The Port Macquarie Bicentennial Database

Legacy Project



  The Life and Death of the Port Macquarie Penal Station: A Bicentennial History Workshop

 10th April 2021



One of the great things about conferences is the way they generate ideas and foster further collaboration. In the halcyon pre-Covid days of 2019 the AHA conference, in Toowoomba, attracted an unusual number of convict scholars. Those of us working on penal stations were particularly well represented. Accordingly, Professor Raymond Evans, Dr Richard Tuffin and I combined to present papers on Moreton Bay, Port Arthur and Newcastle respectively,  reflecting a networked academic response to a networked system of punishment. Professor Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, the historian of Macquarie Harbour and, more lately, of Port Arthur was the obvious chair. Meanwhile, in other streams, Professor David Roberts presented on Port Macquarie and Dr Katie Roscoe outlined her new project on Cockatoo Island. Secondary punishment research prospects are looking bright.


The conference was also remarkable for the number of digital scholars working in the broader field of crime and punishment. Professor Mark Finnane, of the Queensland Prosecution Project, chaired a roundtable session entitled ‘Digital Histories of Crime: what they are; what they tell us and what they promise.’ With a paper from his former student, Dr Alana Piper, describing her work with citizen historians in Victoria; Professor Barry Godfrey of the University of Liverpool offering the insights of comparative criminology and finally Hamish Maxwell-Stewart bringing us up to date with his remarkable Tasmanian data, this session did exactly what it says on the tin. Before we departed Toowoomba Mark Finnane summoned the colonial and criminal justice scholars for an informal meeting on the future of digital history in Australia. I felt something of an imposter, given that my digital ability is limited to a key word search on Trove, but even I was aware of the zeitgeist in the room. Digital History is no longer an optional extra because, one way or another, it underpins all our endeavours.


Over the course of the sort of chats that occur in pubs, Hamish reminded David and me that the Port Macquarie Bicentennial was imminent and, we all agreed that we could and should make a contribution. I had recently visited and presented a paper at Port Macquarie so I was familiar with the impressive work of the Family History Society. Moreover, I had long been aware of the no less impressive museum and its associated historical society, with whom I had corresponded in the nineties, when we were trying to save the recently excavated site of the Commandant’s house from development (we were, of course, unsuccessful).


It was clear that the existence of two very active history societies and a uniquely gifted population of citizen historians, with impeccable digital credentials, made Port Macquarie the ideal place to launch a new digital history project for New South Wales and the bicentennial was surely the obvious time to do it.


We outlined our pitch to the societies and after many months of planning and discussion we are delighted to be staging this event under the auspices of the PMDFHS, whose efforts on our behalf have ensured we have the support of the Port Macquarie Council. We are most grateful for the committee’s hard work and local expertise. It is a privilege to collaborate with such an energetic and experienced group of family historians. By now the original academic gang of three – Hamish, David and I had expanded to include Perry McIntyre, whose scholarly interests, and familial links with Port Macquarie made her a natural choice. We all felt that the Birpai perspective was vital to the integrity and success of the event and Dr John Heath, a Birpai Elder, was accordingly invited to give the Keynote address. For many readers fiction is often the most immediate and visceral way to access the past. Meg Kenneally’s historical detective series began at the Port Macquarie penal station – and so we invited her to join us and revisit the scene and sources of her first novel (written in collaboration with her father Tom). Our final contributor is also the first. The late Dr Ian Duffield was a friend and mentor to both Hamish and I but, he was also the first academic historian to take a serious interest in the convicts of Port Macquarie. We therefore open proceedings with some of his unpublished work on a dramatic episode of convict resistance in 1825. In addition to laying the ground work for a new digital project we will each contribute a paper on aspects of our research, reflecting our various interests in the convict history of the penal station; the digital future of the convict past and the impact of European settlement on Birpai Country.


A further defining feature of this event is the active collaboration between local and family historians and university academics (and novelists). We all have a strong sense of community engagement and have a great deal of respect for the archival expertise of family historians—expertise that we have all, at times, relied on. In the last few decades family history has become an acknowledged and enriching theme in Australian historiography. Moreover, digital projects such as Founders and Survivors in Tasmania and The Prosecution Project in Queensland would have been impossible without them.


