Maritime History

The One-Legged Sailor & the King


by Cormac F Lowth

Throughout the year 1832, debates raged in the British Parliament at Westminster on the subject of Reform. Passions were aroused on the subject and there were heated exchanges which were reported in detail in the newspapers of the day. These reports were often accompanied by lengthy editorials and letters from the public which swayed from one end of the political spectrum to the other. There were many aspects to the proposed legislative reforms and these included the abolition of slavery in the Colonies, punishment in the army, child labour and the abolition of tithes. The principal debates, however, centred upon Parliamentary reform and the extension, or limitation, of the franchise, depending on which side of the house the argument came from. The abolition of Capital Punishment for a number of offences was another issue that took up a great deal of time and debate in Parliament. This ultimate sanction had only recently been abolished for the crime of forgery but it remained on the statute books as a punishment for a number of crimes, notably the stealing of livestock and horses, and crimes against property, such as burglary and stealing goods to the value of five pounds. One member, Lord Tenterden, objected to the principle of the bill. He objected to the abolition of the punishment of death—–

because there was no substitute punishment, the apprehension of which would inspire equal terror in wrongdoers. It was necessary to introduce some effectual secondary punishment before the punishment of death was taken away. If the object of the bill were carried now, there was great fear that no strenuous endeavours would be made to discover such a secondary punishment hereafter.

The protection and security of property were the main object of society. As the law now stood, stealing in a dwelling house to the amount of five pounds was capital, but though the punishment of death was rarely applied in such cases, the power of its application was attended with a salutary effect.

Many more members were in favour of abolition except in cases where life had been taken or where there was robbery with violence. Lord Wynford denied the value of one of the secondary punishments then in use, stating:

Transportation was, at present, a secondary punishment; but transportation had no longer any terrors attached to it. It was rather an encouragement to crime, as had been repeatedly declared in evidence by gaolers and others, than a dissuasive from it.

Some of the more prominent names of the day in Parliament were Robert Peel, The Duke Of Wellington and Daniel O’Connell, the leader of the Irish Party. O’Connell, sometimes then referred to as ‘The Great Agitator’, was in his heyday in the years immediately following Catholic Emancipation and he spoke at great length in Parliament on most of the great issues of the day. Many of his speeches were reported verbatim in the newspapers and his prowess as an orator can be judged from these reports. O’Connell commented on the many injustices and inequities that were prevalent, not only in Ireland, but also in Great Britain and in many other countries around the Globe. He became a household name and a beacon to a great many people who were suffering from oppression. His principal political objectives in the Houses of Parliament were the repeal of the Act of Union and the restoration of a separate Irish Parliament, however, throughout all of his parliamentary activities, O’Connell consistently reiterated his loyalty to the Monarch. He nevertheless became a thorn in the flesh of the British establishment. The reigning Monarch in 1832 was King William IV. and in June of that year, he was to be troubled by another Irishman , a one-legged sailor from County Cork named Dennis Collins.

William IV, the "Sailor King"

William IV, the "Sailor King"

King William IV reigned from 1830 until 1837. He was the son of George III and he had succeeded his older brother to the throne. He was known as the ‘Sailor King’, having joined the Royal Navy at thirteen as a midshipman. He was present at the battle of Cape St. Vincent in 1780 and he served in the West Indies and on the coast of America during the War of Independence . He rose to the rank of Captain and on his retirement from the Navy in 1790 he was promoted to Rear Admiral. He was created Duke of Clarence in 1789. After he left the Navy, he began an affair with an Irish Actress, Dorothea Bland from Waterford. She had a successful stage career and had assumed the stage name of Mrs. Jordan. She had a total of fifteen children, ten of whom were fathered by William. His affair with Mrs. Jordan finished in 1811 after 20 years and he married a German Princess, Adelaide, in 1818.

William had two older brothers, George, and Frederick Duke of York. George had become Prince Regent due to the mental instability of his father, George III, and he became King George IV when his father died. The Duke of York died during his reign and William ascended the throne at 62 years of age when George IV died in 1827. He was fairly popular at first as he was not given to the self-indulgence of his brother George and he liked to appear in public as often as possible. The monarchy was generally held in low esteem among many of the subjects at this time. Two of King William’s daughters by Adelaide died in infancy and his niece, Victoria, assumed the throne when he died in 1837.

