2003 Conference – James McCarthy

The Makings of a City History Conference: Bicentenary of European Settlement, Penrith 29 March 2003

Will the real James McCarthy please stand up!

Presented by Danielle Embleton, Research Librarian, Penrith City Library

As a librarian at Penrith City Library in the Research Services section, the main focus of my job is that of local and family history. When we receive enquiries from people researching their family history we use the resources available to us in the Research Room to try and answer any questions they may have and generally provide further information to assist them.

I would like to begin by explaining that I am not a descendent of James McCarthy, nor am I related to him in any way. Like most of you here today, I have an interest in my own family history and have been researching my ancestors for a few years now. That research has provided me with convicts, soldiers, Irish immigrants, shipbuilders and sailors, and even a bigamist to contend with. So why would I start researching someone who wasn’t ‘mine” and who had apparently been researched quite extensively. The answer might possibly be that I just didn’t know how to quit while I was ahead.

From the time I started at the library, I’ve known the story of James McCarthy to be as follows. That James McCarthy is believed to be the first farmer in the area, arriving in 1793 on the Boddingtons as a convict. He was first sent to the Toongabbie Government farm. In 1796 he was convicted of forgery and sentenced to be hanged, until the Reverend Richard Johnson pleaded his case and his life was spared. He was sent to Norfolk Island for the remainder of his seven year sentence. By 1802 he was back in the colony farming and in August 1804 he received a land grant of 100 acres from Governor King. He named his property Crane Brook Farm.

My journey of James McCarthy began a little over a year ago, in January 2002. A researcher of the McCarthy family had come across some information on one of our websites and as a result emailed Research Services. The researcher’s husband was a great great great great grandson of James McCarthy and very interested in any information concerning the family. She was unaware of the 1796 conviction of forgery and the sentence at Norfolk Island. They understood that around this period in time James was travelling to Sydney to pick up Irish labour, though this had not been verified. The researcher asked if we had access to the McCarthy Cemetery records and if there were any other books or publications on the McCarthy family that we could recommend.

I dutifully replied, citing the various sources of information and what knowledge we had of James McCarthy’s early life in the colony. A second email followed, the researcher thanking me for the information as well as answering some questions I had asked of her in regard to some publications she had mentioned. And in the middle of that email was a sentence that was to be my downfall. That sentence was “But I wasn’t aware that his original conviction was also for forgery”.

This comment spurred me on to look at the information we had more closely. And it was at this point that I noticed some discrepancies. How could a convict, who was given a second sentence of seven years and sent to Norfolk Island in order to serve it, turn up two and a half years later to receive a grant and be living in the Evan district. To put it simply, I don’t believe he can. The story of James McCarthy as we know it, appears to be the tale of two men that has become woven together.

When I began to sift through the information that could be related specifically to James McCarthy of the Boddingtons I found that he didn’t appear to go to Norfolk Island at all. Our James McCarthy was on trial in Antrim Ireland in August 1792. He was found guilty of his crime and sentenced to 7 years transportation. His age is given as 20 years. On the 15 February 1793 he sailed from Cork onboard the Boddingtons. The ship arrived in the colony 173 days later on the 7 August 1793.

In the King’s Lists of 1801 James McCarty is listed as living on a grant of 30 acres granted under Grose in November 1794. Confusion has arose from researchers thinking that this referred to a grant given to James McCarthy, when in actual fact he was simply renting this grant from someone else. Family legend has it that James McCarthy was given a 30 acre grant in 1799 which was later changed into the 100 acre grant awarded in 1804. However, there appears to be no evidence to substantiate this, and it is more likely to be the grant of Denis McCarty who was awarded 30 acres in 1799 at Mulgrave Place in the Hawkesbury district.

The next mention of James McCarthy is in the 1802 Muster. He was renting land at Mulgrave Place and had 16 acres cleared, 9 in wheat and had one horse and 8 hogs. Of the grain in hand 9 was in wheat and 30 in maize. Living with him was a woman and child, along with one government servant. According to information that accompanied the muster, this information was collected in the middle of 1802.

April 1802 James McCarthy is on a register of arms belonging to individuals in His Majesty’s Colony of NSW. He is listed as having one gun and living in the Hawkesbury District. On the 11 August 1804 he is given a 100 acre land grant that became Crane Brook Farm.

So what didn’t add up about the story of him going to Norfolk Island. Well, apart from the physical logistics of a man, sent to Norfolk Island with a second 7 year sentence, being back at Mulgrave Place only a few short years later, when you follow the trail of the James McCarthy who went to Norfolk Island, you discover that he never left Norfolk Island. He died there on the 9 July 1803.

