John Sharp c1811 - 1863
Whitefoot from the Queen's County, Ireland

Life in the Queen's County
The Disturbances
Arrest and Trial
Life in Bondage
John the Farmer
Family of John Sharp
Was he really bad?
John Sharp and William Caswell

A typical Whiteboy "threatening notice"
complete with gun and coffin

(NAI, CSO RP Private Index Papers, 1829/H6)


Of the 40,000 Irish convicts transported to Australia, as many as one in eight were political or social "protesters"; that is, they committed their crimes, not for personal gain, but as a public protest against the social injustices of their day.  Most of the protests were about land — tenure, high rents, taxes, evictions — and despite the severe punishments imposed, persisted for centuries.  The protesters were members of various "secret societies" — Whiteboys, Whitefeet, Rockites, Ribbonmen, Terry Alts, Lady Clares etc.  Usually dressed in a form of uniform (white shirt, sash etc), and led by a "Captain" and band in mock military style (viz "Captain Starlight" in Australian mythology), they levelled fences, maimed cattle, burned houses, stole firearms, and left threatening letters, usually mimicking the official court language, for those who resisted their demands for the people's "justice".

A significant group during the 1830s were the Whitefeet from the Queen's County (now County Laois), large numbers of whom were transported. Typical of these was John Sharp, transported in 1834.

Life in the Queen's County

John Sharp was born about 1811 in the RC parish of Arles (civil parish of Killabban), Queen's County,1 the son of Thomas Sharp, farmer, and his wife Mary Nowlan.2  Sharp is not a common name in Catholic Ireland, and it is likely that this is the same Thomas Sharp who in 1824 had equal shares with Thomas Murphy and James Boil [Boyle] in a 13 acre farm in the Killabban townland of Rushes,3 and that this is where John grew up. He learnt to read, and possibly attended the Catholic school at Rushes, where in 1825 Patrick Dunn taught 57 boys and 30 girls in a local farmer's barn.4 We don't know of any brothers or sisters: the Arles parish register shows only Ally Sharp living the district between 1829 and 1841; she was possibly John's sister or other relative.5

Rushes Inn
The Rushes Inn, Rushes crossroads
"Established 1715"

(Photos: Trish Downes 2001)

The shared farm, rented from absentee landlord Cornelius Bolton, would have been worked on the 'rundale' system.  This was a form of joint tenancy where the farmers, usually relatives, divided the land into strips for their crops and grazed their livestock communally, changing the divisions as needs changed.  As families grew, they further sub-divided to provide for sons and their families, each allocation becaming progressively smaller until the land could no longer support the numbers living on it.  The landlords disliked joint tenancies and took every opportunity to replace unviable joint tenants with single occupants who could produce more crops and pay a higher rent. 

Killabban was part of the Leinster Colliery District and by the 1830s was densely populated.  According to John Edge, a colliery manager in 1832, 'taking the three collieries of Newtown, the Lordship [Castlecomer, County Kilkenny] and the Clough; they are like a great bowl; they contain a population greater than any city or town in Ireland, Dublin and Cork excepted.'6  Coal had been discovered in the eighteenth century, and in addition to the locals, strangers had arrived, to work 'task work' (i.e. as casual labourers paid by the job) in the collieries.

By 1850 the joint tenancy at Rushes had been broken up, and Thomas was renting a labourer's cottage on Patrick Fitzpatrick's farm in the neighbouring townland of Farnans, their landlord being John Edge, the colliery manager.8  Perhaps the family was one of the many evicted, or put out of work when some of the collieries closed.

Leinster Colliery District, Queen's County ,Ireland
The Leinster Colliery District of the Queen's County
(Click on image to enlarge)


The Disturbances

Oath of a Whitefoot

1st. I solmly sware to be loyall and true to the New Ribbon Act.
2nd. I sware, I will to the best of my power, Cut Down Kings, Queens and Princes, Duks, Earls, Lords, and all such with Land Jobin and herrisy.
3rd. I sware that I will never Pity the moans or groans of the Dying, from the Cradell to the Crutch, and that I will wade knee Deep in Orange Blood.
4th. I sware I am to Bear My right arm to be Cut of and trow over the left shoulder and nailed to the traples Door of Armagh before I will way lay or betray or go in to any Court to Prosecute a Brother, known him to be such.
5th. I sware I will go 10 miles on foot and 15 Miles on horse Back in five minutes warning.
6th. I sware I will give Money to Purchase and repair fire arms amunition and the Like, and every other weapon that may Be wanting.
7th. I sware I never will tell the man's name nor the man's name that stood By making me a Ribbonman or whitefoot to any one under the Cannopy of heaven, not even to Priest, Bishop, or any in the Church.
8th. I sware I will not stand to hear hell or confusion Drank to a whitefoot or Ribbonman without resisting the same or quitting the Company.
9th. I sware I never will Keep a robber's company Nor harbour him, except for fire Arms
10th. I sware I will not make foul freedom with a Brother's wife or Sister Known them to be as Such.
11th. I sware I will not Keep the second Coat or the Second Shilling and a Brother to Be in want or relief, Known him to be as Such.
12th. I sware I will not Be present at the Making of a ribbonman or White foot without Praper orders from our Captain.
In pursuance of this spirituall Oblagation So Healp mee God.

Whitefoot oath — version repeated at Queens Co Lent assizes, 1832.7

In May 1829 the inspector-general of police for Leinster informed the Chief Secretary's office in Dublin Castle: "Captain Rock has got into the collieries."9  Several Sharp men were involved.  In March 1830 Michael Sharpe, 22-year-old weaver and farm labourer, was convicted of Ribbonism and transported for life.  According to newspaper reports, he had, with Thomas Fingleton alias Power, attacked and set fire to the house of Pat Brenan at Clopook, parish of Tullomoy in the colliery district.  The attack, on 4 November 1829, caused a sensation which reached even the London newspapers.10  Brenan resisted the men, shot and wounded the one who had the fire on the end of a pitchfork, and later identifed to police two of the attackers as his neighbours Thomas and William Fingleton.  Earlier that same night the Whitefeet had forced their way into the house of Brenan's brother Thomas, within a quarter of a mile, and taken a case of pistols.