By 1832, William’s popularity had waned greatly by virtue of some of his interference in the politics of the day. When the Tories under the Duke of Wellington lost the general election of 1830, the Whig party, led by Earl Grey took power. Grey immediately announced that he would reform the electoral system that had seen few changes in almost 400 years. Few people could vote and huge towns and other areas were without representation. The system of ‘Rotten Boroughs’, or electoral areas that were virtually owned by the wealthy, existed. The first Reform Bill was defeated and William dissolved Parliament. A new election was held and the reformers swept back into power. The second Reform Bill was passed by the Commons, but it was defeated by the House of Lords. There was huge unrest throughout the country and there were many ‘Reform riots’, during which a great many people were arrested. Earl Grey requested that William create several new Whig peers in order to establish a Whig majority in the House of Lords, a move that he refused. The Government resigned, but on the advice of the Duke of Wellington, whom William tried to restore to government, the King once more asked Grey to form a government, and, with the threat of creating new Whig peers, the bill was passed which became the Reform Act of 1832, the legislation that paved the way to the universal suffrage that is enjoyed in Britain today. William remained at heart opposed to Reform. Reports are to be found in the newspapers of June, 1832, of the King and his Queen being subjected to jeers and derision as they drove about in their carriage.

On Tuesday, June 23rd 1832, the King and Queen went to Ascot Races. It was a four-day meeting and it was the custom of the Monarch to attend the races at that time of the year as the course was relatively near to Windsor. It was said that the Royal Party was numerous and splendid and the King looked cheerful and well, but the Queen, according to some reports, did not seem in the best of spirits. The king was besieged by petitioners for a time but it was said that he treated them all with good grace. There were seven races on the card. The major race of the day was His Majesty’s Plate, of a hundred guineas, run over four miles and won by Mr. Watson’s Conscript. The Principal race of the entire meeting was run on the Wednesday. This was the Eclipse Hoof, with 200 sovereigns given by the King. The Hoof was that of the most famous racehorse Eclipse, mounted with gold. It had been presented to the members of the Jockey Club by His Majesty when he had last entertained them at St. James’s Palace. The Hoof was won in a canter by Lord Chesterfield’s Priam. The June meeting at Ascot is still referred to as The Royal Meeting.

When the first race had finished, The King and Queen and several of their attendants were standing at the window of the Royal stand when his Majesty suddenly exclaimed “Oh my God! I am hit” and he then staggered back with his hand to his forehead. It appeared to the King and his companions that he had been struck by a bullet, but it quickly emerged that he had been struck in the middle of the forehead by a stone that was flung by somebody in the crowd below. As the king struggled to regain his feet another stone came crashing into the Royal Box, which, this time, did not hit anybody. The king regained his composure and got to his feet and he appeared to have a mark or a bump on his head. The rim of his hat had cushioned the blow to some extent. He went to the window and waved to reassure the crowd below who were in the process of seizing the man who had thrown the stone. The newspapers reported as follows.

The ruffian had scarcely thrown the stone when he was seized by a gentleman who proved to be Captain Smith, of the Royal Navy, and by another gentleman, named Turner, who had been witnesses to the transaction. The Bow Street Officers, who were on the spot, rushed to their assistance; and Taunton and Gardner conducted the prisoner to the Magistrates’ room under the Stand, contiguous to that of the King; where he was detained till the subsequent examination.

As soon as the confusion and alarm had subsided, the Magistrates, Mr. Elliot of Reading and Mr. Roe of Bow Street, proceeded to take the necessary examinations previous to committal.

The prisoner stood in the corner of the room apparently but little affected by his situation. His appearance was wretched; he wore the tattered garb of a sailor, and was propped on a wooden leg of the most rude construction. In answer to the questions put to him, he said his name was Dennis Collins, that he was a native of Cork, and had been long in his Majesty’s service.

It appeared that he had originally served in H.M.S. KANGAROO and had lost his leg aboard H.M.S. ATALANTA. He had been admitted as a pensioner to Greenwich Hospital where he had remained for eighteen months. Six months previously he had misconducted himself towards his wards-man and had been turned out without pension or means of support. He had petitioned the Lords of the Admiralty for redress without success. On April 11th last, he petitioned the King at Whitehall. He had reason to believe that the King had received the petition at Windsor for it was sent back to the Lords of the Admiralty and he was again informed as before. He had no means of support and he became desperate. He had walked down from London and had slept in a shed the night before and it was in this feeling that he determined to be revenged upon the King. He admitted that he threw the stone which struck his Majesty. Several witnesses gave evidence including Lord Fitzclarence, one of William’s sons by Mrs. Jordan, who produced the stone in question. Collins was then committed to Reading Gaol to await trial and he was driven away in a post-chaise.

