David Murray is a university medalist with a Creative Arts Phd from Newcastle Uni. He has published two books of poetry: “Swinging from a broken clock” and “Blue bottle” (Sultana Press) alongside having work in the journals Overland and Mascara.

Murray has a keen interest in historical true crime and its protagonists, who are often marginalised or ignored by big picture history. True crime can open an intimate window on the raw violence, resilience, humour and dumb luck characterising their world.

Murray’s research into the criminal/cultural history of convict Newcastle has resulted in a series of true crime vignettes to be published in Coal River as “Endnotes and cold mercy: Crime stories from colonial Newcastle”

Robert Young and John Hooper were indicted for the wilful murder of John Mason by strangling him with a rope at Newcastle on the 6th of July 1831; Francis Batty was also indicted as accessory before the fact, at the time and place aforesaid. (i)

Furtive inmate eyes and whispers watched Henry Canny meet turnkey Philip Joseph at the jail’s gate and followed the two men as they crossed the yard to the main building over ground trampled hard by shuffling feet.

Hospital overseer Canny paused at the entrance to consolidate his medical bag. The portico’s neo Palladian lines provided a moment of modest grandeur for a town still unsure of its identity after decommissioning as a penal outstation: six years on and the breakwall still snaked unfinished towards Nobbys Island, running almost perpendicular to the enduring, but dilapidated wharf that offloaded onto an uneven grid of streets dotted with inns, small workshops and rutting ex-inmate cottages shadowed by some domineering government buildings.

Nobby's Island from Mullumbimba Cottage, (c.1830) Courtesy of the Newcastle Art Gallery)
Nobby’s Island from Mullumbimba Cottage, (c.1830) Courtesy of the Newcastle Art Gallery)

Within this arbitrary dereliction a small boat building industry, an exporting salt works and some half-hearted coal mining had nonetheless encouraged one or two optimistic commentators to label Newcastle an ‘American’ town. The fashionable denotation suggested dynamic, entrepreneurial utility born of wild survivalism; a new world away from the curmudgeon English village organised by traditional market days, generational occupation, romantically tamed wildflowers, docile beasts, window taxes, dark seasons and knowing the limits of your station in life.

A View of King's Town by Joseph Cross (1828) Hand Coloured. (Photographed by Bruce Turnbull. Courtesy of the Newcastle Art Gallery)
A View of King’s Town by Joseph Cross (1828) Hand Coloured. (Photographed by Bruce Turnbull. Courtesy of the Newcastle Art Gallery)

Newcastle’s residual, semi-penal rituals also provided ex-convicts like Henry Canny with legitimacy. He walked with easy, official purpose through the jail’s ground floor warren of cells to its southern end strongroom where a half-circle of grizzling men contemplated John Mason’s corpse, propped upright against its concrete wall. The dead man’s livid face seemed to pale into a grey-blue in the dusky room. His eyes were so swollen it was difficult to decide if they were closed or open. A protruding tongue was fixed in firmly clenched teeth, as purple as his lips – and the colour of fresh death. Beneath the chin a prominent necklace bruise completed the frozen portrait.

Canny had watched Mason chain-marched to the jail for punishment that very morning: 100 lashes for – yet again – threatening the life of an overseer. By the afternoon he would be hanging lifeless from a rope in the strongroom suspended from a beam above (ii) with his legs dangling limp two feet under the berth-boards (iii). No one had witnessed his death and no one could confirm how some floorboards were removed from under his feet to leave him swinging air.

Canny’s tourniquet and knife extracted only a small trickle of blood from Mason’s limp arm. Canny was more and more finding himself barber-surgeon in place of the town’s intractable chief physician-magistrate George Brooks, who rarely bothered to attend injured convicts anymore. Death begrudgingly forced Brooks’ from his hospital rounds though and his ostentatious arrival at the jail involved re-bleeding Mason before pronouncing him dead. Witnesses were then tersely interviewed for an inquest recommending Mason’s death by strangulation be investigated by Sydney as a possible criminal offence. Jail scourger Robert Young and turnkey John Hooper – responsible for Mason in the strongroom and among the last people to have seen him alive – were placed in custody charged with manslaughter. A third suspect, chief jailer Francis Batty, was charged as an accessory but released on bail.


If John Mason’s numerous felonies for robbery and assault in England made him typical of many post-Napoleonic transportees, the broken neck of one victim, and the slitted throat of a partner’s pit-hound (over undivided robbery dues) revealed a nastier edge. The innate cruelty defined a flash ‘judgement’ that would help him to thrive the insidiously brutal penitentiary culture of the late 1820s. Various misdemeanour charges after his deportation in Sydney saw the roughly hewn and intimidating Staffordshire flash-brawler sentenced to a Newcastle town-gang.