I’m not sure when the lives of these two men began to blur. The Norfolk Island James McCarthy is listed as being of the Boddingtons in Raymond Nobbs book “Norfolk Island and its first Settlement: 1788-1814”. I haven’t yet been able to determine why his ship is listed as the Boddingtons. His story begins in 1796 when he and three other accomplices passed a forged note at Mr Hogan’s store. The trial is delayed until April as James McCarthy broke out of the cells and remained for some weeks in the Hawkesbury district. At his trial on the 29 April, two of the men, Farr and Dyer were not put on trial and Wood was found not guilty. James McCarthy on the other hand was found guilty and sentenced to death. The Governor was determined that an example would be made of him and ordered him to be executed and on the 13 May he ordered the Corps to parade for an execution the following day. However, he countermanded his order after a request by Mr Johnson the clergyman who attended the prisoner, to spare the life of James McCarthy. He was accordingly pardoned on the condition that he serve 7 years hard labour on Norfolk Island. In September the ships Reliance & Supply sail for Norfolk Island. David Collins writes in the accompanying letter dated 20 September 1796 that “James McCarthy is also sent; he was tried for and found guilty of forgery, but his life has been spared, on condition of his serving 7 years at Norfolk Island”.

After searching the papers relating to his 1796 trial, as well as reading the letter written in September sent on the ship that took him to Norfolk Island, there is no mention of him being a convict either formerly or at the time of his trial – he is simply referred to as a Labourer. Nor is the ship he arrived on in the colony listed.

There does not appear to be any conclusive evidence that the James McCarthy who committed the act of forgery and was sent to Norfolk Island and the James McCarthy of Cranebrook are one and the same.

The problem lies in researchers accepting the findings of others and family lore which is passed down over the years from generation to generation being regarded as the truth. This is not to say that the family are fabricating or stretching the truth. From personal experience with my own family, the distortion of the truth can be traced to someone wholly unconnected to the family who presented a lie as fact. One hundred years later the truth was finally uncovered through researching the original documents.

And this is where it becomes important for all family historians to question everything they come across and to try and source the original documents. Because this is where the truth lies. And documents must be taken for what they are. The 1796 trial of James McCarthy for forgery is exactly what it is. A trial of a man named James McCarthy. Who he was or how he came to be in the colony is not mentioned. Only his crime and resultant punishment. The documents show that in September 1796 he sailed for Norfolk Island, was still there in 1802 and died in 1803. I’m not saying for one moment that all original documents are accurate and truthful. Human error being what it is will ensure that mistakes will occur. But that does not mean we should compound the mistakes of others.

In saying all of this, I am not denying for one moment who James McCarthy was. I simply dispute two items that have taken on the appearance of fact. That he was transported to the colony for the crime of forgery and that he was sent to Norfolk Island for a second crime, also of forgery. Who James McCarthy was remains the same and is fairly well documented after 1801. A devout Catholic and a staunch supporter of the faith in the early stages of the colony. A shrewd farmer and businessman, who amassed land and made farming profitable. A caring father and grandfather who saw this his children were educated and his grandchildren provided for. A convict, transported to the other side of the world, who served his sentence and went on to become a well respected member of the community.

So our James McCarthy…..why was he transported to Australia? The records which would have told us of his crime have sadly been destroyed. The ship he sailed on, the Boddingtons, carried a large proportion of men from Ulster, a province much disturbed by agrarian rivalries of the Defenders and the Peep-of-Day Boys, and many of the men had been given life sentences. The documentation of the convicts was very poor and the conviction list did not accompany the Boddingtons. Governor Hunter complained that the manner in which the convicts were sent out from Ireland, “is so extremely careless and irregular that it must be felt by these people as a particular hardship, and by government as a great inconvenience. Every ship from that country (meaning Ireland), have omitted to bring any account of the conviction or terms of transportation of those people they bring out”.

A small article that appeared in the August 1792 Belfast Newsletter told of two men by the name of Corr, who along with two others who assisted them in keeping the forceable possession in Lord Hertford’s estate, near Moira. The Belfast First Volunteer Company marched at the requisition of the Sheriff of the County and captured the four offenders. They were found guilty and sentenced to be transported for seven years. I’ve been unable to discover who the other two men were. There were nine men on the Boddingtons who were tried at Antrim in August 1792, two of whom were John and Patrick Corr. So there is a one in seven chance that this was James McCarthy’s crime, but we will never know for sure.

And as for what happened to him after his arrival in 1793, it would appear that nothing remarkable or notable occurred in life, certainly nothing that the government felt compelled to record. He appears to have simply gotten on with things and tried to make a success of his life in his new home.

At times I’ve been quite desperate in my search. Neither of my McCarthy’s could read or write and at one stage I found myself comparing the X signed on the trial documents to the X signed on James McCarthy’s will to see if they were the same. It was at that point I realised I would have to accept that I was dealing with the history of two separate men.

At the time I wrote up my research findings I thought that my obsession with James McCarthy had finally reached its conclusion. However, a paper presented by Carol Liston earlier today has raised some questions in my mind as to why James McCarthy was given a land grant along with men and women who were predominantly free settlers or a recently discharged solider. The search never really ends.


The Makings of a City History Conference, Penrith 29 March 2003