On the following Wednesday at Reading Gaol Collins was once more examined by several magistrates and various lawyers and officials. Some witnesses gave evidence while the statements of others were read. The events at Ascot were recounted and Collins was now called on to make his statement, after first being cautioned that he did not have to incriminate himself. He made the following statement:

I own that I committed a great fault in throwing the stones at the King. On the 16th of December last, I had been an in-pensioner at Greenwich Hospital. The ward keeper was sweeping the ward up, and I told him he had no right to do that more than once a day. He complained to Sir R. Keats, the governor of the Hospital; and I was expelled for Life. I petitioned the Lords of the Admiralty to have the pension which I enjoyed before I entered the Hospital restored to me. I have a right to it by an act passed in the reign of George IV, which declared that seamen shall have the same pensions on leaving the Hospital which they had before going into it, unless they should be expelled for striking the officers, or for felony; and I had done nothing of that kind. On the 19th of April last, I petitioned the King to have my pension restored. He sent an answer to the Lords of the Admiralty. Mr. Barrow, the secretary, sent it to me at the Admiral Duncan public-house near the Admiralty. The answer was, that the King could do nothing for me. It was partly written and partly printed. I was very much distressed—for three days and nights this month I never broke my fast, I can take my oath of that. The King never did me an injury. I am sorry for the fault I have committed and I must suffer for it. Distress compelled me, or I would never have done the like of it. I went to Admiral Rowley’s t’other day to ask for a bit of victuals and he damned me and kicked me. What is done can’t be undone. I must suffer the law. Sir R. Keats has broken the law as well as myself, for he had no right to take my pension from me.

Dennis Collins, (Courtesy of Abingdon County Hall Museum)

Dennis Collins, (Courtesy of Abingdon County Hall Museum)

It was said that Dennis Collins gave this explanation of his conduct with the utmost coolness and self-possession. The warrant was then signed and the witnesses were bound over to appear. In the newspapers next morning the following report appeared:

Collins seems to have told the truth, but not the whole truth. He is evidently a quarrelsome brutal fellow. The grand error committed in regard to him, was his readmission to Greenwich Hospital after his first expulsion. He ought to have got his out-pension and no more.

This man appeared to have served only two years and eight months in the Navy, when he met with an accident in stowing the booms aboard His Majesty’s ship ATALANTA, which rendered amputation of the left leg necessary. He was invalided on a pension of £10 and on the first of February 1800, received as an in-pensioner of Greenwich Hospital, where he continued four years, and was then discharged to the out-pension. From his own account, it appears that he at this time went to Halifax where he was received into the Kings service, and obtained a cook’s warrant, which he soon after lost for misconduct; and in 1810 he was again admitted into Greenwich Hospital. His conduct at this time was so bad, that after repeated trials and petty punishments, he was expelled on the 11th of May 1811, for disorderly and disgraceful behaviour; but he shortly after succeeded in getting restored to his out-pension, and once more obtained a cook’s warrant, which he afterwards forfeited by striking an officer in one of the Dock-yards. After repeated petitions, he was, on the 30th of August, 1817, admitted for a third time into Greenwich Hospital and appears to have been more quiet; for, without tracing him in the minutes of Council, he was discharged at his own request to the out-pension on the 18th of June 1819. On the 7th July, 1820, he was admitted in-pensioner for the fourth time; and on the 4th of May following, suspended for one year in consequence of riotous and disgraceful conduct; and at the expiration of that period he failed to return, and was made run, by which his out-pension became forfeited. He again petitioned, and again succeeded in obtaining his out-pension; and on the 5th June 1830, was readmitted for the fifth time into Greenwich Hospital; a degree of indulgence and forbearance almost unprecedented, after the flagrant misconduct which stands recorded against him. His violent propensities were not, however, yet conquered; and after several repetitions of riotous conduct, he was finally expelled on the 16th December last, for creating a disturbance in his ward, advising the ward-keeper to disobey the orders, and for using violent and improper language.

When it emerged that Dennis Collins was to stand trial for High Treason, there was editorial comment in several newspapers, some condemnatory, such as that in the Times, that referred to him as “an incorrigible Blackguard, given to habits of intemperance and vice”, while others such as the Spectator were more conciliatory and called for leniency in view of the distressed state of the accused.