Most convicts offloaded at Newcastle went upriver to labour on properties owned predominantly by colonial money barons or London investors of the Australian Agricultural Company. They were drawing the Hunter into large, avant-garde farming operations that experimented with scientific breeding programs and steam-combustion machinery. Convicts like John Mason were considered too dangerous for these relatively unsupervised industrial-elysian fields, and he pick-axed his days in harbour and road maintenance, living in the dirty, mustered, barracks world of victualed rations and whatever could be extorted from feebler inmates. Assaults on fellow convicts and overseers gained Mason the popular frightener of ‘Cranky Jack’. The overseer assaults also gave him experience of flogging punishments, but on the morning of his death a wide eyed and fevered pacing of the yard replaced his usual churlish calm. According to inmate Barney Doran this included bullying other inmates for a knife, saying he would stick Bob Young, or any person who came to flog him, as he would sooner be hung than receive 100 lashes; he seemed that day as if he would do anything. (iv)

There was speculation but no definitive reason for Mason’s flightiness on the day. Some said Brook’s lingering absence set him off: the magistrate had originally sentenced Mason to 100 lashes, but as chief medical officer he was expected at Mason’s punishment to ensure it was conducted within certain humane limits or be stopped. Brooks found this conflicting duty a contradictory annoyance. This flamed a rumour that jail floggings were occurring without a medical official present. This was linked in turn to further stories of indiscriminate inmate beatings by staff. For all that, general violence in the Newcastle jail was ironically pinned to its gentle chief jailer Francis Batty, who encouraged everyone to take personal care of the jail’s resident cats – perhaps admiring of their instinctive ability to convert daily survival into an artful mastery of living well. The Chief Sheriff of the colony formed a very favourable opinion of Batty’s character for kindness and humanity; believing he was not disposed to do injury to anybody. The Sheriff went so far as to say I appointed him jailer at Newcastle, and should rather have been inclined to remove him for too much softness and lenity (v). It was this compassion and kindness that the more unscrupulous jailers and prisoners sometimes manipulated.

Batty’s trusting nature gave the false appearance of naivety, but he was never ignorant. Aware of the mayhem Mason’s volatility could cause in the yard population he agreed to have him isolated in the strongroom, where, dependent on Brooks’ arrival, the flogging would take place. It took Batty, Robert Young, John Hooper and three or four reluctantly recruited inmates to physically move Mason and secure him to the strongroom’s whipping post, where a concocted series of ropes secured his hands, legs and upper torso. Central was an extended length slung over a roof beam and wrapped firmly around Mason’s shoulders and neck. The trial revealed this was a common jail technique used throughout the colony for restraining violent inmates. Leaving Mason in the care of Robert Young and John Hooper, Batty left to hunt down Doctor Brooks.


Trouble found the soldier-come-convict Robert Young in 1814 when a series of kitty-rig stealing went wrong and he found himself alongside around 100 other convicts at the barren, penal outstation that was then Newcastle. Like Henry Canny, Young would eventually find a home in its wistful strangeness and by 1830 he was an occupational scourger for the system that once punished him. Most had nothing good or bad to say of Robert Young, other than he was a conscientious flogger, who on the day of Mason’s death was heard telling Batty to send for Dr Brooks, for I’ll not punish him before he comes (vi).

Young’s partner John Hooper generated more divided local opinion. The ex-thief and thug served time at the Newcastle outstation around the time of its closure and in 1822 he was transferred to the new replacement facility along the coast at Port Macquarie. Like John Mason, Hooper rarely dealt in diplomacy or grey reasoning. After serving out his Port Macquarie sentence he found government work and his niche as a jailer-standover man. At the trial witnesses described Hooper threatening inmates to be silent about the hanging and the preceding ruckus. He had suggested to one frightened prisoner that the bastard (Mason) was going to get his justice one way or the other and it was Young and himself who were going to tame him or break his heart.(vii)


The trial centred on what was seen and heard in the strongroom. Through its window that opened conveniently onto the jail yard inmates claimed to have seen Young and Hooper provoking Mason, while at one point Hooper delivered a blow under the neck, with his fist, which did not knock him down (viii) One witness heard the two jailors threatening to murder Mason as they tightened the rope firmly around his neck. Another saw Young and Hooper stand by and do nothing as Mason swung air and choked to death before them.