This Michael Sharpe may have been John's relative. He may also have been a relative of the only other Sharp noted in the Tithe records for the district, namely Michael Sharp of Kellystown, parish of Rathaspick.11

The second Sharp to come to notice was Thomas Sharpe who, among others, was convicted at the 1831 summer assizes of 'Tumultuous Proceedings' at Ballinakill on Sunday 29 May 1831 against police who tried to remove anti-tithe placards.  He was sentenced to three months' imprisonment, and was singled out by the judge for lenient treatment because he "was not among the most active in the riot, ... was not distinctly shown to have thrown stones", and was involved in a rescue which apparently endangered his own life.12 Nothing else is known about this man.

By 1832, when our John Sharp's involvement is first noted, the situation had become so desperate that on 13 February the Privy Council in Dublin Castle had officially "proclaimed" the colliery district as "disturbed".13  This enabled the authorities to bring in the Peace Preservation Force, a "flying squad" of extra police, and to appoint Chief Inspector Matthew Singleton, a professional police officer and magistrate, especially to the colliery district.  Singleton and his men set about catching the offenders, and they rounded up enough to cause the judges to hold a "Special Commission" of assizes in June 1832. But not all were caught, and by 1832 the Queen's County was the most disturbed county in Ireland.14

On Sunday morning 6 May 1832, a John Haughey was in bed asleep in his farmhouse at Graigue near Carlow town when he was awoken by a rapping on the door.  John Sharp and two other men entered his bedroom and John demanded his firearms.  When Haughey told him he had no arms, John asked where his blunderbuss and pistols were.  Haughey insisted he had none, only a gun for keeping off the crows.  The three men then brought him out of his bed room to the parlour, where he was compelled to give them his gun.  On instructions shouted by others from the road outside, Haughey was sworn on oath that he was telling the truth about the blunderbuss (and presumably that he would not report the incident). 

Haughey's nephew, John Hayden, who slept in the loft of the farm's stable, was awakened by the dogs barking, and saw the three men leave the house.  He heard the others on the road outside order the intruders to return and "swear" his uncle (that he was telling the truth) about the brass barrel blunderbuss.  On their leaving the house again, John Sharp allegedly pointed Haughey's gun at Hayden and threatened he would shoot him if he did not "keep in his head".15

Haughey and Hayden were evidently sufficiently intimidated they did not report the incident, as there is no record of it in the May 1832 police reports to Dublin Castle.

Arrest and Trial

If John had not been so fond of dancing he might have escaped arrest.   Four months later, eight colliers from Poulathien colliery were at a dance, late at night and two miles from home, when the police arrived and arrested them and their piper for disturbing the peace.16  They appeared before the magistrates at Ballickmoyler Petit Sessions on 19 September 1832 and were remanded to Carlow gaol until they could provide bail as security for their future good behaviour.  By chance, John Hayden was a spectator in the court room, and recognised John Sharp as the man who had threatened him with the gun.  Hayden decided to inform Chief Inspector Matthew Singleton, and after selecting John from among ten prisoners in the gaol yard, Hayden swore a statement that John was the man who had threatened to shoot him.17

    Courthouse Maryborough (Portlaois)
Maryborough courthouse, where John was tried
(Photo: Trish Downes 2001)

John Haughey also provided a statement about the robbery, but was too intimidated by the consequences to identify the prisoner.  In fact, the Haughey family were so horrified by their nephew's actions, and so terrified of receiving the vengeance of the Whitefeet, that they turned John Hayden out of their home.  Chief Inspector Singleton was obliged to take Hayden under his care,18 and the case received such publicity that it was used the following year in the House of Commons as an example of the general intimidation that was making arrest and conviction so difficult.

On 14 March 1833, at the spring assizes, according to The Freeman's Journal, John Sharp was tried 'for attacking, with others, the house of John Haughey, of Carlow Graigue, taking from him a gun, and administering an unlawful oath.'19  In typical Victorian fashion, The Leinster Express was less interested in the crime than in the crown prosecutor's eloquence; but the account shows the level of frustation felt on all sides about the state of the county:

John Sharpe stood indicted for having attacked the house of John Hoey [sic], at Graigue, and demanding fire arms, on the night of the 6th of May last.

This being the first case which came on, connected with the insurrectionary state of the country, Mr Tickell addressed his Lordship and the Jury — He said he had hoped that at this Assizes, he would have no case of the present character to submit to a Queen's County Jury.  He had entertained a hope, that from the firm and temperate administration of justice, at the Special Commission, and last Assizes, and the examples which had followed, a cessation of outrages would have been the result.  He did entertain a hope that the admonitions which had been delivered from that Bench in terms which could never be forgotten, would have a salutary effect upon the peasantry of the Queen's County.  He would allude to a fact stated by the Attorney-General on one occasion at the Special Commission, and which was still the case in this county, — that not in a single case, had the offences been committed against persons in the higher ranks of society; the victims of this system of tyranny, were in every instance the humble occupiers of land.  The labours of the Crown would be for the protection of the poor man; for asserting the rights of property, liberty and person.  It ought to be well know[n], that those persons who suffered most, were individuals who inhabited the defenceless cottages, and are the more easily rendered the victims of the midnight perpetrators, who go about administering their system of tyranny.  The learned Counsel continued to dwell upon the state of the country, and concluded by stating the case for the prosecution.

The prisoner was found guilty upon the testimony of Hoey's nephew, who slept in an out-house, and had seen him pass to and from the house. An alibi defence was endeavoured to be sustained, but failed.  To be transported for seven years.20

From this we may suppose that John Haughey was a tenant brought in to replace an evicted one.  His farm is not shown in the Tithe applotment records for Graigue townland in 1825, nor in the Griffith's valuation of 1850, suggesting he may have left the area.21

On 15 March a satisfied Chief Inspector Singleton wrote to Sir William Gossett at Dublin Castle:

I have the honour to inform you, that on yesterday, I had John Sharp, placed on his trial for attacking with other Whitefeet, the house of Mr Haughey, near Carlow Graigue, and carrying thereout a gun, on the night of the 21st September last, and after a patient trial, he was found guilty, and sentenced to be transported for seven years.
This is the prosecution that the Right Hon.  Mr Stanley stated in the House of Commons a few nights ago, that the uncle of the Crown Witness, named John Hayden, actually turned him out of his house, in order that the Whitefeet should see, that it was not he, Mr Haughey, that identified the prisoner, John Sharp, in consequence of the disturbed state of the Country, and the intimidation throughout the District.22

