Free Settler or Felon
Convict and Colonial History

James Hardy Vaux

Convict at Newcastle 1811

James Hardy Vaux

One of Australia's best known convicts James Hardy Vaux arrived at Newcastle penal settlement in May 1811.

Not only was he thrice convicted and transported but James Hardy Vaux has the distinction of writing Australia's first Dictionary - The Vocabulary of the Flash Language which was compiled while he was serving his sentence at Newcastle.

He dedicated his work to Lieut. Thomas Skottowe, Commandant at Newcastle penal settlement 1811 - 1814. [3]. The Vocabulary of the Flash Language was published in 1819 at the same time as his Memoirs. His Memoirs were dedicated to Lieutenant Thomas Thompson also a Commandant at Newcastle 1814 - 1816.[2]

Some of the Vocabulary's cant language is familiar today in Australian slang words.


James Hardy Vaux was transported to Australia over a period of thirty years. He first arrived in Australia on the convict ship Minorca in 1801, having been sentenced to 7 years transportation at the Old Bailey for stealing a handkerchief. He returned to England and was again sentenced to transportation after stealing from a jeweller's shop.

Indian 1810

He arrived in the colony for the second time on the convict ship Indian in 1810.

After a failed attempt at escaping the colony on the Earl Spencer in 1814, he once more managed to abscond in the 1820's.

Waterloo 1831

In 1830 he was convicted in Ireland of passing forged bank notes. This time he was transported on the Waterloo in 1831. His return was remarked on in the news....Hardy Vaux appeared quite at home, only the sharp movement of the muscles of his phiz, showed he was not quite at ease with himself. [1]

Memoirs of James Hardy Vaux

Below are extracts from the Memoirs of James Hardy Vaux relating his experiences in 1811 and 1814

The court was now a second time cleared, and nearly an hour occupied in consultation; when (Edward) Edwards and myself were again called in, and the bench informed Edwards, that he, having confessed his guilt, the court had sentenced him to receive one hundred lashes at the cart's tail, in the streets of Sydney, and to be kept to hard labour in the jail gang for twelve months. Then, addressing me, the bench observed that the evidence of Edwards not appearing to the court entitled to much credit, and being unsupported by other testimony, the court acquitted me of any share in the actual robbery of Mr. Bent; but were of opinion that I had been privy to the guilt of Edwards, and had received the money from him, knowing it to be stolen! And they had therefore sentenced to also to twelve months labour in the jail gang.

After receiving our sentence, the corporal part of which was severely inflicted on Edwards, I continued to labour in the jail gang for about three weeks, when by an order from the Governor, as I understood, both myself and Edwards were double ironed, put on board a government vessel, with several other prisoners, and transported to Newcastle, commonly called the Coal river, without any definite term being fixed for our exile; and as we were both prisoners for life, it was uncertain how long our banishment might be protracted


On arriving at Newcastle, I was first employed in wheeling coals out of the mines, a most laborious occupation indeed; but during my continuance at that settlement, I was put to all descriptions of work, and for the last three months, performed the duty of a constable or watchman.

Since the day on which the transaction at Colle's took place, I never exchanged a word with the villain Edwards. He had been but a few weeks at Newcastle, before he committed a robbery, and absconded to the woods, from which he was brought back by some natives a naked and miserable object. His subsequent conduct at the coal river exhibited nothing but a succession of robberies, and every species of depravity; when detected in which, on several occasions, he betrayed his accomplices, and proved as perfidious as he was dishonest. He frequently escaped by land, amidst innumerable hardships, to Sydney; where, after the commission of some robbery, he was uniformly apprehended, and sent back to Newcastle. In fact, though scarce twenty years of age, nothing was wanting to fill up the measure of his wickedness, but the blackest of all crimes, - an act of murder! And, as is he laboured to attain the summit of human depravity, that act he soon afterwards virtually committed; for being at length, on one of these elopements from the coal river, apprehended and lodged in Sydney jail, at a period when many prisoners, of bad character, were about being embarked for the settlements on Van Diemen's land, Edwards was included in the number.

He there renewed his iniquitous courses; associating with a band of ruffians, who escaped to the woods, and there subsisted by plundering the settlers, robbing on the highway etc. A party of these miscreants (eight in number) were one day attacked by some armed persons, who had assembled together, and gone in pursuit of them; a serious conflict ensured, the marauders, also, being well armed; and after several shots had been exchanged, the settlers were obliged to retreat, several of their number being severely wounded, and one killed on the spot by the fire of the free booters. The consequence of this outrage was, that the whole of the latter were immediately declared by proclamation to be in a state of outlawry, and a large reward offered for the apprehension of all or either of them. As parties of military, as well as the inhabitants, were detached in all directions, there is no doubt but the whole of these desperadoes have long since received the due reward of their villainy. This account I read in a Sydney Gazette a few months ago, and among the names of the bushrangers (as they are termed), who jointly committed the above outrage and murder, I was shocked, though not surprised, to see that of the young but depraved, Edwards!

Having continued nearly two years at the coal-river, the commanding officer was induced, in consideration of my uniform good behaviour, to permit my return to Sydney on my arrival at which place, I was once more disposed of in the town gang. Being advised to solicit the Governor for an appointment to some less laborious employment, I waited on His Excellency with a petition, in which I urged my exemplary behaviour for the last two years at Newcastle as a proof that whatever my former conduct might have been, I was now disposed to reform; and entreating His Excellency to divest himself of that prejudice which I feared had already operated against me too severely, humbly prayed that he would make trial of me in the only capacity in which I was capable of being useful, namely that of a clerk in one of the public offices. The Governor very coolly answered that it was not merely my having behaved well for two years at the coal river, but I must conduct myself with propriety for a series of years before I could expect, or ought to apply for, any mark of indulgence.

