Chained to the soil – theatrically speaking

Chained to the soil – theatrically speaking

Paper presented to the 8th Makings of a City History Conference,
Penrith, 14 March 2009

Lorraine Stacker

This year marks the 190th anniversary of the establishment of the 2000-acre Emu Plains convict farm. This paper will outline a brief history of the farm and the role it played in the history of theatre in Australia. Convicts have left a legacy in Australian society of larrikinism and who were prone to breaking as many rules as they could without getting punished. Maybe they needed all of those qualities to build a theatre in the middle of a convict farm.

Firstly I will outline the history of the farm, its superintendents and the evolution of its operation and responsibilities, before then looking at the theatre, who was part of it and how they got away with it, and finally a few biographical sketches on some of the men and women involved.

The farm operated from 11 September 1819 until 31 August 1832. Governor Lachlan Macquarie established Emu Plains to take the high number of surplus convicts in the colony. The farm also holds an important place in the history of convict administration in New South Wales with hundreds spending time there, being re-educated to farm work. Some had just arrived on transport ships, others were there for punishment, and a few remained to give service as overseers, gardeners, watchmen, butchers and clerks, and in their spare time, entertainers.

The convict farm also played an important economic role in the Nepean district, providing settlers with a local source of clearing gangs, assigned servants and a source of trade in produce and services. The farm was ideally placed to not only benefit from its agricultural richness, but also to overseer movements of convicts, settlers and stock over the mountains.

Its first superintendent was Richard Fitzgerald, an ex-convict of exceptional administrative and agricultural talent. He was well respected by the highest dignitaries especially the governors and in particular Lachlan Macquarie who called him ‘this excellent man’. Fitzgerald set up the farm and remained as its Superintendent until February 1822. Constant criticism and legal challenges by Sir John Jamison of Regentville marred his time at Emu Plains. However, Commissioner Bigge considered Emu Plains was not only successful in its original purpose, it was also one of the best places of punishment in the colony. Macquarie later commented ‘Emu Plains succeeds even beyond my most sanguine hopes’.

Lieutenant Peter Murdoch was appointed superintendent in April 1822 and remained there until December 1824. He was a Scotsman, who had arrived in the colony with his friend Sir Thomas Brisbane. Murdoch implemented changes recommended by the Bigge Report and its numbers were increased to 500 convicts. Discipline and punishment were important aspects of convict administration during this period. Although Brisbane ’s administration came under criticism for sending female convicts to Emu Plains, his purpose was based upon his desire to employ the women productively. He thought Murdoch a most moral man and an excellent administrator.

In 1823 the Sydney Gazette reported ‘The grandest sight that has ever exhibited itself in the colony, in harvest time, is the amazing field of wheat on Emu Plains. Some hundreds upon hundreds of acres all on one level; turn the eye which way you will, you have the most delightful and almost boundless prospect. We shall not fail to notice the excellent discipline of this place, and the consequent wonderful reformation…of the most abandoned of the human family’.

Murdoch left Emu Plains in December 1824. He was replaced by the Kinghorne family, father Alexander followed by his son James, superintendents from 1825 to September 1829. Alexander remained for just twelve months on the farm before his appointment as civil engineer of the colony. During his superintendence the convicts performed their first plays. Brisbane continued to be impressed by the farm for he believed it turned an ‘idle disorderly vagabond…[into] a regular industrious servant’. Emu Plains flourished under Kinghorne’s superintendence, exhibiting ‘a picture of comfort, regularity and discipline’.

James Kinghorne was appointed superintendent in February 1826. He oversaw a period of great production on the farm of wheat, maize and tobacco. The management of great numbers of government stock were also important aspects of the farms activities. In July 1826 there were 392 bushels of wheat in the granary, 4000 bushels of wheat in stacks, 6256 bushels of maize in the stores. All, stored, not for a rainy day, but a dry one – when the colony was in drought. Although under Kinghorne the farm was highly productive, it also went through one of the worst droughts in the colony’s history during 1827-1829 with Emu Plains playing an important role supporting other penal settlements.