The following verse appeared in the Freeman’s Journal on Wednesday, July 11th. 1832.

A Hard Point Decided.

A group of his majesties subjects assembled,
Each heart in the loyal convention had trembled
To think that a pirate should dare throw a flint
At a head that had feeling and royalty in’t.

When their anger sunk down to a calmer debate
They started a question of moment and weight,
Was the flint stone the traitor exulted to fling,
As hard – or more hard as the head of the king.

The council was puzzled till Paddy arose,
On whose head half his hardships were numbered in blows,
A man who knew well by experience they said,
The cause and effect of a blow on the head.

“The granite, the limestone , the Portland, the Brown,
May vex a man sorely, at times put him down,
Fling what stone you may please but believe me the print”
Quoth Pat,”will be deepest that’s made by the flint.”

The scripture, the very best proof of the thing,
Informs us God hardens the heart of a King,
But up to the moment in all I have read
I ne’er could discover who hardens his head.

The head then remained as it had been before,
As honest and soft as a monarch e’re wore,
So the question is now as I clearly have shown,
Not who hardens the head but who softens the stone.

A poet called Orpheus mythologists tell
Once softened the heart of the monarch of hell,
Rocks lost all their hardness and oak trees had hung
Enraptured to hear the wild notes that he sung.

My opinion is this that some voices were singing,
May God save the King while the traitor was flinging,
Tho’ the flint stone flew fair and had caused much alarm
It lost all its hardness and did him no harm.

………Y. T.C.D.

The anonymous author was presumably some wag from Trinity College Dublin.

Dennis Collins appeared at a session of the Berkshire Assizes in Abbingdon on Wednesday, August 23rd, 1832, on trial for his life on a charge of High Treason. The Times reported the trial in some detail. The court re-assembled in the County Hall in the Town. It was reported that the interest excited by the trial was not great. The attendance in the public gallery seemed to be confined mostly to the upper classes. Soon after 9 a.m. the two judges, Bosanquet and Gurney took their seats on the bench. After some potential jurors were refused by the defence, a Jury was finally assembled. The Crown was represented by the Attorney General, Mr. Jervis, assisted by Campbell, Sheppat and Maule. As was customary in such cases, where, presumably, the defendant could not afford representation, the Crown appointed two barristers to represent the defendant, Dennis Collins. These were Mr. Swadey and Mr, Carrington.

Collins was led into the dock where he bowed several times to the Judges. The report noted,

The appearance of the prisoner had changed somewhat for the worse during his confinement since his last appearance in court. He had the appearance of a man who had undergone some illness yet he did not appear to be ill in the dock. He was grave and steady and seemed keenly interested in the proceedings. He lacked the callous indifference of the hardened criminal.

Somewhat paradoxically, the report continued:

He had the demeanour of the professional sailor who always had resources in reserve for an emergency at sea—- But there was about him a recklessness of manner which showed a man who had never given himself the trouble of considering the consequences of any of his acts.

The Attorney general began the case for the Crown prosecution by outlining the five indictments against Collins. The first of these read,

1 Compassing and intending the death of the King.

2 Intending to do His Majesty bodily harm, tending to his death.

Numbers 3 and 4 were variants of the first two, while the final indictment read,

5 Intending to do bodily harm, tending to wound or maim His Majesty.

All of these indictments carried the death penalty.

When asked how did he plead, Collins replied, “Not guilty my Lord”. The attorney General then continued to outline the case.. He described the events at Ascot and mentioned that witnesses would be called to give verification. His initial address to the court was lengthy and in the course of which he mentioned,

The law which threw it’s protection around the lives of all members of the community, did so in an especial way around that of the Chief Magistrate. All law and justice was administered in his name. There was clear intention on the part of the prisoner to do serious harm to His Majesty— If his hat had not cushioned the blow to some extent it might have been fatal.

