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”

Transportation to New South Wales enabled the English to scatter the more hardened core of Irish rebels who survived the fighting of 1798 — execution in public just seemed to encourage them. As the popular saying went, you sometimes had to suck the eggs to kill the chicken.

Ten thousand ocean miles was never enough to silence the grog-pumped and addictive tin-whistle melodies the Irish sailed to Port Jackson with. Combining contempt, bitterness, deploring humour and moments of phosphorescent loss, the songs could make defeat sound uplifting while chronicling darker, collective memories like gang-rapes of local girls by English soldiers, or the use of artillery grapeshot on fleeing women and children at Vinegar Hill and nearby Enniscorthy; where a converted hospital was set alight and smouldered for weeks, fed partly by hissing human remains. For some the songs were all there were to never forget, while for others they kept alive a barely contained rage that erupted in an uprising on the Castle Hill government work farm in 1804.

For two clean autumn days in March a few hundred mostly Irish convicts impudently proclaimed an ‘Empire of New Ireland’ before being overrun. Nine suspected ringleaders, including the elected king Phillip Cunningham, were publically hanged. Just under thirty were arraigned and shipped north to be the first inmates of a new secondary penal outstation at the Settlement of Newcastle on the Hunter River.

Under the charge of an ambitious twenty-one year old marine officer, Lt Charles Menzies, three vessels made a forty hour voyage in sympathetic winds over a table-top smooth sea. After negotiating Newcastle’s already infamous river entrance on the incoming tide, they anchored within shouting distance of a shore-camp of men waiting with supplies left behind by a just completed survey expedition. The flotilla offloaded in the cool winter afternoon they were completely unaware that on the other side of the world a tail-flaming meteorite was thundering into the Scotland earth. Astronomers and not priests explained the phenomenon mathematically. The alien rock was a sign not of God’s spiteful wrath, but of a universe beyond the comprehension of the night eye.

Menzies’ and his generation brought a similarly enlightened, if more utilitarian, zeitgeist to their vocations. The panorama from Newcastle’s peninsula headland transfigured Menzies’ survey map into a luminous three dimensional delta of stained-glass blue water. It enclosed clean sandy islands shaped by flooding and just a few bird-flaps from each other. Through an eyeglass this miraculous blue converged into the main river tributary that disappeared into an undulating, thick canopied western forest. Despite tufts from random Native fires Menzies saw untouched, sublime nature doubling as an imposing escape barrier, while the human mess of disembarkation beneath him promised a geometrically imposed foothold that might build an industrially civilised future. The less optimistic within his mess of men might have alternatively peered into their first cold-blood sunset with its overture of wild dog howls, and felt a preface to the end of time.

Menzies had efficiently diffused the first challenge to his new authority on the voyage after a small group of prisoners openly threatened a murderous rampage against their gaolers upon landing. The belligerently articulate ringleader Andrew Tiernan was put in irons while Neil Smith and Francis Neeson were sent back to Sydney for trial, where a military jury found the clemency you experienced when once before overtaken by justice in your diabolical attempts, instead of impressing on your hearts a sense of obligation to the powers that spared you, it seems only to have furnished you with a further opportunity to debase yourselves. (i) The court could understand how obnoxious your vices may have rendered you but could find no excuse for the barbarian baseness and ingratitude motivating their actions. Smith and Neeson were flogged and returned to Newcastle where alongside fellow inmates — who numbers now included a few score of English born convicts and females of ‘bad character’ — they spent a slow but constructive winter milling timber and preparing the hard ground for the first storehouse, barracks, housing and roads. By early spring ‘the Camp’ as many now knew it, had a line of timber hardwood huts, looked over by an impressive, prefabricated Commandant’s house delivered from Sydney. Bricks for a commercial sized salt pan were arriving by instalment and offloaded on the nearly completed stone wharf. The vegetable patch had produced its first harvest of pumpkins. Rules restricting liberty of movement were enforced. These complemented the random surveillance of daily mustering and the grinding repetition of hard labour which drove the Camp’s ominous, authoritarian rhythms.