It was Lord Althorp, Chancellor of the Exchequer, who had made the statement.  On 27 February 1833 he introduced into the House of Commons a new Coercion Bill aimed at suppressing the disturbances.  In a lengthy speech decrying the level of violence and intimidation, he listed the people 'compelled to quit Queen's County, in consequence of the evidence given before the Special Commission' and stated:

a Mr.  Manley [sic] actually turned his nephew out of doors in order to show, that he had no concern [i.e., was not involved] in giving information against a man for robbing his house of a gun.23

But Chief Inspector Singleton was not done with the Haughey case.   According to the Freeman's Journal of 10 July 1833, he had tracked down another member of John's party:   a "noted character" named John Deegan was committed to Maryborough gaol for attacking the Haughey house.   The circumstances surrounding this arrest and subsequent action are unknown.24

John was not the last Sharp to be in trouble with the law. On 14 March 1838, another John Sharpe, aged 20, single, labourer and miner, was convicted of manslaughter and transported for life.  He and three others, William Hughes, John Burke and Andrew Redmonds, had been involved in the death of James Conway in December 1837 at the Rushes crossroads — the same townland as that of our John, so he was almost certainly a relative.  The newspaper account called it the "deed of atrocity" on an "inoffensive and industrious young man" by a party of "sanguinary miscreants".  According to The Leinster Express:

The murder is attributed to Conway's father and uncle having some time since prosecuted to conviction a party who attacked their own house, and attempted to deprive them of their lives. Since that period the Conways have been called "The Pointers!" and have been subject to every species of persecution.25

The newspaper, however, might not have told the full story.  The offenders were all neighbours of Conway.  It seems John had no friends to plead his case, but the family of William Hughes petitioned repeatedly for respite of sentence, blaming the death entirely on John Sharpe, and declaring they were "on the very best of terms" with the Conways. They even obtained character references from two first cousins of James Conway, and presented a statement from the local magistrate, Peter Gale, that the offence "arose from a drunken affray and not from the previous system of outrages."26  But all to no avail; all four were transported for life.27

Life in Bondage

John Sharp, convicted on 14 March 1833, was transferred on 17 April 1833 to the Surprize hulk in Cove of Cork (Cobh).28  But it was not until 7 July 1834, almost two years after John was arrested, that Surgeon-Superintendent James Wilson, Royal Navy, of the transport Blenheim, came on board the Surprize to inspect his potential transportees, and 200 of them, plus ten free settlers who were sons of convicts, 30 ship's company, 33 soldiers, and eight women and nine children belonging to the soldiers, set sail in the Blenheim on 27 July, arriving at Sydney 14 November 1834.  The surgeon described his charges as 'very cleanly in their persons, and their animal strength I would say far above that of most of the Seamen who offer themselves as Volunteers for His Majesty's Navy'.29 On arrival only one elderly crew member was sick, to the doctor's pride.  He kept a conduct register during the journey and noted John's conduct as 'good' — one of the few to be rated above the normal 'orderly'.30

Tanilba 2000
William Caswell's residence "Tanilba", Port Stephens NSW
(Click on image to enlarge)

On arrival in NSW John, like his shipmates, was immediately assigned to private employment.  A mere 5'1" tall with brown hair and hazel eyes, John was 26, single, could read but not write, and was described as a farm labourer.31

John's master was Lieutenant William Caswell, RN retired, who farmed several land grants in the Port Stephens/Raymond Terrace district and who had over 20 convicts on his books.  Caswell had arrived in 1829 with his family and £2,000 capital, and was granted 1920 acres on the Williams River which he named "Balickera" and a further grant at Port Stephens where he built his home "Tanilba".32

As an experienced farm worker, John was put to work on Balickera, the Williams River grant.

Life as a Convict
according to the Rev J.D. Lang

When a convict-ship arrives in Sydney harbour, it is the practice of the colonial government to reserve as many of the convicts, whether labourers or mechanics, as are required for the public service; the rest are assigned to persons who have previously transmitted duly attested applications for convict-servants, agreeably to a code of regulations recently established by the present Governor, and denominated the Assignment Regulation.  One pound sterling is paid to Government for each convict so assigned, as the price of his bedding and slop-clothing, which he carries along with him to his future master's.  If the master resides in Sydney, he is employed in the various menial capacities in which house-servants are employed in Europe; if he resides in the country, as is much more frequently the case, he is employed in tending sheep or cattle, or as a farm-servant.

The convict-servants on the different farms of the colony are usually lodged in huts formed of a split-timber, and thatched with long grass or straw, at a little distance from the proprietor's house.  Two of these huts, with a partition between them, form one erection; and each of them is inhabited by four men.  A large fireplace is constructed at one end of the hut, where the men cook their provisions, and around which they assemble in the winter evenings, with a much greater appearance of comfort than the sentimentalist would imagine.  Rations, consisting of ten and a half pounds of flour, seven pounds of beef or four and a half pounds of pork, with a certain proportion of tea, sugar, and tobacco, are distributed to each of them weekly; and they receive shoes and slop-clothing either twice a year, or whenever they require them.  Pumpkins, potatoes, and other vegetables, they are allowed to cultivate for themselves.

On my brother's farm at Hunter's River — and I believe a similar system is pursued on most of the large agricultural farms thoughout the colony — the overseer rises at day-break, and rings a bell, which is affixed to a tree, as a signal for the men to proceed to their labour. The greater number follow the overseer to the particular agricultural operation which the season requires; the rest separate to their several employments, one to the plough, another to the garden, and a third to the dairy, while a fourth conducts the cattle to their pasture.  The bell is again rung at eight o'clock, when the men assemble for breakfast, for which they are allowed one hour; they again return too their labour till one o'clock, when they have an hour for dinner, and they afterwards labour from two till sunset.