In preparing for this event I have also been reflecting on that earlier bicentennial. Tall ships with billowing sails and nary a convict in site and yet here we are, almost 30 years later, positively wallowing in our convict past and much of that generational shift in attitude is a consequence of the endeavours of family historians. The 1988 event was inevitably marked by controversy as the state and federal authorities attempted to navigate their way through histories of invasion on one hand, and histories of achievement on the other, and this remains our colonial conundrum. Prime Minister Bob Hawke was deliberately sensitive to the mood of indigenous Australians, while the historian Geoffrey Blainey railed against the erasure of British history. For others it was all about cricket and World Expo. How disconcertingly familiar all this sounds as we continue to grapple with these questions of colonial erasure and remembrance. Our event claims to offer no resolution to these complex questions, but we are ever conscious and respectful of this contested history. It is our simple aim to enrich community understanding of the beginnings and endings attached to Port Macquarie’s penal station past. More ambitiously, we also hope to respond to this bicentennial moment by launching a new digital research project and thus meet the challenge set by Mark Finnane in Toowoomba 2019.


We welcome your attendance in person (COVID willing) or via zoom on Saturday 10th April. But most of all we hope to forge a lasting spirit of community collaboration. The difficult questions raised by this landmark moment of remembering serve to emphasise the continuing importance of historical inquiry. The aim is not so much to celebrate or condemn, but rather to interrogate and acknowledge the past in all its painful and fascinating complexity. The revered historian Greg Denning, writing in the Australian Book Review in May 1996, characterised history not as memory but as remembering. “[It] is in the present participle. It is an action, something in process. The noun is closed down, defined. One has memories; one goes on remembering…. returning to the past in its own present moments - letting a world, petrified by hindsight, dance, sing, weep, tremble, doubt, believe.” In other words, he is exhorting us to approach such moments with an open-minded curiosity.


Hamish is fond of saying – “The past is a crime scene and it’s time to get forensic”! It is in this, facetiously apt, spirit of inquiry that we invite you to join us in the continuing adventures of CIS Port Macquarie! Together we can lay the ground work for a collaborative and creative research project, eventually encompassing the whole state.  This is a fitting Bicentennial legacy by any measure. After all, as the American philosopher William James observed, "The great use of a life is to spend it for something that outlasts it."


As further inspiration Hamish asked me to leave you with this—a verse by the French poet and philosopher Paul Valery on the magical possibilities of entering the archive….


It depends on those who pass

Whether I am a tomb or a treasure

Whether I speak or am silent

The choice is yours alone.

Friend do not enter without desire.

(Inscribed on the wall of a Parisian library & archive).


We look forward to your company at our bicentennial workshop and during the treasure hunt ahead!

Tamsin O’Connor 2021

Digital technologies provide a way of making sense of our history. The colonial archive is enormous and it is all too easy to get lost in a maze of leads, many of which prove to be dead ends or red herrings. Relational databases and other software solutions enable us to make sense of the past by joining together long lost pieces from the same puzzle, or on occasion, disconnecting information that has been incorrectly linked. In order to get the best out of these tools, however, we need to organise. Archivists, family and local historians and academics  need to work together to create a common set of guidelines for the way we handle information about the past. Without these it will be impossible to see the wood for the trees and we will risk creating a plethora of different data resources which don’t talk to each other. The rewards for developing a set of shared protocols are enormous. They provide an opportunity to improve the provenance of the nation, creating new archival and library research engines. They will also enable us to create stunning heritage visualisations and improve the quality of educational resources. The Port Macquarie Bicentenary offers an opportunity to look at ways in which we can develop the historical tools we need for the future.

Hamish Maxwell-Stewart 2021



In alphabetical order

The late Dr Ian Duffield


Biography taken from an obituary in the Guardian 10 June 2019.

“A brilliant historian of formidable intellect, [Ian Duffield] was a pioneer in the study of black British history. After a trip to Australia in the 1980s, and his discovery of the convict archives there, Ian took up the study of the transportation of black convicts from Britain and its empire to the Australian penal colonies. His innovative work on such “histories from below” added a missing dimension to social histories of the day, bringing the experiences of convicts to the fore. [He] laid the ground work for the current “global turn” in convict studies and new histories of empire from the perspective of the colonies. Over many years, Ian built up Edinburgh University’s historical collections and resources, and supported numerous undergraduates and PhD students, [including Hamish and Tamsin. He was a generous and brilliant man and we share his scholarship with pride].

