Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Laurence Butler- Ch. 5: Butler's Imprisonment

Following Laurence Butler’s involvement in the Rebellion in Ireland in 1798, he was imprisoned for about one and a half years before his transportation to Sydney in 1802, embarking on the Atlas (II) at Waterford. The colonial records tell us little about his imprisonment.

1)     AO Reel 2417- Musters and other Papers Relating to Convict Ships:
A list of Convicts embarked at Waterford on Board the Atlas- for New South Wales: Laurence Butler- 46; Tried: Wexford; Term of Transportation: Life;
Atlas 2 sailed from Waterford 30 May 1802, arrived Sydney Cove 30 October 1802; ship’s master Captain Thomas Musgrave

2)     List of Conditional Pardons Granted by His Excellency Governor Macquarie from 1st January 1810 to the 3rd December 1819 Inclusive:
25th January 1813- Lawrence Butler; Tried Wexford; When- no date given; Sentence-Life; Ship- Atlas; When arrived 1802.

3)     1811 Muster- General Musters of NSW, Norfolk Island and Van Diemen’s Land 1811: No. 0840- NSW- Convict- Male- Butler Laurence- Atlas- Trial date: Mar 1798- Wexford- Sentence: life- Remarks- Que (the clerk’s comment Que was generally noted after the sentence and signified that the clerk was questioning the accuracy of the sentence or the trial date.)
N.B. this is the only document in the Colony stating a date of trial for Laurence- the “Remarks: Que” probably refers to the clerk questioning his trial date; it is notable in the Musters that the clerk has written the trial dates of many of the rebels as March 1798. Laurence’s trial record states his actual trial date as beginning Dec 10th, 1800.

4)   The National Archives of Ireland searchable online database of transportations to Australia, and convict trial records, only has approximately 17 records for the convicts on the Atlas (2), most of whom were Rebels. The records that still exist are those rebels for whom there were appeals from family and friends, mostly wives. Official trial records of many of the rebels transported, (if they existed) have been lost or destroyed. Laurence is not listed on this database.

5)     The only official Australian archives record of Laurence’s involvement in the Rebellion was his statement in his Memorial to the Governor in 1812, which stated “ That your Petitioner was sent to this Country for the unfortunate affair of the Rebellion in Ireland in the Year 1798…” Trial records were not sent with the prisoners on the “Atlas 2”.

6)     The National Library of Ireland has a copy of the manuscript documenting the eye-witness accounts at Laurence Butler’s court martial on Dec. 10th , NLI, Ms.17, 795 (4), transcribed above. The manuscript was bought by the Library in 1973 from a Dublin bookseller, who obtained it with some Solicitor’s papers.  The National Archives document of Butler's arraignment is dated 1st December 1800. (NAI, 620/17/25). There is no record of his trial at the Archives.

None of the above records state, or even indicate, where he was imprisoned before embarkation on the ‘Atlas’. Given that he embarked at Waterford not Cork, it would indicate that he was imprisoned in close proximity.

As Laurence Butler’s records state his Trial Place was Wexford Town, and his trial papers state he ‘got out of Wexford Gaol’, he would have initially been imprisoned in Wexford Gaol. After his conviction he would have been transferred to either Duncannon Fort or New Geneva Barracks. During the rebellion, the New Geneva Barracks was used as a holding centre for prisoners either awaiting transportation to New South Wales, or transference to the military and naval service.

New Geneva, near the part of Passage East in Waterford Harbour (opposite Duncannon Fort on the Wexford side of the harbor), was originally the site of a planned colony of Protestant settlers from Geneva that had failed to prosper.