John Dunmore Lang, 183733

Box 2

The hut at Balickera and the convicts' routine there fitted John Dunmore Lang's description exactly (see Box 2).  In July 1832, Joseph Challis, one of the convicts at Balickera, described a robbery from the hut to Captain Moffatt, the local magistrate:

Sometime about the 24th of last month on returning to the hut from our work about three o'clock we found the Prisoner sitting near the Hut; he stated he was a free man and that he had a Note from Mr Moffatt, and that we might not be afraid to let him in, on which we let him in; he slept in the Hut all that night, and the next night; the morning after the second night he left the Place before the sun had got up, and said he was going to his Brother; all of us went to our work as usual; the Door was shut with a latch, and a String which was used for securing[?] it was concealed; the Door could not be opened by any Person unaccustomed to the Place except by force; we returned Home to the Hut about half past two o'clock to get our Dinner; on searching for our Bread which was made in the morning it could not be found; this caused suspicion and on making a search found that one of the Slats of the back part of the House which was fastened with a Spike Nail had been forced one side and the Nail broken, and an opening made to admit of any Person going in or out; I then went to search for my clothes and found that they were all taken away; the clothes consisted of which were taken from me, one new Pair of Blue Trousers - value ten shillings - one New Blue Jacket, value sixteen shillings - one Duck Frock new with a Pocket which I sewed in myself, value five shillings - one new checked Shirt, value about five shillings, two Bags, value two shillings, total value of my things stolen one pound eighteen shillings.  All my clothes except what I had on my back were taken as also all the things of the three Men that were in the Hut with me; Butler one of the men living in the Hut with me lost two shirts, on Pair of Trousers, one new white Frock, and three shillings in money; John Brown another man had taken from him, one Pair of Trousers, and one old shirt.  James Foster, Mr Caswell's Ticket of Leave man, in charge of the Hut, had one Pair of Trousers taken from him; there was nothing left in the Hut of the mens clothes that could be seen; all our Tea and Sugar, and a Cake was taken, and two Towels which had the Tea & Sugar tied up in them; I swear that the Duck Frock now produced in Court, is the one which was stolen from me; the Pocket has been cut out, and shoulder straps put on since it was stolen; the Trousers produced I positively swear to be the Pair stolen from the Hut, belonging to Butler; I know them from the way that Butler has worn them; he wears his Trousers in general that way; and also I know them from a Hole which is in the front of the left thigh, and which he roughly darned up; Butler and myself milk together for three or four hours every day; which enables me to swear so positive as to his Trousers.34

    Balickera 2003
Balickera, Raymond Terrace NSW
(Click on image to enlarge)

By 1837, after four years in bondage and with good behaviour, John would have been eligible for a ticket of leave.  He did not receive this indulgence, which would normally indicate that he was convicted of a colonial offence, although we have no record of John being in trouble.35  His fellow assignees were not always well behaved — James McGarvey was constantly before the magistrate, having fallen out with Caswell's overseer, John Brown.36 Mrs Susan Caswell wrote home in 1837 that 'good servants are not to be had ...  have two women servants but one has been in the cell for the last two weeks and won't work for me any more.'37

His certificate of freedom was dated 1 August 1840, but was not delivered to the magistrates at Newcastle until 22 June 1841, so John probably had to remain in Caswell's service until that time.  Strangely, the crime for which he was transported is shown on his certificate as 'picking pockets'.38  This was probably a mere clerical error.  John would not have been able to hide his Whitefoot connections, even if he had wanted to, because the Irish convicts were despatched from Ireland with a sealed 'warrant' from the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland showing their offences and sentences.39

Hunter Valley NSW
Places of interest, Hunter Valley NSW
(Click on image to enlarge)


John the Farmer

On eventually gaining his freedom in 1841, John moved to employment on the neighbouring farm of Kilcoy. (Caswell was declared bankrupt in the 1840s depression and may not have been able to afford paid staff, even if John had wanted to stay.) In 1842, at Kilcoy, in the Raymond Terrace/Hexham district, John married Mary Graham, a free immigrant from the village of Easky, County Sligo.40

Mary Graham had arrived 13 July 1840 as a bounty immigrant per the ship Formosa.  Her father Edward, said later to have been a soldier,41 was dead, and her mother, Mary or Ellen Sheridan, was still living in Easky.  Mary was a farm servant, said to be 18 on arrival, but later records suggest she was no more than about 14.  She had somehow got herself to Liverpool, with all the certificates of baptism and good character necessary to be accepted as a bounty immigrant.  There is no evidence that she came under the protection of an older relative, neighbour or family — although the regulations required it — nor that she had any connections in Australia.42

    Maitland Mercury 6 Jan 1855
Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General
, Sat 6 Jan 1855 p. 3

The baptism of John and Mary's first child at Hexham in 1844 would have been a sweet sorrow for them.  In strict adherence to Irish naming customs, they named their son Thomas after his paternal grandfather.  But as neither had any family in Australia to act as godparents, they chose their friends and neighbours in the small Irish community of Hexham.43  Thomas's godmother was Julia Murphy, who with her blacksmith husband John, had arrived from County Tipperary as a free immigrant in 1841.44  Godfather was Patrick Lenehan/Lenaghan, from Mary's native County Sligo, who had been transported for life in 1827 for administering an unlawful oath — a Whiteboy crime!45

Howard Farm 2000
Howard Farm, Hexham NSW, today mostly a vacant swamp
(Click on image to enlarge)

John did not forget his Irish roots and although he probably could not afford it, he contributed 2/6 to the Irish Relief Fund at Raymond Terrace in October 1846.46

In 1844 Leneghan was a tenant farmer at Howard Farm, Hexham, the estate of the late colonial architect Francis Greenway.47  After several moves as farms were leased or sold, by 1849 or earlier John and Mary also settled at Howard Farm.48  Greenway had died in 1837 and in 1846 his 800 acres had been divided between his six children, the absentee landlords leasing their portions.

Howard Farm, c1844
according to the Rev John Wallace, son-in-law of Francis Greenway

After an hour's ride on low ridges bordering the river we came on a long line of iron bark fencing and a field gate let us through, and we entered on a flat ridge which ran straight for the river.  It was pretty thickly timbered with apple tree gum and iron bark and was covered with small pools of water in every direction.  A quarter of a mile brought us to more fences, slip-rail gateways, farm buildings, convict servants' huts, the dwelling house and the neighbouring kitchen.  Here I found dwelt the three sons and two daughters of the late Mr. Greenway, Colonial Architect, on a section of land granted to Mr. Greenway, having a mile frontage to the Hunter River, navigable for ocean steamers for some 10 miles further up, containing some 840 acres of land.

Greenway senior was a violent tempered man, dictatorial and quarrelsome.  His elder son, William, was idle and pleasure hunting, would not stick to his father's business and was at length sent up to Howard estate to farm the land, and to this end Government allowed him some 8 or 10 assigned (convict) servants.

