On a wall behind the Four Seasons Hotel in Sydney a plaque commemorates the spot where the first convict in the colony of New South Wales was hanged. The area was once known to locals as ‘Gallows Hill’. The execution took place on February 27, 1788.


As well as being the first convict executed in the colony, Thomas Barrett is believed to be the first person to craft a significant piece of colonial art.

Born in London about 1758, little is known of his early life.  Records indicate Thomas was found guilty of theft in July 1782 when he appeared at the Old Bailey.  He allegedly stole silver mugs, trays, cutlery and a wine strainer from a home belonging to William Lewis. Despite three witnesses testifying to seeing Barrett close to the house at the time of the robbery, he was found not guilty.


The following September he was caught running from the home of Ann Milton, after allegedly having stolen a silver watch, a chain and some shirts. Not so lucky this time, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. His sentence was commuted to transportation for life and he was sent to the Mercury transport on 26 March 1784 from a Thames hulk.


Two weeks later the convicts mutinied near Torbay, and Barrett, one of the ringleaders, escaped. He was recaptured near Plymouth and gaoled at Exeter to await execution. Apparently he had saved the steward’s life and prevented the captain from being injured during the mutiny so he received a reprieve from his death sentence and was ordered to life transportation once again.


By 1787, Barrett now aged about 29 boarded the ship Charlotte, one of eleven ships that sailed with the First Fleet in May of that year.  No profession is recorded on Barrett’s papers but his penchant for stealing silver suggests he may have been an engraver before he was sentenced, or it may be a skill he picked up from other prisoners. Whatever the truth he put those skills to use, aided by other prisoners, by forging coins on the voyage using metal from belt buckles, buttons and spoons.


When the ship docked in Rio de Janeiro he tried to pass the coins to traders but was discovered. The surgeon aboard the Charlotte, John White, admired Barrett’s ‘great ingenuity and address’, and said that the only thing that gave the scam away was the poor quality of the metal. A search of the convict quarters failed to reveal the equipment used.


White later commissioned Barrett to make a medal commemorating the voyage of the Charlotte, which Barrett carved in the six days from when the Fleet arrived at Botany Bay and moved to Sydney Cove. Once known as the Botany Bay Medallion and made from a silver medical kidney dish, the medal was inscribed with a picture of the Charlotte on one side, with details of the voyage on the other, including starting and finishing co-ordinates and the distance travelled. (The medal has had various owners since, but in 2008 the Australian National Maritime Museum acquired it at auction for $750,000.)


Although Barrett had earned a place as a convict artist he found himself on the wrong side of the authorities just four weeks after the First Fleet arrived in 1788. He conspired with three other prisoners, Henry Lovell, John Ryan and Joseph Hall, to steal food, including butter, peas and pork, from the government stores. Called before a court martial the convicts were condemned to death.


The problem was that nobody wanted to be the executioner. One of the prisoners, John Ryan, who had turned state’s evidence against the others, was forced into the role of executioner. Hall and Lovell were given a reprieve to banishment but Barrett was taken to a large tree on the hill in what is now The Rocks and hanged. His body was left to hang for an hour to discourage others, the location being between the male and female convict camps, a site of maximum exposure, with the burial taking place nearby.


This article, submitted by #8445.1 Judith O’Donohue, first appeared in the Spring 2019 Hawkesbury-Nepean Chapter Newsletter.                     




Copyright Fellowship of First Fleeters