The Life and Death of ‘Black’ John Goff: Aspects of the Black Convict Contribution to Resistance Patterns during the Transportation era in Eastern Australia

This is a paper Ian Duffield was writing in the late nineties or early 2000s, shortly before he shifted his research focus to convict piracy, which may partly explain why he left it unfinished. It focuses on a dramatic convict outbreak at Port Macquarie in June 1825. This was no simple escape attempt. The thirty or so convicts did not bolt for the bush but lingered to launch a series of raids on the out-stations of the settlement. The outbreak began with a stirring call for ‘Death or Liberty!’ and as ever the authorities would willingly meet those terms with musket and rope. We encounter some of Ian’s old friends, including the charismatic convicts Black John Goff and Thomas Brooks as he explains the cultural and economic contexts for their defiance. Indeed, these are life courses he had examined in greater detail in some of his published work. But what really interests him here is the nature of the outbreak itself and that evocative language of rebellion. Unfortunately, we have not yet recovered the sections on the language of betrayal and authority. Nevertheless, in this draft he takes us on a fascinating etymological journey relating events at Port Macquarie back to Castle Hill in 1804 and even to the Gordon Riots of 1780 and the great naval mutiny at Nore in 1797. He may have been drawing a long-ish bow but, Ian was a transnational historian before the term had even been coined, and he understood how empires worked and how old ideas and ancient angers were ballast on every convict transport ship. Ever the internationalist, he effectively demonstrates how this dramatic episode in the early history of Australian bushranging has global antecedents and an unexpectedly heterogeneous cast of rebellious convicts.
The late Ian Duffield,
The University of Edinburgh.
(As read and related by Tamsin O’Connor and Hamish Maxwell-Stewart)

Dr. John Heath


John Heath is a Birpai traditional owner with extensive experience in Australian Indigenous education, community development and community action research. He has published on the history the Aboriginal People in the Hunter Region and closer to home, he recently published Birpai: Beyond the Lens of Thomas Dick, in collaboration with the Port Macquarie Historical Society. His research into the Thomas Dick Photographic Collection has generated considerable interest locally, nationally and internationally. In 2019 John completed his PhD at the University of New England with his familial history thesis, The Seventh Generation: Exploring the journey of Charlotte (Birpai Goori woman) and James Bugg (her English convict husband), and their descendants through to today, with reflection on the law of the seven generations.

Birpai Traditional owner and independent scholar

2021: A Birpai Perspective on the Port Macquarie Penal Colony and its Aftermath


Non-Indigenous occupation of Birpai lands commenced in April 1821 with the landing of Captain Allman and his bulwark of Goories, convicts and soldiers. The Birpai, who had occupied and cared for these lands since time immemorial, did not simply vanish into the ether. Hence a complex co-existence, that continues to this day, commenced. A co-existence that included open hostilities, mutual co-operation, subjugation, and co-habitation. A co-existence at all times based on inequality and underlined by racism and discrimination. All were implemented through policies and practices of segregation, then assimilation, and more recently self-determination, self-management and reconciliation… all the while ignoring Birpai sovereignty.

The Birpai experience mirrored that of all other First Nations across Australia, including the impact of introduced diseases such as smallpox, influenza, venereal diseases and measles. Impact that was further exacerbated by the latent destruction of the environment. An environment intrinsically linked to Goori well-being.

Meg Keneally


Meg Keneally has had a long and varied career in public relations and journalism. She is also a full-time mother and a part-time scuba diving instructor. She is co-author with Tom Keneally of the Monsarrat Series. The adventures of the gentleman convict Hugh Monsarrat and his investigative side kick Hannah Mulrooney began at the penal station of Port Macquarie. Meg and Tom use this unlikely pair to guide readers through the fascinating geographies of colonial Australia and the mysteries they unravel are an imaginative and literary perspective on different aspects of convict and colonial life.

Stranger than Fiction


This session, which will take the form of a straight talk or possibly a Q&A, will have a dual focus. It will begin by exploring some of the incredible true stories of the Port Macquarie convicts – stranger than fiction these are the stories that no novelist could make up. It will then examine the ways in which novelists use real history in their fiction. Finally, drawing upon the insights of the historians present, it will consider the different ways novelists and historians use archival sources. 

