Old Tales of a Young Country

Governor Ralph Darling’s Iron Collar

Marcus Clarke

AT THE Sydney Quarter Sessions held on the 8th of November, 1826, two soldiers of the 57th Regiment were indicted for stealing calico from the shop of a Jew named Michael Napthali, and sentenced to seven years’ transportation.

The circumstances of the offence were peculiar. In December, 1826, Lieutenant-General Sir Ralph Darling succeeded to the governorship of New South Wales, and was clever enough to become in twelve months the most unpopular personage in the colony. A detailed disquisition upon his character would be out of place here, but a very excellent and brief summary of it is given by Mr. Sidney in his Three Colonies of Australia:—“He was a man of forms and precedents of the true red-tape school—neat, exact, punctual, industrious, arbitrary, spiteful, and commonplace.” Impressed with a marvellous sense of his own importance, and obstinate to desperation, Sir Ralph Darling brought the severest military discipline to bear upon the social relations of governor and governed. He was Sir Oracle, and if any unhappy dog dared bark when his august lips were open, instant annihilation was the punishment of his temerity. He ruled the convicts with a rod of iron, and surrounded by a tribe of parasites, flatterers, and knaves, stretched the authority he possessed to the verge of abuse. A violent opposition to Government-house and its belongings had been growing ever since the days of Bligh, and the bureaucratic despotism of the military Governor gave to this opposition a weapon which it was not slow to use. The more he was abused, the more arbitrary did the Governor become; and at last he perpetrated an act of tyranny which went near to bracket him in history with Governor Wall.

The condition of the military forces in the colony was not an enviable one. The privates of the 57th Regiment saw around them many wealthy men whom they remembered as convicts, and startled by the strangely lenient sentences passed by many magistrates, began to murmur at the severe punishment and strict discipline meted out to themselves by the Governor’s orders. The convict population of Sydney was, in 1827, in one of two positions. A prisoner of the Crown was either better or worse treated than his deserts. The cat was used unsparingly. A county magistrate was “permitted to award any number of lashes for insolence, idleness, and other indefinite offences.” Men were flogged until they died, or tortured until they committed suicide to escape the weariness of living. The newly-established settlement of Moreton Bay rivalled the infamies of Macquarie Harbour, and was only exceeded in terror by that lowest of deeps, Norfolk Island. But nevertheless the corrupt condition of officialdom rendered immunity from punishment sufficiently easy to a patient and designing convict. Money could do everything, and instances are not wanting of murderers and thieves who succeeded in establishing themselves in snug shops and snugger farms. Convict jurors sat upon convict prisoners, and the bon camaraderie of the chain-gang and the hulks was not invariably forgotten. The military, not always composed of the best materials—viewed with disgust the social success of the men whom they had in former times helped to guard, and a pernicious and dangerous feeling ran current in the garrison that to be a soldier was not always to be better off than a convict. During the residence of the 57th Regiment in the colony more suicides took place in it than in any other corps quartered there before or since—five men had already committed robberies in order to obtain their discharge, while two had incurably mutilated themselves for the same purpose.

Darling was aware of this notion, and unreasonably irritated at what he considered an insult to his own judgment, instead of lightening the military yoke, caused it to press the heavier, vowing that he would take dire vengenance on any exponent of the rebellious doctrine.

Sudds and Thompson were fated to be the martyrs of a military reformation. Discontented with their position, and eager for their discharge from a service which the peddling tyranny of the Governor had made worse than penal, the two silly fellows determined to commit an offence which should, by rendering them amenable to transportation for five or seven years, secure them their discharge at the end of that time. Thompson, who bore a good character in the regiment, appears to have been drawn into the scheme by the arguments of Sudds, who had a wife in England, and was doubly anxious to escape from the bondage of the Barrack-square. Sudds had been for a long time discontented, and was regarded as a “loose fellow” by his officers; that is to say, his discontent took the usual shape of rebellion against constituted authority. The military stock had become too tight for Sudds and Thompson.

