Free Settler or Felon
Convict and Colonial History

Pirates Attempt to Seize the Gurnett


The Australian reported on 12 April 1826 -

Prison Escapees

On the night of Saturday last a very daring effort and one which had very nearly proved successful was made by some prisoners, to escape from the settlement at Newcastle.

A schooner called the Gurnett belonging to Mr. Street of Sydney was laying off Nobby's Island at anchor during part of Saturday. It was the master's intention to remain by the government moorings during that night, and to make sail next morning for Sydney.

Between eleven and twelve in the night time a boat was discovered pulling up towards the schooner. As she approached, the watch on board the schooner hailed her; in answer to their enquiries the boats' crew replied that they were bringing them a pilot, who was anxious to get onboard before the ebb tide should begin to make. This, in some measure served to lull the master's suspicions, and the stranger was allowed to come alongside. Ten men, armed with muskets, immediately got on deck; they then made no secret of an intention to capture the vessel, and one of the party, who appeared to hold some influence over the rest, was heard to say that they were determined on sacrificing their lives rather than attempt a return to the settlement. They forced the crew down into the fore hold, and slipping the vessel from her moorings silently dropped out to sea. Every practicable effort was made to gain an offing. Every stitch of canvas was spread to catch the breeze; but, after some hours, the wind, which all along was rather scanty, subsided into a calm, and left the pirates but little prospect of effecting their escape.

In spite of all their efforts the schooner drifted gradually with the flood tide towards shore; and, as at break of day, which was not very far distant, their situation would be disclosed to those on shore, it was deemed most prudent to abandon the vessel. The master and crew were now released, and the unsuccessful runaways took to their boat, after importuning the former not, if possible to reveal the circumstance of the vessel's capture. In their haste to get away, some rum and a musket were left behind. One of those men appeared to have been a mariner, he was provided with a quadrant and other nautical instruments. All of them seemed in despair at their unlooked for failure. They did not use the crew of the schooner particularly ill. Shortly after the pirates deserting her, she succeeded in regaining the harbour of Newcastle. [1]


The men were all apprehended. Their names can be found in the Sydney Gaol Entrance Books in May 1826 together with two other men George Williams and John Lee who were questioned about the escape and were approvers.

Joseph Pritchard arrived on the Lady Castlereagh in 1818 - had previously attempted to escape with William Tunnicliffe in March 1825. Tunnicliffe escaped from Newcastle on the Eclipse in May 1825.

John Cooper alias Kershaw arrived on the Hindostan in 1821

James Rawson arrived on the Asia

Thomas Hunt arrived on the Asia

Thomas Brookes arrived on the Guildford in 1824

George Williams arrived on the Mangles in 1824

John Lee arrived on the Royal Charlotte [2]

Convict Living Conditions at Newcastle

The deprivations the men had endured at Newcastle are evident in the Settler's Letter below in which he describes some convicts he observed. Although he thought they could have been the pirates of the Gurnett this was not the case as by May they were incarcerated in Sydney Gaol......

May 1826,
To the Editors of The Australian,
I am a settler in this district ; but, being at Newcastle about eight days ago, I had occasion to call at the Police Office. On going there. I was surprised, and, - I may say alarmed, at finding the door surrounded by six or seven men, ragged, barefoot and as black as coal dust could well make them : in fact, they we're terrific looking figures.'

Seeing the clerk belonging to the Office come to the door, 1 ventured to approach; when I heard these persons, who, it seems, were miners, ask for shoes and clothing; at the same time complaining that they had not been supplied with any, since the beginning of last September; and that their feet were in so bad a state (and which indeed, I could perceive), that they were scarcely able to stand!

The poor fellows were told, that there were neither shoes, nor clothing in the stores; but, as soon as any, arrived, they would be supplied. They retired on this assurance, peaceably, certainly but with a very discontented air.

Much has been said about the management' of the Newcastle coal mines, and the difficulty that exists, of procuring coals, to meet the demand for them, but if the miners be left without shoes or clothing, what else can be expected? It cannot be a matter of surprise, if men in their condition are driven to desperation. I have been informed, that three of the men concerned in the recent piratical attempt upon the schooner Gurnett are miners; and, it is not at all improbable, that they composed part of the men I saw in front of the Police Office.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant, A Settler. [3]

Trial and Acquittal

The trial came about in July......

Joseph Pritchard, John Cooper, James Rawson, Thomas Hunt, and Thomas Brookes, were severally indicted for pirating a vessel, called the brig Gurnett in the month of April last on the high seas, within the jurisdiction of the admiralty of the Supreme Court - being within a half-mile distance from Newcastle, on the Eastern Coast of New Holland, and putting in bodily fear William Wossell, master of said brig.

It appeared that the Gurnett was cut from her moorings at Newcastle, by some men, prisoners of the crown there, who put out with her to sea, but being bad seamen, and finding their incompetency to retain her, deserted the vessel and the men went on shore. The evidence intended to be offered to affect the prisoners as being the pirates - was, that of two men admitted approvers.

John Lee sworn - examined - Knows nothing about the seizure of the Gurnett schooner by the prisoners - did say something about it before the Magistrates at Newcastle, but was then laboring under the effects of inebriety.

George Williams was called, and spoke to the same effect and the Attorney-General, Saxe Bannister, gave up the prosecution.

The Judge observed, that there was something particular in that conduct of the two witnesses - His Honor thought that the men had given wilfully corrupt evidence. - If the Attorney-General was of the same opinion, it would be advisable that the parties should be proceeded against. In any other case than the present where a witness would not be called on to give evidence, that would affect himself. - The Court in the exercise of its authority, would commit the offenders, at once, for wilful and corrupt perjury. The two men John Lee and George Williams, were then detained in custody at Hyde Park Barracks and the five prisoners accused of piracy were acquitted. [4]


[1] The Australian 12 April 1826

[2] State Archives NSW; Sydney Gaol Entrance Books, Series: 2514; Item: 4/6429; Roll: 850

[3] The Australian 3 May 1826

[4] The Australian 15 July 1826