In Ralph Rashleigh, a biography of the life of convict James Tucker who arrived on the Midas in 1827, it relates in great detail his time at Emu Plains. In it, James Kinghorne is described as ‘above the middle stature, of an exceedingly swarthy complexion, with brows of portentous gloom, and when he spoke the stern severity of his tone belied not the austerity of his looks.’ A portrait of his brother Captain William Kinghorne is nw in the National Portrait Gallery in Camberra. He also has ‘brows of portentous gloom’.

John Maxwell replaced Kinghorne in 1829. He was an astute administrator with a high sense of integrity. Maxwell had been superintendent of government stock at Bathurst and Wellington Valley. By the time of his arrival in the early 1830s, the farm had gradually changed its purpose from an agricultural farm to a stock station and he was responsible for all government stock in New South Wales. His relationship with the military stationed at Emu Plains, and especially Captain Wright, brought to an end his work for the government. The conflict and confusion of power at Emu Plains was quickly put into perspective for Maxwell when, after an investigation, he was informed point-blank that he did not have the authority over the farm nor his men, that he thought he had. He resigned in March 1831.

James Smith, superintendent of Grose Farm and Longbottom, replaced Maxwell. Smith was to overseer the disestablishment of the farm under the direction of Governor Richard Bourke. Bourke was an agent of change for he also was influential in the decision to end transportation to New South Wales. The final twelve months of the farm was tied up in deciding if and when the farm would be closed and with the scaling down and sale of the government herds. From January 1832 Smith struggled to maintain the station, even down to his lack of stationery. A full inventory was undertaken which included everything from agricultural implements to the last knife, fork, spoon and three combs. This inventory was a sad reflection of its vibrant past and a reminder of just how important it was to convict administration in New South Wales.

Soon after the farm closed, Henry White surveyed the land for a town. White followed the contours of the agricultural station, laying out the village of Emu and streets along roads and paddocks created by the farm. The area where the commissariat stood, near the river was refurbished in order to house convict road gangs.

I would like now to have a closer look at the history of the theatre and the circumstances of its demise.

Alexander Kinghorne’s superintendence marked a social change at the farm, a measure of permanency. For the first time a family lived in the superintendent’s house. However, six months later when Frenchman Hyacinthe de Bougainville visited, he commented that Kinghorne’s daughters ‘must be fed up to the teeth with Emu Plains’.

Alexander, a considerate and compassionate administrator was a Scot from Galashiels in Tweeddale. He had been an agriculturist and civil engineer for over twenty years before arriving in 1824 with his adult children of two sons and three daughters. Other sons, one remained in Scotland, William, was in the Royal Navy, and James had arrived earlier. Sometime during his early superintendence, Alexander was approached by a number of convicts, including James King, and Thomas and Elizabeth Rose, requesting permission to construct a theatre for the performance of plays. Alexander, and perhaps with a little prompting by his daughters, approved their request. Many convicts were stationed at Emu Plains for at least two years, long enough to build a theatre, have the plays approved and rehearse and perform them.

The Australian newspaper reported that the first performances were held on 16 May 1825 stating:

‘It appears that there is a great variety of pleasure and entertainment in the Bush than the Sydney residents dream of. The good people at Emu Plains contrive to amuse themselves in a way that deserves at least imitation’

The Sydney newspapers lost no time in recognising the irony that a prison farm thirty-five miles from Sydney had an entertaining theatre that ‘leave us of the Town far behind in the powers of invention, and in the art of pleasing. They have got their theatre-their decorations-their actors’. They went on the say that if they hoped to get the same in Sydney ‘we have indeed no hopes of any such thing’. The plays included Barissa or the Hermit Robber, The Farce of the Mock Doctor or the Dumb Lady Cur’d and the audience favourite Bombastes Furioso.