On the evening of the 20th of September, 1826, the two men determined to put their project in execution. They went into the shop of a Jew named Napthali, and asked to see some shirting. Several pieces were shown them, and Sudds, selecting twelve yards of calico, placed the bundle under his arm, and walked out of the shop, remarking that his companion would pay. Thompson chatted with the shopman for a while, and being at last certain that Sudds was beyond pursuit, declined to pay anything, and walked out. The pair having met, bestowed the calico about their persons, and awaited the arrival of the constables. They did not wait long. As they had anticipated, they were soon apprehended, and giving up the calico, laughingly told the officer that they were weary of military service, and had taken this means of quitting it. On the 8th of November they were tried, and sentenced to seven years’ transportation. All had turned out as they had hoped, and Thompson on leaving the dock said, with a smile, “I hope your Honour will let me take my firelock. It may be useful to me in the bush!”

Thus far nothing in the case called for public comment, and, beyond the ordinary newspaper paragraphs concerning “daring conduct,” and “robbery in open day,” the case of the two men passed unnoticed. But on the 21st of November it began to be rumoured that General Darling intended to make “an example of the two prisoners,” and that some extraordinary punishment was in store for them. On the 22nd of November a general order was issued, which stated that “The Lieutenant-General, in virtue of the power with which he is invested as Governor-in-Chief, has thought fit to commute (!) the sentence, and to direct that privates Joseph Sudds and Patrick Thompson shall be worked in chains on the public roads for the period of their sentence, after which they will rejoin their corps. The garrison has been assembled to witness the degradation of these men from the honourable station of soldiers to that of felons doomed to labour in chains. It is ordered that the prisoners be immediately stripped of their uniform in the presence of the troops, and be dressed in felon clothing. That they be put in chains, and delivered in charge to the overseers of the ‘chain gangs,’ in order to their being removed to their interior, and worked on the mountain roads, being drummed as rogues out of the garrison.”

Now the usual way to “drum a man out of garrison” is to put a rope round his neck, cut off the facings of his uniform, and place on his back a piece of paper on which is written the name of the offence which the culprit has committed; and it was supposed that such had been the course pursued in regard to Sudds and Thompson. On the evening of the 22nd of November (Thursday), however, the officers and soldiers of the garrison began to let fall hints respecting some more imposing ceremony, and it was rumoured that the prisoners had undergone some extraordinary punishment which had seriously injured one of them. These rumours gained ground until Monday, the 26th, when it became known that Sudds had died on the previous night. The Opposition papers published an exaggerated account of ironing, chaining, and flogging, and after some bickering between the democratic Australian and the Government paper, an inquiry was held—at which General Darling most indecently presided—and it was given forth that Sudds had died from combined dropsy and bronchitis. Mr. Wentworth—a native-born Australian barrister, of some eloquence and intense capacity for hating—would not rest satisfied with this explanation, and little by little the facts of the case leaked out.

Sudds and Thompson had been loaded with heavier irons than those placed upon the most desperate convicts, and the ingenious Darling had placed round their necks spiked iron collars attached by another set of chains to the ankle fetters. The projecting spikes prevented the unhappy men from lying down at ease, and the connecting chains were short enough to prevent them from standing upright. Under the effects of this treatment Sudds had died.

Public fury now knew no bounds. Tradesmen put up their shutters as though in mourning for some national calamity. The fiercest denunciations met the Governor on all sides, and he was accused of wilful murder. A full investigation of the case was demanded, and granted, but in the meantime Darling’s parasites had made away with the irons. At the sitting of the Executive Council lighter ones were substituted. A Captain Robinson, however, had, unluckily for himself, found the original irons at the Government station at Emu Plains, and gave a full description of them. Shortly after this he was sent to Norfolk Island,1 and, after many harassing changes, finally cashiered by a court-martial convened by Darling, on a frivolous pretence. Wentworth published in England a series of pamphlets containing an account of the whole transaction, and it is from these pamphlets (taken in connection with the Parliamentary papers of the day) that I have attempted to compile an impartial history of the case.