William IV "A True British Tar"

William IV, "A True British Tar"

He went on to describe how as recently as 1796 and 1800, under King George III, laws had been passed that made any violence against The King an act of High Treason. It would be clearly shown that Collins intended to harm the Monarch. Various witnesses were next called who gave evidence about the events as they witnessed them on the day at Ascot Racecourse. One witness deposed that he was in the Royal Box and saw the stone fly past and hit the King on the forehead. The King cried out “I am hit”, then staggered back and fell to the floor. He said he saw the arm come up in the crowd and throw yet another stone into the royal box which did not hit anybody. He then produced this stone and showed it to the court. The one that struck the King was a smooth flint stone about the size of a potato. The distance was about twenty yards. When the King finally arose, he had a mark on his forehead. A third stone was found upon the defendant. Another witness, one of those who had apprehended and subdued Collins, gave evidence that he heard him remark that he did not care if he was hung or shot, also that he had gotten a shilling while begging the day before and had spent it on beer on the day in question. A statement made by Collins when first taken before the magistrates, and described as a confession in the court, was read out. In this, he had clearly admitted to the act of throwing the stone which struck the King and that he had gathered the three stones from an area behind the Royal Box. The attorney General asked that the law take its full course.

The defence counsels did not question any of the witnesses nor did they call any witnesses to give evidence on behalf of Dennis Collins, however, Mr. Swadey made a lengthy address to the Jury in which he stressed repeatedly the wretchedness of the condition of his client. The facts of him being homeless, hungry and penniless had clearly left him in a temporarily deranged state. He did not call upon the jury to come to the conclusion that his unfortunate client was mad, rather, he did call upon them to arrive at this conclusion; that the prisoner, at the time he committed this act, laboured under an aberration of mind so as not to be capable of controlling his own actions. Collins had received a head wound while serving in his Majesty’s Navy. He asked the jury to find that Collins was not in a sane state at the time and that this being so, he might be detained at his Majesty’s pleasure instead of suffering the full rigour of the law.

When Mr. Carrington arose to make an address to the jury, the prosecution objected on the grounds that it was not customary for a second counsel to make an address in circumstances where no witnesses had been called for the defence. The defending counsels cited precedence in various cases in the past and Mr. Carrington was then given leave to proceed. His address covered much the same points as that of his colleague, Mr. Swadey, however, he dwelt somewhat longer on the fact that Collins had been wounded in the head and had lost a leg while he was serving his country in his Majesty’s Navy. He also stressed the point that he had consumed a shillingsworth of drink and had had no food for some time. Who but a deranged person would commit such an act in full view of the public, knowing that there would be no possibility of escape and the certainty of apprehension with all of the possible consequences?

Dennis was told by one of the Judges that he might address the Jury. He replied, “They are all strangers to me”. He nevertheless decided to proceed with an address. The Times report stated—

The incoherency of his remarks and the unexampled rapidity with which they were delivered, prevent our giving more than an outline of their import.

Collins explained that he had served on a man o’ war during the reigns of George III and George IV as a warrant officer. He had gone to the Admiralty and to the Royal Palace in his efforts to have his pension restored, to no avail. He concluded by stating that he was sorry for what he had done and hoped that His Majesty would have mercy on him. The Attorney General once again rose to address the court. He rebutted several aspects of the argument made by the defence counsels, notably the plea of diminished responsibility. He said that there was no proof that this was the case and to merely plead insanity having taken an amount of drink and having endured whatever hardships was not a valid defence in law. If it were so, it would allow every criminal or disaffected person who committed serious crimes to avoid the consequences of their actions.

During his summing up, Judge Bosanquet remarked that the act alone did not constitute this crime; Merely the intention to commit it would be sufficient. No evidence had been called to show that Collins was deranged. The jury must decide if he knew what he was doing. The jury then retired. They returned to court after only ten minutes. The jury foreman was asked by the judge if they had reached a verdict, to which he replied that they found Dennis Collins Guilty of the fifth indictment, that of Intending to do bodily harm, tending to wound or maim His Majesty.

Both judges then put on black caps and the prisoner was addressed by Judge Bosanquet to the following effect.

Prisoner at the bar, You have been convicted after a careful consideration of your case, of the crime of High Treason—– In lifting up your hand against your Sovereign you cast aside that bond of allegiance that binds the Sovereign to protect his subjects—–My duty now is to pronounce upon you the sentence of the Law and I do earnestly exhort you to reflect on the confusion which must have taken place if your attempt had succeeded, and to prepare yourself for that fate which may possibly await you. The sentence of the Law upon you is that you be taken to the place from whence you came and from thence to be drawn on a hurdle to the place of execution and that you be there hanged until you are dead, and afterwards that your head be severed from your body, and that your body be divided into four parts to be distributed as his Majesty think fit, and may Almighty God soften your heart and bring you to repentance.

The judge went on to admonish Collins not to expect that his sentence would be commuted but to seek mercy from the only person who had the power to grant it, presumably His Majesty, King William. Dennis Collins did not show any change of emotion and once again bowed to the judges as he was led away.