The Sydney Gazette spoke of Newcastle as a desolate, penal end-space for persons whose turbulent or infamous deportment (ii) made secondary punishment inevitable, framed by the more enigmatic imprimatur that Crime reduces all transgressors to a level (iii). Sydney even warned Menzies that the remaining Castle Hill Irish were plotting to trek north and free their brothers. Unlikely as this was, Menzies successfully tested shackling and removing his sixty odd inmates to Nobbys Island by boat, while a residual garrison force stayed behind to deal with any intruders.

Beyond being a short-term solution to the colony’s ‘Irish problem’, Governor King gambled that isolation, severe punishments and harsh, monotonous labouring would provide Newcastle with a reputation and a future. These considerations meant nothing to Andrew Tiernan, who upon release from his work-day chains bolted into the bush with Neil Smith and Bryan Riley, who in the aftermath of Castle Hill had been punished with as many lashes as he could stand without his life being endangered. The three runners returned themselves after Riley fell victim to cold, fatigue, and famine, after wandering for some time through the trackless woods, and feebly sustaining Nature with her own spontaneous herbage, which might have been impregnated with rank and deadly poison (iv). Their experience echoed many of the early escape attempts from the Camp, where the bush, starvation or Native bounty hunters saw most back in the compound within a few days. (Menzies had contracted a local chief, Bungaree, for the return of ‘Irish’, as his tribe generically tagged all runners). Despite this, running proved the most persistent misdemeanour on Newcastle’s early punishment lists, if just slightly more than assault, thieving and buggery. Apart from standard flogging or chain-ganging, a supervisor’s word could result in transfer upriver to a timber-cutting gang or a brief, if unforgettable, spell of solitary on Nobbys Island. The punishment options reflected the Camp’s uniquely evolving regime, and Andrew Tiernan had familiarised himself with most before being found face-down on a beach late in 1804, not far from a bush-still containing contraband peach-grog, government tools and stolen inmate personal effects. First thought to be a small beached porpoise, Tiernan’s body had been tame meat for wild dogs, crabs and seabirds. An inquest in early 1805 concerning this infamous Newcastle convict found no why, when or how to explain the death. He was buried on the Camp’s boundary where his crude wooden grave-marker corroded away to nothing in the indifferent and relentless salt air.


Professional sycophancy partly influenced Menzies calling his outpost King’s Town after his Governor mentor. It was one of many nom de guerres that Newcastle in the County of Northumberland (v) would evoke throughout its twenty martial years. Constant renaming echoed Newcastle’s transient mongrel character; a place at the whim of the colony’s mutable priorities. Mostly devoid of children, siblings, family or useable psychic gestures Newcastle had no interest or respect for personal fates or individual memories. Even the stolid rebel songs lost their old meaning and became mnemonics to measure off another black-hearted, dusty-headed, pick-axed, same-same day. Some of the original Irish inmates gave up on life after a year or so of this. Others stoically rode the rough. Tiernan’s old comrade Neil Smith slowly squared up. Age, an increasingly sloppy left jab and the haunting reality that he would never return to Ireland erased any lingering rebellious sparks. After his transportation sentence expired he drifted through various colonial employments before returning to Newcastle in 1814 as a Government employed constable, supervising mostly English inmates. By the following year he had a promotion and a de facto partner. The couple returned to Sydney after Mary Maguire’s one year sentence for drunken affray expired, and where Smith collected back wages along with a lump sum from the Police Fund for uncovering an illicit bush still. The relationship fell apart after Smith was charged with perjury in the early 1820s and Mary refused to join him in prison, having moved on to co-habit with a free settler called Swan. A heartbroken Smith eventually gave up pleading with the Governor to have Mary join him in the new Port Macquarie gaol.

It was easy to treat Irishmen like Smith as simplistic ideologues rather than complicated flesh and blood men. Not all Irish transportees were the result of English oppression, weeping mothers, acute poverty and the promise of a firm breasted, full-toothed Rose of Tralee waiting aside a crystal clear, bucolic stream. For many growing up was a vicious tangle of contact or membership with gangs of Whiteboys, Armagh maniacs, Peep O’ Day Protestants or hardened Catholic Defenders, where politics was a cover for ancient and wretched clan enmities. While English colonisation did drag most down, the folksy, Rousseauian saying that Ireland struggles ‘for as long as the well-stocked castle resents a small cabin full of hay’ c\was occasionally just a thug’s excuse saw defenceless, innocent families have their stock butchered or stolen, their homes burned down or children kidnapped. These oblique experiences made some Irish convicts tourists within their own personal histories which, conversely enough, turned the mental and geographical trauma of transportation into an unexpected opportunity.

