A Gentleman Convict's Adventures

5 January 1987 The Canberra Times

By Robert Willson

About sunset on a summer day in 1840, the convict transport ship, Woodbridge, entered Sydney Harbour after a four-month voyage from England.

One of the convicts on board later recorded his thoughts and feelings as he looked at the cliffs, mountains and bush of NSW.  

"In a little while, I should be en- rolled as one among the many branded and degraded outcasts in those vast regions and that, too, under circumstances most galling and repulsive." he said.

In the first 80 years of settlement in Australia, more than 162,000 convicts were transported to this land, the majority' to NSW and Van Dieman's Land.

With the boom in family history, more and more Australians are discovering that one of these convicts may be among their ancestors.

But very few convicts had the Education or the opportunity to leave any record of the experience of transportation.

Among the very few who did serve their sentence and return to England to write an account of their experience was a young man named Charles Cozens.

His book, Adventures of a Guardsman, appeared in London in 1848.    

One reference book describes this rare volume as fiction.

However, a study of the archives of the day confirms many details that Cozens mentions and we can be sure it is factual.

He spent much of his time in the colony on the Monaro and in the Yass district and he gives a fascinating and vivid description of his experiences on what was then the frontier of white settlement.

He had expected the experience to be "galling and repulsive" but he seems to have been determined to stay out of trouble and to observe and record every aspect of colonial life.

His book gives us a new perspective of what it was like to be a convict in NSW.  

Cozens was a most unusual convict by reason of his education and his social status.

He was a "gentleman convict".

He tells us he was the youngest son of a Justice of the Peace in Pembrokeshire and was intended for a career in the Church.

But he ran away from his grammar school after three years and eventually enlisted in the Royal Horse Guards, the "Blues", taking his oath to King William IV.

One fatal day, after an argument with the corporal-major of his troop, he was threatened with confinement.

Cozens told his superior that if he did so "it would be the last time he would do it, as I would do for him".

For threatening a superior officer, he was court-martialled and sentenced to be transported beyond the seas for seven years.  

"He was confined on board the Woodbridge, which he one day heard was a "bay ship". He was bound for Botany Bay, a general term for NSW. 

The Sydney newspapers of the day reported the arrival of the Woodbridge on February 26, 1840, and one paper commented on the clean and healthy state of the ship, a credit to Captain Dobson and his officers.  

It was three days before Cozens and his fellow convicts were allowed to land because, as he tells us, Mr. Timothy Lane, superintendent of prisoner barracks, came on board each day to take down details of each prisoner.

These convict records are still available.

They give us some interesting details about Cozens which he does not mention, and confirm the truth of his account.

There are full records available for every convict transported.    

 We learn that Cozens was 24, which would give him a birth date of about 1816, the year after Waterloo.

He was a single man and a Protestant.

His rank was that of a sergeant and his crime was threatening language.

Most interestingly, he was 6 feet 3 inches (1.9m) tall, which made him a giant among his fellow convicts, whose average height was about 5 feet. 6 inches.

The two moles on his right cheek were carefully recorded, along with various scars and his hair and eye colour.

Cozens describes being marched through the Domain, probably where the Art Gallery of NSW now stands, to Hyde Park Barracks.

This lovely colonial Georgian building, designed by Francis Greenway, is now a museum of social history in Sydney and a popular tourist attraction.

But Charles Cozens saw little of beauty in it.

To him, it was a "Pandora's Box for vice and infamy", and he describes the bedlam of 1300 men crammed within its walls.

Each day, gangs of 20 to 200 men were marched out to work on various government projects, roads, streets or forts.

He records vivid little details of daily life that formal histories ignore.

Every Saturday, all the convicts had to wash their shirts, which they dried by putting them on again over their jackets and sitting in the sun. 

Any shirt hung out to dry would vanish in a moment, never to be seen again.

After a few weeks, Cozens was appointed to a party of border mounted police.

Military prisoners were often selected for such duty as they were accustomed to firearms and thought to be more trustworthy.

This force was designed for the protection of squatters in remote and dangerous districts and Cozens' party was to go to "Cooma Creek", under the control of a Crown lands commissioner.

The party consisted of four policemen, a carpenter, a bullock driver and a scourger.

Cozens comments that in the colony, the hangman was more respected than the scourger for "the former puts men out of their misery while the latter is paid for adding to it".

As they slowly made their way down the Great South Road on the tedious six-week trip to Cooma, Cozens must have reflected on the remarkable change in his circumstances.

Two years before, he had been a Guardsman, helping to mount guard at Windsor Castle and other famous places.

Now he was on the other side of the world, a convicted felon but a member of the border mounted police, dressed in a uniform of green cloth and black braiding and armed with a brace of pistols, a sword and a carbine.

Bullock teams were the universal method of transport of heavy goods in those years and Cozens has left us a vivid picture of their ways of camping in the bush.

"It often happens that four, six or eight teams bivouac at the same place, frequently some wild and romantic spot completely embedded in the mountains, with nothing but trees, rocks, and ranges on all sides and above," he said.

"Here then, as twilight settles into night, may be seen the ruddy glare of a gigantic fire, whereon huge trees are piled by the joint efforts of many men, reflected on the bronzed and blackened faces of a motley and dirt begrimed circle, who discuss with the true appetite of bullock drivers and savoury merits of a hunch of salted beef, hot from the pot, and a junk of damper bread, seasonably diluted with a pot of tea to each individual.

