The ‘Humble Petition’ of convict John Rush

 

Celebrated actor Geoffrey Rush is one of the growing number of Australians to claim a convict ancestor who passed through Hyde Park Barracks.

His story was featured in an episode of ‘Who do you think you are?’ on SBS television in August 2015. 

John Rush arrived in Sydney on the second voyage of the transport ship Isabella (2) in March 1822. This stout Irish labourer from County Roscommon, of 5 foot 7 ½ inches, with hazel coloured eyes and light brown hair, had previously been charged for other offences, but it was theft of cash that saw him transported with a seven year sentence to New South Wales1.

On arriving in Sydney, Rush was immediately forwarded to Minto, where the magistrate assigned him to labour in a road building gang2. In January the following year he was assigned to work for John Cobcroft in Wilberforce3, and then for Archibald Bell. Seeing that his master Bell was misusing five government convicts for private use, Rush spoke out, but for his efforts, soon found himself removed to the secondary penal settlement of Port Macquarie for three years4.

After being returned to Sydney in 1827, and while accommodated at Hyde Park Barracks, Rush sought to challenge the injustice he had suffered.

As was common practice for Barracks convicts who hoped to have their sentences reduced, Rush had a petition written to the Colonial Secretary, Alexander Macleay5.  It is unlikely that Rush was able to write the letter himself, which was probably penned in exchange for a small fee, by one of the convict clerks working at the Barracks.

Section of handwritten letter on paper.

Petition of John Rush to Colonial Secretary Alexander Macleay [detail], 24 August 1827, Colonial Secretary’s Correspondence, State Records NSW 4/1955, Item 27/10819.

In his ‘Humble Petition’, Rush explained his situation and pleaded his innocence, begging for a ticket of leave ‘or such Indulgence as your Honour thinks proper’.

He also described how he had endured 25 lashes of the cat o’ nine tails at Hyde Park Barracks, as punishment for loitering in the street and being away from work. Rush claimed that this had resulted from a ‘man Giving Down his name Wrong at Lumberyard’, and that he was the victim of mistaken identity.

Curiously, Rush was recorded as aged 47 when he arrived in Sydney in 1822, but in his petition, only five years later, he reassured the Colonial Secretary that he was ‘a man of advanced aged of 58’, perhaps hoping to provide further support for his plea for leniency.

 

 

  • 1. Convict indent for John Rush, SRNSW Colonial Secretary; Series NRS 1156, Item X40, Indents to convict vessels from Ireland 1822-1840, Reel 2749-2750.
  • 2. Colonial Secretary’s correspondence, John Rush on list of convicts landed from the ‘Isabella’ and forwarded to Minto for distribution, 14 March 1822, SRNSW 4/3505, reel 6009, p12.
  • 3. Colonial Secretary’s correspondence, John Rush on list of prisoners assigned, to John Cobcroft, Wilberforce, 25 January 1823, 4/4570D, Fiche 3291, p105.
  • 4. Colonial Secretary’s correspondence, Petition of John Rush to Alexander Macleay, Colonial Secretary, 24 August 1827, SRNSW 4/1955, item 27/10819.
  • 5. Ibid.

About the Author

Fiona seated in hammock in Hyde Park Barracks.
Dr Fiona Starr
Curator
The Mint and Hyde Park Barracks Museum
Fiona claims her love of Australian history, genealogy and world history is hereditary – passed on by her mother and grandmother.

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