Patrick Power in his “Courts Martial of 1798-9” explained:
 “Geneva Barracks- The concentration point for those who were sentenced to transportation was the great barracks at New Geneva near the port of Passage East in Waterford Harbour. Even today, the empty shell of this site of misery and servitude looks menacing on the horizon of this area of great natural beauty. This had been the site of a planned colony of Protestant settlers from Geneva that had failed to prosper and was used as both barracks and holding centre for transportees. Some of them were being pressed into army and naval service, others were sent to Prussia as recruits and the majority were sent to the penal colony in Australia
Captain De Schouler (a Prussian who came to Ireland in 1799 to procure 300 recruits) concludes his letter of 30th October by stating that the barracks at New Geneva was crowded with prisoners with “Hardly any room for the fresh ones, and illnesses might break in the coming winter as a result he predicted. On the 8th Sept 1799 a transport with 318 United Irishmen on board left for Prussia.[i]

Other prisoners were held in tenders at Duncannon Fort on Waterford Estuary in Co Wexford.
The Transportation Database Petition on behalf of another rebel, Michael Brenan states that he was imprisoned on the “‘Alexander, New Geneva”, which was probably the name of one of the prison hulks in Waterford Harbour.[ii]
A letter from Major John Fawcett, commander of the fort, dated 20th October 1798 sought payment from the government for clothing prisoners in board the prison ship “Princess” that lay off the fort. The amount was £861..3s. Each man received the following:
A grey or blue frieze jacket costing 18s 10d, a grey frieze pantaloon costing 6s, shoes at 7s7d a pair, a pair of stockings at 1s 10d, a round hat at 3s 3d. 
Each outfit cost £1..172..6d in all.
That seems to suggest that as many as 459 men were clothed in full, or more than that received some article of clothing.” [iii]

Many Wexford prisoners were incarcerated in Duncannon Fort on the east side of Waterford Harbour, or in the prison hulks alongside.
Many were then transferred across the Harbour to Geneva Barracks south east of Waterford, for trial and sentencing. Laurence’s lifelong friend, Michael Hayes, who had been arrested and tried in July 1798 for administering the Oath and for being a United Irishman, was himself imprisoned at Geneva Barracks before his transportation in late 1799, along with Father James Dixon. As Laurence embarked on the ‘Atlas 2’ at Waterford before sailing from Cork, two years after Hayes, it is likely he was imprisoned in one of these places. So many years spent in one of these prisons would have been an horrendous experience, especially as Laurence was not a young man. The following information will give an idea of what that experience would have been like.


The Croppies were held in Duncannon Fort before going to Geneva Barracks.
 (NB. The term ‘Croppies’ refers to the rebels, many of whom wore their hair in a distinctive short cropped style, to display their allegiance to the cause.)
 The fort itself had a comparatively quiet time during the Rebellion. It was commanded by Major- General Fawcett and was a refuge for those Royalists who did not see eye to eye with the Insurgents. But one fine day in June, Fawcett marched out at the head of a company hoping to reach Wexford and near the famous “Three Rocks”, his advance guard was attacked and defeated by John Kelly of Killane and he turned tail back to Duncannon, where he stayed for the rest of the campaign and wreaked his vengeance on captured Insurgents before sending them to New Geneva.
Duncannon Fort is a star shaped fortress on an important promontory in Waterford Harbour. It was built in 1558, in the expectation of an attack on the area by the Spanish Armada. The Fort is surrounded by a 30ft high dry moat and has one of the oldest lighthouses of its kind in Ireland. All the major buildings in the Fort surround a parade ground . Located at a lower level than the moat is the croppy boy cell. (known as the Croppies Cell- many of the Rebels were known as Croppies after their distinctive haircut- they showed their allegiance to the cause by cutting their hair very short in the style of the French Revolutionaries). After the 1798 rebellion, prisoners were detained here pending transfer to Geneva Barracks for trial and sentencing.”[iv]


New Geneva Barracks is around 5-6 miles from Waterford City on the western side of Waterford Harbour opposite Duncannon Fort. The nearest settlement/village is Crooke.