About this time his mother, Mrs. Greenway, died, and the father found it desirable to send the other children up to the farm.  William, by aid of the assigned servants, had built himself a hut having two rooms, the walls of which were made of gum tree slabs and the roof of saplings and sheets of stringy bark.  When his sisters and brothers were to join him he added two bedrooms at either end built of the same materials.  The one sitting room was small and had a mud floor.  The floors of the bedrooms were, I think, boarded with roughtly sawn planks and unplaned.  The windows were small and square spacings with no glass or covered with white calico. This was all, after years and years, William had provided for his sisters and brothers who had been accustomed to a very good house in Sydney with refined surroundings. ...

The huts which formed their home stood on the grassy end of the ridge which, from the entrance gate quarter of a mile back, ran towards the River Hunter and overlooked the low rich land between it and the river, and which was under cultivation in wheat and maize.  At the foot of this ridge was a shallow well at which the bullocks that drew the ploughs and drays and at which the cows which supplied the milk were watered, but it was rather brackish.  Fences dividing the grass land from the arable ran in various directions.  There was grass in front of the home huts but not the vestige of a garden.  Potatoes were grown on the light soil on the river bank, and pumpkins and water melons grew among the tall rows of maize, but there were no flowers or currants or gooseberries or strawberries, but two or three ragged looking peach trees.  This was the state of things on the evening I first visited them.

John Wallis, 189749

Box 3
    John & Edward Sharp, Singleton
John & Edward Sharp's headstone, Singleton old Catholic cemetery
(Click on image to enlarge)

John and Mary raised their family at Howard Farm for about 12 years, when for some reason, between 1860 and 1862, they moved to Singleton, where John became a shepherd on Ravensworth station.  In January 1863 John died from heart problems and chronic bronchitis at age 52.50

Why did he move to Singleton?  Perhaps the Greenway family had other uses for his land at Hexham, or the several major floods in the 1850s may have wiped him out.  The most likely answer is he was determined to select his own freehold land, under the new Acts which came into being in 1862. There is no evidence of him making a conditional purchase, but selectors had to pay 5 shillings per acre (25 per cent) deposit when they registered their selection, and he might not have acquired the necessary funds before he died.  He was working as a shepherd at Ravensworth, but most of the selectors also took jobs until they could make their farms pay.

John's chronic bronchitis suggests his health had been poor for some time.  His childhood had been spent amongst the coalfields of Leinster, and he had worked as a collier, about which William Tighe had written for the Dublin Society in 1801:

The colliers are, independent of accidents, unhealthy and short-lived; they seldom arrive at fifty years of age.  A consumption of the lungs is the disorder of which they usually die; for a year or two before which event, they often throw up continually a black spittle; those who work in wet pits live longest, as they do not swallow so much of the volatile dust of the coal.  The leaning posture in which they work, is unfavourable to health, as the muscular action is constrained and partial, and the play of the lungs impeded; many do not survive it for ten years, though there are peculiar instances of workmen that have been in the collieries for forty.51

Tragedy struck again in March 1863, when son Edward, two weeks from his sixth birthday, died of diarrhoea at Ravensworth.52 Somehow Mary found the money to erect a headstone in Singleton Catholic cemetery to her husband and son. One of the earliest in the cemetery, it is in good condition in the front row.

On 9 August 1863 Mary, left with six children, married George Dougherty, a bachelor of Ravensworth.53 Their story deserves its own chapter.


Family of John Sharp
  Born Died Married
John Sharp c1811 Arless, Queen's Co
(son of Thomas Sharp & Mary Nowlan)
29 Jan 1863 Ravensworth, Singleton 4 Apr 1842 Kilcoy, Raymond Terrace/ Hexham
m. Mary Graham c1825 Easky, Co Sligo
(dau. of Edward Graham & Ellen or Mary Sheridan)
10 Mar 1881 Sedgefield, Singleton m2. 1863 Ravensworth, Singleton, George Dougherty
1. Thomas 1844 Hexham 1931 Gunnedah 1869 Anne Morris nee Fletcher
2. Ellen 1847 Motto Farm, Raymond Terrace/ Hexham 1924 Singleton 1866 James Downes*
3. John 1849 Hexham 1932 Narrabri 1878 Mary Ann Downes*
4. Robert 1851 Hexham 1931 Boggabri 1888 Rose Jane Porter
5. Bridget 1854 Hexham 1924 Gunnedah 1875 John Downes*
6. Edward 1857 Howard Farm, Hexham 1863 Ravensworth, Singleton  
7. Mary Ann 1860 Howard Farm, Hexham 1950 Quirindi 1882 Patrick Neil McGill

(*Note: 3 Sharp siblings married 3 Downes siblings)

Was he really bad?

Slievemargy mountains 2001
The Slievemargy mountains, part of the Leinster coal fields, Co Laois
(Click on image to enlarge)

House breaking and threatening with firearms are serious offences.  If we were to believe the rhetoric in the newspapers, parliament and the courts, the Queen's County protesters were a lot of vicious, irredeemable thugs and the only way to restore the peace was to execute the ringleaders and remove the others as far from the scene as possible.  The local magistrates and landowners were doubly offended: their courts and bureaucratic ways were being held in contempt, mocked and ridiculed; and their property was being attacked and devalued. 

Certainly the protests were violent and persistent.  In the years from 1829 on the number of incidents reported reached record levels , despite improved rates of capture after the arrival of the Peace Preservation Force.

But despite the rhetoric, contempories clearly understood that these were not common crimes committed by common criminals.  The 1832 Select Committee on Disturbances in Ireland was directed to examine causes of the disturbances as well as recommend methods of suppression.  The Committee distinguished "offences connected with the state of the country" from "mere ordinary offences",54 and recognised that evictions were a major cause, but it could not or would not face the fact that massive reforms were required to overcome the distress of the people.  The Committee's solution — monetary compensation and assistance to emigrate55 — was not what the Whitefeet were agitating for.

Indeed, contemporaries knew the issues — exploding population; falling prices for rural commodities; no industrial infrastructure; excessive competition for land and jobs; oppressive laws and taxes; exploitation and greed by absentee landlords.  As early as 1831 some writers were articulating the transition from the "war of religion, or the war of political opinion" to one of "poverty against property" and of "gaunt famine"56 which was to lead inevitably to the tragedy of the great famine in the 1840s.  John's crime must be seen against this background of poverty and despair.

