Little is known about the early life of James Bryan Cullen.  The fact that at his trial, at the Old Bailey, (q.v. Proceedings, Wednesday 6th April 1785 JAMES BRYAN CULLIEN) he gave as his occupation, ‘jockey and land owner’, suggests he may have had rural and equestrian connections at some stage.

All the records referring to his age point to a birth year about 1742, making him one of the older convicts leaving for New South Wales on 13t May 1787.  The court indictment was for ‘feloniously stealing’ clothing to a total value of 130 shillings, the property of John Crandell, coachman and John Shingler, servant, both in the employ of Mr Milbank.

It seems from one witness at the trial that Cullen often travelled between London and Northampton.  Some of the stolen property was found by the foot patrols at William Barry’s next door to the White Swan, King Street, Wapping.  Others had been sent by Eleanor Welch, also on trial as a receiver of stolen property and known as Mrs. Briant, Cullen’s wife, to a nearby pawn broker.

At the trial Cullen said that he and John Crandell had arranged to board a ‘Greenland’ Ship, the William and Ann, which was moored at Wapping.  A literate man, suggesting he had an educated background, Cullen had written a note, tendered in court, with the travel arrangements.  However, at the trial, Crandell denied all knowledge.  Cullen’s final statement was : “I have nothing further to say, I have lived with Captain Frederick and Lady Harris at the King’s Palace.”

The jury confirmed the guilt of Jacob Briant Cullien and he was sentenced to transportation for seven years to Africa and placed immediately on the Ceres hulk at Plymouth.  His wife, Eleanor ‘Lizzy’ Welch was found not guilty.  From the Ceres hulk James Bryan Cullen was moved to the Censor hulk on the Thames, but in the meantime, the African convict colony had failed.  Many so directed were reassigned to Botany Bay and Cullen found himself on Scarborough when the fleet sailed.

The next record we have of him was of an altercation in May 1788 between him and the supervisor of a timber-getting work gang at the Sydney Cove settlement.  He was charged with insolence to Sergeant Thomas Smith and sentenced to 25 lashes for using ‘improper words’.  Other than that, his activities during the rest of his two years at Port Jackson remain unrecorded.

James Cullen was selected as one of the 183 convicts to go to Norfolk Island on the Sirius in March 1790, possibly due to his background as a land owner with farming experience.

The arrival of the Sirius at Cascade Bay under the command of Captain Hunter is well documented elsewhere, where we read of the difficulty of getting everyone, including the newly appointed Lieutenant Governor, Major Ross, safely ashore.  Those who did reach land had then to walk overland to the settlement Sydney Town on the south side and these included all the women and children.  Sirius eventually sailed round to the south side of the island and in attempting to land at Sydney Bay, was wrecked on the reef and she eventually broke up.  Those convicts listed in the manifest as going ashore that day, 19th March 1790, James Bryan Cullen among them, did so without loss of life.

Altogether, Cullen spent nearly seventeen years on Norfolk Island and the various records show that his farming endeavours were quite successful.  His first two years were spent in the Arthur’s Vale area, but once he was emancipated, on 7th December 1791, he was given a lease on lot 76 of 12 acres, one of one hundred such lots first allocated to the now free settlers.  Later, for a time, he also had a lease on neighbouring lot 77.

Within two years he had three quarters of his lot cleared and under cultivation and assistance in that farming could have come initially from his de-facto partner, the widow Ann Bryant, nee Coombes.  There is no mention in surviving records of any marriage to Ann and the partnership lasting about four years, produced no children.  These two elongated lots where Cullen built two two-storeyed timber houses, were in the district know as Queenborough Path, Grenville Vale and can be located today about halfway along the lesser airport runway on the south-eastern side and stretching down into the gully below.

By the late 1790s, Ann Bryant was no longer living with James Cullen and a new partner, Elizabeth Bartlett, a native of Dublin and later to become his wife, was on the scene.  She was 32 years his junior and she was already pregnant on her arrival on the island.  This child, William Bartlett, was born on 16 July 1796 but died in infancy some time after October 1796.  The next year a son Stephen was born to James and Elizabeth Cullen but he too did not survive.  Three daughters followed, Sophia in 1798, Catherine in 1800 and Elizabeth in 1805.

