Free Settler or Felon
Convict and Colonial History

Seizure of the Norfolk - 1800

The Norfolk was built at Norfolk Island in 1798 when John Townson of the New South Corps was Lieutenant-Governor.

John Townson

John 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. [1]

First Voyage to Port Jackson

The Norfolk was a vessel of 25 tons burthen. She completed her first voyage to Port Jackson on the 15th June 1798.

During his 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.

Voyage to the South

In December 1798 Lieutenant Flinders and Surgeon Bass were sent in the Norfolk to make further explorations to the south, and in this voyage the circumnavigation of Tasmania was accomplished. [2]

Select here to read of the voyage of the Norfolk [3]

Hawkesbury River

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]

Seizure of the Norfolk

Following is an extract from H.W.H. 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.'

Pirate Point

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. [6]

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.[7]

Lieut. James Grant's Encounter with the Norfolk Pirates

In February 1801 Lieutenant James Grant of the Lady Nelson decided to set out on foot to Pittwater. Below is an extract from his journal describing the fate of the three Norfolk pirates who left the others at Port Stephens and attempted to walk to Sydney......

I also formed the resolution of walking to Pittwater, which joins the Hawkesbury, and branches inland a considerable way, affording many little Creeks and Coves, where the natives assemble at times to fish. On the 25th of February I set out, the weather thick and cloudy, accompanied by a soldier of the New South Wales Corps, one of my own people, a native and his wife, as guides. Ensign Bareillier, of the same Corps, volunteered going in the boat with the mate.

The path I took was intricate, but very romantic. As it rained hard towards evening, my guide halted near a wood, taking us to a place where two old men were sitting by a fire, and which had the appearance of several others having been there very recently. This temporary habitation was formed by a rock overhanging the place they were seated on, and called by them Gablegunnie, being the term for the hut, or the House of the Rock. The two men did not seem to receive us with any particular marks either of friendship or indifference; and from what I afterwards learned they were both doctors, which probably induced my guide to visit them, as his back had been much hurt, and he was troubled with a difficulty of breathing. They gave us from a bag-net a few fish they had gathered off the rocks; but on removing the skin, (which is used by them as bait in fishing,) they smelt so offensive that we could not eat them. I gave them some bread in return, and we parted well pleased with each other. They told us that a little farther on there was a party of natives employed in fishing, who had two huts built near a long sandy beach. As the night was likely to be very dark with heavy rain, I intended, if possible, to shelter ourselves with them.

Our guide was so ill, that he appeared incapable of going on with us, and promised to get one of them to accompany us to Pittwater. I could not help remarking the acuteness of sight which these people possess even in the dark to a wonderful degree; as also of hearing. As we approached the huts we found two canoes left on the sand; and as we proceeded through the bushes, the woman with us asked me, if I saw a black fellow, pointing farther among the bushes. I stopped and looked, but could see no one, the night being exceedingly dark. We were immediately challenged from the bushes in the native language; the soldier with me answered; and we were conducted by the stranger to the huts. He had been down at the canoes for some fish, and on his return saw us; after depositing them, he came to reconnoitre who we were, at which time the woman observed him. He had told his comrades of seeing us, and they took the precaution of hiding their fish, as they always do in similar occasions to prevent their being discovered by strangers.

The natives are in general very much afraid of walking alone in the dark, unless under the impulse of jealousy, hunger or revenge. On such occasions they will in the night steal on their countrymen whilst asleep, and with an instrument called a dual, made of hard wood and gradually tapering to a point, pin them to the ground, particularly when actuated by jealousy or revenge. I found the huts larger and better constructed than I had as yet seen or heard of: they were built of timber procured from the wreck of a small vessel, which lay stranded on the shore at no great distance. In one hut there were three men, four women and two children; and in the other, which was very small, a man and his wife. The natives very kindly took from their hiding places some large and excellent fish, such as snappers, and salmon, so called in this country, I presume, from their scales. These they laid whole on the fire, which was placed in the middle of the hut. As soon as one side of the fish was done they placed it on the other, opposite to where I sat, beginning to eat while that was broiling, inviting me by signs to follow their example; which I and my companions readily did, being both hungry and wet, it having rained very hard, and we found ourselves very comfortable. Situated as we were, I could not avoid remarking to myself how easily nature was satisfied; the only thing I wanted being salt.

