Saturday, March 9, 2013

Escape from Barrenjoey - Customs House Boat crew

Customs House Boat Crew - Convict Escape

Barrenjuey (Barrenjoey) George P Slade (1832-96)

This story begins with an article mentioning my convict great great great grandfather, which appeared in the NSW Government Gazette on December 23, 1846 ( ). 

Frayne, Michael, St Vincent, 1837, from Customs Boats crew, Broken Bay on the 21st instance.'

Broken Bay is a large inlet about 50 kilometres north of the Sydney CBD on the New South Wales coast. Captain Cook sailed into this inlet in 1770 and described it as 'broken land'. Three arms of water flow into Broken Bay, the Hawkesbury, Brisbane Water and Pittwater. 

When I read the Government Gazette article I had been unaware that my great great grandfather, Michael Frayne had ever been in the Broken Bay vicinity, having previously only seen records which placed him in Braidwood, an area south of Sydney and Patrick Plains which is north of Sydney, in the Hunter Valley. Both of these are farming communities and so it caught my imagination that Michael may have been involved in an escape from a 'Customs Boat crew'. Being most curious to discover why a boat crew would have been in the Broken Bay area I set out to construct a narrative around the one line entry in the Sydney Government Gazette.

Broken Bay, NSW

Pittwater,  was  named by captain Arthur Phillip in March of 1788 when he sailed into the southern arm of Broken Bay, and declared it to be "the finest piece of water I ever saw".  Phillip named it Pittwater after the British Prime Minister, William Pitt, the Younger whose government had sent him to NSW in charge of the First Fleet of Convicts. 
As the Penal colony established itself in Port Jackson, the area known as Pittwater became an escape for convicts and a haven for smugglers. Until at least 1819, this part of Sydney was beyond the reaches of the law, having not even a police constable to enforce law and order. 

Barrenjoey Head, Pittwater
As a result of a notorious smuggling operation in 1842 which involved the ship, the Fair Barbadian, a Customs Station was built at Barrenjoey by convict labour in early 1843. The following article appeared in the Australasian Chronicle (Sydney, NSW) on November 29, 1842. 

Colonel Gibbs of the Customs Service gave instructions for five convicts to 'form a winding path up the south face of the mountain by clearing the bushes and making steps where required, to a flat place on the top near the western end where a sentry box or watch hut is to be built and a flag staff erected.'  

John Broadley Howard became the first customs officer at the newly established station and with him were sent a coxswain and five convicts. Howard had at his disposal, a whaling boat and another smaller boat.

A whaling boat would have been about this size.
Whilst living in tents, the convicts built the huts which were to serve as the first customs station. A three room cottage was later built for Howard and his family.
Ships were instructed to report to the customs station before entering Broken Bay and a  watchman kept a lookout for vessels attempting to slip past the customs station.  John B Howard was diligent in his attempt to stamp out illegal stills and the smuggling of alcohol. After a number of attempts to prevent the smuggling of rum from illicit distilleries,  going out in his boat, in the dark of night and in terrible weather to apprehend both smugglers and brewers, Howard and other customs officers succeeded in ending the previously lucrative smuggling industry. 

An article published earlier in the Sydney Government Gazette, confirmed that Michael Frayne had  been a member of the crew of the Customs Station boat when he escaped custody.
"Sydney, 16th December, 1846: The following Prisoners of the Crown have absconded since the last publication - Michael Frayne, St Vincent, 1837, 23, Dublin, errand boy and car driver, 4 feet 10 1/2 inches and upwards [ this was his height when he was convicted in 1836 at age 14...later records show that he would have actually been 5 feet 9 inches in height in 1846], ruddy complexion, brown hair, hazel eyes, from the Customs Boats crew, since the 15th instance."

When 23 year old Michael Frayne was recaptured in December of 1846,  he had been free for 7 days. Escaped convicts faced many perils in their attempt to survive. The Pittwater area was fertile and many farms had been  established on the land along the waterways. Escaped convicts were a constant problem for farmers in the area, as they menaced families and stole from the homes of farmers to survive. There were many caves to hide in and some escaped convicts joined ranks with bushrangers. Remaining free was difficult and many were discovered dehydrated and starving.

 Evidence such as convict records and Government Gazettes show that my great great great grandfather was an habitual absconder. This was hardly surprising given that he was only 14 when convicted of theft in Dublin and sentenced to Life and transportation to NSW.  Convict discipline and daily life for many was extremely harsh.

It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Michael Frayne could have been assigned to Customs officer  John Broadley Howard, and was one of the five convicts who built the Customs Station  and the cottage for Howard in 1843.  Records show that Michael was in Braidwood in 1842 from where he absconded and was recaptured in that same year.  I have no record of his whereabouts from 1842 until December, 1846, when he absconded from 'the Customs Boat crew, Broken Bay'. Perhaps Michael Frayne spent time there on duty, keeping a watch for approaching vessels. Perhaps he accompanied Howard on his journeys on the waters of broken bay in the whaling boat to apprehend smugglers.

My imagination is working overtime with new information and I have many yet unanswered questions. Did Michael Frayne abscond in one of the two the customs boats? Did he leave on foot and disappear into the dense bushland of Pittwater? How did he survive for a week and where did he go? Armed with  new information and excited to think that my convict g g g grandfather was  assigned to work at the Customs Station at Pittwater, I intend to visit the site to see for myself the place where Michael Frayne made a bid for freedom in 1846.

1 comment:

  1. Yet another interesting tale... it does make you wonder what their lives were like.. building the story is the challenge we relish.

    Thank you, Sharn... I look forward to reading the rest when you do find more. I'd never thought about the naming of Pittwater, though I do know the place. You have taught me something yet again.