The legal costs for the trial of Dennis Collins were as follows:

Defence counsels and solicitors. £246-19-0
Expenses for Witnesses. £6-4-6
Other expenses. £74-13-7
Crown counsels nil.
Total £327-17-1

Collins was committed to Reading Gaol and there is no further mention of him in the newspapers until Thursday March 28th. 1833 when the following report appeared after a further appearance in court.

Eaglehawk Neck, approach to Port Arthur

Eaglehawk Neck, approach to Port Arthur

Dennis Collins, the old pensioner who threw a stone at His Majesty is ordered to be transported for life. During his confinement at Reading Gaol his personal appearance has undergone considerable alteration. He has become considerably stouter and his rough hard looking weather beaten countenance has assumed a florid complexion and a plumpness which destroy much of the marked character of his features. His dress since his conviction was most grotesque, all the right side of it being a bright yellow and the left side of a purple brown. His wooden leg, a new one (worn for the first time at his trial) was painted sky blue and to complete the tout ensemble, he wore a blue cloth cap with a red border and a white tassel on the top. The yellow and purple brown is the prison dress, worn to detect those who escape; the rest is to the taste of the wearer.

It would appear that even the supposedly meagre prison diet would have been better fare than that which Collins was used to before his conviction. Nevertheless, he must surely have experienced the same hopelessness as his fellow countryman, Oscar Wilde, who would in later years be incarcerated in the same gaol, and who wrote—

I never saw a man who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
Which prisoners call the sky,
And at every drifting cloud that went
With sails of silver by.

Dennis Collins was transported to Van Diemen’s Land aboard the barque EMPEROR ALEXANDER, which left Sheerness on April 10th 1833. A remarkable account of the voyage to the penal colony in the southern hemisphere has survived in the journal of the ship’s surgeon, Dr. William Donnelly, which is held in the National Archives in Kew, England. Dr. Donnelly was appointed to the position of ship’s surgeon on March 5th and he joined the vessel in the Thames two days later. The ship had been chartered by the Government and was being fitted out with prison compartments and a hospital. When this work was completed on March 23rd, the military guard, consisting of two officers and twenty-nine other ranks, were sent aboard under the command of Captain Scot of the 44th Regiment. There were also six women and nine children and the total crew numbered twenty-nine. The ship was towed to Woolwich on the following day where 30 convicts from the prison hulk DISCOVERY were brought aboard. Over the next few days 130 more were taken from the hulk JUSTITIA, and on April 29th the ship sailed for Sheerness where a further 50 convicts were received. Dennis Collins was among one of the groups taken from the prison hulks. Hulks were large obsolete wooden warships, which were permanently moored in harbours around the British Isles for the purpose of holding convicts, many of whom were awaiting transportation. There are many descriptions of the grim conditions that existed aboard these floating prisons On April 10th the ship finally set sail with a total of 285 people on board. At the masthead flew a red and white pennant signifying a convict ship.

Dr. Donnelly’s journal describes the voyage in detail. The weather was pleasant and favourable for most of the voyage. At the outset the ship struggled against adverse winds and rough seas for over a week while trying to clear the English Channel. The final three weeks also brought sleet and heavy squalls. Throughout the voyage there was continual need for medical treatment for many of those on board. Approximately 130 prisoners and 33 non-prisoners were treated, mostly for minor ailments. Boils and other external inflammations being the most common. Scurvy, a common shipboard disease, occurred only near the end of the voyage when supplies of lemon juice mixed with sugar ran low. There were two deaths on board, one, a member of the crew and the other a convict, and the wife of John Mc Cullagh, a soldier, gave birth on April 22nd. Gastro-intestinal disorders were frequent and large amounts of purgatives were administered. Dennis Collins was among those treated by Dr. Donnelly, but the nature of his complaint is unclear. Some earlier voyages of ships that were carrying convicts to Australia were characterised by horrific conditions and cruel punishments, often capriciously administered, and many deaths were recorded. Most of the voyage of the EMPEROR ALEXANDER, however, seems to have been tempered with some humanity and few incidents, as recorded by Dr. Donnelly. On August 12th 1833 the ship finally dropped anchor in Sullivan’s Cove in the River Derwent.

