John Connor

Embezzler, hero, superintendent
Arrived 1815 on Francis & Eliza
It was a dramatic turn of events that saw 28-year-old Irishman John Connor, once condemned to death, rise to the role of Superintendent of the Prisoners’ Barracks at Hyde Park in 1821. Connor probably couldn’t believe his luck, but such opportunities were not uncommon under Governor Lachlan Macquarie, friend to the emancipist.

As a young messenger at the General Post Office in Dublin, John Connor made a habit of pocketing cash from the letters he handled. Once, he even removed a comb encrusted with Irish diamonds from a package, but his trunk was cracked open one fateful day in 1814 revealing £1300 worth of stolen booty. Connor was tried for ten cases of embezzlement, and sentenced to death. But as his Irish luck would have it, the sentence was reduced to transportation for life.

In late 1814 the transport ship Francis & Eliza docked at Cork harbour to collect her cargo of 54 male and 69 female Irish convicts, including John Connor. She set sail on 5 December, but not long out of port, the ship was attacked by an American privateer ship named Warrior. Stripped of its rigging, stores, charts, arms, medicine and food, the ship was set alight and then abandoned by the Americans. In a state of revolt, and having plundered the ship’s supply of liquor, the convicts and mutinous crew and soldiers sailed the ship to Tenerife. This is when John Connor stepped up and showed his true colours – enlisting the aid of a few fellow prisoners, he held back the other convicts until another ship arrived and a detachment of the Royal African Corps came on board to restore order.

Francis & Eliza sailed into Port Jackson in early August 1815, but Connor’s heroism was not rewarded immediately. Convicted again in February 1817, for a colonial crime, Connor was removed to Newcastle penal settlement. In January 1819 he received a conditional pardon, making him a free man, and by February 1821 he was granted an absolute pardon – he was now free to leave the colony.

But he stayed, and just as well, because this proved to be a bumper year for Connor. In September he was hand-picked by Governor Macquarie for the position of Superintendent of the Prisoners’ Barracks at Hyde Park, to be paid a salary of £75 per year! The Governor needed someone he could trust in the role, and Connor came well recommended from the Colonial Secretary, who employed Connor as a clerk in his office. In December he married his sweetheart, Margaret Murphy, and she moved into his quarters in the loft of the northern building of the barracks compound, which they shared with their pet dog. Connor was allowed a ration of 10½ pounds of meat and the same of flour, but that was convict food. Instead, he preferred to take 7 shillings, 6 pence each week in cash, and took an allowance of candles and coal for his fire. In the winter of 1825, Margaret, now pregnant, was confined to the loft, and Connor requested to have convict Margaret Bryan, a 19-year-old Londoner, assigned to him, to assist his wife. But in January 1826 Bryan went missing, and by July Connor had her dismissed for improper conduct – for ‘exhibiting’ herself. She was sent off to the Female Factory.

Getting on with business, Connor received and accommodated all the convicts sent to his barracks from different penal authorities around the colony. He made sure they were mustered at sunrise and sent off to work, mustered again at sunset, and secured into their wards at night. And the paperwork never ended – he wrote daily, weekly and monthly, reports to the Colonial Secretary, Engineer, Commissary General and Principal Superintendent of Convicts, listing the men under his charge and their behaviour. Connor was fair and generally well respected by the convicts, but he must have made himself unpopular in 1822 when he requested a reduction of the flour ration, reporting on the amount of bread the prisoners were leaving around the barracks rooms and yard.

In 1827, after six years as Superintendent, Connor retired from his post. We don’t know why – perhaps it was the investigation into his involvement in a transaction with a sergeant in the NSW Corps, a butcher called Mr Fopp, regarding 2000 pounds of beef costing £37 10s. The upstanding Connor was cleared of all accusations – but who knows? Maybe his old habits had caught up with him.

... the Government will lose the services of a zealous and truly upright officer … the prisoners of the crown who are placed in this establishment, will soon find they have lost an individual to whose judicious method of discipline, they will ever be indebted ...

The Monitor, 30 March 1827