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Paterson River history

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The Phoenix hulk

In Sydney, Paterson convicts stayed on the Phoenix

On 26 August 1824 the ship Phoenix ran aground on the Sow and Pigs reef while entering Port Jackson after a voyage from Hobart Town where it had discharged 202 male convicts. This large old sailing ship of 589 tons, built on the Thames in 1798, was stuck fast on the rocks for 24 hours before being refloated and towed to Campbell's Downs (Darling Harbour) where it was found to be damaged beyond repair.

At this time the old Sydney Gaol was hopelessly overcrowded and the Colony desperately needed secure accommodation for convicts awaiting re-transportation to penal settlements at Moreton Bay and, from 1825, Norfolk Island. Weak or invalid convicts were also waiting for transport to Port Macquarie.

Just like the mythical Phoenix, this Phoenix also came back to life, but in a plainer fashion as a prison hulk. In January 1825 the ship's rigging, masts and other sailing fittings were auctioned, and the Colonial government purchased the hulk for £1,000. The Phoenix was soon fitted out for its new role and in August of that year the first 58 prisoners came on board. The Phoenix had become the only prison hulk to operate in New South Wales (they also operated in Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania).

Initially the Phoenix was moored in Sydney Cove and later moved to Hulk Bay, now known as Lavender Bay, on the North Shore. She was mainly used for three types of inmates—convicts awaiting secondary transportation to a penal settlement, convicts awaiting transportation to Port Macquarie as invalids, 'idiots' or 'specials' (educated convicts), and those staying in Sydney as witnesses in court trials. Occasionally convicts found themselves on the Phoenix for other reasons, such as waiting to be sent to an iron gang, or as a volunteer waiting for a ship to Norfolk Island.

The Phoenix touched the lives of a surprising number of convicts between 1825 and its demise in 1838. A detailed study of convicts on the Tocal estate at Paterson in the Hunter Valley showed that 22 of the 142 known convicts assigned to Tocal, representing one in six, experienced life on the Phoenix at first hand. Typical examples drawn from the Tocal convicts include: William Halfpenny, convicted of highway robbery by the Sydney Supreme Court in 1832 and held on the hulk until transported to Norfolk Island; Michael Fee and James Shields, held on the hulk while in Sydney as witnesses in a burglary trial involving another Tocal convict; and John Williams and Robert West who spent time on the hulk until shipped to Port Macquarie as invalids in 1836.

In June 1837 the Phoenix began leaking badly and despite feverish pumping she was in danger of sinking at her moorings. Inspection revealed her timbers were rotten beyond hope of repair. Over the next few months she was kept afloat and the number of prisoners on board reduced. In November 1837 when a steamer towed her close inshore near Balmain Point only 26 convicts remained on board.

On 21 December 1837 the Sydney Gazette reported that 'The old hulk Phoenix has been at last broken up with the exception of her keel, which will be kept by the proprietor Mr. Thomas Hyndes, at his yard in Cockle Bay.' It was an ignominious end for a once fine sailing ship. Unlike her legendary namesake, this Phoenix would rise no more.

Notes and references

Earnshaw, Beverley. The Larrikins of Lavender Bay-The Story of the Phoenix Hulk. Sydney: North Shore Historical Society, 1996.

Williams, Brad. "The Archaeological Potential of Colonial Prison Hulks: The Tasmanian Case Study". Bulletin of the Australian Institute for Maritime Archaeology, 29 (2005): 77-86.

Bateson, Charles. The Convict Ships 1787-1868. Glasgow: Brown, Son & Ferguson, 2nd edit 1969, reprint 1985.

Details and record sources for individual Tocal convicts are available on-line.

Further reading

Guide to New South Wales Archives relating to Convicts and Convict Administration. Sydney: State Records Authority of New South Wales, 2006.

Prisoners on Board the Hulk Phoenix: Index to Prisoners Received 20 August 1825 to 30 January 1837. Woolloongabba, Qld: Convict Connections Group of GSQ, 2008.

Prisoners on Board the Hulk Phoenix: Index to Transportation Entrance Books 18 January 1833 to 7 September 1848. Woolloongabba, Qld: Convict Connections Group of GSQ, 2008.