Tracing James Camm, hung for piracy in Hobart 1832

It was a slight shock to discover I was descended from the man who may well be the last person in the British Empire to be (legally) hung for piracy. James Camm was hanged at Hobart in April 1832 for his part in the prisoner mutiny and piracy of the brig Cyprus from Recherche Bay in 1829. Piracy ceased to be a capital offence in the British Empire in 1837, although the new offence of Piracy with violence became a capital offence and remained so until late in the 20th century. Two of Camm’s fellow pirates hanged at Execution Dock in London in 1831 were the last people hung for piracy in Great Britain. A fellow escapee was sentenced to death for his part in the piracy of the Cyprus in Hobart six months after Camm, but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and he was transferred to Norfolk Island.

When I have outlined the story of the Cyprus to people they have suggested that it has the makings of a ripping yarn and should be written up. And that thought has occurred to a number of people before now; Marcus Clarke For the term of his natural life and Richard Flanagan Gould’s book of fish (2001) have dealt partially with these events in their novels about the Macquarie Harbour penal settlement. A number of more factual accounts are provided in Warwick Hirst The man who stole the Cyprus (2009) and Chapter 11 of John Mulvaney The axe had never sounded: place, people and heritage of Recherché Bay, Tasmania (2007). Mulvaney is fairly dismissive about the factual accuracy of an earlier effort from Clune and Stevenson, The pirates of the brig Cyprus (1962), which he describes as undocumented ‘faction’. Further, Mulvaney tells us that David Sissons has disproved one of the assertions of the pirates that they sailed to Japan in a recent paper in the Journal of Pacific History.

All of which is of interest to fans of the 19th century ripping yarn and those tracking their family history links to James Camm and Mary Barnett, convicts of Hobart Town, Van Diemen’s Land. What I found most interesting in following up this family history by-way involving a minor convict celebrity was the sheer availability of information which can now be tracked on the internet.

The obvious sources of family history such as the Church of the Latter Day Saints who are concerned with retrospectively converting our ancestors to Mormonism and their and products, including online British census material, fairly quickly become obvious to family history researchers and make the research process considerably easier than it would once have been. A friend has passed on horror stories about trying to find a beer in Salt Lake City while doing some family research 20 years ago, pre-Internet.  Apparently things have moved on in Utah, in some ways.

My family research has involved checking the microfiche and online proprietary databases at the State Library of Victoria to confirm the events (Marriage, Birth, Death) and then purchasing the relevant certificate to glean further information about the preceding generation. Marriage certificates in the colony of Victoria in the 19th century gave details about the parents of the respective spouses, who could then be tracked back for another generation. The trick is to locate ancestors back in the UK once you have determined that there is no further Australian information to be gleaned from migration, electoral and convict records.

If you are lucky enough to have an unusual name you can triangulate the family location by searching family name across the UK at the various Censuses and narrowing the location to the one which has the relevant spouse and child names, checked against their age. This worked for the fairly rare name Hastie, but was less successful when trying to locate a John and James Turner.

The Tasmanian government convict archives are a wonderful resource as it is possible to confirm the presence of convicts in Van Diemen’s Land and New South Wales at the various Convict Musters at the State Library. If they were sentenced to Tasmania, you are then able to look up their Convict records at home as the original books have been scanned and are readily available.

An additional resource which may be useful searching for information about notable family members are the increasingly available scanned copies of old Australian newspapers, including a complete run of the Melbourne Argus, which was  a serious journal of record for over 100 years until 1957. The most interesting journal for my purposes was the Hobart Town Courier Saturday May 5, 1832 which had an article describing the execution of James Camm.  R. v Cam & Denner is seen as a significant criminal case and it has been digitised by Macquarie University and the Tasmanian Supreme Court.

The upshot of all this material being available is that we may now know more than people in the intervening generations about the lives of our ancestors. My mother set me off on this search by explaining that she knew little of her mother’s side of the family. This in itself is a clue here in Australia where 20th century ‘respectability’ was at pains to deny the convict past. There are stories of records of convicts having been tampered with in the past to try and obscure the ‘convict stain’ in the family tree. Even the mention of a connection to Van Diemen’s Land was construed as code for ‘bad blood’ in that era. It may be that James Camm (junior) really did know little of his family history. He described his father as a labourer and his mother as unknown on his marriage certificate. He probably did know of his famous father, hung for piracy when he was eleven and watched by a large crowd, but his mother vanished from the records after 1827. In any case, in that era he would have been unlikely to talk about his shameful parents and so the knowledge was buried from view, hopefully forever as far as he was concerned.


