Townson had transferred to the New South Wales Corps in
October 1789. He arrived in the colony in the
Scarborough in June 1790.
Most of his military service in the colony was spent on
Norfolk Island, where he was stationed for over six
years between late 1791 and late 1799. He was a member
of the court of inquiry in 1794 which investigated
Lieutenant-Governor Philip Gidley King's actions during
the mutiny on the island the previous year. In May 1795
he was promoted captain and from September 1796 until
November 1799 acted as lieutenant-governor of Norfolk
Island while King was absent in England.
The Norfolk was a vessel of 25 tons burthen.
She completed her first voyage to Port Jackson on the 15th June
administration Governor Hunter gave every possible encouragement to
exploration. He despatched John Wilson on two expeditions into the
country to the south of Picton in January and March, 1798. In the
previous November, he equipped and manned a whaleboat for the use of
Surgeon Bass in exploring the south coast; during this expedition
Western Port was discovered and the existence of Bass Strait was
established. In December 1798 he sent Lieutenant Flinders
and Surgeon Bass in the sloop Norfolk to make further explorations
to the south, and in this voyage the circumnavigation of Tasmania
Select here to read of the voyage of the Norfolk
With a Captain and crew of five, the Norfolk
was then used to carry provisions and grain to and from the
Hawkesbury River.(5) She was included in the list of floating craft
belonging to Government in September 1800.(4)
Following is an extract from
Huntington's The History of Newcastle.....
In November, 1800, Governor King was much
concerned to hear of the piratical seizure of the Government decked
boat Norfolk, of 25 ton, laden with 500 bushels of wheat, by a gang
of 15 desperate convicts, who had boarded her in Broken Bay on her
voyage to Port Jackson from the Hawkesbury in October. The runaways proposed
proceeding to the Dutch settlements among the Moluccas, and on their
voyage there they called in at the Hunter River, where their vessel
was driven on shore, and they seized a small vessel belonging to one
of the Sydney traders.
Immediately the piratical transaction was
reported to the Governor he issued a general order, bearing date 9th
November, 1800, wherein he set forth that "in consequence of the
daring seizure of the Norfolk sloop by a party of convicts in the
Hawkesbury, no boats or decked vessels are to sail from hence to the
Hawkesbury, or from thence to this place, without giving three days'
notice to the Governor or officer in command at those places, and to
wait for two or three other vessels going at a time. Should any
future attempts of that kind be made, the people belonging to those
vessels are: on pain of the most exemplary punishment to cut away
their masts 'and rigging before they are boarded, and, if possible,
to run them ashore and bilge them, for which purpose each vessel
must be provided with an axe or tomahawk."
As to the probable fate of the pirates, the
order states, " On this occasion the Governor finds it necessary to
fore warn any convicts from attempting such a scheme in future, as
nothing but inevitable destruction awaits those who have seized the
Norfolk. If they escape the almost certain dangers they have to
encounter from a leaky vessel, rotten sails, no means of procuring
water, and neither compass, chart, or quadrant; if they are so
fortunate as to avoid the bad consequences of these wants, and
dissensions among themselves, they are sure to meet their fate, not
only in any British settlement, but also in their native country,
the Governor being determined to inform the different Governors of
his Majesty's and the company's settlements of the description of
these people, and also the magistrates of the different places in
England and Ireland where they were convicted."
With all speed Governor King despatched an
armed boat to the Hunter River, where the Norfolk was found bilged
through the unskilful handling of the pirates, who thereupon
committed a fresh act of piracy by seizing another boat. The armed
cutter, after a desperate chase, captured nine out of the fifteen
desperadoes, and secured the Sydney trader's vessel uninjured, but
the Norfolk went to pieces in the surf off the point afterwards
denominated Pirates' Point, and now known as Stockton.
With respect to the Norfolk sloop pirates,
they were all found guilty and sentenced to death. Two of the
ringleaders were executed in the presence of the military and
convicts. The other seven offenders were reprieved at the foot of
the gallows, as they were in an emaciated condition from the hardships they had endured. Eventually they were ordered to serve seven
years transportation on Norfolk Island. The Rev. Samuel Marsden
administered spiritual consolation to the condemned men. The
examples made created a solemn effect on the people, and it was
generally thought that few, if any, rash attempts of the kind would
be committed in the future.
