Smugglers and Pirates of Newcastle, 1804-1824

Newcastle in 1818 (Edward Charles Close). Courtesy of the National Library of Australia.
Newcastle in 1818 (Edward Charles Close). Courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

As part of 2016  NSW  History Week celebrations, The History@Newcastle Research Seminar Series presented Tamsin O’Connor, “Bad Neighbours: the Smugglers and Pirates of the Penal Station and Port of Newcastle, 1804 – 1824.”


The theme for 2016’s History week is neighbours and it is not one that sits easily in the context of penal station history. Nevertheless, at Newcastle we do find the convicts, soldiers and sailors forming fascinating networks, alliances and communities. There is ample evidence of men and women working together to manage their convict and colonial predicaments. And what, after all, are those who lived in close proximity in barracks or huts, arranged along the make shift streets of Coal River, but neighbours—good and bad. The penal station of Newcastle was established in 1804 to contain and constrain the Irish in the wake of the Castle Hill Rebellion and for 20 years it remained a penal station designed to punish recalcitrant convict labour and to exploit the rich coal deposits of the dangerous harbour and the fine timber up river. In common with the settlement at large, the dual functions of punishment and profit were in constant tension, creating the perfect environment for the convicts to test the boundaries of obedience and disobedience. For the history of incarceration in this period cannot be understood with out its close companion – ‘excarceration’.  Many Newcastle convicts would take to the bush but the maritime circumstances of the port offered a tantalizing alternative. Accordingly, this paper aims to shift the focus from land-locked representations of the past by examining the imaginative context of the penal station of Newcastle—the oceanic neighbourhood if you will—the physical and mental landscape that created a unique maritime culture of piracy and smuggling.

Tamsin O’Connor is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney. Her thesis, entitled ’All those Places of Condemnation’: Power Relations and Aspects of Resistance at the Penal Stations of New South Wales 1804 – 1842,’ aims to demonstrate that, contrary to the dominant view, the penal stations of NSW were central to the wider system of managing convict labour, to the lived experience of the mass of convicts, and therefore to the process of colonization itself.  A fact that was not lost on Frank the Poet or even Ned Kelly! Tamsin began this project many years ago with an Honours thesis on Moreton Bay at the University of Queensland and then commenced study at the University of Edinburgh, joining the innovative convict studies research team of Dr Ian Duffield alongside scholars such as Hamish Maxwell Stewart, Kirsty Reid and Clare Anderson.  During this time she had the opportunity to contribute to a series of landmark publications including Representing Convicts and Chain Letters: Narrating Convict Lives.

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