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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Brown’s River Convict Station

In February, just four weeks after James’ arrival in Van Diemen’s Land, an answer came from His Excellency, Lieutenant Governor John Franklin in response to Linus Miller’s petition: “…after due consideration of our cases, [Franklin] could see no sufficient reason for treating us differently from prisoners sent here for other offenses.” He ordered Miller, Gammell, and Grant to hard labor at Brown’s River Convict Station, seven miles from Hobart Town, as part of a government road project:

Upon our arrival we were sent into the interior to work upon the great road leading across the island, from Hobart Town [in the south of VDL] to Launcetown [in the north] and remained together for sixteen months on what is termed Convict Station. Through the unwearied exertions of…Mr. Joseph Hume, M.P…in consequence of pressing letters from him to Mr. Lawrence, a member of the Council, since dead, we were for [the first month] preserved from associating with thieves, robbers, murderers, burglars, and the scum of the jails of England, but after that we were generally mixed with felons, pardoned and reprieved felons being our overseers.(1)

From daylight to sundown James and his two companions, Miller and Grant, cut trees and carried twelve to thirty-foot logs on their shoulders for fifty to two hundred rods through thick underbrush in the company of forty depraved British felons. The “dreadful reality” of their situation weighed heavily on their hearts and minds. From their new quarters, situated on a hill overlooking the Derwent River(2), they looked longingly for any opportunity to escape, no matter how risky. It was the only way to maintain sanity.(3)

The overseer, after just a few days, assigned the tall, lanky Linus Miller to be the night watchman of the station. Freed from hard labor, he was required to keep watch all night outside the prison hut to see that none of the inmates slipped out to steal hens or potatoes from the nearby farms. During the day he could sleep at the hut while the others worked, yet during those long nights of vigil, he was tortured by the thought that he was a British slave! Miller wrote that it was not until “I turned my eyes upon that beautiful constellation, the ‘Southern Cross,’ and remembered that my Savior bore His cross up Calvary, could I become in the least reconciled to my hard fate. Then would I shout the watchman’s call, ‘All’s well!’”(4)

On February 14th, 1840, Gemmell, Miller, and Grant received word that another group of Patriot prisoners had arrived at Hobart Town: “The American prisoners taken at Windsor and Prescott reached Van Dieman's Land a month after us in the Buffalo. The Lower Canada prisoners were taken thence to Sydney, in Australia, where their treatment, as I learn, was better than ours.”(5)

The Buffalo landed with the final shipment of one hundred fifty-seven state prisoners(6) aboard: seventy-eight had been sent from Upper Canada, and the rest from Lower Canada. In late September 1839, Sir George Arthur had illegally ordered the Buffalo to sail directly from Quebec to Van Diemen’s Land in order to avoid another trial in London—a trial that surely would have set them free. The Upper Canadian prisoners, most of whom were from the United States, were consigned to punishment at Sandy Bay, while the French Canadians continued on to Sydney. Upon hearing the news of their arrival, Miller immediately applied for a transfer to Sandy Bay for himself, Gemmell, and Grant. Gunn warned them, “The governor has determined to treat them with severity, and your condition will be far better where you are.” Gunn also pledged to serve them as a friend, but if they left to be with their countrymen, he feared he would not be able to do so.(7)

In mid-February, when Gemmell, Miller, and Grant were first sent to Brown’s River, they had left Jacob Beemer behind at the prison in Hobart Town. To be sure, not one of them was sad to part his company. The scheming Beemer had finally managed to gain a reward for informing on his friends aboard the Captain Ross, and was appointed as a prison constable at a salary of $2.50 a week. For three days a week he was allowed to work in town at his carpenter trade, but his good fortune didn’t last long. Beemer knew that clothing, books, and a few personal keepsakes belonging to his three comrades had been left in storage at the prison. He duped the storekeeper, Mr. Williams, to obtain all the belongings. Afterwards he sold them, not to “hoard the money,” but “to lavish it upon females of abandoned character.” When the news of the theft reached Brown’s River, the three men were outraged. Miller soon got permission from his overseer to visit Mr. Gunn in Hobart Town. Gunn immediately tried Beemer and sentenced him to twelve months’ hard labor at Port Arthur.(8)

Watching for opportunities to escape was a full-time preoccupation for the three Patriot prisoners. One afternoon in March they spotted a French whaling ship on the Derwent River, anchored just opposite the convict station about half a mile from shore.  This looked like a golden opportunity not to be missed, so with a rush of hope and enthusiasm they made a plan. Each night while all the inmates were locked in the hut asleep, Miller stood on guard duty. From the outside he could help Gemmell and Grant escape through the fireplace chimney, which was just a crude opening through the roof of the hut. The three of them would swim out to the ship and hope for a “favorable reception” from the French captain. If the plan failed, they could be back in their beds before morning light.

View on the Brown's River Road, 1890-1899 (overlooking the Derwent River)
taken by John Watt Beattie
used by permission - National Library of Australia
(IC PIC/3313/14 LOC Album 956)

On the chosen night the signal was given.   Linus Miller climbed up to the chimney on the outside and dropped the rope to James, who was first. Miller tugged away and managed to pull him about two-thirds the way up; at that point the rope stuck fast. Miller couldn’t budge it another inch, leaving James suspended over a bed of red-hot coals. James whispered, “Grant, where in the devil are you? Can’t you give me a hoist? Be quick, for I shall soon roast here.” John Grant was “giggling in the corner of the fireplace, ready to split with laughter.” At this point a large piece of turf fell from the top of the chimney and hit James in the face. He hollered, “Let go the rope!” He then fell straight into the hot coals below. By this time most of the inmates were awake. In the darkness James crawled back to his bunk, still fastened to the rope, and before being seen, he began snoring with a vengeance. Grant was still giggling in a dark corner. Outside, Miller jumped down from the roof and hollered the watchman’s cry, “All’s well!”(9)
  1. Gemmell, NY Plebeian, transcription, p. 2.  Van Diemen’s Land is 26,383 square miles in area. The distance from north to south is about 226 miles, and from east to west about 190 miles. It is about the same size as Ireland, Switzerland or the state of West Virginia in the USA.
  2. A photo from a hill at Brown’s River overlooking the mouth of the Derwent River. See 
  3. Miller, pp. 286-87.
  4. Miller, pp. 286-88.
  5. Gemmell, NY Plebeian, transcription, p. 2.
  6. See Pybus, note #15, in Snow, part I: “In the history of Upper Canada only four civil prisoners were ever transported, including three on the Buffalo, which points to the extraordinary circumstances of the transportation of ninety-two political prisoners of whom 79 were US citizens.”
  7. Miller, pp. 288-89; Snow, part I.
  8. Miller pp. 286, 289-90.
  9. Miller, pp. 292-93.


  1. Being a descendant of Jacob Beemer and having travelled to Hobart to find out as much as possible, I have yet to find any evidence that he was an informer. He was considered trustworthy and given the job of minding the stores and that made other convicts suspicious. He took the coats probably because he was cold. His wife had died in Canada and so he made a new life for himself. Lets respect the dead. They paid a heavy price.
    Margaret Beemer

  2. Thank you, Margaret for your comment. Of course, I knew none of these men personally. I am only repeating the information that I have read in diaries. You are right. We need to hear all sides of the story, and not condemn those who aren't here to defend themselves. Thanks for sharing this information about your ancestor. I will leave your comment on my blog for others to read.

    Regards, Elizabeth