The following information on New Geneva was written by Thomas P. Walsh:
 “The traveller passes by the rectangular area of land known as Geneva Barracks or New Geneva, about a mile from the village of Passage, and near the headland of Crooke, and facing Duncannon Fort and historic Waterford Harbour. The enclosure contains an area of about eleven acres surrounded by a stone wall of about ten to twelve feet enclosing a farmstead. (It was enclosed by a high stone wall with flanking towers at the angles.) It occupies a commanding site over the harbour. Begun as a new settlement for Swiss refugees, which failed to eventuate, New Geneva was converted into a military barracks to augment the defences already at Passage and Duncannon. It was built to provide accommodation for additional troops in New Ross (36 horse), Duncannon (292 foot), and New Geneva (440 foot). Barracks were built for them or added to if they already existed.

In 1798, New Geneva sprang into prominence as a detention centre for captured insurgents. Many were captured and lodged in Duncannon Fort and were then shipped across the river to Geneva Barracks, where they were kept and many tortured, before being tried and condemned to such places as Fort St. George and other dungeons in England and Scotland, or were transported. One of the most famous Insurgents to be imprisoned in Geneva was Thomas Cloney (a prominent leader during the uprising in Wexford), before being sent to Fort St. George, and he tells us in his own narrative of 1798 that he carried for life the marks of the chains he wore in Geneva. Thomas Cloney arrived at Geneva in a gunboat from New Ross.”

Thomas Cloney stated in his account of Geneva that “the Barracks formed a damp and loathsome place and offered no comfort at all to its inmates.
I met many of my former acquaintances there”, he said, “our first night was one of gloomy foreboding. There may possibly have been higher degrees in human misery than I had yet suffered, but I was not prepared to encounter them. The filth all around us and the intolerable smell in our sleeping place baffles description.
At one stage there were 1,200 prisoners within the walls of Geneva and overcrowding led to violence, disorders and fevers. Geneva got a bad reputation for cruelty to prisoners awaiting transportation. Amongst those who were tortured and lashed was a Fr. Dixon, a curate from Castlebridge, who was transported to Australia. There were many dramatic attempts to escape from the barracks. Escaping by making a tunnel under the walls did not succeed after a prolonged effort.
The clay from this tunnelling effort was taken out by the prisoner’s wives- under their dresses! Another prisoner escaped under a load of horse manure being taken out in a cart.[v]

P.M. Egan in his Guide to Waterford 1895 has the following reference to the barrack:
“Upon closer examination, finding, as it is alleged, the remains of the blood of the numerous heads, which were stuck on these walls, spoken of as still to be observed, the interest attached to the place becomes rather intense.  Report of 1811 noted that New Geneva was capable of accommodating 62 officers and 1728 infantry. Rectangular enclosure 850x800 feet with later corner bastions. There were barracks buildings parallel to each wall with a parade ground in the centre. The corner bastions are provided with musket laps. The remaining walls are between 9 and 12 feet high including about 3 feet of later stonework.”

A United Irishman, Andrew Bryson was arrested and punished with compulsory enlistment in the regular army. He escaped and wrote a letter from New York in 1801 to his sister detailing his experiences in 1798. His description and incarceration at New Geneva Barrack is an important and unique contemporary record of the place:
“ I shall now endeavour to give as just a representation of the place of our confinement as I can. The ground, enclosed by an 18 feet wall, was about 12 acres directly square and at each corner was a position (bastion?) now converted into coal yards. In the centre of the square, fronting the sea, was a large gate, on the outside of which, at a distance of 10 yards was Che Va de frise erected between which and the gate, the guard was placed. At the distance of 12 yards from the wall stood the barracks, the four sides of which were divided in the middle to allow the men to pass to the pumps etc. which were at the rear. One of the sides the officers occupied, one which we occupied, one and the half the soldiers and the other half was made into two hospitals, one for the soldiers and one for the cropeys. In the open opposite the gate has the market, the back ground from which to the extremity of the culprit’s square was closed in with railing 6 feet high, spiked on top, and into this yard we were put at 8 o’clock in the morning. At 11 o’clock we came into breakfast. As soon as we had finished which, we were turned out again till dark, leaving in each room one man to buy provisions, another to cook it. The rooms were allowed to contain 18 men. Our pay was 6d per day, 2d of which we received in bread, so we had but 4d to buy everything else we wanted. Beef was 3d per lb and potatoes 4d- 5d per stone, cabbage 3d-6d per head.” [vi]

