[Editor: A report on the Castle Hill rebellion of 1804. Published in The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 11 March 1804.]
At half past eleven o’clock on Sunday night an express was received by His Excellency, from Captain Abbot, Commanding Officer at Parramatta, with intelligence that the Prisoners at Public Labour at Castle Hill, and the Settlers men, were in a state of Insurrection, and had already committed many daring Outrages: Sydney was instantaneously alarmed, the Military and Inhabitants were under Arms, and the Captain, Officers, Marines, and Ships Company of His Majesty’s Ship Calcutta came on shore, in Ten minutes after the alarm was given, and by the Governor’s Orders all Horses throughout the Town were held in requisition.
At a quarter past Twelve Lieut. Hobby brought in an account of the outrages committed at Castle Hill, stating the Insurgents to be in great force and advancing towards Parramatta in different directions. His Excellency gave Orders for the necessary measures be promptly adopted, and leaving His Honor the Lieutenant-Governor in Command at Sydney, got on Horseback and proceeded unattended towards Parramatta, but was overtaken near Major Johnston’s by the Provost Marshal, four Troopers, and several confidential Persons mounted. One of the Troopers was despatched to the Major from His Excellency, requesting him to take Command of a Company of the New South Wales Corps, then on their march from Sydney; the Governor with his small retinue proceeding onwards to Parramatta, where he arrived without interruption at 4 in the morning, when he received information from Capt. Abbot, that a great body of the Insurgents all armed, were at Park Gate, at the West Entrance of Parramatta. Major Johnston with the Detachment arrived at Parramatta Barracks at 5 o’clock; & after himself, Officers, and soldiers, had taken a hasty refreshment, they proceeded to Government House for Orders. From the imperious necessity of putting an immediate & effectual stop to the progress of the Insurgents, the Governor issued a Proclamation declaring Martial Law, as stated in the front Page.
As information was received that the Insurgents were in several bodies, Major Johnston with Quarter-Master Laycock, & 25 Non-Commissioned Officers and Privates of the New South Wales Corps, accompanied by a Trooper and several of the Constables & Inhabitants, at half past 6 proceeded by way of Toongabbee; Lieutenant Davis with an equal number of Soldiers proceeded along the Castle Hill Road, that place being appointed for the Rendezvous, in case nothing should occur to make those Officers alter the directions they went under. Major Johnston on arriving at Toongabbee received information that a considerable Body were on their way to the Hawkesbury: Notwithstanding the fatigue of his small Detachment in marching up from Sydney, and the distance they had gone since, they immediately ran in good order, with their followers, and after a pursuit of Seven Miles farther, Major Johnston and a Trooper, who had preceeded the Detachment came up with the rear of the Insurgents at 11 o’clock, whose numbers have since been ascertained to be 233 men, armed with Musquets, Pistols, Swords, &c. and a number of followers which they had taken from the Settlers.
After calling to them repeatedly they halted, and formed on the rise of a Hill: The Major and Trooper advanced within pistol shot, and endeavoured to persuade them to submit to the Mercy that was offered them by the Proclamation, which they refused. The Major required to see their Chiefs, who after some deliberation met them half way. between the Detachment and Insurgents, when by a great presence of mind and address the Major presented his Pistol at the head of the Principal leader (Philip Cunningham) and the Trooper following his motions, presented his Pistol also to the other leader’s head, (Wm. Johnston) and drove them into the Detachment without the least opposition from the body of the Insurgents. Major Johnston immediately ordered Quarter-Master Laycock to advance with the Detachment, &c and cut the body to pieces, which immediately filed off and fled in all directions, pursued by the Detachment and followers, several shots were fired by the Insurgents without effect.
As the pursuit was along the Road & on each side in the Woods, the number of dead are not yet ascertained; nine Bodies were found about the Road, and several were known to be killed in the pursuit through the Woods. A number were overtaken and made Prisoners, among whom was the Leader (Philip Cunningham), who was to all appearances left dead on the Road. The pursuit continued on to the Hawkesbury where the Detachment arrived at 4 in the afternoon with several Prisoners, after a forced march, or rather running 35 Miles; Lieutenant Davis being joined by Lieutenant Brabyn with a reinforcement of thirty Soldiers joined the Major at 9 o’clock that night.
Philip Cunningham the Principal leader, who was carried among the wounded to Hawkesbury, being still alive, and very properly considered by Major Johnston as a proper object to make an immediate example of, by virtue of the Martial Law that then existed, and the discretionary power given him by His Excellency, and after taking the opinion of the Officers about him, directed him to be publicly executed on the Stair Case of the Public Store, which he had boasted in his march he was going to plunder.
