Charles Dolphus

Stableboy, thief, escapee, antihero
Arrived 1836 on Lady Kennaway
The dense bush and the wide open sea were the convict’s prison walls, and escaping into either was not an easy option. But driven by the brutality of convict life and the will for liberty, plenty of convicts tried it, and some succeeded – including one-time Hyde Park Barracks convict Charles Dolphus.

Northern Ireland-born1 Charles Dolphus seems to have been a wayward, independent character, who had been abandoned by his parents at an early age in London. As a teenager, living in Manchester, he found work as a stableboy, but thievery was the thing that really occupied him. In 1832 this hobby earned him four months’ imprisonment, and four more in 1833. In 1835 he was caught breaking into a house to commit burglary, and was tried at the Lancaster Quarter Sessions on 7 December, this time sentenced to 14 years’ transportation ‘beyond the seas’.

Charles Dolphus … hath at this Session been convicted of felony … [and] shall be sent and TRANSPORTED to some part beyond the seas for the space of fourteen Years …

Lancashire Quarter Sessions Order Books, 1835

After a month in the Justitia hulk at Woolwich, Dolphus boarded the Lady Kennaway, sailing for New South Wales on 2 June 1835. Now 18 years old, with a dark complexion, brown hair and brown eyes, Dolphus had already got himself into a few scrapes – he had a perpendicular scar in the centre of his forehead, and a large burn on his hand. He had also inked himself with various tattoos, including a woman, an anchor and his initials, ‘C D’, on the inside of his lower right arm, and rings on two fingers of his right hand.

After a four-month voyage, the ship arrived in Sydney on 12 October 1836, and the convicts gave three cheers, relieved that they had escaped the dangers of the sea. Landing all 298 convicts took several hours in small boats, being rowed between the ship and Farm Cove, and Dolphus finally set foot on land at about 10am. He and his shipmates were marched uphill through the vast Governor’s Domain, which they might have thought quite a lush paradise with its tall eucalyptus trees and grassy slopes, to the Prisoners’ Barracks. Separated from the ‘old hands’, Dolphus and the other newcomers slept in a special ward, waking in the morning to the barracks hominy, which he found ‘very bad in taste, but improves by use and hunger’. After five days, Dolphus and the others were marched off to laborious government work, pulling a cart under the burning sun, on the road leading to South Head.

Mustered by a man on horseback one morning in the barracks yard, Dolphus and the other convicts were lined up in two rows, as the gentlemen of the colony passed up and down looking for servants. It must have been an anxious moment for the convicts, not knowing where this game of chance would lead them. When Dolphus’s name was called, he stepped forward, carrying his rolled-up mattress on his shoulders, and followed a man to meet his new master at the bottom of George Street. He considered himself fortunate to have the position of gentleman’s servant, knowing that thousands of prisoners were working in chains in road gangs, or at best for mean tyrants.

When his employer left the colony, however, Dolphus was moved to a road stockade, where he experienced the harsh reality of convict life. Rising each morning at 5am, he worked in chains under the punishing sun. But he was still just 20 years old, and his youthful energy and optimism drove him to make several attempts to flee the colony. One of those attempts took Dolphus back to the barracks, for a flogging. As he was marched through the gates, he heard a man call out, ‘Flogger stand by’. Strapped to the triangle, Dolphus heard the barracks constables counting the lashes – ‘one, two, three, four …’ – each time the whip cut into the flesh on his back. Nearby there was a bucket of water, which they would throw over the suffering convict if he fainted.

One lucky night in 1840, Dolphus absconded into bush, and spotted an American whaling ship, on which he stowed away. On landing in Fiji, he broke off his leg-irons, and after some months eventually got on board another ship, bound for England, by pretending to be a sailor named James King. Miraculously, he made his way back to Manchester, but was quickly recognised, captured and tried. This time he was to be banished to the colony for life. But after a tearful rendition of his heart-rending tale of convictism and escape, he begged to be hanged rather than returned to New South Wales.

Oh, my Lord, do not, I pray, send me again to Botany Bay ...

Charles Adolphus King, 1840

Dolphus’s account of convict life earned widespread public support and his sentence was reduced to four years in a London penitentiary. Once freed, under the pseudonym Charles Adolphus King he gave entertaining public lectures on the horrors of transportation and convict life, even appearing in convict uniform and leg-irons.

In 1850 Dolphus published his story – a well-crafted work of considerable literary skill. Perhaps his stories were penned by a more experienced writer, or maybe there was more to this stableboy-turned-burglar than met the eye.

  • 1. Dolphus’s convict indent notes his native place as ‘Newen’, Ireland (possibly Newry, near Belfast).
An excerpt from ‘The Suffering of Charles Adolphus King’
Lyrics adapted from a poem written by Charles Adolphus King in 1840, and music by Dave Moran of The Halliard, 2006. Voice Scott Cummings. Recorded at Hyde Park Barracks Museum, 2013.