The Cullen family, based on their now granted land at Grenville Vale, continued to farm successfully for several years, with grain regularly sold to the government and with a number of animals pastured and producing milk, wool and meat (goats, sheep and pigs).  Records exist of several Cullen land trading deals during those years, perhaps in keeping with his originally stated profession back in 1875 as a land owner!  James was appointed as a constable and overseer both at Creswell Bay and at Cascade, where he also had land on lot 111, so by this time he had obviously become a worthy free citizen.

When the decision was made in England to close down the first Norfolk Island settlement, many of the older settlers complained that they were ‘too old’ to relocate and start again.  Aged 65 when the first orders were given to move to the new settlement in Van Diemen’s Land, James Cullen may well have been one who voiced such a concern.  However, the Cullen family were on board HMS Porpoise for the twenty-two day journey to the Derwent when it left on 26 December 1807, the second of the five major voyages to clear the island of most of its inhabitants at the time.

The family were compensated for their stock lost at the move and also for the value of the cleared land and houses and outbuildings left behind.  Like many others from Norfolk Island, the Cullens re-established themselves at New Norfolk on the Derwent where they were granted land on both sides of the river, their main farm being on the north bank, found today beside the highway and to the left of the main road bridge.

Details of life in New Norfolk for the Cullens can be gleaned from the chief secretary’s records, including written submissions to and from Governor Macquarie and from other farm returns and musters.  Movement between the new settlement and Hobart Town seemed to occur regularly, at first by river until roads improved.  Rev Robert Knopwood officiate at the marriage ceremony of James and Elizabeth on 25th September 1809 at St David’s church in Hobart and the records show that the parson became a friend of the family and on retirement, lived for a time on the Cullen estate at New Norfolk.

A stone cottage was built initially with the help of their convict servant Robert Bishop and it was later replaced by the construction of a magnificent Georgian mansion which still stands today.  It is heritage listed as ‘Glen Derwent’ and over the years has variously served as a hotel, a hops farmhouse, a dairy farmhouse and as quality accommodation for travellers.

At the time of his death in 1821, after fourteen years in Van Diemen’s Land, Cullen’s new mansion was heavily in debt and eventually had to be sold off by his daughters and their spouses. It passed out of the family’s hands by 1836. 

An account of the coroner’s inquest into the passing of James Bryan Cullen, aged 79, can be seen in the Hobart Town Gazette of Saturday 14 April, 1821.  The previous Thursday afternoon he had been comfortably at home, sitting in the parlour reading a play.  Apparently he rose from his seat, went alone into the bedroom and shortly after the family heard the report of a pistol!  His daughter Elizabeth rushed in but found her father “breathing his last.  The room was full of smoke and the blood was running off the bed profusely.  Upon this awful sight the young woman fainted and fell down on the floor senseless and upon the family examining the unfortunate object of their anxiety, they found that the deceased had received the fatal wound close to his heart.”

The jury and coroner found that the death was by accident, concluding that the deceased was ‘much respected throughout his neighbourhood’.  He was buried at St David’s graveyard, Hobart, but there is no headstone.  Cullen’s widow Elizabeth, lived on in the house for some years and eventually died, aged 62, at the New Norfolk hospital on 5th March, 1836.  As the certifying Dr Officer said, she was ‘in a state of absolute dotage”.  She is buried at the New Norfolk pioneer cemetery.

Many descendants trace their ancestry back to James Bryan Cullen and his wife Elizabeth Cullen.  Sophia, who died young, but with ten children, married William Rayner who had also been born on Norfolk Island.  Catherine married the convict James Tedder and later as a widow married James Blay.  She had five daughters from the two marriages.  Elizabeth married a ship’s captain, John Pierce and they had two children.

Footnote: A full account of the life of James Bryan Cullen can be found in the 2007 booklet : James Bryan Cullen 1742-1821 A Jockey’s Journey, compiled and edited by Jon Fearon and Stan Keough.  Now out of print it can be accessed through libraries and/or inter library loan. There is also a copy in the library at First Fleet House.



Copyright Fellowship of First Fleeters