Lieutenant Governor, Sir George Arthur

Lieutenant Governor, Sir George Arthur

Van Diemen’s Land, or Tasmania, where Dennis Collins now found himself, was a forbidding place, that by its reputation struck terror and fear into the hearts of transportees. 1833 was the year in which transportation of convicts reached its peak with a total of 6,799, 4,000 of whom were sent to New South Wales and the remainder to Van Diemen’s Land. At that time the Island was virtually an independent colony and it was ruled over by a Lieutenant Governor who was unrelenting in the severity of his administration, Sir George Arthur. A former military man and a disciplinarian, he was a Methodist whose religious views verged upon the fanatical and he pursued his appointed task, of making all transportation a complete terror for convicts, with a ruthless rigour. If Arthur had any notion of reforming and rehabilitating convicts, it was only by dint of punishment and hardship.

In addition to ‘ordinary criminals’ there were many who were regarded as ‘Politicals’. There were Chartists and Luddites; people who sabotaged machinery which they felt was destroying their livelihoods; and tithe protestors and men from other clandestine organisations in Ireland . All were treated with the same harshness initially. However, there were means for a convict to elevate himself from this morass of drudgery and punishment. If a man were compliant and was of continual good behaviour, he could rise through Arthur’s ‘seven different levels’ to something resembling freedom with a ‘ticket of leave’ after many years. The colony was being built with what amounted to slave labour by the convicts and the various other stages in descending order were, being assigned as free labour to a settler, labouring on public works, labour on the roads, work in a chain gang, being sent to a penal settlement and working in a penal settlement in chains. Continual offenders who broke the rules of the colony, the unrepentant and the recidivist, received this last condition in Van Diemen’s Land in a penal settlement on the south end of the Tasman Peninsula that the Lieutenant Governor had founded and named after himself, Port Arthur. It is probably an indication of the attitude both of and towards Dennis Collins that it was to this dreaded place he was immediately sent. A later and more famous transportee from Ireland, William Smith O’Brien, would write, in a letter to his sister Anne, while awaiting transfer to Port Arthur,

I have been told that Port Arthur is as near a realisation of hell as can be found.

The only approach to Port Arthur by land lay across a narrow spit of land named Eaglehawk Neck and this was guarded by a string of closely spaced vicious mastiff dogs

Charles O’Hara Booth

Charles O’Hara Booth

In 1833, the Penal settlement at Port Arthur was overseen by another military martinet, Charles O’Hara Booth. The most common forms of punishment in the colony were flogging with the cat of nine tails and the enforced wearing of leg irons, some weighing over 14 pounds. Booth, however, disliked inflicting such punishments and preferred instead to sentence malefactors to solitary confinement on bread and water, although this did little to alleviate the exhausting hard work to which the men were subjected during the day or to remit the conditions of the vile cramped cells which they were locked into by night, nevertheless, whenever he resorted to the cat, the implement used at Port Arthur was longer and heavier than that used elsewhere and it was administered with severity

Everything relating to the life of a convict in Van Diemen’s Land was meticulously recorded and much of this material survives today in the Tasmanian Archives. All of the entries were handwritten in Copperplate script. Dennis Collins was prisoner number 1545

Number Name Trade Assignment
1545 Collins Dennis Labourer/Cripple Port Arthur
Wooden leg
Trade Labourer
Height, Without shoes 5-3
Age 58
Complexion Ruddy
Head. Small
Hair Brown
Whiskers Grey
Visage Narrow
Forehead Retreating
Eyebrows Light brown
Eyes Light Grey
Nose Aqualine
Mouth M.W. (Probably medium wide)
Chin M.S. (Probably medium short) Author.
Remarks Lost left leg.

Conduct record. Collins Dennis, Emperor Alexander, 12th Aug.1833, Berks. Assizes, 16th July, 1832, Life.
Transported for High Treason in throwing at and hitting the King with a stone.
Gaol Report. Very discontented as regards the rules of the prison.
Hulk report. Vicious and irritable temper. Single.
Stated the offence, High Treason, throwing a stone at the King, ‘I was sentenced to be drawn on a hurdle and hanged, then to be beheaded and quartered,. The reason I threw the stone at the King was that I petitioned the King to restore my pension and he refused’ : Single.
Surgeons report. Conduct for the first 6 weeks, most disorderly, insubordinate, refractory and that of a madman. Subsequently quiet, tractable and submissive
Surgeons special report. Though this man has been troublesome, insubordinate and even refractory for a time, his conduct at this time and particularly subsequently has been better.
October 3rd 1833. Disobedience of orders and repeatedly refusing to work, 7 days solitary confinement on bread and water.
October 11th 1833. Refusing to go to work, 7 days solitary confinement on bread and water, Port Arthur.

