Louthman received 10 years penal service

Thomas Stewart was born at The Grange on the Cooley peninsular, about 1812. (The exact date of his birth is unknown. At his trial in February 1829 he gave his age as 16 but he was no doubt as ignorant as most people of their true age in the period before civil registration). His family was, like their neighbours, very poor, struggling to merely survive on a small farm of indifferent land. He apparently fell into bad company at an early age, and according to later tradition in Australia he was involved in sheep and cattle rustling. Thomas Campbell, often identified as his cousin, was later transported for this offence.

Setting out for the wider world
Thomas left the Cooley area for the bustling port town of Drogheda. Here there were numerous opportunities for petty crime and burglary. There was also a slightly better chance of being caught. Young Thomas was duly apprehended in possession of goods and money that were not his own and sent to trial at the Drogheda Quarter Sessions. In spite of his young age he was sentenced to transportation to New South Wales for ten years. This was, in effect, the same as an exile for life, for few ever had the means to return, even at the expiry of their sentence.

Like many others before and after he was packed into the bowels of an unhealthy and barely sea-worthy transportation vessel in Queenstown. Sanitation conditions were indescribable and it was often alleged that the meagre rations set aside for the prisioners during their voyage were sold off by the ships officers for their own profit. After a voyage, via Cape Town which on average took six to eight weeks, the surviving prisioners were deposited at the penal settlement at Sydney Cove, popularly known as Botany Bay.

Sydney and Botany Bay
Sydney was a well-established port by this time, but it was unusual. The penal colony was part of a social and economic conveyor-belt. The convicts were a source of very cheap and compliant labour. Once they had completed their sentences there was no homeward ticket for them, so they were compelled to settle down in their new homeland and become members of the community. Some became very successful, so that even in the 1830s a majority of the non-convict population, including the community leaders, were either former convicts or their descendants.

Botany Bay had been a penal settlement from the foundation of New South Wales as a colony in 1788, though the actual site of incarceration was to the north of the original Botany Bay. It was not the only place of transportation in Australia. The ominous sounding Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) was established for this purpose in 1804 and in the half century of its existence as a penal colony it welcomed thousands of Irishmen and women. A later penal colony was established on the Swan River in Western Australia. This was the last to close in 1868.

Like the others, Botany Bay contained convicts from throughout the British Isles. Most of the Irish had been transplanted for offences (often trifling) against property. One Peter Weldon from Co Louth got seven years transportation (the minimum sentence) in 1823 for stealing a penny. By contrast, many English convicts were guilty of far more violent acts, ranging from aggravated assault to murder and rape (as well as everything in between).

The impact of Sydney on young Thomas Stewart was apparently unfavourable. He attempted to escape the tyranny of the penal settlement treadmills and its male factory, but was soon recaptured. He received a punishment of a hundred lashes but undaunted he tried to escape a second time. No doubt as a result of his punishment and inhumane treatment he was not able to travel far before being caught once more.

Thomas goes north
The penal system of New South Wales paid lip service to a reforming mission. It sought to recast prisoners as model citizens through the harsh but benevolent application of labour and rigorous discipline. This often led to simple brutalisation. Thomas Stewart was obviously one of the incorrigible who were incapable of change and betterment. Specialised places of incarceration had been established for such people. One was the Hell in Paradise of Norfolk Island, set amidst the vast seas of the southern pacific from which escape was pointless, although many prisoners there were still kept in irons. The alternative destination which awaited young Thomas was the newly founded penal settlement of Moreton Bay along the Queensland coast, close to the site of modern Brisbane. This had been established especially for recidivist convicts. This was some 500 miles away from any area inhabited by Europeans. It was also surrounded by thick forests and scrubland inhabited by far from friendly Aborigines who resented the seizure of their ancestral lands by the European authorities. It was therefore believed that escape from Moreton Bay was as impossible as from Norfolk Island and similarly pointless. Put bluntly, there was nowhere to escape to. Nevertheless Thomas Stewart did escape, and remained at liberty. The camp authorities probably made feeble attempts to find him, but they no doubt thought that if the bush didn’t kill him the Aborigines would.

However, neither fate befell Thomas. He travelled a few miles from the penal settlement and encountered another aboriginal group whose feelings of antipathy towards whites were not as intense as those nearer the prison camp. He was probably the first European they had ever seen. They treated him with a high degree of honour. As someone with pale skin they believed him to be the re-embodiment of their dead relatives who had returned to earth. He was thus able to live alongside them for five years, learning most of the secrets of bush-craft which allowed him to provide for his needs.

Its an ill wind
The coastline around Moreton Bay is lined with treacherous sand-banks which have been the undoing of many a mariner. In 1836 a schooner, the Flamingo, bringing supplies from Sydney to Moreton Bay was blown off course in a violent storm and was wrecked on the coast. All of the crew were drowned, except for the captain’s wife, Eliza Snead. Traumatised and confused she was found by members of the same community who had taken in Thomas Stewart, but their welcome was not so warm. Maybe her distraught cries persuaded them that she was a malign spirit, and so they prepared a ceremony in which she was to be sacrificed. According to her later retelling of the story, just before the fateful blow in the sordid ritual was to be struck, a man of much paler complexion than the rest, whom she later learned was Thomas Stewart, pulled her to her feet and fought off her captors. The two then set off into the bush where Thomas informed the no-doubt still confused Mrs Snead of his identity.

They made their way down along what is now the exclusive Gold Coast, until they were spotted by a vessel that had been sent out to search for the Flamingo. They were taken aboard and brought back to Sydney where Mrs Snead related her horrors of her shipwreck and the courageous and heroic manner of her salvation by Thomas Stewart. The romantic nature of the story caused a considerable buzz in Sydney’s social circles. It soon came to the ears of New South Wales governor, Richard Bourke, a native of Dublin. Although he had had a dazzling career in the British Army he was noted in New South Wales for his humanity. He had attempted to stamp out some of the more barbarous aspects of the criminal justice system there, as well as allowing former convicts to receive legal title to property. Needless to say there was no question of returning Thomas Stewart to prison. Instead Bourke rewarded him with an extensive grant of lands along the Darling River. This was in an area west of the Blue Mountains that was being opened up to European settlement.

Poacher to Gamekeeper
Stewart took the opportunity of Governor Bourke’s generosity to set himself up as a sheep-farmer; a paradoxical move, it might have been felt, for a former sheep rustler, but one certainly not without sufficient precedent in Australia’s brief history. He must have been moderately successful, or at least satisfied, for it was along the banks of the Darling that he met his death in 1840, when the flooded river burst its banks in raging torrents sweeping all and everyone before it. This was in the year when convict transportation to New South Wales was finally ended, and a year after Moreton Penal settlement was closed.

Thomas Stewart was but one of the tens of thousands of Irishmen and women who were transplanted involuntarily to a place of incarceration from which there was no hope of return. While much of the unpleasant aspects of his time in Australia mirrored that of other convicts, his time with the Queensland Aborigines and his heroic liberation of the sea captain’s wife from imminent death, surely mark him out as unusual, if not perhaps unique.