by John Lewis


As depicted in the 2005 TEN Network television series The Incredible Voyage of Mary Bryant, the convict escapees cook a coal-fired meal after beaching their boat – Courtesy of the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia


As depicted in the 2005 TEN Network television series The Incredible Voyage of Mary Bryant, the convict escapees check their provisions after beaching their boat – Courtesy of the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia


The Burwood Colliery in operation in 1894 at Glenrock Lagoon – from the Snowball Collection, Courtesy of the Newcastle Region Library.

ON March 30 228 years ago eight men, a woman and her two young children landed on what was almost certainly the beach at Glenrock Lagoon on the first leg of what was to be an epic 69-day, 5236-kilometre open boat voyage to Timor.

The nine adults were convicts who had secretly acquired a compass, quadrant and chart, muskets and ammunition, fishing gear and nets and stocks of food and water.

Then, on a moonless night on March 28, knowing there were no seagoing ships in Port Jackson capable of pursuing them, they stole Governor Arthur Phillip’s six-oared, single-sail cutter and set out on an undertaking to rival that of William Bligh’s 6701-kilometre open boat voyage of survival after the Mutiny on the Bounty in 1789.

It’s a story told in highly variable detail in numerous books, an ABC radio serial, a most successful London stage play and a top-rating, albeit highly fictionalised, telemovie The Incredible Voyage of Mary Bryant shown on the Ten Network in 2005 and the UK in 2006.

There are three strands to the narrative – the daring, bravery, endurance and ultimate tragedy of the convict escapees, their place in history as the first white people to find and use coal in Australia and the remarkable industrial activity that coal later generated in the 1800s in what is now the much-prized 550-hectare Glenrock State Conservation Area.

Respected mining union leader and historian Jim Comerford always insisted that Swansea heads was where William Bryant, Mary Bryant, their three-year-old daughter Charlotte and nine-months-old son Emanuel, Samuel Bird, James Cox, James Martin, Samuel Broom (alias John Butcher), William Morton, William Allen and Nathaniel Lilley made their first landfall.

Weight of opinion is, however, for Glenrock and author Warwick Hirst declares that in his 1999 book Great Convict Escapes in Colonial Australia,

The only surviving written account of the escapees’ remarkable voyage is in a memorandum by scrap metal thief James Martin and preserved in the library of London University College and published in Geoffrey C. Ingleton’s 1952 book True Patriots All and Memorandoms by James Martin: An Astonishing Escape from Early NSW, edited by Dr Tim Causer.

William Bryant wrote an account of the voyage for the Dutch governor of Timor, who showed it to William Bligh, but the document was lost thereafter.

In his memorandum Martin points to Glenrock by recording that after two days’ sailing northward from Port Jackson, the party beached their boat near a little creek and “there found a quantity of fine burn coal” and lots of cabbage tree palms.

They also encountered a group of Aborigines to whom they gave some clothes and other items and saw them go away “very much satisfied”.

The journals of Blight, later a NSW Governor, quoted William Bryant telling the Timor Governor that his group had “found a place where we picked up with an ax (sic) as good a coal as any in England” to fuel their cooking fires.

Martin’s memorandum says that during the fugitives’ two-night stay they found the land much better than at Sydney Cove and the party “to our great refreshment . . . got a varse (sic) quantity of fish” and harvested cabbage tree leaves.

Noting in his 1988 book The History in and About Glenrock Lagoon James Martin’s reference to cabbage tree palms, Merewether historian, mining staffer and Scout leader John Grothen recorded that such trees were common at Glenrock.

John Grothen and the Scouting movement had no doubts that Glenrock was the place where the Bryant group landed and nor did the NSW Coal Association.

In April 1991 the Scouts staged a re-enactment as part of a celebration of the 200th anniversary of the landing and the coal association erected a memorial stone with a plaque declaring “This commemorative plaque was set on the bicentenary of the first discovery of coal in Australia by convict William Bryant and his wife Mary on 30th of March, 1791”.

The convicts were six and a half years ahead of Lieutenant John Shortland’s official discovery of coal at Newcastle on September 9, 1997, while pursuing a later group of escaping convicts.

AFTER their stay at Glenrock the Bryants and their companions sailed and rowed their way up the east coast, around Cape York and across the Arafura Sea to Timor.

It seems they may have entered Port Stephens or Port Macquarie after leaving Glenrock because Martin wrote that “after two days’ sail we made a very fine harbour, seeming to run up country for many miles and quite commodious for the anchorage of shipping”.

James Martin’s memorandum also provided a treasure trove of other geographical and anthropological information that seemingly got little attention from officials, except William Bligh.

Martin also tells of hunger, thirst, fearful episodes with rain, gales and leaks in in their boat and encounters with hostile Aboriginal groups as they ventured ashore to repair their craft and get fresh water and feed on shellfish, turtle meat and fish.

When they successfully made it to the Dutch settlement of Koepang in Timor on June 5, 1791, they posed as shipwreck survivors and were at first well treated and enjoyed a two months of freedom.

That ended when William Bryant reputedly got drunk and, as James Martin’s memorandum recorded, “had words with his wife” and confessed to the Dutch governor that he and his companions were Port Jackson convicts.

