Escape and Near Tragedy

In the Spring of 1849 James had been at Cascades for almost a year when he made his fifth attempt to escape. The regular transport vessel, the packet Swan River, lay at the Probation Station jetty, the captain was below and the crew aloft furling the sails when James and his long time friends Andrew Kelly and Richard Walton, with five others they dashed up the gangway. One stood over the companionway with a hatchet to prevent the master taking action and the others readied the ship's boat and all escaped eastward into Norfolk Bay. The story was brought to Hobart by the vessel Derwent and reported in the Saturday's edition of the Hobart Town Courier. The escapees rowed across the Bay and split into two groups on reaching the shore near the Carlton River. James and his two friends plus William Foster set off for freedom. James, Kelly and Walton had all been transported on the Elphinstone's third voyage and all had been in trouble ever since. Kelly was from Newcastle and was sentenced to seven years transportation in June 1841 when he was 12 years old. His offences were stealing money. At Pt Puer he was quite well behaved but was later sentenced to another seven years by the Supreme Court in Hobart. Walton came from Preston and for stealing a bible and money he was transported for seven years in January 1842 when he was 13 years old. Walton was a persistent offender and in 1847 had two and half years added to his original sentence. William Foster was eighteen when transported for stealing a writing desk and box. Foster also came from the north of England but was literate and may well have been the leader of the group.


On the evening of the day they escaped, September 9, they broke into a farmhouse at Whitemarsh, ‘in the Pittwater District’, whilst Bartholomew Reardon and his family were having dinner. Reardon had been born on Norfolk Island and had come to Tasmania in 1807, at one time he had been a constable at Pittwater. His wife, Elizabeth, was the local midwife and a somewhat formidable woman. The escapees were armed with three axes and a bludgeon and demanded rations 'Two menaced the family with axes' whilst the others ransacked the house. They exchanged their convict uniforms for 'Mr. Bartholomew's best attire' and according to the Courier destroyed 'nearly all the female dresses and bonnets etc.' taking a gun, a watch, a knife and three loaves of bread, tea, sugar and meat the party took off into the bush. The farmer raised the alarm and a party of seven eventually captured them nine days later in a bush hut on the banks of the Carlton River. After an all too brief period at large they found themselves in the Sorell Gaol.

The outcome of this escapade was all faced court charged with a capital crime. The escapees were moved to the Old Hobart Gaol on the corner of Murray and Macquarie St. The case was heard in the Supreme Court across Murray Street on December 6 1849 and took little time. "His Honour briefly summed up and the jury almost immediately returned a verdict of guilty against all four prisoners' reported the Courier. Death was the penalty but on December 21 the Colonial Secretary advised the Comptroller-General of Convicts that the Lt. Governor had extended mercy. Instead of the hangman the four would face transportation 'beyond the seas' and 'be kept on Norfolk Island for six years after which period of conduct of each of them to be reported'. So for the second time in his 21 year life James was sentenced to transportation to a distant island this time knowing that he could never return to England.

Norfolk Island

In the latter years of the convict period
Norfolk Island was synonymous with strict punishment and cruelty. James Harrison was still only 18 years old and despite the hardening that had been endured through much of them all that could be said about his immediate future was that is would be better than the grave.

Christmas and New Year were spent at Port Arthur until the
Lady Franklin departed for Norfolk Island at the end of February. At the end of a 21 day voyage the island basked deceptively in summer sunshine the native pines shaded the settlement but the change in climate produced no amelioration in James' mutinous spirit. The remainder of 1850 brought fifteen convictions minor irritations; 9 for disobedience, 2 for being disorderly, 1 for disrespect, 1 for swearing and 2 for 'interfering with Police'. These resulted in thirty months hard labour in chains. The New Year changed nothing, from January to August he committed another fifteen offences mainly for being disorderly, disobedient, insolent and quarrelling. The penalties amounted to ninety-two days solitary, fifteen months hard labour in chains and seventy-five lashes. On September 24 1851 he was charged with 'piratically stealing a boat, value £10, the property of the Queen'. This charge was not pursued when the prosecutors decided that the distance from shore suggested that the actions could not be construed as piracy.

During the next six months he was punished for disobedience etc with spells in solitary confinement. On 15 May 1852 he was charged with another serious offence, this time for 'robbery whilst armed with a chisel'. His conviction added another three years to his sentence, three years hard labour and three months solitary confinement in each year.

Throughout 1852 and 1853 James continued to receive additional punishment. Perhaps he kept up an unceasing refusal to bow to authority alternatively his reputation may well have ensured that his gaolers persistently looked for opportunities to demonstrate their authority. Thirteen more convictions brought a hundred days solitary confinement. James faced gaol forever and mostly doing hard labour. He had been sentenced to life imprisonment in 1849 the first six years to spent at Norfolk Island. In May 1852 he received another three years on top of the life sentence. Three months of each year to be spent in solitary. After that conviction he was sentenced to a total of 79 more days in solitary.

After 12 years in prison the flame of defiance appeared to suddenly disappear. Perhaps the long deprivation of freedom reinforced by 621 days of solitary confinement and more than nine years of hard labour in chains, finally had the intended effect. Possibly the torture of corporal punishment, 165 stripes on the breeches and 149 lashes, brought acceptance of 'the system'. The last two years and 10 months of his time on Norfolk Island were spent peacefully and without conviction.