Laurence endured a couple of years of extreme discomfort, punishment and hardship in one of these places of imprisonment. As he was imprisoned for nearly two years, he most likely spent most of the time in New Geneva Barracks.
Living through this ordeal must have been very difficult- overcrowding, living in filthy conditions, enduring cruel treatment with floggings and torture to gain information, or for punishment for rule infringements, executions resulting in the sickening site of heads displayed on spikes, meagre food supplies, endless boredom locked in a yard for hours on end with nothing to occupy them often resulting in frequent arguments and fights between inmates, and attacks on fellow inmates, guards and even visitors including female prisoners. One wonders if Laurence’s wife Catherine and any of the children they may have had, visited him during his time there.

According to reports, eighteen men occupied each room, and each morning they, along with 1200 other prisoners, were turned out into the yard until dark fell, with nothing to occupy themselves. Their bedding consisted of straw thrown on the floor, which would have been changed infrequently and would have housed a variety of vermin- a hard and uncomfortable sleeping surface for a man nearing 50, used to the comforts of life and a comfortable bed and thick mattress. Eighteen men sharing a slop pail in the corner of the cell which was probably only emptied once in the early morning, would have created an intolerable smell, particularly when any of them developed a stomach complaint, as they would on their meagre and unbalanced diet, accompanied by their filthy and unhygienic living conditions. As water and cleaning items would have been scarce, they would have lived in a state of personal filth, which would have added to the stench.[vii] Two years in this hell-hole must have been intolerable and mind-numbing. No wonder, many of the prisoners, bored out of their brains, took out their frustrations on their fellow prisoners, the guards and visitors. Laurence had two years to sit and contemplate the hand that fate had dealt him, which had deprived him of his family and his comfortable, peaceful way of life. One wonders if he was filled with regret and bitterness that he had been encouraged to join in the struggle. Many of those who encouraged him to participate were now dead and gone- Fr. John Murphy, Mat Cavanagh, Anthony Perry, Edward Roche and Fr. Philip Roche. He must have spent hour upon hour thinking about the events that had brought him to this state of miserable existence. He would have lain awake at night, attempting to block out the snores around him, thinking about the comfortable bed he shared with his wife for over twenty years. In the cold Wexford winters, he probably thought about the comforts and the cosy fireplace he had enjoyed and had taken for granted at his home. He would have tried to visualise the pretty countryside he looked upon from his home in Ferns, instead of the reality of the dreary walls of his prison enclosure.
He must have also worried about the welfare of his wife whom he could no longer support, and burdened by the knowledge that he had brought her to this state. Hopefully, any children they may have had together were able to care for her. However, it is possible that any sons or sons-in-law were in a similar situation, as they also would have been Catholic and probably caught up in the rebellion themselves. As the property of rebels was subject to confiscation, Catherine would no longer even have had her home to live in, and her source of family income was now gone.

In the aftermath of the rebellion, there would have been many years of deprivation in the county of Wexford, as so many houses were destroyed, farms left to rack and ruin, shortages of food and other commodities, distrust and hatred between neighbours and former friends, between Protestants and Catholics, and so many families deprived of their menfolk and breadwinners. Many Catholic chapels were burned and destroyed in the months and years just after the Rebellion. Therefore, life in Wexford would have been very hard for wives like Catherine, who was also past her prime, and unable to work for her living.

