and the law of the land was busy at it again. By lunchtime the following day the Another four convicts, Williams, Gordon, Shearman, and James Freeman had also been found guilty of the theft of stores and had likewise been condemned to die later that day.
Early in the afternoon Shearman, Freeman, Gordon and Williams in chains were marched to the hanging tree and the rituals of executions was begun.
Governor Arthur Phillip being a practical fellow, decided to reprieve one of the convicts and give him lashes instead, the next convict was given a conditional pardon on the proviso that he became the Official hangman of the colony (James Freeman).
This is the account of, John White Chief medical officer of the First Fleet
“But while under the ladder, with the rope about his neck, he [Freeman] was offered a free pardon as condition of performing the duty of the common executioner as long as he remained in this country, which after some little pause, he reluctantly accepted.”
Once he had agreed to the odious task at hand, David Collins the Judge Advocate, ordered the reprieve of the other three prisoners. This gave Freeman a chance to get used to the idea and learn a little about his new role. Thus the Colony now had its first official hangman.
Freeman did not have to perform his official duty until 2nd May 1788 with the execution of John Bennett aged 20.
James Freeman, born 1758 was convicted of Highway robbery in 1884 and was transported to Australia on the First Fleet Ship HMAS Alexander. From 1788 to 1792 there are 22 recorded hangings and it is assumed that James Freeman did the job. He hung Convicts, Marines, Civilians and Women.
He is recorded as being the father of two daughters to Mary Edwards, but she went off with another. Later in life he worked in the Richmond /Windsor area as a farm labourer. His name appears in the 1806 Muster records and the 1828 Census and died in the area January 1830 and is buried in one of the far corners of St Matthews Church Windsor NSW.
The following link is to a the original copy of James Freeman’s Pardon, the first pardon issued in the country..