Bombastes Furioso was written in 1810 by William Rhodes. The first authorized printed edition was published in England in 1822. It is a drama with comic songs, satirizing the bombastic style of other tragedies that were in fashion at the time. And it made its way to this small pocket of the Empire, how? – by convicts or colonists. Maybe, Sir John Jamison. The repertoire at Emu Plains reveals a cultural shift under way in England at the time from romantic melodramas. It was also associated with the emergence of popular theatre.

In July, there were further performances of Bombastes Furioso and The Lying Valet. At this performance, local dignitaries honoured the performers by their presence. They included the superintendent, two of his daughters and son, the Blaxlands, George Cox and his wife, Henry Cox, John and Sarah McHenry, and of course Sir John Jamison and his son. Jamison, in his usual pomp, delighted everyone by donating a ten-pound note to the performers. I wonder where that was spent, or did some thrifty convict put it in their bank account.

Again the tone of this Sydney Gazette article was the same as The Australian newspaper, two months earlier – utter amazement that a theatre was condoned, that it had such dignitaries patronizing it. It appeared to be more a political stunt on the part of these families, considering their history with each successive governor. The reporter, ‘A Lover of Rationale Pleasures’ also stated ‘I know some stern moralists will object to all this’.

In August 1825, Frenchman Hyacinthe de Bougainville, an officer in the French Navy visited New South Wales. While visiting Emu Plains he was honoured with a theatrical performance. The plays were The Lying Valet, The Village Doctor, and Bombastes Furioso. He stated that the theatre had caused quite a stir in the colony with divergent newspaper reports compelling him to contend that it was ‘Much ado about nothing’.

Performances were held at least between 1825 and 1830 although Professor Robert Jordan argues there is strong evidence to suggest earlier performances were held from about 1822. Convict, James Lawrence stated he had played and sang before Governor Brisbane at Emu Plains.

Performances are also described in Ralph Rashleigh. From my study of the Emu Plains farm, I found that although Rashleigh held a fair amount of truth within his words, he was very liberal with dates and the names of people. Old Tom Row was Thomas Rose, David Muffin was David Miffen, but he left the farm three years before Rashleigh arrived. Rashleigh’s criticism of Emu Plains arose from his punishment at the hands of convict overseers who he saw as oppressive crawlers. Rashleigh named a convict, Jemmy King, as the manager, architect, carpenter, scene designer and actor in the theatre. Jemmy King was probably James King who had arrived on the General Stuart in 1818. With the help of fellow convicts, King constructed a bark hut theatre and within months had a repertoire from which the superintendent could choose. A remarkable achievement as James King’s indent recorded he could neither read nor write. After leaving Emu Plains and obtaining a Ticket of Leave, King reoffended and was sent to Norfolk Island where he was involved in theatrical performances there.

Governor Darling frowned upon theatre as entertainment, reasoning that it encouraged the congregation of the convict classes, especially in Sydney. Barnett Levey caused the ire of the governor when he proceeded, against his wishes, to build the Royal Hotel in Sydney, enabling theatrical performances. Adding to Darling’s displeasure of the theatre at Emu Plains were the revelations made by James Jones, one of the farm’s overseers, in July 1829, that the actors received preferential treatment and that they used government property and supplies for their performances. Jones claimed that

‘Govt paper is given daily to the players for writing their plays and songs … I am witness daily of paint turpentine and writing paper used in the camp by the players.’

By 1830 there were about sixty convicts stationed at Emu Plains with about a third of them involved with the theatre in some way. Many were encouraged by financial rewards, especially when an overflowing crowd attended. A very informative article in the Sydney Gazette on 10 July provides us with a local perspective of the lifestyle of the respectable families on the Nepean and their lack of bias when it came to their pleasures. On Monday, a party of nearly thirty gathered at the home of George Cox to celebrate his wedding, they attended a ball, Wednesday they went to Jamison’s home at Regentville for the day, Thursday they spent at Henry Cox’s, Friday ‘they went a-gipsying, or as it is called in this country, to a pic-nic, on the north and south road running between Argyle and Richmond’ – fifty-three people by now, eight carriages ‘were seen glittering through the bush’, Saturday – a trip to Emu Plains to see Rob Roy and John Bull – the audience exceeding 200 people (I know how those actors felt – 200 people are in this room) – the theatre was spoken of in the highest terms.

