Free Settler or Felon
Convict and Colonial History

Henry Brown

Convict of the Royal Admiral

Nothing is known of Henry Brown's early life or of his ultimate fate, however it was his destiny to enter briefly into the records of Australian history.

It has been written that Australia rode the sheep's back to prosperity, and for over a century wool gave Australia one of the highest standards of living in the world. Behind that prosperity however, were thousands of early rural workers like Henry Brown, forced into servitude, for the length of their sentence, they had little power over the course their life would take. Many came from cities, their new masters often having little sympathy for inexperience or the discomforts they endured.


Henry Brown may not have been an habitual thief as he had no convictions prior to his arrest in April 1827; he was apparently gainfully employed as a groom and indoor servant in Lambeth in 1827. Although poor, he at least enjoyed a certain freedom of choice. He could have continued this path in life, but this was not his destiny

When he made the mistake of stealing a pair of boots from Charles Sully on 5th April 1827, he could not have foreseen the consequences of his actions, however social circumstances were changing in England and when he stepped outside the mark, he became a part of those changes as England sought solutions to cope with the enormous burden weighing down her court system and gaols.

He was arrested on 5th April 1827 and charged with grand larceny. That very same day it is recorded that he pleaded guilty to the charge. A plea of guilty was becoming more acceptable and even desirable as the number of court cases increased as the use of capital punishment declined. No trial therefore took place. A plea of guilty saved time in the Court.[1]

There were many men and women arrested for petty crime in England and destined to be shipped off to far distant lands. Many of them were sent to Australia, but this was not to be Henry's immediate fate.


He was transported to Bermuda where he spent the next two years of his life, probably toiling alongside other convicts building the dockyard there. The convicts at Bermuda lived on rotting prison Hulks, some of which were relics of the Battle of Trafalgar 20 years previously. The prisoners worked from sunrise to sunset day after day with little remuneration. Many died of yellow fever and other diseases before finishing their sentence and were buried in the British convict cemetery.


He did not take to this servitude and apparently committed another crime; a crime serious enough to see him re-transported from Bermuda to Australia as an incorrigible prisoner. Correspondence in the Historical Records of Australia gives some insight into his crime......

Under Secretary Hay to Governor Darling,
I am directed by Secretary Sir George Murray to transmit to you a List, which has been forwarded to this Department by desire of Sir Robert Peel, of several convicts concerned in certain mutinous proceedings on board the Coromandel Hulk at Bermuda, of whom it has been deemed expedient to make a strong example. With that view, these prisoners have been embarked on board the Ship Royal Admiral which is about to proceed to New South Wales; and I am to convey to you the directions of Sir George Murray that none of the Prisoners therein named by permitted to partake of any indulgence during the remaining period of their respective sentences..
.Historical Records of Australia, Vol. XV , p. 571

Henry Brown was one of forty men from Bermuda who were transported on the convict ship Royal Admiral and at the time of his second transportation, he still had five years of his sentence to serve. Prison ships were notoriously cramped and uncomfortable and to endure a second transportation on one was harsh indeed. Surgeon Superintendent George Shaw Rutherford testified before the Select Committee in 1831 that the voyage on a convict ship itself was considered by the prisoners to be punishment in itself.


The Royal Admiral arrived in Port Jackson on 8th November 1830. Her Master was David Fotheringham and the Surgeon Superintendent George Shaw Rutherford. Rutherford was a veteran of convict ship voyages to Australia, this being his seventh voyage. This was also the only one of Rutherford's journeys in which the convicts behaved mutinously. According to Rutherford's evidence in 1831 the mutinous conduct was caused by the 40 convicts who were boarded from Bermuda.

During the voyage, punishment meted out included being put on bread and water or being put in double irons if they had been in single irons or in handcuffs. The last alternative, according to Rutherford was flogging. The convicts received ration of 2/3 the amount of the soldiers on board and they were allowed meat each day. They took exercise on deck each day and unless they were mutinous or unruly were allowed to be free of their irons during this time. Surgeon Rutherford prided himself on the health of the prisoners on arrival. He lost only five prisoners in the seven voyages he had undertaken. In total 1209 convicts came to Australia under his care.

George Shaw Rutherford testified that the convicts had a great dread of being assigned to government and kept in the ironed gangs. They preferred to be assigned privately to Settlers. It is ironic for Henry Brown if this too, was his desire.

Many who were sent to Australia were assigned to benevolent or at least tolerant masters. Their lives were not easy, but conditions were at least tolerable and after serving their sentence, they settled down, created a family and made a new life in Australia. But this was not Henry's experience.