Attempted Escape

After attempting to escape on the Earl Spencer in January 1814, Hardy Vaux was punished and sent back to Newcastle. This time his work was not as arduous and he managed to acquire two houses while there for which he later received remuneration. His Memoirs described his escape attempt and the return to Newcastle

In fact, a person belonging to the Earl Spencer Indiaman, then on the point of sailing for Ceylon and Bombay, did, in the month of January 1814, from motives of pure and disinterested compassion, propose that I should conceal myself with his assistance on board that ship, and promised me every support in his power. I accepted with joy and gratitude this unexpected offer, and without any difficulty got on board, and as I thought effectually concealed, on the night of the Queen's birth-day. I lay close and undiscovered for four days, and on the fifth had the pleasure to hear that the ship would that day finally sail, she having already dropped down the harbour.

But how often is the cup of happiness dashed from the lips of mortals! On the 23d of January, about ten o'clock in the forenoon, my friend came to me in the place of concealment, and informed me that upwards of thirty constables were come on board to search the ship, for that so many prisoners were missing from their respective employments, that the governor would not suffer the ship to depart until they were found. He however assured me it was very unlikely any search would take place in the spot I was in, and indeed I considered it next to impossible that I could be discovered, unless I was betrayed. I remained in a state of the utmost anxiety for three hours, during which a vigilant search was making in every other part of the ship; not by the constables, for they would have been unequal to the task, but by a mate of the vessel, assisted by several sailors. At length I heard voices approaching, and eagerly listening, I was convinced by the discourse which passed between the parties that they knew exactly where I was concealed, and that I really had been by somebody most villainously betrayed. In a moment the mate advanced, as it were mechanically, towards me, and thrusting his candle into the entrance of my hiding-place, desired me, in a peremptory tone to come out.

Thus were my fond hopes of liberty and happiness effectually destroyed. I had become a second time the victim of treachery; but as more than one person besides my principal abettor knew of my concealment, I was at a loss whom to suspect as the informer. I was now ordered into a boat alongside, in which were about a dozen other men and several women, who had been found concealed in various situations.

The search being not yet over, I remained alongside the ship above an hour, in which time the number of ill-fated persons collected in the boat had increased to twenty-seven men and four women. The ship having now been thoroughly ransacked, the search was given up, and the persons taken out were brought ashore, attended by the constables. We were all immediately lodged in gaol; and the next day, a report having been made to the governor, his excellency was pleased to order each man to be punished with fifty lashes in the public lumber yard. This sentence was certainly as lenient as could be expected for such an attempt (I do not say offence) as we had been guilty of, had the punishment stopped there; but, extraordinary to relate, although we had been all equally culpable and were found under the same circumstances, a distinction was subsequently made, which I cannot help still considering unfair and unmerited. The day after the corporal punishment had been inflicted, twenty-three of our number were ordered to return to the respective employments in Sydney, from which they had severally absconded, and myself and three others were sentenced by the governor to be sent to the Coal river for one year; for this distinction there appears to have been no other reason, but because we had each of us before suffered a similar banishment, and had been but a few months returned from thence to Sydney!

Return to Newcastle

In a few days, I was accordingly embarked with eleven other prisoners, and a second time landed at Newcastle, from whence I had been absent nearly twelve months. On my arrival, it happened that the store-keeper (John Tucker) of that settlement was in want of a clerk, and he applying to the commandant for me, I was appointed to that situation, in which I still continue; and having scrupulously adhered to my former vows of rectitude, and used every exertion to render myself serviceable to my employer, and to merit his good opinion, as well as that of the commandant, I have had the satisfaction to succeed in these objects; and I am not without hope that, when I am permitted to quit my present service and return to Sydney, my good conduct will be rewarded with a more desirable situation. I have now been upwards of seven years a prisoner, and knowing the hopeless sentence under which I labour, shall I trust studiously avoid in future every act which may subject me to the censure of my superiors, or entail upon me a repetition of those sufferings I have already too severely experienced. -

The Memoirs of James Hardy Vaux, Edited by Noel McLachlan, William Heinemann Ltd., London, 1964. pp 212 - 215.

Notes and Links

1). Newcastle History Links

2). Lieutenant Purcell remained Commandant at Newcastle until July 1811 and was therefore in command when James Hardy Vaux arrived in May 1811.

3). Lieutenant Thomas Skottowe of the 73rd regiment was appointed to the position following Lieutenant Purcell's recall to Headquarters.

4). William Evans held the position of assistant surgeon at the settlement until July 1811 when he was sent to Sydney.

5). Richard Horner was appointed assistant surgeon in William Evans' absence until September when Evans returned to the settlement.

6). Thomas Watkins, ship carpenter who arrived on the Indian, was employed to build a boat at Newcastle for the use of Government in May 1811. He returned to Sydney in July 1811.

7). Returns of the Settlement at Newcastle reveal the number of people in March 1811 -

Civil Department victualled -

Assistant Surgeon - 1.
Superintendent and Storekeeper - 1.
Women of the Civil Department - 2.
Children above 2 years - 3

Military Department Victualled -
Lieutenant - 1.
Serjeants and Corporals - 4.
Privates - 25.
Women - 7.
Children above 2 years - 4.
Children under 2 years - 3

Persons victualled from the Public Stores -
Male 58;
Females 11;
Children above 2 years - 2;
Children under 2 years - 2
Total number of souls in the Colony - 124 - ;
Historical Records of Australia, Series 1, volume VII, Governors' Despatches to and From England, January 1809 - June 1813, The Library committee of the Commonwealth Parliament, 1916. p. 421 - 422


[1]. Sydney Herald 16 May 1831

[2] Memoirs of James Hardy Vaux - Internet Archives

[3] Vocabularly of the Flash Language - Project Gutenberg