About Greg

Middle aged male, resident at the finest of all latitudes, 37. Reputedly an indoor cricketer.
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12 Responses to Tracing James Camm, hung for piracy in Hobart 1832

  1. Pingback: Black Jack Anderson | Greg Tangey

  2. s aitken says:

    James Camm was my paternal great grandmothers grandfather. She was Elizabeth Camm James Camm Juniors daughter. His wife Mary Barnett aka Mary Barrett transported from Dublin for stealing fabric in 1816 married in 1816 was found dead in bed murdered supposedly . I have found most of the information on my ancestors at Tasmanian Archives Online.

    • gregtangey says:

      I have read somewhere (perhaps Notorious Strumpets, or an online thesis?) that Mary was something of a poster girl for drunken Irish prostitutes, but I have not followed this up. I hadn’t heard that she was murdered in her bed. Is there a good idea of who did it? Her marital history with James as detailed in their convict records was mercurial, to say the least, for a few years before that. Any information greatly appreciated

  3. Rachel Burns says:

    Hi would be interested to know your connection to James Camm as I have recently discovered him too after years of failing to find any convict ancestry. My great grandmother, Ada Bateson was his great grand-daughter. I can’t find that Mary Barnett was murdered. I imagine her alcohol intake would have taken care of that.

    • Greg says:

      Hi Rachel James Camm junior came to the Victorian goldfields and seems to have worked as a farm laborer. He married Mary Ann Hopkins (Austin, a widow aged 30) in 1865 when he was about 44. From there my line of descent is through three female generations who lived in St Arnaud.
      I looked for evidence of James junior in Hobart but could find no mention of him in the orphanage records of the 1820’s and 1830’s. The children of James senior and Mary were very young when they lost contact with their parents. Both were gone from James juniors life by the age of 6 at the latest.

    • S Aitken says:


      Ada Bateson is my grandfathers sister she married a William Mooney and lived in Maffra, Victoria.
      They had five children I believe.

      • Rachel Burns says:

        Hi S. Aitken, Thanks, one of their children was my grandmother. I have just visited Box Hill cemetery in Melbourne for the grave of Mary Ann Austin, who was Ada’s grandmother.
        Quite a remarkable woman who migrated here from England, bore children on the goldfields and had three husbands.

  4. Lesley says:

    I have been researching this family/event for for around 20 years – on and off. James Camm and Mary Barnett had three sons – William 1818, James 1821 and Richard 1823. Mary was found dead in her bed in a state of undress in 1827, about two weeks after being placed in the stocks for six hours. I have not seen anything to substantiate that she was murdered but it appears the inquest records are no longer available. in 1828, only the two older boys were living with their father in Harrington St, Hobart. Nothing further is known of the youngest, Richard, but the name was carried by further generations. There is one piece of information suggesting Richard was on the Victorian goldfields with his two brothers at one stage. James snr. was about 5′ 6½” tall, with dark brown hair and blue eyes. It has been said he was transported for being a pick pocket, but this seems to be an error in transcribing his description of “pock pitted”. After being hanged at the old Hobart Town Gaol, I believe he was buried in what was then St. David’s Cemetery, Hobart’s first burial ground; now St. David’s Park. Re Mary Barnett, early observations of Irish convict women argue that many were “utterly irreclaimable, worthless, abandoned human beings”. Whether or not Mary was an alcoholic and/or prostitute is subject to conjecture, nevertheless, Mary represented a large proportion of convict women. I believe Mary would also have been interred at St. David’s Cemetery.

    • Greg says:

      Thanks Lesley I think you are right about “pock pitted”. Everything I have seen suggests there is no record of James snr original offense.

      • Lesley says:

        LDS now have Kent quarter sessions on their database but must be a member to view or do at their family history search rooms. So with great anticipated I went to find the records are filmed, but not indexed. Went through them but disappointingly nothing there for our man. It will happen eventually.

    • Rachel Burns says:

      Thanks Lesley, was just asked where James senior was buried recently. Are you aware that we have put a headstone on James Camm junior burial spot at the Buninyong Cemetery? I thought he deserved a marker as he had a tough life, born of convicts, no education etc.

  5. Lesley says:

    That’s wonderful Rachel. I was thinking about that fairly recently as have just moved to Ballarat. Will go out to Buninyong the week after next and have a look. Yes, he did deserve a marker – everyone does. When I found it years ago, I was not surprised there was nothing, but I was saddened. Thank you. Have just started a new group for this family, you all might be interested in sharing

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