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June 2013


In the last Generation, mention was made of convict John Knatchbull and his involvement in the 1834 attempted mutiny at Norfolk Island. Ten years later, in 1844, this same gentleman was hanged for murdering Mrs Jamieson, a Sydney shop owner.  

I became interested in Mr Knatchbull (transported with the alias of John Fitch) when indexing names of prisoners held on the hulk Phoenix in Sydney harbour. The hulk was used as an extension of the old Sydney Gaol which was situated in the Rocks area – before Darlinghurst Gaol was operational. While on the hulk, Mr Knatchbull wrote a letter complaining about conditions on board. It was a well written letter by an obviously well-educated man, and the Superintendent of the Hulk no doubt regretted giving the man pen and paper. Who was this man who had the audacity to complain about the hulk and its Superintendent? Another microfilm I was indexing contained depositions of those involved in the Norfolk incident – and there was Mr Knatchbull (also known as John Fitch or Fitz) once again! 

Over the ensuing years, Mr Knatchbull seems to have been walking in my shadow, tapping me occasionally on the shoulder and pointing me in the direction of more information to be found on his life. In January, at the Lifeline Bookfest, I purchased “The Oxford History of Australia: Possessions 1770-1860” by Dr Jan Kociumbas. The index directed me to page 276. I was not expecting to find reference to my friend in an account on craniometry and phrenology! The author was describing how the colony was not a ‘scientific backwater’ and how evolving theories in Europe were readily being discussed and debated.

One such theory was that the shape of the skull could indicate a level of intelligence. I was surprised to learn that since early colonisation there had been such an interest in skulls! There was debate about the physical differences between the mainland and the Tasmanian aboriginal people and whether their origins were different. As early as 1822 Judge Barron Field was studying the skulls, habits and languages of the aborigines concluding that they were inferior and incapable of being civilized. In 1827, pastoralist Peter Cunningham suggested they were the ‘connecting link between man and the monkey tribe’. Dr Wallace, in 1838, was vocal in his belief that aboriginal skulls resembled those of monkeys. The theories of Charles Darwin led to debates on the theories of understanding mental phenomena. Because Europeans had bigger heads, the assumption was that their brains were more efficient than those of races classed as being uncivilised because they were further down the ‘evolutionary scale’. 

During the 1830s there was also great interest in phrenology. Studying the bumps on the skull was said to reveal mental ability and emotional capability. Henry Melville, a philosopher in Van Diemen’s Land stated in 1834, “I have no doubt but that, if children’s heads were carefully examined, and their organs studied, their propensities might be very materially guided as the teacher pleased.” In 1836, lectures in Sydney by phrenologists included a display of sixty “phrenological busts”. Both phrenology and craniometry specialists in the colony studied skulls of criminals and natives for comparisons with those of educated Europeans. 

So where does John Knatchbull fit into such studies? A cast of his head was made after he was hanged! It was supposedly for scientific purposes. There was a great deal of interest in his trial and execution – and the cast was reproduced as a wood-cut and offered for sale! Apparently the rope marks on his neck were clearly visible. Because Mr Knatchbull was of upper-class origins but had leanings towards ‘savage ways’ his skull was of particular interest. 

In March, while in Penrith for a Family History Fair, Mr Knatchbull tapped me on the shoulder again. On one stall was an old book by Colin Roderick – “John Knatchbull: From Quarterdeck to Gallows: Narrative and Retrospect”. It was published in 1963. Was Mr Knatchbull the brutal murderer history books had portrayed him to be? Was he ‘morally insane’ as was suggested at his trial? Did he have a psychopathic personality or some other personality disorder? His counsel at the trial was well versed in the craniometry theories. 

Roderick presents a great deal of evidence to suggest that Mr Knatchbull had a personality defect which was greatly exacerbated by his treatment in the colony. My friend wrote his life story while in his condemned cell awaiting his fate. Roderick has examined his writings and has been able to prove that there were fictitious elements - but that there was the strong possibility that Mr Knatchbull, by that stage, after all that he had been through, was unable to separate fact from fiction. Details about his exploits during the Napoleonic Wars portray him as a young, competent, swashbuckling hero – always eager to gain a promotion. His claims show a certain amount of fanciful imagination as Roderick provides evidence that he was not in all the battles he mentioned, or he glorified his part in the ones in which he was involved.  

At the time of writing his life story, had his mind been clouded by his initial fall from grace with a sentence of transportation for fourteen years, compounded by a harsh colonial sentence of seven years on Norfolk Island – which he assumed would be concurrently served? Had his own brother initially played a part in having him sent to the colony in chains? Had he been unfairly accused of plotting to poison the crew on the Governor Phillip which transported him to Norfolk Island? Had subsequent erroneous reports (as shown by Roderick) about his character caused further detriment and dogged him to the bitter end?  

The brutal murder of Mrs Jamieson was never his intention. Robbing her of her money was definitely his intention, but a pre-meditated act to end her life was highly debateable. His insistence that he was not guilty continued until witnesses came forward. Mr Knatchbull found solace from religious visitors while in his condemned cell. He made a written confession and went to the gallows at peace with himself. The huge crowd (reported to have been 10,000) which came to Darlinghurst Gaol to see him hanged had been swayed by the newspaper editorials. What they witnessed however was a man dressed in a “mourning suit with black gloves and a white handkerchief in his hand”. He showed remorse and repentance but “ascended the fatal scaffold without trepidation or fear, and was launched into another world with a noble and fervent prayer trembling on his lips” according to The Australian. The crowd was silent. 

“The devil instigated me to do the deed, and I did it,” wrote the accused when he finally confessed.  

I will open to the eyes of the world such persecutions and deprivations that the hardest of hearts would bleed and commiserate with me in my sufferings and perhaps when dead and gone will say I am an injured man.” John Knatchbull, in the condemned cells, Woolloomooloo Gaol, February 1844. 

The ghost of John Knatchbull reminds me that despite the brilliance of now being able to view old newspapers on-line, I cannot always rely on the reports being factual. The ghost of John Knatchbull encourages me to look more closely at not only my convict ancestors but also those who guarded them, those who tried them, those who were in authority at the time. The ghost of John Knatchbull reminds me that these were human beings who often suffered at the hands of brutal tyrants in penal settlements. The ghost of John Knatchbull reminds me that personality disorders existed among the convict population as well as the ruling class. 

John Knatchbull died at the age of 56 years, but, for me, his life story continues to unfold. 

Valerie Blomer