While awaiting trial, Sudds had complained of illness. On the 8th of November the two prisoners were removed to the gaol. On the 11th, Sudds, being in irons, complained of pains in the bowels, and was admitted as an out-patient of the gaol hospital. A few days after, he was brought into the sick ward, suffering from pains in the head and bowels. The irons were removed, and the following morning his legs, belly, and thighs were greatly swollen. John Thompson, the gaol attendant, ordered fomentations of hot water, which removed the pain in the bowels, and the surgeon arriving that afternoon ordered him to be discharged. The next day he was brought back worse than before. “My belly is like a drum,” he said. Medicines were given to him, and he remained in the hospital with gaol irons on until the morning of the 22nd. On the 22nd the order arrived for the two prisoners to be sent to the barracks. Wilson, the under-gaoler, and two constables thereupon came for Sudds, and dressed him in his regimentals. Outside the ward he met Thompson, and the two were sent down to the parade-ground. The day was one of extreme heat, and most oppressive. Sudds was unable to stand, and was supported by a man under each arm while the order was read. Captain Robinson, who was present at the ceremony, says of Sudds, “His whole body was much puffed and swollen, particularly his legs and feet.” The order having been read, the regimentals were stripped off the backs of the two men, and replaced by the yellow convict clothing, while a set of irons was placed upon each of them. During this operation Sudds was obliged to sit upon the grass. “These irons,” says the editor of the Australian, “were of a peculiar kind. The rings from the ankles are made after a peculiar fashion, and are of an uncommon size. In place of having chains attached to them in the common way, they are connected by means of long and slender chains with another ring, which is put round the neck, and serves as a collar. Two thin pieces of iron, each about eight inches long, protrude from the ring collar, in front under the chin, behind under the nape of the neck. This is the position of the pieces of iron (they are not spikes, not being sharp at the end) when the chains are put on and adjusted as intended. From this it is evident that the degree of ease or torture experienced by the wearer must depend entirely upon the length of the several chains. He can’t lie down on his back or on his belly without twisting round the collar, in order to remove the projecting irons to the side. If the chains be not longer than that part of the body between the ankles and the neck, he never can extend himself at full length, but must remain partly doubled up, and become cramped in the course of a short time; for in turning the collar in order to lie down, the chains wind and form a curvature round the body, thus diminishing in effect their length.” The weight of these irons was, according to Captain Robison, between 30 and 40 lbs.

Having been thus bound, the pair were conducted to the barrack gate, and given over to the constables. Sudds was obliged to lean against the wall, and complained that the basils of the fetters cut his legs. Being placed in the cell the torture commenced. Sudds’s neck began to swell, and he found that he could barely breathe. Thompson offered to “turn” the collar for him, but his offer was refused; Sudds said it hurt him if it was stirred. “It would admit nothing between it and the neck but a cotton handkerchief.” As for Thompson, he says, at his examination on board the “Phoenix” hulk, “The projecting irons would not allow me to stretch myself at full length on my back. I could sleep on my back, by contracting my legs; I could not lie on either side without contracting my legs. I could not stand upright with the irons on; the basil of the irons would not slip up my legs, and the chains were too short to allow me to stand upright.” This was the “little case” of the Tower, or the stone cage of the Bastille over again. We can imagine without much difficulty the torture that would be produced by such compulsory contraction of the body.

That night Sudds was taken so ill that Thompson borrowed a candle from Wilson, the under-gaoler, fearing lest his companion should suddenly die. He also gave him some tea which he had purchased. A little after midnight the poor wretch became so bad that Thompson, thinking he was dying, asked a fellow-prisoner to come and look at him. The man looked, and said, “He’s not dying, but I do not think he’ll live long.” Upon this Thompson asked Sudds if he had any friends to whom he would wish to write. Sudds replied that he had a wife and child at Gloucester, and begged Thompson to “get some pious book and read to him,” adding, that “they had put him in irons until they killed him.” Shortly after this, Thompson, worn out with fatigue, fell asleep, and a man named Moreton, who was in gaol for a murderous assault upon his mother undertook to sit up with the dying man. At eight o’clock the next morning, Thursday, Sudds was taken to the hospital; his irons were removed when the doctor came round, at twelve o’clock. That day he ate nothing but a piece of fish. Mr. M’Intyre, the surgeon, said to him, “You have brought yourself into pretty disgrace. You will be a fine figure with those irons, at work.” To which he replied, “I will never work in irons.” “You would be better out of the world,” says M’Intyre; and the poor creature with a groan said, “I wish to God I was.”

His wish was fulfilled on Sunday night. Had he died in the precincts of the gaol, an inquest could have been demanded, and General Darling, hearing of the precarious condition of the prisoner; absolutely ordered him to be removed on Sunday afternoon to the General Hospital, whither he was taken in a small cart about an hour before he expired. The necessity for an inquest was thus obviated, and Mr. M’Intyre, the assistant-surgeon of the gaol, went down to the hospital to make a post-mortem examination of the body. He found the organs healthy, but “discovered in the throat mucus of a slimy, frothy description. The wind-pipe was rather inclined to a reddish colour.” It is tolerably clear that this appearance was caused by inflammation, induced by the tight and heavy collar; but Mr. M’Intyre, who held his post at the Governor’s pleasure, obligingly considered it the effect of bronchitis.