F.A. Cadell in a lecture on the Settlement and
Development of Newcastle includes a few more details.....
"The history of Newcastle is one of romance,"
said Mr. Cadell; "The Norfolk, a boat of 25 tons used by the
Government, was on its way from the Hawkesbury River with 500
bushels of wheat for Sydney and was seized at Broken Bay by 10-15
convicts. They made northward. Turning into Hunter's River,
the boat was carried against a point on the north shore (now
Stockton) which in consequence was called Pirate Point. Realising
the necessity for expedition in quitting the port, they seized
another small boat, then made for the open sea once more. Only
nine of the men left in the small boat, the others probably
preferring to take their chances among the natives. An armed cutter
from Sydney pursued and captured the nine, who were taken back to
Sydney and condemned to death. Only two of the number were executed.
The others were transported to Norfolk Island.
The six who had
remained behind crossed to the southern shore and set up camp in the
vicinity of what is now known as Throsby Creek, subsisting on fish
and meat provided by friendly natives.
The party was reinforced by two more
convicts who had escaped from one of the small trading boats. After
several months some of the party grew restless and weary of the
primitive life in the bush. It was suggested that they return to
Sydney and surrender. They were dissuaded from this course by their
leader - named Grace, who appeared to be above the average in
intelligence, and of a domineering character. Three of their number
decided to take the risk. Two were captured, and the other died. The
Norfolk convicts were in the vicinity of Newcastle for many months
and it was on record that in 1801 one of the men was seen with the
natives. Nothing further had been recorded of them, but it could be
taken for granted they ended their days with the natives
Notes & Links:
1). Who was the convict named Grace
mentioned above by F.A. Cadell? There were three men by
the name of Grace who arrived in the colony as convicts
before 1801 -
James Grace tried at
Middlesex in 1784 and arrived on the Friendship in 1788
- ? Died at Norfolk Island in 1793
James Grace who was tried at Westminster and arrived on
the Royal Admiral in 1792
tried in Bristol 1796 arrived on the Barwell
Peter Ludlow who was pardoned after having been found
guilty of felony in 1801 may have been one of the
Norfolk pirates. (See State Archives NSW, Convict
Registers of Conditional and Absolute Pardons, 1788-1870
Reel 775 and
NSW Capital Convictions Database)
The tale of HM Norfolk by Mike Scanlon - Newcastle Morning Herald
3). There was also another
vessel by the name of Norfolk in the colony.......The Government owned Harbinger, a brig of 56 tons was
purchased by Governor King in May 1801. He renamed her the Norfolk and
employed her in carrying despatches, stores etc to Norfolk Island.
In November 1801 King sent her to Otaheite for a cargo of salt port,
in charge of William House. While lying at anchor in Matavai Bay,
being unable to ride out a heavy storm, her cable was cut, and she
was allowed to drive on shore.
More Pirate Escapes -
Escape from Rosehill 1790
of Mary Bryant 1791
Broadbent & Johnston 1804
Pirates at Newcastle 1806
Seizure of the
Pirates of the Speedwell 1814
Riley - Nautilus 1816
Convict Pirates in 1818
Seizure of the Eclipse 1825
Seize the Gurnett 1826
Seizure of the Wellington 1827
Escape from Nobbys in 1842
the Brothers 1844
(1) M. Austin, 'Townson, John (1759–1835)',
Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian
National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/townson-john-2742/text3877,
published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 10 February 2014.
(2) Historical Records of Australia, Series 1, vol. 2, page xvi.
(3) Historical Records of Australia, Series 1, vol III, p.
(4) Historical Records of New South Wales, vol. IV, p. 157
(5) Historical Records of New South Wales, vol. IV p. 282
(6) Newcastle Morning Herald, 5 October 1897. (H.W.H.
(7) Newcastle Morning Herald 16 September 1939 (F.A. Cadell)