Edward Hay, a Catholic gentleman of Wexford, who was active politically before the Rebellion, in trying to agitate for Catholic relief, and played an active role being in charge of the armory supplies in Wexford Town during the rebel occupation, for which he escaped prosecution even though his brother John Hay was executed, wrote a book about his experiences, following the Rebellion: “General Lake previous to his departure from Wexford appointed a committee to superintend prosecutions and to grant passes to leave the county, consisting of the principal gentlemen then resident there. The appropriate duty of this body was to inquire especially into the cases of such prisoners as they should hand over to be tried by court-martial, to procure the evidence for prosecution, and to commit different persons to gaol. It was not, however, deemed necessary to send a committal to the gaoler, as the word of any of them was considered sufficient for the detention of any of those given in custody; and they were also to act as a kind of council to General Hunter, whose benevolent disposition they thwarted on several occasions; and this was so well known that many upon being put into confinement were induced by their apprehensions to petition for transportation rather than abide a trial under their direction. The tyrannical, unjust, and inhuman disposition of this body is strongly exemplified in their unwarrantable treatment of many besides myself. Different court-martials were instituted in Ross, Enniscorthy, Gorey and Newtownbarry, and several persons were condemned and executed, and others were sentenced to transportation.” [viii]

As the Irish Transportation Database does not have a record of anyone petitioning for Laurence Butler’s release, such as his wife, it is possible that Laurence may have himself petitioned for transportation, following his trial, as suggested by Hay. (The database has a record of Michael Hayes’ wife Eleanor  petitioning for her husband’s release.) This may explain why there does not appear to be any record of his trial date in the Australian Archive’s records, and why there is no page attached to his trial document, giving the tribunal’s final judgement.
Alternatively, he may have come to the conclusion that transportation was a better alternative than spending the rest of his life in jail, and therefore decided not to petition.
It is also possible that the military Court may have sentenced Laurence to death for the murder of Grimes, and that the sentence was commuted to transportation for life. This would also explain the lack of a petition.

© B. A. Butler

Contact email address:  butler1802   @hotmail.com  (NB. no spaces)

Link back to Introduction:

Links to all the chapters in this blog:

The 1798 rebellion
Laurence Butler's trial for his role in the Rebellion
Analysis of Butler's trial
Laurence Butler at the Battle of Tubberneering
Laurence Butler's imprisonment
Butler's life and family in Wexford
Laurence Butler's transportation to Sydney in 1802 on the Atlas 2
Conditions on Convict Ships
Life as a convict in Sydney
Laurence Butler's property investments in Pitt Street Sydney
Sydney Town in 1800-1810
Laurence Butler's petitions to the Governor
Laurence Butler's 100 acre land grant in District of Petersham
Butler's membership of the Commercial Society of Sydney
Laurence Butler's court cases
Laurence Butler's business interests in Sydney
Laurence Butler's cabinet making business
Laurence Butler's property investments in Sydney
Laurence Butler's colonial family
Laurence Butler's death in 1820
Laurence Butler's issue- Walter, Lawrence Junior and Mary Ann
The Catholic Community of Sydney up until 1820
Genealogy- Butler's possible ancestry and possible descendants in Ireland, and BDM records
Butler's fellow Irish rebels transported to Sydney
Conclusion about the life of Laurence Butler

[i] Patrick C. Power, The Courts Martial of 1798-9, Irish Historical Press Kilkenny 1997, p33-34
[ii] The National Archives of Ireland, searchable online Database of Transportations to Australia
[iii]  Patrick C. Power, op.cit, p34
[iv] Waterford County Museum, 1798 Rebellion and Waterford, Historical Articles, 2001,
[v]  Thomas Cloney, Personal Narrative of Those Transactions in the County of Wexford, in which the Author was engaged during the awful period of 1798, Dublin, 1832 , p.133
[vi]  Michael Durey (ed), Andrew Bryson’s Ordeal- An Epilogue to the 1798 Rebellion, Cork University Press 1998,  pp. 54-67
[vii]  Conditions in New Geneva sourced from: Brendan Whiting, Victims of Tyranny, Harbour Publishing NSW, 2004
[viii]  Edward Hay, History of the Irish Insurrection of 1798, Dublin, 1898, orig. pub in 1802, p. 253