The curiosity of these poor people with respect to many things about us was very great; particularly in observing a head raised in silver on the butt-end of the pistol stuck in my waist-belt; and also in the ticking-noise of my watch, which the women and children wondered much at, mimicking its sound as they held it up to their ears. Having sent my guide and his wife with the seaman to the small hut, I and the soldier lay down to sleep with our feet to the fire. One of the women was very ill during the night, and groaned much, being seized with spasms in her stomach, as I afterwards understood. In the night-time the soldier was wakened by one of the men, who requested he would go with him to fetch some water. On the former (who understood the language) asking him why he could not go alone, he was answered, 'You know me murrey jarrin, that is, much afraid. The soldier being unwilling to stir, asked, 'What he was afraid of? The native said, 'of the Bogle;' the term for the Evil Spirit, or Devil; which shews that superstition is very predominant amongst them. As I wished for some water, I desired the man to get up and bring me some, which he did in a small vessel shaped like a canoe, made of bark, the native accompanying him.

We got up before day-light, and having taken one of our hospitable friends for a guide, who was both more robust, and stronger than the natives are in general in this part of New Holland, he armed himself with a spear, and moved onwards with us till we came near to the banks of a stream, which the natives call Narrowbine (Narrabeen Creek, Pittwater). It was but barely peep of day, and objects were not easily distinguishable, yet the native informed me he saw somebody on the opposite side. As we proceeded on we soon perceived a person walking by the river side, but could not ascertain whether he was a native or not. Our guide, however, on enquiry said, that is, 'no black fellow', and that he had a musket with him.

Some of the Convicts having about this time absconded and taken with them the Norfolk sloop, with an intention of leaving the country, were cast ashore, but a short distance to the northward. They had been daring enough to attack and seize a settler's boat going to the Coal River; and as many of these people were still out, I made no doubt but he was one of them. The stream from the rain which had fallen during the night, and the tide of flood being in, as it was in the vicinity of the sea, was become deeper and more rapid than common, and had obstructed the fellow's progress. I called to him, and asked who he was, and where he was going? He answered, that he had been Kangarooing, had lost his way, and was almost starved. From the latter circumstance I was certain he was one of the Convicts, and therefore I desired him to stop, as I was going over, and would shew him the best place to cross at, which he had enquired for. While we were stripping, I desired the native, who was in a state of nature, that, if he saw the fellow attempt to get way, he would stop him, and should he offer any resistance, to spear him. The river was so deep that it came up to his chin; and as he was taller than any of us, we were under the necessity of leaving our clothes behind, and making two trips, in order to keep our fire-arms from the wet, which was not an easy matter, being obliged to carry them over our heads. The bottom of the river was very rugged with sharp-pointed rocks, which made us stumble and cut our feet; however we got over. The poor creature gave himself up to me without condition, confessing he was one of the party who ran away with the Norfolk. At this moment he presented a most pitiable sight, being literally almost starved, and had he got across the Narrowbine, he never would have been able to reach Sydney. As to the musket, instead of being of any service to him, it was rather an incumbrance, as it was totally unfit for use. His comrades and he had endured the greatest misery and distress through hunger and fatigue. On being informed that some of them were taken and executed, he burst into tears, and said he was sure nothing could save him. He had a wound in his leg, which he got from a species of scate called a Sting Ray. In attempting to kill it in a shallow stream it had found its way into, it threw the sting, (which in large ones is sometimes eight or nine inches in length, indented like a saw,) through the calf of his leg. The fatigue of walking, and the scratching of the bushes had inflamed it to a great degree: his feet were also wounded and ulcerated from rocks and stumps of trees. In short, he was so wretched and helpless, that I directed my two companions to support him between them to Pittwater, where my boat was to meet me. The little bread I had remaining, bad as it was from the wet it had met with, was devoured by him with avidity; and this, with a little spirits I had left, recruited him He shewed me the place where he had lain all night, on a few branches spread under a tree, without fire, and exposed to the heavy rain.