    Croppies' grave 1798
The 1798 Croppies' grave at Graigue, near Carlow
(Click on image to enlarge)

In the Queen's County, the tithes had become a political issue at the 1832 election.  A prominent player was Patrick Lalor, parliamentary candidate and father of the Peter Lalor of Eureka Stockade fame.  The Lalors were rich tenant farmers in the Queen's County, self-made and not from the landlord aristocracy.  At a rally in February 1831 Patt Lalor launched the Queen's County campaign of refusal to pay tithes and of boycotting anyone who did pay up.  The campaign fanned the flame of the protesters, who extended their intimidation tactics to anyone who did pay the tithes.  At least one newspaper pointed out that Mr Lalor was not called by the gentry to serve on the grand panel at the 1833 Spring assize for the Queen's County.57

The district had a history of unrest.  The Queen's County was the first county to be 'planted' by English settlers in the sixteenth century, with fierce resistance from the locals.  There was a relatively high percentage of protestants in the county, and the sectarian divide was deep. Over 600 local men had been slaughtered by the British military at nearby Carlow during the 1798 Rebellion, and half of Ballickmoyler village, where the rebel contingent had assembled, had been destroyed in that period.58  The disturbances during the 1820s and 1830s were a continuation of the protest against poverty, insecurity and English domination.

John Sharp and William Caswell

William Caswell
Lieutenant William Caswell RN
(From the painting in Tanilba House)

The Hunter Valley has been described as 'the nearest thing to a plantation society that New South Wales produced.'59 It was settled in the 1820s by moderately wealthy immigrants, who had been enticed to the colony with the promise of land grants in proportion to the capital they were prepared to bring with them.  In turn, they were assigned convicts in proportion to the size of their holdings.  So, unlike the earlier settlements where the pioneers were the ex-convicts, the more entrepreneurial of whom went on to become self-made large traders and landowners, society in the Hunter Valley was a highly stratified one of imported wealth (the 'pure merinos') and poor convicts and ex-convicts with little opportunity to improve their lot.

Many of the settlers were ex-military or retired military on half pay, including Lieutenant Caswell.  At least initially, the Caswells were friends with James Mudie60, the notorious tyrant of Castle Forbes whose convicts were said to have preferred death to life in his service. Caswell, along with most of the Newcastle and Port Stephens landowners, signed the petition to Governor Bourke in 1833 complaining that the powers given to magistrates, particularly the diminished powers for flogging, were inadequate to control the "Prison population".61  And Caswell, along with most of the landed population, signed James Macarthur's petitions directly to the King and to the House of Commons complaining about the "relaxation of discipline amongst the Convict population" under Bourke's governorship.62

    Susan Caswell
Mrs Susan Caswell
(From the painting in Tanilba House)

As a master, Caswell seems to have been fair.  Although his wife Susan complained about the prisoners, at least one assigned servant at the Tanilba held favour; Ninian Melville, the Scots cabinet maker who made Susan's furniture and who married Catherine Hayes in 1841, named his daughter Tanalba, presumably in memory of his happy time at Tanilba.63 And Caswell suffered being sued for libel when he spoke up for a convict who he believed was wrongly punished in a sodomy case.64

As a naval officer of 20 years Caswell would have been used to harsh discipline.  His convicts included some who had been in the colony for over 20 years and presumably with a number of masters who had returned them to the government.  Of the 27 assignees found in the records, tickets of leave have been found for only 13 of them — probably about normal in the Hunter Valley at that time.65

The routine at Balickera, at first glance, seems rather like John's life back in Ireland, except that he was probably better fed, clothed and housed.  But there were at least two significant differences:

  • Although his time after work was his own, and there were no bars on the windows, he was effectively confined to the hut and the company of his fellow prisoners.  Convicts could not travel outside their masters' property without a written pass from the master, stating time and place of authorised absence.  An evening in the local pub was subject to the master's approval, which could be given or withheld at whim.
  • No distinction was made in assignment between first offenders like John and the hardened criminals.  John's hut-mates included long-term convicts, some of whom thought nothing of stealing, assaulting etc.  The concept of 'brotherhood' engendered in the Whitefoot movement meant nothing in the hut at Balickera.


What of the other Sharp protesters from the Queen's County? Their outcomes were not as fortunate as John's.

On 22 February 1831 Michael Sharpe arrived per the Edward from Cork. He was assigned on arrival to the Irish Catholic settler Edmund/Edward Burke who had arrived from County Galway in about 1826.  Burke owned property in Sydney and Richmond and acquired extensive acres at Mittagong in the southern settlement of NSW.66 Michael was initially assigned to Sydney, but was reported at Mittagong with Burke in the 1837 muster.  His movements after that are unknown.  His convict indent has no note of grant of a Ticket of Leave or pardon; instead there is the undated notation 'IG' for 'ironed gang', indicating that at some stage Michael re-offended and was given a colonial sentence.  No record of it has been found, nor of his eventual fate.67

John Sharpe, convicted in 1838 of manslaughter and transported for life, arrived via Westmoreland (3) in 1838.  He must also have re-offended, although no record has been found; he died, an invalid and convict, at the Port Macquarie penal settlement 13 September 1843. He was buried by the Anglican chaplain.68

Of the three Sharp men transported from the Queen's County, our John was the lucky one.  He married, raised a family, and although he himself did not leave any material legacy of wealth or land, his children and their descendants have prospered.  As Francis Forbes, Chief Justice of NSW during the 1820s, said:

[NSW] is a place of privation, labor and suffering and the place where by far the greater number of offenders who have been sent here, have found a life without hope and a premature death.  The Terrys and Lords [wealthy emancipists] et hoc genus omne, who from the beginning comprehend about one hundred persons, are artfully held up to public view — while thousands of nameless wretches who have lingered out the remains of a burdensome life, are as forgotten as their graves.69