The Australian newspaper, however, thought otherwise, and said so. Upon this Mr. Alexander M’Leay, Colonial Secretary, at the Governor’s request, wrote to the editor and put him in possession of what he was pleased to term the “facts of the case,” to wit, that the punishment inflicted was, in reality, a mitigation of the original sentence; that Sudds died from dropsy; that the chains weighed exactly 13 lbs. 12 ozs., and could be seen at his office. Public feeling was still rampant, and on the 5th of December Darling brought the case under the consideration of the Executive Council. At this meeting Mr. M’Intyre reiterated his statements about bronchitis, saying, that he had been most particular in his observations, as he knew that “this was a case which the rascally newspapers would take up.” Captain Dumaresq, acting civil engineer, and son-in-law to the Governor, produced a set of 13-lb. irons, and said they were the ones worn by Sudds. A soldier of the 57th, named Jesse Geer, who was in waiting, was then called in; and the Governor remarking that Geer was as nearly as possible of the same size and stature as Sudds, ordered the irons to be put upon him, and called the assembled council to witness how easily they fitted!

Everything now seemed explained, and Darling as a last precaution wrote to Earl Bathurst on the 12th, reporting the case and the decision of the council, and adding that “being satisfied from what had occurred that the conduct of the hospital requires investigation, he would immediately appoint a board to ‘inquire into the management and system generally,’ and report upon the same for his lordship’s information.

But tenacious Wentworth still held on to the facts of the case, and was presently gratified by a piece of important information. Captain Robison, of the Veteran corps, had seen the original irons which had been placed on Thompson, and had tried them on out of curiosity. To that gentleman, on the 1st of January, does Wentworth write, requesting a full account of the circumstance. Robinson replied on the 3rd, and after giving in his letter the particulars concerning the “drumming out” already quoted, says—“A few months after Sudds’s punishment and death (May or June, 1827), I was returning from the command of the Bathurst district in company with Lieutenant Christie, of the Buffs, and we stopped a night at the Government station on Emu Plains. The chains which Private Thompson worked in, as above mentioned, had been left at Emu, and were brought for us to see. They were of a very unusual description, and the iron collar reminding me of those I had seen on condemned slaves, &c., in South America, I was anxious to examine them, and from this motive was induced to put them on my own person, as did also Lieutenant Christie, of the Buffs. We had but one opinion as to the torture they must have produced. . . . I found it quite impossible whilst I had the collar and irons on me to lie down, except on my back or face, there being two long iron spikes projecting from the iron collar which was riveted round the neck, which put it quite out of my power to turn over to the other side; independently of which there were two chains on either side extending from the collar and communicating with those on the legs. . . . I guessed the weight at about 30 lbs. or 40 lbs., or even upwards.”

Mr. Mackaness, the sheriff, stated also that, calling at Government House with Colonel Mills a few days prior to the punishment of Sudds and Thompson, he saw on the right hand of the hall after entering the door “either one or two sets of irons, having collars and iron spikes projecting from them,” which now he has no doubt were the same he afterwards saw upon the men in gaol. Mackaness “took them to be newly-invented man-traps.”