Finally by the end of 1830, Darling wrote to superintendent Maxwell ordering the performances to cease and the convicts involved re-assigned. When Maxwell reported that he had trouble ‘with two very mischievous clerks’, William Watt and John Mathews, who were also active in the theatre, Darling’s decision was made easy. Furthermore, complaints over the years from disgruntled convicts about the theatre and its players helped make the decision. At one point a convict was thought to have absconded, but had in fact hidden in the theatre, suggesting the structure was of a permanent nature and of considerable size.

Maxwell delayed the dispersal of four theatre players – Watt, Mathews, Northall and Toogood – because he needed their services. Watt was his clerk, Mathews the principal overseer, Northall the prisoner’s surgeon and overseer of the invalids and lunatics, and Toogood was Maxwell’s personal servant. Although Watt was considered an instigator of much of the trouble at the farm, Maxwell considered his work to be exceptional and not easily replaced. At the end of 1830 the theatre closed. This particular performance did not go ahead and may have been a prank to needle the government, well, Governor Darling at least.

I will now provide you with a few short biographies to give you a fuller appreciation of the lives of those convicts involved with the theatre at Emu Plains.

Thomas Rose. Watchman and Camp Overseer 1822–30: was a labourer from Gloucester who arrived on the Recovery in 1819. In June 1822 he was appointed watchman at Emu Plains, a position he held for eight years, being accused several times of corrupt practices and on each occasion being defended by his superiors. He married convict Elizabeth Brooks in January 1824. She had arrived on the Mary Ann in 1822 and was sent to Emu Plains to do light field work. Rose and his wife Elizabeth were two of the most amusing characters to have lived on the farm. Ralph Rashleigh, who Rose called a ‘dom’d [damned] quill driver’, described ‘Old Tom Row’ and his wife ‘Mother Row’ in amusing terms. Rose helped with the theatre and Elizabeth with the costumes. In February 1828, William Marsh complained about the conduct of Rose and another overseer Thomas Rawsthorne. Superintendent Kinghorne supported both men and denied any knowledge of their alleged drinking and neglect of duty. Overseer convict James Jones also complained about Rose’s conduct as watchman, ‘although he don’t do any watch’. Furthermore, Jones said ‘if the Govt stores was on fire he could not hobble faster than a mile an hour for he is crippled’. Jones continued stating Rose ‘and his wife are drunk day and night quarreling and fighting a nuisance to the camp all of which the supt is perfectly acquainted with’ and Rose ‘got a wife free by servitude, a woman of the most abandoned character fighting with her husband perpetually drinking and running away from him—repeatedly, which he leaves himself the camp and likewise sends men in search of her at unreasonable hours of the night’. Rose, described as an ‘honest and attentive person’ by his superiors, left Emu Plains in early October 1830. He was a Mounted Policeman when he died in 1851 at Longbottom, aged 73 years old.

John Mathews, Principal Overseer, 1829–31: arrived on the Albion in February 1827 with a 14 year sentence. He was a shopboy and clerk from London. In his letter of complaint in July 1829, James Jones stated Mathews was ‘a boy not 20 years of age … This Mathews is closely connected to Rose’. Mathews also became friends with William Watt sharing the clerk duties at the farm. For several years Mathews was part of the convict theatrical group. Captain Wright, superintendent of police at Penrith called Mathews ‘a little effeminate creature who played the part of a woman at the Theatre’. In their appointed positions, Mathews and Watt were abused and targeted by the police. In a letter to Maxwell in February 1831, Mathews stated ‘yesterday, Captain Wright galloped furiously into the Prisoners Camp—abused me—calling me “puppy”, “vagabond”, “convict”, “tell-tale bloody scoundrel” shaking his cane in my face’. Mathews proved to be a faithful, but at times troublesome servant to Maxwell. He was assigned to the Alexander Berry in the Illawarra district and in August 1832 received a Ticket of Leave. Later, he became a successful commercial agent in Sydney.