  1. When John registered the births of his younger children in NSW, he said he came from Arless, Queen's County.  As well as being the Catholic parish, Arles(s) is a village in Killabban civil parish, and the location of an R.C. chapel.
  2. Information provided by his wife on John's death certificate no 1863/5282.
  3. Tithe Applotment Books, Co Laois.  National Archives of Ireland (NAI), microfilm reels in the State Library of NSW.  The only other Sharp(e) shown in the area was Michael Sharp of Kellystown, parish of Rathaspick, occupying 2 acres of ground.
  4. British Parliamentary Papers (BPP). Appendix to Second Report from the Commissioners of Irish Education Inquiry. PP 1826-27 (12) XII. p.762.
  5. Arles Parish Register, National Library of Ireland (NLI) Film P.4190. Ally Sharp was a sponsor with James Kealy[?] at the baptism at the Rushes on 11 Oct 1829 of Anne, daughter of John Brown and Ellen nee Doyle. Then at Ballylinan on 10 or 15 May 1841 John, son of John Curran and Ally nee Sharpe, was baptised, sponsors John Tobbin [?Coffin?] and Katherine Keating. Another child, name, sex and date illegible, was later baptised, also at Ballylinan, sponsors Edmond and Margaret Grace.
  6. Evidence of John Edge, Esq, Select Committee on the State of Ireland. PP 1831-32 xvi (677) p. 161, No 2801
  7. Evidence of Myles J. O'Reilly, Esq, Queens Co magistrate, Select Committee on the State of Ireland. PP 1831-32 xvi (677) p. 345, No 5834. Another version was tabled by Hugh Boyd Wray, Esq, p. 228, No 3998. Yet another version appeared in The Times of London 20 March 1832 p.1
  8. Griffith, Richard: Primary Valuation of Ireland (1848-1864).   Plot 48c.  By 1860 Thomas Sharp has disappeared from the records.
  9. NAI, CSO RP Private Index Papers 1829/H86 (Box 1653). CSO RP extracts are transcribed at Appendix 2.
  10. The Times of London 17 November 1829 p.3. All newspaper reports are transcribed at Appendix 3.
  11. Tithe Applotment records for Rathaspick parish. Griffith, Richard: Primary Valuation of Ireland (1848-1862).
  12. Select Committee on the State of Ireland. Appendix II p.64.
  13. The Times of London 18 February 1832 p.4.
  14. BPP. 'A return of the number of offences against the law, which have been committed in Ireland, etc.' 1833, XXIX, (416) p.6 and (426) p. 16.
  15. NAI, CSO RP Private Index Papers 1832/1668.
  16. Carlow Morning Post 1 October 1832.
  17. NAI, CSO RP Private Index Papers 1832/1668.
  18. The Leinster Express 16 March 1833, p.3.  Also The Freeman's Journal 16 March 1833
  19. The Freeman's Journal 16 March 1833
  20. The Leinster Express 16 March 1833, p.3.
  21. In 1825 James Haughey had a Roman Catholic pay school at Graigue, and Matthew Haughey/Hoye one at nearby Sleaty (from the Irish Education Inquiry, op. cit.).  Matthew, Paul and Peter Hoye are shown in the 1850 Griffith's valuation of Sleaty parish next door to Graigue parish.  Haughey's field at Sleaty, owned by the Haughey family which "died out", is mentioned in Peadar MacSuibhne's book Parish of Killeshin, Graigcullen, Leinster Express, Carlow, 1974.
  22. NAI, CSO RP Private Index Papers, 1833/88. Sharp Conviction for Attack on Haughey.
  23. Hansard: House of Commons: Debates, 27 February 1833 p1221.  Mr Stanley, Chief Secretary for Ireland, supported Lord Althorp by describing a long list of recent crimes, but did not "trouble the House" with the details from the Queen's County.(ibid p.1268)
  24. The note in The Freeman's Journal was repeated from the Carlow Sentinel (See Appendix 3). Further investigation has not been possible at this stage, but John Deegan has not been located in Australian records, suggesting he was not transported.
  25. The Leinster Express 16 December 1837 p.5.  The Rushes cross is probably Gregory's crossroads, after Mr Gregory who was murdered there in 1831. See the Select Committee on the State of Ireland. Appendix VIII p114. for background to the Gregory murder, and The Leinster Express of 24 March 1832, transcribed by Brian Dowling at
  26. NAI, CRF 1838/H31. (Irish Transportation Papers, part of the bi-centennial "Irish gift" to Australia, microfilms in major Australian libraries.) Extracts transcribed at Appendix 4.
  27. State Records NSW (SRNSW): CGS 12189, Annotated printed indents, 1831-42, Westmoreland (X641 fiche 734).
  28. NAI, Maryborough Prisoners Register (NAI ref 1/55/25). Extracts are transcribed at Appendix 6.
  29. Surgeon's journal, Blenheim I (PRO ADM101/12, AJCP Reel 3189). See Appendix 7.
  30. SRNSW: CGS 1156 Indents to convict vessels from Ireland, 1822-40, ship Blenheim I(1). ( 4/7076 Reel 2750).
  31. SRNSW: CGS 12188 Convict indent, Blenheim I (1) (X636, fiche 710).
  32. Paddle, Norah.  Tanilba House: "A Place of White Flowers". Helen Taylor, Port Stephens, 1992
  33. Lang, John Dunmore: An historical and statistical account of New South Wales both as a penal settlement and as a British colony. London, AJ Valpy, 1837. p. 10.  Microfilmed by Goldsmiths'-Kress library of economic literature, no. 29870.3.
  34. SRNSW: Bench of Magistrates, Port Stephens; CGS 3338, Bench book, May - December 1832(4/7571 Reel 2737). See extracts at Appendix 8.
  35. The Port Stephens Bench Books have only been located for the period May-December 1832, ie., before John's arrival.
  36. Port Stephens Bench books. Op. cit.
  37. Letter dated 4 May 1837, quoted in Paddle, Norah. Op. cit., p.17.
  38. SRNSW: Principal Superindent of Convicts; CGS 12210, Butts of certificates of freedom 1827-67; Certificate no. 40/1199 (4/4360 Reel 1006).
  39. SRNSW: CGS 1156, Indents to convict vessels from Ireland 1822-40.
  40. Benson, Jean Caswell: A wide spectrum: a picture of the times from 1828 to 1937 as seen by my forebears - the Stacy, the Caswell, the Shelley and the Harris families. Tumut, NSW, c.1987 p. 57
  41. On Mary's death certificate in 1881 (no. 1881/10350), her second husband, George Dougherty, said her father had been a soldier. This has not been confirmed. George did not know Graham's first name, and he also gave an incorrect name (Ratledge/Rutledge) for Mary's mother, casting doubt on his reliability.