There is just one more line on the conduct sheet of Dennis Collins which states:
Died, 1st November, 1833, Vide Port Arthur return, 22nd Nov.1834

A Chain Gang

A Chain Gang

Dennis Collins seemingly was implacable in his refusal to work as his two periods of solitary confinement on bread and water were served consecutively. He died just two weeks after his last period of confinement ended. He was aged 58. He is reputed to have said that he “would neither do the kings work, nor eat the King’s bread” It is of interest that the next entry in the prison records concerns a man named Charles Collins who was also sentenced at the Berkshire Assizes and who travelled out on the same ship as Dennis. His crime was that of stealing a piece of printed cotton and handkerchiefs, value, twelve shillings. He was a groom who was assigned to a Mr. Legge and among the many recorded infractions and punishments on his conduct sheet are the following,

Absenting himself without leave and remaining absent all night and a strong suspicion of having broken into his master’s cellar and stolen therefrom a quantity of wine ale and porter—- 12 months hard labour in chains on the breakwater chain gang.

Many of the conduct sheets of the convicts make horrific reading.

The last entry for Dennis Collins in the records of the Penal Settlement mentions that he was buried at the Wesleyan Church, Port Arthur, by Mr. John A. Manton, on November 1st. 1833. The cause of death is not mentioned.

"The Man Who Threw a Stone", A play by Richard Davey

"The Man Who Threw a Stone", A play by Richard Davey

There is a number, 3329, printed over the entry in the burials register that might perhaps be the number of the plot in which Dennis was buried.

The last convict ship was the HOUGOUMONT in 1868, which carried, among other Fenian prisoners from Ireland, John Boyle O’Reilly, who later escaped to America. Port Arthur penal settlement was closed down in 1877 and the few remaining prisoners were transferred to Hobart. The Tasman Peninsula today is a place of great scenic beauty. Tasmanians have become aware of, and in many cases proud of, the fact that a great many of the population have convict ancestors. Some of the ruins of the buildings of the former penal settlement can be seen and they remain a popular visiting place for tourists. A play by the author Richard Davey, entitled, The Man Who Threw a Stone, which deals with the life and death of Dennis Collins, was performed recently in the Old Prison in Port Arthur.

While there can be no doubt that Dennis Collins had been the architect of much of his situation, it is tempting to regard Collins and his wretched plight almost as a representation in microcosm of the country of his birth, injured as he had been and on the verge of starvation. The rebellion of 1798 was still within memory and the famine was rapidly approaching. Evictions were commonplace in Ireland and Collins had been turned out of his home and had sought redress by violence. Agrarian outrage and Whiteboyism were rampant at that time with maiming of cattle and the murder of landlords and their agents a common occurrence. Some newspaper reports of the assault upon the King and the subsequent trial of Dennis Collins, stated that he came from a place called Kilgarrow in County Cork. According to the Ordnance Survey of Ireland, there seems to be no such place-name listed in County Cork. It seems highly likely, particularly in view of the fact that it was difficult for some people to understand Dennis Collins’s strong accent, that his place of origin was probably Kilgarriff, a Townland near Clonakilty in County Cork If this was so, it would be interesting to speculate that he might have been distantly related to a namesake of his, who came from that part of Ireland, and who in later times would also cause serious headaches within the British Empire, Michael Collins.

Cormac F. Lowth


  • Contemporary Newspapers
  • The Times.
  • The Spectator
  • The Freeman’s Journal
  • The Journal of Dr. William Donnelly,
  • Emperor Alexander Convict Ship Surgeon’s Journal, by Mary A.J. Moate,
  • Tasmanian Ancestry, 2004
  • The Fatal Shore, by Robert Hughes, 1987.
  • The Australian Nation, by Geoffry Partington. 1997.
  • The Great Shame, Thomas Keneally, 1998.
  • The Newgate Calender, Vol. V. 1832/1833
  • Burials register, Wesleyan Church, Port Arthur, 1833.
  • Con 31/7, Con 18/6, Archives Office of Tasmania
  • The ballad of Reading Gaol, Oscar Wilde.


  • National Archives, Kew
  • National Library, Dublin.
  • Tasmanian Archives,
  • Robyn Eastley
  • Jenny Fawcett,
  • Meryl Yost Tasmanian Family History Service
  • Jennifer Stephan and Glenda Rowe
Cormac Lowth, –