Castle Hill and Vinegar Hill: the Australian Rising of 1804

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 2 (Summer 2004), News, The United Irishmen, Volume 12

While Dublin Castle anticipated a revival of United Irish activity in Leinster 200 years ago, it was in New South Wales, Australia, that the republican organisation made its last show of force. The scale and potential of the Castle Hill revolt of March 1804 shocked a colonial regime that had weathered several ‘Irish plots’ between 1800 and 1802. Governor Philip Gidley King was obliged to declare martial law for the first time in Australian history and believed that Irish rebels had come close to seizing control of the British Empire’s penal colonies.

The rising of 1804 had a long and complex gestation. From 1788, thousands of predominantly English and Irish convicts had been transported to New South Wales to alleviate pressure on a justice system deprived of its traditional dumping grounds by the American Revolution. Counter-insurgency measures in Ireland ensured that considerable numbers of Defenders and United Irishmen were transported to Australia in the 1790s. By 1800 New South Wales was at least one-third Irish and home to at least 600 republican prisoners. The Minerva and Friendship transports, which arrived from Cobh in January/February 1800, carried such notorious figures as Wicklow ‘General’ Joseph Holt, Dublin radical Richard Dry and Offaly rebel captain James Meehan. Within months of their arrival, a series of interlinked conspiracies were uncovered in Sydney, Toongabbie, Parramatta and Norfolk Island. Severe flogging, re-transportation and a hunger strike by Holt did nothing to reconcile the imported Irishmen to their new environment.

The steady flow of Irish republicans to New South Wales in 1801–2 enabled those concentrated in the Sydney district to keep up with events in Ireland, not least the revival of the organisation to which they had sworn allegiance. The experience of transportation further strengthened a sense of cohesion from which criminals were generally excluded. Unsurprisingly, hostility towards British authority remained high, and those sent out on the Hercules, Atlas I and Anne were aggrieved by maltreatment en route to exile. Anne convict Phil Cunningham of Clonmel arrived in 1801, having been reputedly ‘remarkably active’ in a failed mutiny on the voyage that resulted in the illegal summary execution of a ringleader; eighteen men were killed in a more desperate attempt to take the Hercules. Given a widespread belief that Britain would eventually lose the long war with France, and clandestine negotiations in 1802 between French naval officers and United Irish leaders in New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), the weakly defended and remote colony was indeed vulnerable.

The United Irishmen in New South Wales were divided into loose factions: Minerva men Holt and Thomas Brady headed the largest single county group from Wicklow and plotted, in many instances, with life-long friends and subordinates from the Rebellion of 1798. Their Dublin comrade and shipmate, Martin Short, was an early and enthusiastic conspirator in Sydney. John Neil was respected by the substantial Wexford contingent in the colony, which included Mathew Sutton of Enniscorthy and other important United Irishmen. Cunningham clearly exerted much influence over the Munster faction in 1804, by which time he worked as the overseer of masons in Castle Hill. Antrim arms raider Samuel Hume, a survivor of the Hercules disaster, was then overseer of carpentry at the same location. William Johnson, another Ulster United Irishman with Tyrone connections, had served as a sergeant in the military or militia. The ready cooperation of Johnson, Cunningham and Hume, ‘Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter’, underlined the essential viability of the republican project after the setback of 1798. They knew that the United Irishmen were by no means a spent force in Ireland and this impression, bolstered by personal insight and private correspondence, was confirmed by belated news of Robert Emmet’s July 1803 rising. In November 1803 they learned of the collapse of the Peace of Amiens and the resumption of the war with France. After much discussion, it was decided to rise in early March 1804 using a nucleus of men who worked at the Castle Hill farming settlement, north-east of Sydney.

On 3 March 1804 Holt learned that the secrecy he deemed essential had been compromised by loose talk, a major problem given that he had just attended a final meeting of leaders in Parramatta which attracted confederates from Sydney and the Hawkesbury district. The famed Wicklow guerrilla fighter lost no time in severing his links with the plotters and going to the Brush Farm home of his employer, William Cox. The Parramatta attack he had previously undertaken to lead was in doubt from that moment, although many Wicklowmen ignored Holt’s advice to stay at home. Not long after dark on 4 March, approximately 200 convicts broke out of their lightly guarded Castle Hill lodgings and assembled on Constitution Hill, near Parramatta, where Cunningham outlined the strategy of the leadership. Weapons were to be seized from local settlers and recruits summoned back to Constitution Hill ahead of planned descents on Parramatta and Sydney on 5–6 March.

Neil’s column went towards the small outpost of Toongabbie, while Johnson moved around the Seven Hills area. Hume searched fruitlessly for Holt’s men near Parramatta and then at Brush Farm. By the evening of 5 March, however, up to 300 poorly equipped rebels and a small number of English convicts had mustered on Constitution Hill. It became clear that, contrary to all expectations, the New South Wales corps garrison was marching on their position. The corps was one of the least distinguished in the Empire but in Major George Johnson had an officer who had fought at Bunker Hill and understood the necessity of striking aggressively against irregulars at the earliest possible moment. The uprising had been timed to allow HMS Calcutta to leave Sydney on 4 March, but a chance delay enabled Governor King to deploy its marines in the main settlement while Johnson and the corps left to confront the rebels. Far from being overstretched, surprised and confused, the soldiers pursued the main insurgent column with decisive purpose. They tracked the Irishmen from Constitution Hill along the Windsor Road towards Hawkesbury and established contact at 11am on 5 March. The rebels were found posted on Rouse Hill, Blacktown, which their chronic lack of weaponry ensured would be no Oulart Hill.

While accounts differ as to the specifics of what ensued on Australia’s Vinegar Hill, approximately 21 rebels were quickly shot dead on and around the prominence with no garrison fatalities. The imbalance between makeshift pikes and some assorted firearms in the hands of the rebels and the massed, trained firepower of the army was clearly demonstrated. Major Johnson, moreover, had evidently wrong-footed Cunningham and William Johnson by arresting them when they approached under a flag of truce. The death toll may well have exceeded 30 as a chaotic pursuit followed the ordered volleys of the corps, and another eight men were hanged after drumhead courts martial on 8 March. The dead included Cunningham, Johnson and Hume. Governor King surmised that ‘all the Irish’ would have joined the revolt had the main rebel force approached Sydney and attributed the preservation of the colony to the delay of the Calcutta and two other vessels in port. Martial law gave King carte blanche to punish the refractory United Irishmen and scores were dispersed to the struggling outposts of the colony. The small mining operation at Coal River received the population boost it required to mature into the town, now city, of Newcastle. It is uncertain what the rebels intended to do in the event of success, but escape to Batavia (Jakarta) in the Dutch East Indies or to America was feasible if trading vessels could be commandeered. The French may have been tempted to use their Indian Ocean bases in Mauritius and Reunion to supplant the British in Australia, possibly with Irish assistance, but such footholds could not long have withstood Royal Navy counterattack.

The name ‘Vinegar Hill’, which once described the Sydney district of King’s Cross, is now applied to the battle site above the modern Castlebrook Cemetery, Windsor Road, Rouse Hill. A major memorial was unveiled there during the Australian bicentennial celebrations in 1988, and in March 2004 Blacktown City Council organised a week-long series of commemorations to mark the 200th anniversary of the rising. Fittingly, the Irish delegation to the Vinegar Hill ceremony included Wexford pikemen.

Ruan O’Donnell lectures in history at the University of Limerick.


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