Dr Hamish Maxwell - Stewart


Hamish Maxwell-Stewart is a professor of history at the University of New England. He has published widely and collaboratively on many aspects of convict and colonial history. Trained at Edinburgh University, he has a knack for making the broad sweeps of global history comprehensible at the local level. He is especially well known for his attempts to digitally reconstruct Tasmania’s past. A frequent contributor to Who Do You Think You Are, he enjoys working with local history groups and archives and libraries.

A Digital future for Australia’s Convict Past

It is difficult not to be attracted to the nation’s convict story. While many everyday individuals might be lost to the gloom of the past, the records of the convict system illuminate the lives of the more than 160,000 convicts sent to the Australian colonies in extraordinary detail. As one might expect, those records shed light on convict interactions with the court system, yet they also reveal so much more. We know the name of the parish in which tens of thousands of convicts were born. We also know how tall they were and how much was in their bank accounts. We even know the colour of eyes and hair. In fact, the records of the convict era are so detailed that in 2007 they were listed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. Digital technologies are now helping to unlock this national and international archival treasure. It is now possible to map the places where convicts were born, the routes their vessels took to Australia, the locations that they bolted from in attempts to secure their freedom and the many ways in which unfreedom on the shores of Botany Bay shaped their lives. This paper will highlight some of these exciting developments as well as taking a peek into the future of our convict past.

Dr Perry McIntyre


Perry has worked as a genealogist, historian and archivist since the 1980s. She has served on committees of History Council of NSW (President 2005-06), Society of Australian Genealogists, Royal Australian Historical Society, Australian Catholic Historical Society, The Great Irish Famine Commemoration Committee (Chair 2012-15, 2018-20) and Mosman Historical Society (currently) & recently appointed to the Aishling Society of Sydney. She has published and spoken extensively on immigration and family history throughout Australia and in Ireland. Her PhD on convict family reunion was first published by IAP as Free Passage in 2010 and reprinted by Anchor Books Australia in 2018. She is a director of Anchor Books Australia, formed to publish good quality history, particularly relating to colonial Australia. Several titles on colonial immigration have been published through that avenue as joint publications with Dr Liz Rushen. She was awarded an Order of Australia (AM) in the 2021 Australian Day Honours.

Independent scholar, genealogist and publisher

Tending to Spirit and Body in the Port Macquarie Penal Settlement 1827-1858


Dr James McIntyre (1799-1853) was born in Scotland and arrived on the Hugh Crawford in the first week of April 1825 with 56 other Scottish immigrants. He initially worked in the medical department in Sydney, including as assistant surgeon to Sydney Gaol and Sydney Hospital. In August 1827 he was appointed to replace assistant-surgeon Moran at the penal colony of Port Macquarie where in 1838 he married one of the two daughters of the Reverend John Cross (1781-1858). Born in Bristol, Reverend John Cross arrived in Sydney in January 1819 with his wife and their three children on the male convict ship Baring. He administered to the flocks at St Matthews, Windsor the years before being appointed to Port Macquarie in 1828. These two Protestant men administered to the medical and religious needs of the convicts, the soldiers and the free people in Port Macquarie until the death of James McIntyre in 1853 and John Cross in 1858. This paper will look at their work, their influence and their interaction in Port Macquarie in those years.

Tamsin O'Connor


Tamsin O'Connor is a PhD student at the University of Sydney. Her thesis is entitled ‘“All those Places of Condemnation”: Power, Punishment and Resistance at the Penal Stations of New South Wales 1804 – 1842,’ She first began this project in the 1990s at the University of Edinburgh, as part of Ian Duffield’s influential convict studies team. Tamsin consequently had the opportunity to publish aspects of  her research in various edited collections, such as Representing Convicts, Chain Letters and in special editions of THS and AJCH. After a long family hiatus, the thesis project was resumed at Sydney, under the aegis of Professor Mark McKenna. Tamsin is a slow finisher, but a keen communicator and often shares her research by speaking at libraries and local historical societies.