John Northall, Overseer of the Lunatics 1829–31: John Northall arrived on the Surrey in 1814 with a Life sentence. He was first assigned to John Best, a settler in the Evan (Penrith) district, where he remained for three years and was then transferred to another Evan district settler, Pierce Collitts remaining with him for about three years. In 1819, Northall received a Ticket of Leave until his conviction in May 1820 for ‘riotous and disorderly conduct in the streets of Sydney at a late hour’. In 1826, Northall was sent to Emu Plains. He was first employed in the Hospital as medical attendant and later in June 1829 as overseer of the invalids and idiots. Northall unsuccessfully applied for a Ticket of Leave in 1830, remaining at Emu Plains until 1831. He was one of the theatrical performers and when the theatre was disbanded he was among a group of men requested by Maxwell to be retained at the station. However, after July 1831 his position was discontinued. In 1839, he received a Conditional Pardon and died at Parramatta in 1881.

William Watt. Clerk 1830–1: William Angus Watt, a Scot arrived on the Marquis of Hastings in October 1828. He was a 22 year old, a banker’s clerk who was sentenced in London to 14 years Transportation for embezzlement. Upon arrival Watt was classified as an ‘educated convict’ and was sent to Wellington Valley . In June 1829, he unwisely wrote a letter to the Sydney Monitor complaining of his treatment as an educated convict . In his letter he pointed out that the ‘educated’ prisoners stationed at Wellington Valley were not ‘accustomed to hardship’ and because they were banished to Wellington Valley they were ‘precluded from all chance of redeeming themselves’. Furthermore, Watt wrote that the men had to work in the heat of the day, do hard work with ‘the common labourer’ and cook their own food and wash their own clothes. In December 1829, he was sent to Emu Plains. Although his work as clerk was excellent, he again exasperated Maxwell by his involvement in the convict theatre and his mischievous conduct towards the military. In March 1831 Watt, was transferred from Emu Plains to Hyde Park Barracks. He worked as a clerk on the prison hulk Phoenix and later the Colonial Secretary’s Office. In 1833, he was working for the Sydney Gazette, run by Ann Howe, the founder’s widow. By the end of the year he had been poached by Hall of the Sydney Monitor, working there only a few months before returning to the Sydney Gazette. In September 1835, Watt’s Ticket of Leave was changed to Port Macquarie. Ann Howe followed him there and they were married on 9 February 1836. Ann had leased 5000 acres on the north side of the Macleay River naming it Watts Plains. In July 1836 the Police at Port Macquarie reported that Watt had tried to commit suicide and then absconded. His family believed him to be lost in the bush. A few months later he was found in bed at his wife’s station ‘in a state of stupor from the effects of laudanum or opium’. Watt drowned in the Hastings River while on his way back to the Macleay River. After Watt’s death Ann married former Emu Plains convict clerk, Thomas Armitage Salmon in 1840. They lived in Penrith and operated the Rose Inn.

Well, thank you for listening to my tales about the Emu Plains convict farm and its cultural contribution to our City’s history.

For more information see:

  • Australian digitised newspapers –
  • Jordan, Robert The Convict Theatres of early Australia 1788-1840 (2002)
  • Riviere, M. C. (ed.) The Governor’s Noble Guest: Hyacinthe de Bougainville’s Account of Port Jackson, 1825 (1999)
  • Stacker, LorraineChained to the Soil on the Plains of Emu: A History of the EmuPlains Government Agricultural Establishment 1819-1832 (2000)
  • State Records of New South Wales
  • Tucker, James Ralph Rashleigh (1953)

Lorraine Stacker
Information Librarian
Penrith City