Castle Forbes

When he stepped off the Royal Admiral in Sydney in November 1830 he also stepped into the history books of Australia, for he inadvertently became part of the infamous 'Castle Forbes Affair' after being assigned John Larnach at Patrick Plains in the Hunter Valley

Henry Brown was about twenty five years old when he arrived at Castle Forbes. He was a man of average height for the times - 5ft 3 inches and with a dark ruddy complexion, brown hair and grey eyes. At some stage he acquired a scar on the outer part of his left eye. Sometime in his past he also acquired the ability to read and write.

John Larnach was a son-in-law of James Mudie who owned the estate Castle Forbes at Patrick Plains in Hunter Valley, New South Wales. Three years later James Mudie and John Larnach achieved infamy for their supposed cruel treatment of convicts under their care. Robert Montgomery Martin in 'Histories of the Colonies' records the following of John Larnach: ' If a settler expects labour, he should at least supply his labourers with sufficient and wholesome sustenance. Mr. Larnach has not only been guilty of barbarity in striking and ill-using prisoners, who were prevented by their relative condition from retaliating; but has added to the miseries of their slavery - the horrors of starvation. '

Convict Uprising

In 1833 six maltreated convicts fled from the Castle Forbes estate terrorising the wife of John Larnach and threatening to take Larnach's life when they found him at the sheep wash. Although there was great public sympathy for the convicts, five of them were executed for their crimes. An inquiry by the solicitor-general, John Plunkett and police superintendent, Frederick Hely found that Mudie and Larnach had not been harsh or oppressive, but considered Larnach 'imprudent' in striking one convict and 'reprehensible' in bringing another before the local bench twice on the same day for the same offence so as to obtain two sentences of fifty lashes each. This report angered Mudie and Larnach who prepared a joint protest and asked Governor Bourke to send it to London. Bourke refused because of its improper form, and in September 1834 Mudie and Larnach published Vindication of James Mudie and John Larnach, From Certain Reflections on Their Conduct Contained in Letters Addressed to Them.....Relative to the Treatment by Them of Their Convict Servants.

Witness in Court

Henry Brown witnessed many of the supposed atrocities and found himself in the middle of all this controversy when he later testified as to the conditions at Castle Forbes at the ensuing enquiry. It can be seen from his evidence, the harsh conditions that he and the other convicts at Castle Forbes had been subjected to. Some of the evidence he gave included

'Rations of meat were black when issued and appeared to be in a state of mortification. It could not be eaten'

'The bullock 'Punch' (whose flesh was given as ration to the men) lay in a hole a day and a half, and he was served out - he had his leg broke and a short time after, there was an old cow lay alongside a creek, and George Frost, one of the men on the farm, reported it on a Sunday; she lay there and the butcher stuck the beast on Monday and it was served out. It was old and thin and the flesh would not take salt. This meat of the cow was served out , but the greater part was given to the dogs. I have seen the Overseer take this meat full of maggots and wash the meat and then throw salt on it for the men's use.'

'I saw Mr. Larnack in June last beat a boy by the name of Duffy, who was in my hut, and is still; he beat him cruelly with a stick for thatching wheat stacks; he gave him several blows, the boy is 16 or 17 years old; on the following Monday Mr. Mudie took him to court and he got 50 lashes as well. Duffy was also beaten with a strap of leather I have seen Mr. Larnack beat Maurice Stack, one of the men, with a stick and with a cutting whip and with his fists and also a man named Dempsey who was beaten and kicked after fetching water for a constable named Cushin.'

Henry Brown had even more reason to be bitter against his Masters, for he was almost certainly present on the December day in 1833 when two of the rebel convicts, probably his former work mates, Anthony Hitchcock and John Poole were returned to Castle Forbes to be Executed.

Certificate of Freedom

Henry Brown received a Certificate of Freedom on 17th May 1834. A Certificate of Freedom was a document stating that a convict's sentence had been served and was usually given to convicts with a 7, 10 or 14 year sentence. Henry was now eligible to seek employment on his own account or even to leave the colony if he wished.

Perhaps he returned to England, but what was left there for him after so many years? More likely he continued to live in the Hunter Valley where he had lived for the last four years and where he could perhaps find employment in some form of rural work; he had been a groom after all. Perhaps he married and began a family?

To date no further record has been found of Henry Brown and although he played a part in one of the most infamous incidents in Australian colonial history, his ultimate fate is yet to be revealed.