  42. SRNSW: Immigration; CGS 5314, Entitlement certificates of persons on bounty ships, 1832-42. (4/4854 Reel 1312). Passenger list Formosa.  Mary's mother is shown as Mary Sheridan. (On her marriage certificate to George Dougherty, Mary named her mother as Ellen Sheridan.)   The only other passengers from Co Sligo were Edward Lenehan, and Jane Magrath.  Edward, an unmarried Roman Catholic gasfitter aged 23 years from Sligo (presumably Sligo town), was the son of Michael Lenehan, shopkeeper, and Mary Lenehan his wife.  Edward could read and write; his baptism was certified by Thos. Forster, Pastor, and his good character by John Wexford Hunt.  Jane, 16-year-old Protestant house and child's maid from Easky parish, was the daughter of Robert and Jane both dead. Her baptism and good character were certified by John Dawson, vicar.  Jane could neither read nor write.  Also on board, but with no known connection, were Thomas Stewart from Co Mayo, 30, Protestant, agriculturist, (native of Easky, son of James, a weaver, and Mary Ann Cummins his wife,) and Thomas's wife and three children, all natives of Ballina County Mayo.
  43. Baptism register Thomas Sharp V18441093 121A
  44. SRNSW: Immigration; CGS 5314, Entitlement certificates of persons on bounty ships, 1832-42. Ship Glenswilly (4/4869 Reel 1327).
  45. Convict indent, Eliza (3)The Freeman's Journal 29 March 1827 reported "Patrick Lenaghan, appearing armed and masked at night, and administering an unlawful oath to Thady Kilcullen - Guilty."  Patrick Leneghan was married to Honor Judge of Ardnaglass, parish of Skreen, Co Sligo.  He applied to have Honor join him in Australia, but there is no evidence that she arrived (NAI, Free Settlers' Papers FS 1832 6 List of convicts who have applied for their wives and families to be sent to New South Wales at the expense of Government).  In 1838 Patrick married Margaret Brennan.(V1838318 123)
  46. The Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General Advertiser 4 November 1846 p.3.
  47. Baptism register, Margaret Lenehan 1844 (no. V18441148 121A). In the 1850s Patrick purchased his own farm at Hexham, in the locality now known as Lenaghans Flat.
  48. Baptism registers of son John in 1849 and later children showed father as a settler at Hexham. Birth certificates of son Edward in 1857 (no 1857/10701) and daughter Mary Anne in 1860 (no 1860/11564) named birth place as Howard Farm, Hexham.
  49. Wallace, John: An autobiography of John Wallace written in 1897 and telling his story up until 1864. Copy in Newcastle Regional Library Local and Family History section, QBA/WAL. Second copy in NLA Manuscripts section.
  50. Death certificate 1863/5282
  51. Tighe, William: Statistical observations relative to the County of Kilkenny made in the years 1800 & 1801. Dublin, 1802. p.72.  Microfilmed in Goldsmiths'-Kress library of economic literature. No 18529.25
  52. Death certificate Edward Sharp 1863/5300.
  53. Marriage certificate 1863/2678.
  54. BPP. Select Committee on the State of Ireland. Appendix I p.566. Report by the governor of the Queen's county gaol on the state of the gaol, 30 April 1832.
  55. Ibid, p. 7.
  56. The Freemans Journal, Dublin, 11 April 1831 p.2. See Appendix 2
  57. The Leinster Express 16 March 1833.
  58. Lewis, Samuel: Topographical dictionary of Ireland, [1846] comprising the several counties; cities; boroughs; corporate, market, and post towns; parishes; and principal villages; with historical and statistical descriptions, London, 1850.  Feehan, John: Laois, an environmental history, Ballykilcavan Press, Stradbally Co. Laois, 1983, p. 374.
  59. Hirst, J.B.  Convict Society and its Enemies.  Allen & Unwin Australia Pty Ltd, North Sydney, 1983, p. 181
  60. Susan Caswell stayed with the Mudie family at Castle Forbes, Singleton, soon after her arrival. (Susan's letter of 18 July 1830, quoted in Paddle, Norah, op.cit.) p. 8.
  61. The Sydney Herald 26 August 1833.
  62. Macarthur, James: NSW; its present state, and future prospects, London, 1837.
  63. Birth certificate Tanalba Melville 1857/710. Ninian and Catherine's son, Ninian Junior, was the member for Northumberland in the NSW Parliament from 1880 to 1894.
  64. See Whitfield v. Caswell, 1837
  65. See Appendix 9 for details of convicts assigned to William Caswell.
  66. Burke research papers held by the Berrima District Historical and Family History Society.
  67. SRNSW: CGS 12188, Bound manuscript indents, 1788-1835, Edward (2) (4/4016. fiche 696). Most of the convict records of country Benches were destroyed in the nineteenth century as a matter of policy to protect descendants of convicts. (Source: SRNSW: Guide No. 14, Guide to Convict Records in the Archives Office of NSW, Sydney, 1981, p.35.)
  68. SRNSW: CGS 12189, Annotated printed indents, 1831-42, Westmoreland (3) (X641 fiche 734).
  69. Catton Papers, Derby Central Library, WH 2790, 6/2/1825.  Quoted in Neal, David: The Rule of Law in a Penal Colony: Law and Power in Early New South Wales. Cambridge University Press, England, 1991. p. 41


  1. George Dougherty 1825-1907 — soldier and selector
  2. The Sharp Family — Reports from the Chief Secretary's Registered Papers
  3. The Sharp Family — Newspaper Reports
  4. The Sharp Family — Reports from the Irish Transportation Papers
  5. The Sharp Family — Extracts from the Queens County Grand Jury Indictment Book 1818 - 1882
  6. The Sharp Family — Extracts from the Maryborough Prisoners Register 1821-1839
  7. Extracts from Surgeons' Journals for Ships Edward, Blenheim & Westmoreland
  8. Extracts from Bench Book Port Stephens NSW
  9. William Caswell's Convicts, Hunter Valley NSW
  10. The Croppies' Grave at Carlow Graigue, Queens County, Ireland
  11. The Leinster Colliery District of the Queen's County, Ireland (maps)
  12. Sharp Places in the Hunter Valley, NSW

© 2003 Patricia Downes

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