Armed with this fresh information, Wentworth succeeded in getting a sort of Commission to examine Thompson. This Commission, consisting of M’Leay, the Colonial Secretary, W. H. Moore, the acting Attorney- General, and Wentworth himself, sat on board the “Phoenix,” hulk. Thompson, in his examinations, spoke boldly, and, confident in popular support, did not hesitate to expatiate upon the cruelties to which he had been subjected. The day before the death of Sudds, Thompson could endure the torture of the collar no longer. On Saturday, the 25th November, he broke the chain, “so as to turn the collar, and lie at ease.” The chains remained broken until Monday morning, when Wilson, the under-gaoler, took him to the yard, and had Sudds’s irons put on him. It so happened that the chains of these were a little longer than the others, and Thompson, being a smaller man than his companion, could straighten his body. He remained in the gaol until Tuesday, when he was placed in a boat and taken to the prisoners’ barracks at Parramatta. On Wednesday he was taken in a bullock-cart to Penrith gaol, and on Thursday morning conveyed to “No. 1, Iron-chain-gang party, ” on Lapstone-hill, being the first range of the Blue Mountains. At three o’clock the same day he was taken out and set to work with the gang, having the spiked collar that had killed Sudds on his neck the whole time. After eight days of this work he gave in. It was very hot weather, and the heat of the iron collar became intolerable, “compelling me,” he says, “to sit down frequently in order to hold it with my hands off my neck.” The overseer ordered him to continue work; but he refused, and asked to be taken to gaol, where he could get “rest from the heat of the sun.” To gaol he went accordingly, and on the following morning the collar was removed by Mr. M’Henry, “by order of the Governor.” Having had his irons removed, he was sent back to the overseer, carrying the collar, &c., with him, and on the arrival of the gang at Emu Plains was invested with “the usual irons of the gang.” A week after this he refused to work, and being lodged in gaol fell sick of dysentery, and was finally sent on board the hulks. What became of him at last I do not know, and cannot discover. Having played his little part in the drama, he retires. His exit is doubtless noted in the prison records of New South Wales.

Thus informed, Wentworth wrote to Sir George Murray, the Secretary of State, and forwarded to him a long bill of indictment against the detested Governor. On the 8th July, 1828, Mr. Stewart, a member of the British House of Commons, rose to move for “papers connected with the case of Joseph Sudds and Patrick Thompson.” Sir. G. Cole bore testimony to “the excellent and humane character of the Governor of New South Wales,” but the motion was agreed to.

In the meantime “the rascally newspapers” had not been idle. “Miles,” a correspondent of the Morning Chronicle, at that time edited by Black, took up the cudgels for Mr. Wentworth, and commented severely on the conduct of the Tory Governor of New South Wales. The Tory papers retaliated, and, after some fierce fighting, Darling seems to have received a hint to resign. The facts of the case came out but too clearly, and the motion of Mr. Stewart was fatal. But the struggle lasted four years—long enough to ruin Robison, who was bandied from post to pillar, and finally cashiered. On Darling’s resignation, in 1831, Robison attempted to obtain redress from the Home Government, but failed. The Whig party still clamoured for vengeance, and “Miles,” persistently chronicling all Darling’s misdeeds, vowed that unless he was tried for his life, Picton would have been an ill-used hero, and Wall a murdered man. The crowning stroke was delivered in a letter published in 1832. On Wednesday, the 14th December, 1831, a savage letter from “Miles” in the Chronicle called forth a silly and abusive reply in the John Bull from Lieutenant-Colonel Darling, the brother of Sir Ralph. The writer averred that “Miles” would not dare to attack the Governor of New South Wales when that much-injured man arrived in London in May. “Miles” waited quietly until June, and then came out with a clear exposition of the whole case, couched in the most bitter language, and gives a little bit of information which goes far to set the question of Governor Darling’s veracity at rest. John Head, who was hutkeeper at Emu Plains, deposed upon oath in Sydney, on the 29th July, 1829, that “being at the hut when Thompson arrived, he was desired by Plumley, the overseer of the gang (he not being able to read), to read to him a letter which the said Plumley had received purporting to be signed by Alexander M’Leay, Colonial Secretary, by command of the Governor, and that it directed the said Plumley to take the chains and collar off the said Patrick Thompson, and to convey the same privately to Government-house, and that the said Plumley did accordingly take the chains and put them in a bag, which the deponent Head carried on his back above half a mile to the Government-house at Emu, and delivered them to Mr. James Kinghorn, and it is his opinion that they could not have weighed less than from 30 lbs. to 40 lbs.” However, there was no “trial for murder.” The Government expressed itself fully satisfied with the conduct of Sir Ralph, who was Tory to the backbone. Robison was cashiered, and Mr. Wentworth having got for Governor Major-General Sir Richard Bourke (unquestionably the ablest man that had yet occupied that office), turned his attention to other pursuits.

Meanwhile, if some official in Sydney Gaol will turn up the records for 1826, he may solve the mystery of poor Thompson’s fate.

1.    Of course, not as a prisoner.    [back]

Old Tales of a Young Country - Contents

Back    |    Words Home    |    Site Info.    |    Feedback