The equally compelling but opposing view presented John Mason as an uncontrollable thug who went berserk after refusing to accept his predicament. Local constable Peter Riley had delivered Mason to the jail that morning. He had also been present at his sentencing before Brooks and remembered Mason yelling abuse at the magistrate and proclaiming he would rather be hanged (ix) than whipped again. Judge Dowling immediately advised the jury that heated words are not always presentiment to action.

As to the loose floorboards having moved from beneath Mason’s feet, the court was told by a jailor that the deceased could have saved himself from strangulation where I found him, by standing on the berth: if the man had been flogged, it was the duty of the jailer and one of the turnkeys to have been present; I could have heard an outcry in the room where I was, had a man been suffering; I could have heard the cry of “murder” had it been made (x). The court decided that a struggling Mason had most likely kicked them free.

Private William Burtenshaw from the stationed 57th Regiment was in custody at the time for a breach of army discipline. He offered the most complete narrative of the strongroom’s chaotic events: I was walking in the yard, and went to the window of the strong room, where I heard a great outcry from Mason; I saw him in the room; together with the prisoner Young and Hooper; Young had a rope in his hand; which he put over Mason’s head and round his neck; Mason was handcuffed at this time; when Young put the rope round his neck, Mason put up his hands to prevent it tightening round his neck; Young snatched the rope and pulled it tight round his neck, and then pulled him across the room towards the post; he could not get him up as Mason pulled against him; he then sent up to Mason, put his hand on his shoulder, and said “you bastard I’ll knock your brains out;” Hooper at this time was standing on one of the top berths, and told Young to hand him the rope and he would pull the bastard up; Young did so, and Hooper pulled the deceased up to the post at the edge of the berth, and held him there two or three minutes, and when he let him down he groaned; I saw no more…(xi)

Burtenshaw’s unfinished sentence brought the trial’s denouement. The citizen jury, still a relatively new reality for colonial courts, was left to decide if Mason’s violent character and behaviour was suicide, or whether Young and Hooper’s actions directly or indirectly caused the man’s death. The day’s progressive mayhem was about understanding whether the two jailers acted with the deliberate design of destroying life, or, with a bona fide intention of drawing him up to the post to receive his punishment, noting that in the latter case, although the act was criminal the offence would be mitigated to manslaughter. (xii) The jury found in the latter and Young and Hooper were charged with manslaughter. Both men were subsequently released after three months, taking off time already spent in custody. They returned to work under Francis Batty, who had been acquitted and discharged by proclamation.


Brooks didn’t appear at the trial. By the 1803s he avoided Sydney completely unless specifically commanded by superiors. The compulsively ambitious whispering rooms of the public service decided Brooks’ pettiness was a bitching slight against continually being overlooked for the job of the colony’s Chief Government Surgeon. He was left instead to rule a faint and dusty provincial dominion, his commands and rulings preserved on Newcastle’s thick salt air.

Mason’s death and trial came at personally tumultuous time for Henry Canny. He had married local currency girl Elizabeth Faulkner after taking up his hospital posting. Their relationship soured and Elizabeth left for Sydney where, in the months before Mason’s death, she was arrested for prostitution and sent to the Female Factory at Parramatta. Canny had only just taken out a newspaper notice saying he would not cover and of Elizabeth’s debts. He found himself back in court after the Mason trial when Elizabeth was arrested again; this time on a Newcastle to Sydney passenger ship travelling with a man she claimed to be her husband. It’s possible that to survive alone Elizabeth joined a small entrepreneurial group of colonial women operating as ‘companions’ for the increasing number of male commuters and businessmen now traversing the colony.

John Mason was buried in the town’s church graveyard, next to where the pigs once rooted about in the old outstation gardens. His death was a strange precursor of sorts to the colony’s ‘hanging’ decade to come; an era of the treadmill and horror prisons such as the redux Norfolk Island; a world based on the hardened morality of the new penitentiary movement, in which experimental punishment and reward techniques would reveal and remould the elusive ‘natural state’ of each individual convict.


i Australasian Legal Information Institute; Superior Courts of New South Wales R v Young, Hooper and Battie [1831] NSWSupC 4 (14 January 1831).
ii ibid
iii ibid
iv ibid
v ibid
vi ibid
vii ibid
viii ibid
ix ibid
x ibid
xi ibid
xii Ibid


Page 1: Nobby’s Island from Mullumbimba Cottage (c.1830). Newcastle University Cultural Collections

Page 2:  A View of King’s Town (Late Newcastle) 1828. Cross, Joseph. Published in Henry Dangar’s Index. (University of Newcastle Rare Book Collection)

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