‘Exploring Fragile Lives: The ‘micro narratives’ of the Humble Petition and the Penal Station of Port Macquarie, 1821-1830’

The Nation’s libraries and archives are crammed with brittle pages inscribed with countless convict tales – from the sustained public narrative to the mere archival fragment, capturing but a frozen moment in a life. Together, these documentary threads reveal the vivid pattern of life on the penal frontier and apart they spin more than enough tales for Scheherazade’s thousand and one nights. They are the clamouring challenge to the idea that convicts only speak through the dry dust of statistics. Some of my colleagues will examine the benefits of ‘zooming out’ as they cast a wide lens over the networked possibilities of digital history in Port Macquarie and beyond. I, however, will ‘zoom in’ to examine more closely
the contents of the penal station archive. My paper will focus on the Port Macquarie Petitions. Scattered through the endless bundles of correspondence these letters of appeal are among the most evocative textual fragments of convict life. Be they hastily scrawled or carefully argued such formal pleas for mitigation are both a component of and counter point to the official transcript. What ever the limitations of the humble petition it gave convicts the opportunity not only to tell their version of their life but also to record it. Petitions reveal the chasm between the lives convicts had lost, and still hoped for, and those in which they were so demonstrably constrained.  The compelling ‘micro-biographies’ that emerge from the penal stations, where convict lives and colonial power so forcefully collided, take us closer to the uncensored thoughts and feelings of those sentenced to social death on the penal frontier.

University of Sydney

Dr David Roberts


David Roberts is Head of History at the University of New England (UNE). He has published widely on convict history, including important new research on Port Macquarie. His subject is yet to be decided and he may in fact supervise a contribution from one of his graduate students. However, he will most definitely be in attendance to support the Bicentennial and to take part in the digital history roundtable discussion.

Investigating Port Macquarie: The 1828 inquiry into Malfeasance and Misrule at the NSW Penal Settlement

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CC Mac Adams Music Centre
33 Lord St,
Port Macquarie NSW 2444
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Or on Zoom - use the Contact Us form at the bottom of the website to register and we'll send you a Morning Session Link and/or an Afternoon Session Link - in the week preceeding the event.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions only 40 people are permitted in the Centre

Cost of the Seminar - FREE

Cost of catering - $20.00 - morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea

Please pay



The Life and Death of the Port Macquarie Penal Station: A Bicentennial History Workshop

 April 10 2021


Welcome and opening remarks 9 am

  • Opening remarks - President of PMDFHS  - Diane Gillespie

  • Welcome to Country - Uncle Bill O’Brien

  • The Volunteers - Rex Toomey

Session one  9.15 am -10.45 am

Convict voices and the stories they tell

Chair: Hamish Maxwell-Stewart

  • The late Ian Duffield, “‘Death or Liberty!’; The Language of Rebellion, Betrayal and Authority in a Convict Outbreak at Port Macquarie, June 1825”  

       University of Edinburgh

       (Read by Tamsin O’Connor and Hamish Maxwell-Stewart)

  • Tamsin O’Connor, ‘The History of Experience in the Imagination’ or the ‘Most Beautiful Lies’: The Humble Petitions and Hopeful Pleas of the Convicts of Port Macquarie

      University of Sydney

  • Meg Keneally, “Stranger than Fiction”

      Historical Novelist

Morning Tea 10.45 am - 11.15 am

Session two 11.15 am -12.45 pm

The Voices of Authority: God, Governance and the Digital Liberation of the Paper Panopticon

Chair: Tamsin O’Connor

  • David Roberts, “Investigating Port Macquarie: The 1828 inquiry into Malfeasance and Misrule at the NSW Penal Settlement”

      University of New England

  • Perry McIntyre, “Tending to Spirit and Body in the Port Macquarie Penal Settlement 1827-1858”

      Independent Scholar, Genealogist and Publisher


  • Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, “A Digital Future for Australia’s Convict Past”

      University of New England

Lunch  12.45 pm -1.45 pm

Session three 1.45 pm - 3.15 pm

Chair Hamish Maxwell-Stewart and David Roberts

 Database Round Table

Afternoon Tea  3.15 pm - 3.45 pm

Key Note Address 3.45 pm - 4.45 pm

  • John Heath, “2021: A Birpai Perspective on the Port Macquarie Penal Colony and its Aftermath”

       Traditional Birpai man and independent scholar

Closing remarks and farewell 4.45 pm

St Thomas Church.jpg
St Thomas Anglican Church.JPG


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  2. Register to obtain the Zoom link

  3. Ask a question or submit a comment



This event is a satellite event for the Port Macquarie Bicentennial Celebrations.

Thank you to our sponsor Port Macquarie-Hastings Council

Coordinated by Port Macquarie & Districts Family History Society Inc.

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