"In the distance and down some deep dell may be heard the tinkling sound of the small bell attached to the necks of the weary oxen, intended to denote their immediate location when required in the morning; and, as the night progresses, the deep and melancholy howl of the wild native dog prowling for food, is re-echoed on every side."

On the journey south, Cozens mentions places such as Berrima and Goulburn but he makes no comment on the Limestone Plains, which would have been on his route.

A few years earlier, Dr John Lhotsky, with remarkable foresight, had commented on the prospect of a city on the "Kembery" plains, where Canerra now stands.

The police party established headquarters on Cooma Creek which Cozens describes as "a bleak, barren, inhospitable place".

Much of the colony was in the grip of drought at the time.

He spent a year in the mounted police at Cooma.

The party had to build its own quarters, a two-roomed hut roofed with bark.

It had brought along bales of blankets and these were distributed to the local Aboriginals.

At Cooma, Cozens was appointed clerk to the commissioner, a fat, lazy man fond of shooting and who spent all his spare moments out with a gun. 

Cozens commented, "What a pity that such things as bushrangers or blacks should interfere with so agreeable diversions."

The duty of the commissioner was to visit every station in his district once every six months to hear and redress grievances, prevent trespassing and assess stock numbers. 

The four border police assisted him.

The area they covered included most of the south-eastern corner of the Monaro, from the Snowy Mountains to Twofold Bay and up the coast to Broulee.

Cozens describes it as a wild and romantic region and he clearly enjoyed the experience of exploring it.

The main dangers were not from Aborigines, who were generally peaceful, but from getting lost in the trackless bush.

One had to follow a marked "line-of-tree" road and the various stations were anything up to 50km apart.

It was the duty of the mounted police to ask every doubtful person what his "civil condition" was; convict, ticket-of-leave, or free, and Cozens often received some pretty uncivil replies.

He records a number of tales of bushrangers who had formerly terrorised the colony, such as Donoghue and Curren.

About the time of his arrival in Australia, the bushranger, Thomas Whitton, was convicted of murder in Sydney and was hanged at Goulburn Gaol.

After about a year of service in the Cooma district, Cozens returned to Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney and was appointed to a clerkship of Parramatta jail.

One day, while in the Barracks, he was astounded to receive a visit from an old schoolmate of his boyhood, the Reverend Charles Ferdinand Brigstocke.

They were from the same part of Wales and had close family links.

Brigstocke had settled at Yass and was travelling widely in that district, ministering to scattered settlers.

He had heard that Cozens was in Sydney and called to invite him to Yass.

He also interviewed the superintendent of convicts and asked that Cozens, when he received his ticket-of-leave, should be allowed to go to that district.

So, in due course, Cozens found himself again on the Great South Road, this time walking to Yass. 

There, he was welcomed by Brigstocke, who had recently married a young lady described by Cozens as "possessed of great personal attractions".

Cozens found a home with the chief constable of Yass and was enrolled in the Yass police force.

It is noticeable that Cozens, though a convict transported for seven years, found that his former military rank and experience, together with his social and family background, immediately opened doors of opportunity that were not available to those who were not so favoured.

He gives us a vivid account of an adventure he had while in the Yass police.

He had been ordered to arrest a ticket-of-leave holder employed by a station owner on the banks of the Murrumbidgee, about 24km from the village.

The man was being charged with cattle-stealing.

He made the journey out to the station on foot early one morning and saw the owner, who had formerly been a Yass Police magistrate for many years, and told him the purpose of his visit.

The owner informed him that the wanted man was a shepherd in his employ but that he was on the opposite side of the river which was then in flood and there was no way to get to him.

Cozens, afraid that he might lose his job if he did not make a supreme effort to put his man under arrest, stripped and tied his clothes in a bundle around his head and prepared to swim the Murrumbidgee.

But he made a mistake which nearly cost him his life.

He tied the bundle by his neckerchief around his neck instead of his forehead, and plunged in.

The force of the flooded river swept him along and the fastening of the bundle of his clothing tightened against his throat and almost choked him.

When he recovered, he dressed in his sodden clothing and made his way to where the wanted man had been working.

But the bird had flown and he soon discovered why.

While Cozens had been struggling for his life in the river, the station owner, who had no intention of letting a valuable employee be arrested, had crossed the river in a punt kept ready for such a purpose and warned his man to head for the hills until the manhunt had died.

Cozens does not record what he said when he discovered this.

He tells us that the gentleman was much struck by his efforts to get his man in the face of such danger.

In all his years as police magistrate, he had never known a policeman to do such a thing and he wrote a report commending Cozens.

Cozens commented, "I could not but admit that he had completely out-generalled me, but the punt alone was to be thanked for it."

Cozens spent more than a year in Yass.

After some time in the police force, during which time he was able to make one arrest of a murderer after a long chase through the mountains, he left the force and worked in a steam mill.

Finally, his seven-year sentence was up and he was free to return to England, where he wrote his fascinating account of the colony of NSW through the eyes of a "gentleman convict".

Charles Cozens vanished from history.

A search of the catalogue of the British Library reveals that Adventures of a Guardsman was his only published book.

This is a pity, for he had a gift for writing vivid prose.

One wonders what happened to him.

Did he settle down, marry and have a family?

Research is continuing in the hope of contacting descendants who may hold papers and even a portrait of one who has left us a vivid picture of the convict days on the Monaro.