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Hunter Valley Bushrangers

William Atkinson & Isaac Holmes

Dungog 1839


In December 1839, Isaac Holmes and William Atkinson were sentenced to 15 years transportation for the robbery of Matthew Chapman at Wallarobba near Dungog the previous August. The Australian reported that the bushrangers "having secured the assigned servants, proceeded to rifle the house, and carry away a large quantity of valuable property in plate and goods. They were armed - Atkinson and Holmes with pistols, and another two men with muskets. When remonstrated with by Mr. Chapman, they were exceedingly quiet and civil, and gave up many things desired by Mrs. Chapman. They stated they expected to find 700 in the house."

In other correspondence it was reported that there were up to ten bushrangers who carried out the robbery. This seems likely in light of correspondence to the newspapers at this time. The settlers of the district were becoming greatly alarmed by the 'outrages of a gang of bushrangers'.

The Monitor reported that the gang was increasing in number as more and more assigned servants joined their ranks, their depredations becoming more extensive and serious as they gained confidence.

Just ten years previously William Atkinson had been a sixteen year old lad playing top in the street. His fall from grace began in London in 1826 when he was named by a thirteen year old lad Joseph Sandland as the one who had robbed him a few months previously. Although the charge was denied William had no witnesses or petitions to support him . His story of innocence was not believed and his conviction carried a sentence of transportation for life. (Proceedings of the Old Bailey)  He arrived in Australia on the convict ship Guildford in 1827.

On arrival in the colony, he was sent with other boys to the Carter's Barracks. By 1831 he was assigned to the Newcastle district where he was punished with six days solitary confinement for an unknown offence in July. On release from the Newcastle gaol, he was assigned to the Newcastle hospital as a wardsman. In October of that year he was again punished with six days solitary, this time for neglecting his work. On release from the gaol he was once more assigned to the hospital.

By December 1835 he was assigned to William Cromarty as part of the boats crew at Newcastle.(4) Captain Cromarty had taken over the duties of pilot at Newcastle from William Eckford.  The pilots and their crew at Newcastle were brave men. They were often called on in the worst of weather to guide vessels into the harbour and were required to perform rescues as well. Their tiny boats were sometimes scathingly referred to as 'cockleshells'. The only life William Atkinson had known was on the streets of London so it is little wonder that he was unhappy employed as a boat crewman. It is to be wondered if he could even swim. Nevertheless it seems he performed his duties bravely at times. One captain was so impressed with his hard work in towing a vessel through heavy seas that he provided William with a quantity of rum as a reward -  which unfortunately for William, led to a charge of drunkenness and subsequent punishment.

William's master, William Cromarty was injured while piloting a vessel into port and retired to his farm at Port Stephens. (where he was tragically drowned with his young son in 1838) and John Patton took over the duties of pilot for a time. William was charged with drunkenness and insolence towards the pilot around this time, however the charge was dropped when the prosecutor failed to appear. William absconded from the pilots department late in February 1837 and after being apprehended in April 1837, he was removed from his perilous duties. He received 25 lashes as punishment for absconding and was 'returned to government service'.

After this he was sent to work for John McCrohon, a former Quartermaster with the King's Own Regiment who was employed as chief constable at Paterson. William absconded again in December 1837 however his freedom was brief and he was apprehended early in March. He was described at this time as 5'1" with fair ruddy complexion, fair hair and brown eyes.  - WAHS on upper, anchor & other letters on lower left arm. JF on lower arm.

Isaac Holmes was born in Plymouth about 1799. He was tried at Middlesex on 2nd December 1818 and sentenced to 7 years transportation. He arrived on the Grenada in 1819. He had also grown up on the streets of London where he had already begun a life of crime when he was 17, having been convicted of stealing money. He was fined just one shilling for this robbery in August 1817 however wasn't so fortunate the second time he was arrested. For his crime of stealing one pair of pantaloons  valued at 30 shillings, in November 1818 he received a sentence of transportation for 7 years. He was taken from the Old Bailey to Newgate prison and removed from there on 31st December 1818 to the Retribution hulk. He was transferred to the Grenada on the 2 February 1819 for transportation to New South Wales. On arrival in the colony he was one of many prisoners from the Grenada who were sent to Emu Plains. He was granted a ticket of leave for the district of Bathurst in 1824.

Isaac Holmes had some minor brushes with the authorities in Australia.  In 1826 he teamed up with Anthony Diamond to rob John Stronach, a Bailiff and baker of Wallis Plains. They were convicted of stealing linen belonging to Stronach and sentenced to 1 month hard labour in the House of Correction. Perhaps Isaac reformed for a while.  In 1828 he worked for a time as a fencer for William Carter at Piercefield. He was granted a Certificate of Freedom in 1830. On his certificate he is described as having brown hair, grey eyes and a stout build.

William Atkinson was apprehended in the Muswellbrook area in 1839. He escaped from the lock-up there with several other men - Francis McCarthy, John Main, Robert Sheldon and notorious bushranger Thomas Farrow in April 1839 and in August of that year they robbed Matthew Chapman at Dungog.

William Atkinson and Isaac Holmes were sentenced to 15 years transportation to Norfolk Island.

Other bushrangers sent to Norfolk Island at this time included William Allen, John Rose, Thomas Spencer and Richard Young

Atkinson and Holmes arrived at Norfolk Island just a few months prior to Alexander Maconochie taking over Superintendence of the Colony. Maconochie was a naval officer, geographer, and penal reformer.  He believed punishment for crime should not be vindictive but designed to strengthen a prisoner's desire and capacity to observe social constraints. Criminal punishments of imprisonment should consist of task and not time sentences; instead of being sentenced to a fixed period of imprisonment, an offender should be sentenced to be imprisoned until he had performed an ascertainable period of labour, which should be measured by the number of 'marks of commendation' he earned, the scale of marks being devised to encourage habits of industry and frugality. A sentence should be served in progressive stages, one of which involved membership of a working party where each was held responsible for the conduct of the others. Cruel punishments and degrading conditions should not be imposed and convicts should not be deprived of self-respect Select here to read the Report on Convict Discipline and Management by Alexander Maconochie (Laid before Parliament in 1838) - Superintendent at Norfolk Island 1840 - 1844

Maconnochie was derided for his ideas and when convict pirates attempted to seize the government vessel Governor Phillip in 1842, the Sydney Herald took the opportunity to voice their opinion, reporting that Norfolk Island was in a very disorganised state owing to the insane treatment of convicts there

Having had previous experience at Newcastle, William Atkinson was assigned to the boats crew at Norfolk Island. The treatment he received under Maconnochie's rule, would have been more humane than at any other time at Norfolk Island. Nevertheless, when the opportunity arose to escape he didn't hesitate. Following the chaos of an attempted mutiny, William was one of twelve men who seized a canvas boat and made for Philip Island six kilometres away. Although it was reported that they had been captured, some at least made it to the Island, where five of them seized a whale boat and made their escape. One way or another, William Atkinson had finally escaped from penal servitude. Year after year his name appeared in the Lists of absconding convicts. 'All Constables and others are commanded to to use their utmost exertion in apprehending and lodging said convicts in safe custody.' Any person harbouring them would be prosecuted.

No further information has been found as to his fate.

Incredibly, after all that he had endured, Isaac Holmes lived to be over eighty years of age. When he was admitted to Goulburn gaol in 1877, a record of his physical description was kept in the Gaol entrance books - he was about 5ft 8inches. He had lost all his teeth by the time he was 77 and was burdened with a lump between his shoulders. His chin was large and also his nose which was red with a lump growing on the left side. The first two toes of each foot were joined.

He died at Yass in 1881.



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