On being asked where he had left his companions, he said, that himself and two others of the party, had left the remainder near Port Stephens, which is some considerable distance to the northward of the Hawkesbury; that they had some intention of forming a settlement there, until something should turn up favourable for them; that they had planted a few pumpkin and melon-seeds, and some Indian corn, which had come up, but was insufficient for the support of seven or eight persons. The ring-leader, who was there, had determined not to return. This man had been very ill with an intermitting fever, which indeed had been experienced more or less by all of them.

It was his intention, and that of two others, who left the place, to return and give themselves up; but one of them being very ill, he quitted him and his companion, who chose to remain with the sick man, on the other side of Pittwater. They had suffered much from hunger, living principally on the cabbage-tree; and he affirmed, that when they fell in with the natives, they behaved very ill to them; that indeed from some they got a fish or two; but that others, instead of assisting them, took away what rags of clothing they had left. This last circumstance is, in my opinion, rather improbable, for unless it be a blanket, I have never known any of the natives express even a wish for any article of clothing. On being asked how he got over Pittwater, he informed me that meeting with one of the natives, then on the banks, whom he knew, he partly through that acquaintance, and partly through the offer of a shirt, prevailed with him to put him across in his canoe; but that he had much ado afterwards to prevent some of them from spearing him, as they all asked him for bread, which they supposed he must have. Whether this was true or not with respect to his adventures, it is a fact that all the natives about the Settlement, or at a distance, who have tasted bread, are very fond of it, and always ask for it. No doubt the general keen state of their appetites may be a powerful incentive at the time they desire it; and it is not improbable that some of those he met with, being hungry, and encouraged by his helpless appearance, might endeavour to terrify him with the spear. The gun he had in his hand, he believed, prevented them from putting their threats in execution.

After experiencing much difficulty in getting this unfortunate wretch along, we soon discovered our boat by the help of a bugle-horn, two of which I had brought from England with me. These instruments are of the utmost service to all who have to travel through pathless woods, where the sight is intercepted, as they can always be used when a musket cannot.

The poor runaway Convict was put into the boat, and supplied with food, which from the manner he began to devour it, I was obliged to give him very sparingly. The boat party had suffered much from the rain during the night, as well as from the heavy sea they were exposed to in their passage. We kindled a fire on the bank of the river, where we breakfasted. Pittwater is very broad at this place, dividing itself into several branches, which made a strict search for the boat very troublesome. I ordered the mate up to a small island, named Mullet Island, (perhaps from the great plenty of fish of that name in its vicinity,) giving him orders to examine the shore carefully on each side, and make enquiry of the natives or settlers that he might meet with. I concluded any farther search after this would be unnecessary, as above the island the boat would be discovered and secured.

The officer commanding the boat which went in search of the fugitives, gave me warning of his approach at seven the next morning by sounding his bugle-horn. His success was similar to mine: he picked up another unfortunate young man of the party which ran off with the Norfolk sloop, in the same starved condition as the one I had found. He gave an account of his having remained with another of the runaways till he expired. On my giving them up to Governor King, I stated to him in how submissive and penitent a manner they had surrendered themselves to my party; and that had we not fallen in with them, it was their intention to return. As an example to the Settlement they were tried, and were condemned to suffer death; but the Governor was most humanely pleased to pardon them, on account, no doubt, of their sufferings. Two of the most daring of the same gang had some little time before suffered death. The youngest of those that were pardoned, served afterwards on board the Francis schooner, and on my return from a cruize, came and offered his services to me in the Lady Nelson, which shewed his gratitude, but I declined accepting them. - Voyage of Discovery to N.S.W. in the Lady Nelson in 1800-2] Author: James Grant.Project Gutenberg

Living with the Aborigines

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 [7]

Notes and 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

Ismael Grace 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)

2). 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.


[1] M. Austin, 'Townson, John (1759 - 1835)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University

[2] Historical Records of Australia, Series 1, vol. 2, page xvi.

[3] Historical Records of Australia, Series 1, vol III, p. 769

[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. Huntington)

[7] Newcastle Morning Herald 16 September 1939 (F.A. Cadell)