As the principal Body was dispersed, the Detachment returned to Parramatta on Wednesday morning with a great number of Prisoners taken in Arms; and on Thursday morning received His Excellency’s personal Approbation and Thanks for their animated and Soldier-like Conduct & great perseverance in the fatigues they had undergone.
Several of the Insurgents, armed with musquets of which they had stripped the Settlers, commanded by Humes, having missed joining the main body, were concealed about the Castle Hill Road, which occupied the attention of the Detachment and Association at Parramatta. After the defeat, the Insurgents took advantage of the Proclamation, which extended Grace to those who gave themselves up in 24 hours, & great numbers were constantly coming in and delivering themselves up from noon on Monday, and others were brought in Prisoners with their Arms, by Lieutenants Davis and Brabyn’s Parties.
It appears that this conspiracy had been in agitation upwards of a Month, but unlike all other attempts of the kind was kept a profound secret until two days previous to its breaking out: Capt. Abbot and the Rev. Mr. Marsden then received information, which they transmitted to Head Quarters; but as so many things of the kind had been in agitation before, and never could be brought to a point, no other notice was taken of it than using common precautions.
Every arrangement that was made by these infatuated people sufficiently evinced, that some persons yet unknown but not unsuspected at Sydney and Parramatta, had the principal direction of these plans, and were only waiting the success of Cunningham’s exertions.
The alarm began at Castle Hill about 8 o’clock on Sunday night, where there are upwards of 200 Irish Prisoners, (sent here for Seditious Practices in Ireland), by setting a House on fire and ringing the Bell, when Cunningham appeared as the avowed leader, vociferating the cries of “Death or Liberty!” and assuring those who were joining him, (and others who say they were compelled), that Sydney and Parramatta were in their possession, that they had nothing to do but obey his orders and plunder the Settlers of their Arms (for which purpose parties were sent off in different directions) and after being united, to march to Hawkesbury, where they were assured of their force being augmented to 1100 men, with which they were to return to Castle Hill on Tuesday morning to breakfast, march to Parramatta, for the possession of which two well known disaffected persons were to be answerable; and after planting the Tree of Liberty at Government House, they were to proceed to Sydney, the possession of which was also supposed secured by three disaffected characters, and then embark on board the Ships, which would also be ready to receive them.
Such a tale, joined to the principles of the body he was haranguing, removed all doubt, & such was the activity of the different Parties, that every Settler in the wide extended range from the Field of Mars round by Parramatta, Baulkham and Seven Hills, Prospect Hill, and Toongabbee, were completely stripped of their Arms and Ammunition by Six in the Morning, which in their contest with Major Johnston amounted to 136 Musquets, fourteen Pistols, and a great number of swords, bayonets on poles, and pitch-forks: and there is little doubt that if any of the prompt measures that were adopted on the exigence of the moment had been omitted, the Banditti would have increased their numbers and strength considerably at the Hawkesbury, where they were going, Seconded the Plans of their concealed directors, and given confidence to those who were then wavering or waiting for the Insurgents’ success, and what added greatly to the check given, by the main body being routed, was the circumstance of the 50 armed men under Humes and 70 under Johnson having lost themselves.
Several parties of Settlers and others now pursued the Insurgents in all directions; and from Monday noon to Friday evening upwards of 300 were taken or gave themselves up, most of whom were dismissed and sent to their respective labour, with caution and reprimand. Ten of those who were selected from upwards of 200, as being most forward, including the two leaders Johnstone and Humes were tried on Thursday at Parramatta by a General Court Martial, when they were all sentenced to be hanged — Johnstone and Humes to be hung in Chains: A part of the Sentence was carried into execution at 6 o’clock on Thursday evening, upon Humes, Charles Hill, and John Place, who acknowledged the justice of their sentence. Humes gave much important information, respecting the secret Contrivers; and on Friday morning Johnston, Harrington, and Neale were executed at Castle Hill, Johnstone giving a similar information to Hume’s; and on Saturday Brannan and Hogan suffered at Sydney, Burke and M’Cormick being Reprieved. Five others received Corporal Punishment; and about thirty were ordered to the different Gaol-gangs until they can be otherwise disposed of.
Thus ended a sudden Insurrection, that was as unexpected as it is decidedly put an end to by the great assistance given to the measures which the exigency of the moment required.
On Friday afternoon Major Johnston’s Detachment marched into Sydney, where they were received by the Regiment, and dismissed amidst the gratulations of their Comrades and Spectators; and
On Saturday morning His Excellency arrived at Sydney, after repealing Martial Law in the Interior. On his arrival at the Regimental Parade he was received by Lieut. Col. Paterson at the head of the New South Wales Corps under arms, and received the military Honours due to his Situation.
The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (Sydney, NSW), Sunday 11 March 1804, pages 2-3
[Editor: The original text has been separated into paragraphs.]