Shortly afterwards survivors of the wreck of the Royal Navy ship Pandora arrived in Koepang, now Indonesia’s port city of Kupang, and Captain Edward Edwards had the Bryant group flung into irons along with Bounty mutineers captured by the Pandora.

Edwards took all to Batavia, now Jakarta, where William Bryant and his baby son Emanuel died. Then, when Edwards set out in a hired a Dutch ship to take him, his crew and his prisoners back to England, Charlotte Bryant, Samuel Bird, the voyage navigator former East India Company mariner William Morton and James Cox died – a despairing Cox drowning by jumping overboard with his leg irons on.

Only five – Mary, James Martin, Samuel Broom, William Allen and Nathaniel Lilley – were to ultimately survive. Back in England in 1792 they all avoided death sentences for escaping from transportation, but were tried again for their initial crimes and were sent to prison to serve their original sentences.

Their treatment brought public condemnation and caught the attention of influential Scottish lawyer and Dr Samuel Johnson’s biographer James Boswell, who spearheaded the release of all five in 1793.

COAL is now a dirty word to many but its discovery and use powered Australia’s progress into modern nationhood.

At Glenrock, occupied for eons by the Awabakal Aboriginal clan, coal triggered a remarkable early Colonial industrialisation, albeit accompanied by environmental degradation, from mining, copper smelting and a beach-front coal and copper ore railway line.

That railway wound its way across the lagoon, through a tunnel under what is now Hickson St and through Merewether, The Junction, Cooks Hill and inner-Newcastle’s Burwood St to the harbour front.

The industrialisation began after former British Army surgeon Dr James Mitchell was granted 809 hectares of land, including Glenrock Lagoon, in 1835.

Dr Mitchell, whose son David Scott Mitchell was later the founder of Sydney’s Mitchell Library, called his land grant Burwood Estate after his wife’s ancestral home in Surrey.

The Burwood mine was established fronting the lagoon in early 1850s and run by the related Mitchell and Merewether families. Over the years the Burwood deposits had several mining lease owners, including the subsequent Hunter “coal barons” John and Alexander Brown.

There was second mine called Glenrock Colliery and a copper smelter on the northern side of the lagoon and they and the seafront railway had collapsed into ruins by 1923.

From 1891 the Burwood mine’s Glenrock pithead began to take a secondary role as new, more productive shafts were sunk at Whitebridge and 1932 saw BHP take control and turn Burwood Colliery into the largest operating mine in the Southern Hemisphere with tunnels probing far out to sea.

The now-freehold Scout camp came into being in 1932 when the Scouting movement took a 99-year lease over seven hectares of land bordering the lagoon and the sands of Burwood Beach.

Today Glenrock has made its own Incredible Voyage. The State Conservation Area provides magnificent views, creeks, waterfalls, pockets of rain forest, myriad recreational activities and, thanks to the 42 years of labour by Redhead man John Le Messurier, the Scout camp became 2018 Australian Garden of the Year.


There are no pictures taken from life of Mary Bryant, but this portrait, now in the National Gallery of Victoria, was painted in 1989 by Geelong artist Robert Ingpen as an illustration in the book The Great Deeds of Heroic Women by Maurice Saxby

MARY Bryant stands as one of history’s most courageous, tenacious and ill-fated women.

The daughter of a Cornish fisherman whose family was “eminent for sheep stealing”, Mary Bryant, née Broad, was 21 when she was convicted of assaulting a woman and robbing her of “one silken bonnet valued at 12 pence and other goods valued at 11 shillings and 11 pence”.

She was sentenced to death, but this was commuted to seven years’ transportation and she was consigned to Australia on the First Fleet ship Charlotte. She must have then been pregnant with her daughter Charlotte, who was born in Capetown in September 1787.

It’s unlikely he was Charlotte’s father but Cornish fisherman William Bryant, sentenced to seven years’ transportation for smuggling, was also on board the Charlotte and he and Mary were married in Sydney in February 1788.

Because William was a skilled fisherman he was put in charge of the government fishing boats and the couple were given a hut and a garden and allowed a portion of the fish catch for their family meals. William, however, was caught selling fish for his own profit on the black market.

He was punished with 100 lashes but kept on as a fisherman, something that allowed his escape plans to come to fruition.

At the age of 27, after death had claimed her husband and her two children, Mary endured months of captivity in chains and then was returned to jail in Britain.

Thanks to pressure from the press, public opinion and barrister James Boswell, Mary was pardoned in 1793.

She was befriended by and went to live in London with Boswell, a noted roué, and this episode was portrayed in the play Boswell for the Defence starring Leo McKern.

She later left to live with family in her native Cornwell, supported by a bequest of £10 a year “if she behaved herself” from Boswell.

The payment was continued after Boswell’s death and Mary died, without ever remarrying, at the ripe old age of 84.

John Lewis

JOHN Lewis has been a journalist for 66 years and has written weekly wine columns for 43 years. As a Newcastle Herald reporter in 1981 he won the Gold Walkley Australian Journalist of the Year and later served as Newcastle Herald Editor up to his retirement in 1993. In his youth as a cub, scout and senior scout he regularly explored and camped in the Glenrock Lagoon area and later he and his family lived for 45 years next to the Glenrock State Conservation Area.

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