Thomas Desmond was transported on the 1802 ‘rebel’ transport the Atlas, alongside Tiernan and Smith. A year before Castle Hill, he had come to public notice for drunkenness and insolence to his masters. He first bolted from Newcastle in late 1804 — coincidently around the time Andrew Tiernan went missing — before being found weeks later camped with a Hawkesbury tribe, stripped of his clothes and apparently in great danger; the rash adventurer would certainly have perished beneath their merciless hands, after encountering all the inconceivable distresses consequent on an improvident travel through the uncultivated country (vi). Stripping escapees treated by some tribes as a payment for entering Native country, but it also confirmed that the pink interlopers were different coloured versions of themselves, and not the translucent spirits of lost ancestors, as some of the porcupine eating old men liked to imagine. The court found Desmond endured excessive hardship before by happy accident relief was offered to him … and what he endured in his distressing travel operating in his favour, his punishment was lenient (vii).  Unlike Riley, Smith and Tiernan he acquired a taste for it and made recalcitrance a measure of self-worth and endurance. He would spend the immediate years traversing the sophisticated network of Native bush highways between Newcastle and Sydney, accepted by most tribes as a curiosity or some an out-of-season wild flower. For the colonial authorities repeated offence, however, forfeits every claim to humanity, and Justice will at length assert her own prerogative (viii) and by 1805 the turpitude of this inflexible and audacious fugitive obstinately determines him to oppose every authority that may be exercised in the lenient punishment of his offences, which by a perverse conduct are still aggravated by refractory character … the sanguine hope of reformation cannot be entertained.(ix) Desmond was a singularly unredeemable pariah in a sociopenal experiment where the participation of indulgence is attainable by those alone who by amendment endeavour to deserve it (x). In between the cycle of flogging and arrest Desmond accumulated Native bushcraft and refined his skill for fencing in a very limited black marketplace. He was known to keep bush stills which produced a vicious rot-gut cider. Usually a solo bolter, he would nonetheless run with whoever was keen, once keeping with a gang of seven bushrangers whose harassment of isolated Hawkesbury settlers made for the brief notoriety of a three pound, public reward to prevent their preying on the industrious (xi).

Rather than hang Desmond for repeat offences the authorities entered into an endurance game that would eventually outlast his determined hardihood, which has repeatedly drawn upon him those rigours to which the vicious wantonly expose themselves (xii).

As paranoia surrounding the Irish problem diminished in the first decade of the nineteen hundreds, men like Thomas Desmond, Andrew Tiernan and Neil Smith were replaced in the colony’s fickle media of scoundrels by younger and differently violent convicts. The three ex-rebels faded from the public record, but in the personal cells of their days, they momentarily transformed the mischance of their shit-box prison lives into fleetingly gilded cages.


i The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW: 1803 – 1842) Online (, Sunday 5 August 1804, page 2.

ii The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW: 1803 – 1842) Online (, Sunday 9 September 1804, page 4.

iii Ibid.

iv The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW: 1803 – 1842) Online (, Sunday 24 June 1804, page 3.

v The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW: 1803 – 1842) Online (, Sunday 9 December 1804, page 3.

vi The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW: 1803 – 1842) Online (, Sunday 25 March 1804, page 2.

vii The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW: 1803 – 1842) Online (, Sunday 9 December 1804, page 3.

viii The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW: 1803 – 1842) Online (, Sunday 24 June 1804, page 3.

ix The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW: 1803 – 1842) Online (, Sunday 21April 1804, page 4.

x The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW: 1803 – 1842) Online (, Sunday 21April 1804, page 4.

xi Historical Records of New South Wales:  Vol. V, King 1803, 1804, 1805. Edited by F. M. Blade, Lansdowne Slattery & Company, Mona Vale, N.S.W., 1979. (Page 571)

xii The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW: 1803 – 1842) Online (, Sunday 24 November 1805, page 1.

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