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Castle Hill Rebellion

Castle Hill Rebellion

A painting depicting the rebellion.
Date 4–5 March 1804
Location Castle Hill, New South Wales
Result Rebellion crushed
Convict insurgents United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland British Army
Commanders and leaders
Phillip Cunningham
William Johnston
George Johnston
~400 57
Casualties and losses
15 dead, 9 executed
66 detained

The Castle Hill Rebellion of 1804 was a rebellion by convicts against colonial authority in the Castle Hill area of the British colony of New South Wales. The rebellion culminated in a battle at Rouse Hill, dubbed the Battle of Vinegar Hill after the Battle of Vinegar Hill of 1798, fought between convicts and the Colonial forces of Australia on 5 March 1804. It was the first and only major convict uprising in Australian history.

On 4 March 1804, 233 convicts led by Phillip Cunningham (a veteran of the Irish Rebellion of 1798, as well as mutiny on the convict transport ship Anne) escaped from a farm intent on capturing ships to sail to Ireland. In response, martial law was quickly declared in New South Wales. The mostly Irish rebels, having gathered reinforcements, were hunted by the colonial forces until they were sequestered on 5 March 1804 on a hillock nicknamed Vinegar Hill. Under a flag of truce, Cunningham was arrested and troops charged and the rebellion was swifly crushed by raid. Nine of the rebel leaders were executed and hundreds were punished before martial law was finally revoked on 12 March 1804.

The rising

Many convicts in the Castle Hill area had been involved in the 1798 rebellion in Ireland and subsequently transported to the Colony of New South Wales from late 1799. Phillip Cunningham, a veteran of the 1798 rebellion, and William Johnston, another Irish convict at Castle Hill, planned the uprising in which 685 convicts at Castle Hill planned to meet with nearly 1,100 convicts from the Hawkesbury River area, rally at Constitution Hill, and march on Parramatta and then Sydney (Port Jackson) itself.

On the evening of 4 March 1804, a hut at Castle Hill was set afire as the signal for the rebellion to begin. With Cunningham leading, 200 rebels broke into the Government Farm's buildings, taking firearms, ammunition, and other weapons. The constables were overpowered and the rebels then went from farm to farm on their way to Constitution Hill at Parramatta, seizing more weapons and supplies including rum and spirits.

When news of the uprising spread there was great panic with particularly hated officials such as Samuel Marsden fleeing the area by boat, escorting Elizabeth Macarthur and her children, as an informer had advised that an attack would be made on the farm to draw troops away from Parramatta. In Sydney the Sydney Loyal Association militia took over guard duties and a New South Wales Corps contingent of twentynine soldiers marched at forced-march pace through the night, picking up Major George Johnston from his Annandale farm on the way, and arrived at Parramatta about four hours later just after Governor Phillip King, who declared martial law. Thirtysix armed members of the Parramatta Loyal Association [1] militia were also called out and took over defence of the town. Over 50 enrolled Active Defence reserve militia combined with the NSW Corps to march out and confront the rebels.

Meanwhile, the rebels at Constitution Hill were having difficulties co-ordinating their force as several parties had lost their way in the night. They commenced drilling, while a party tried to enter Parramatta, but withdrew when they saw the arsenal, Commissariat and other buildings defended. The messenger sent to pass out the rising instructions had defected to the authorities and those in the town and environs did not receive the callout, nor did the convicts at the Hawkesbury.

Preliminary stage

Phillip Cunningham, being involved in two previous rebellions, knew that the most important element of a rebellion was secrecy. However there were two defections and the commandant at Parramatta had warning of the rebellion a few hours before it began, commenced defensive measures and sent a message to the Governor in Sydney. When John Cavenah set fire to his hut at 8pm, signalling beginning of the uprising Cunningham activated the plan to gather weapons, ammunition, food and recruits from the government farm at Toongab-be. He then headed to Constitution Hill outside Parramatta, collecting weapons and recruits from the farms on the way, there to execute the second phase - to take over the town, its weaponry and ammunition.

The rebels prepare

The rebels quickly expanded to the areas of Rouse Hill and Kellyville, recruiting or impressing against their will the convicts along the way. During this phase they obtained almost one third of the entire colony’s armaments. However with their courier having defected, the callout messages to Windsor, Parramatta and Sydney failed, and the uprising was confined to the Castle Hill area; the planned concentration of 1,100 fell far short of its target. After fruitlessly waiting for a signal of a successful internal takeover of Parramatta, and the non-appearance of several hundred reinforcements Cunningham, having already declared his hand, and deprived of both surprise and overwhelming numbers, had no recourse but to withdraw to the Hawkesbury to pick up his missing forces on the way to add to his mere 250.

The battle

Major Johnston's contingent, wearied by their night march, was obviously going to need time to close with the retreating rebels, so he rode after them with a small mounted party to implement delaying tactics. He first sent his mounted trooper on to call them to surrender and take the benefit of the Governor's Amnesty for early surrender. This failing, he dispatched Roman Catholic priest Father James Dixon to appeal to them. Next he rode up himself, appealing to them, then got their agreement to hear Father Dixon again.

Meanwhile the pursuing forces had closed up and Major Johnston with Trooper Anlezark came again to parley, calling down the leaders Cunningham and Johnston from the hill. Demanding their surrender, he received the response from Cunningham 'Death or Liberty' and by some report added 'and a ship to take us home'. With the NSW Corps and Active Defence now formed up behind him Major Johnston and the trooper produced pistols and shepherded the two leaders back to unfriendly lines. Quartermaster Sergeant Thomas Laycock, on being given the order to engage, directed fifteen minutes of musket fire, then charged. The now leaderless rebels first tried to fire back, but then broke and ran.

During the short battle fifteen rebels had fallen, Major Johnston preventing more killings by threatening his troops with his pistol. Several convicts were captured and others killed in the pursuit which went up to Windsor all day until 9pm, with new arrivals of soldiers from Sydney joining in the search for rebels. Large parties of 50 and 70 who lost their way in the night turned themselves in under the Amnesty.


Three hundred were eventually brought in over three days. Of the nearly 300 rebels directly engaged in the battle, 15 were killed, nine executed, seven whipped with 200 or 500 lashes then allotted to the Coal River chain gang, 26 sent to the Newcastle coal mines, others put on good behaviour orders against a trip to Norfolk Island, and most pardoned as having been coerced into the rising. Cunningham was court martialled under the Martial Law and hanged at the Commissariat Store at Windsor, which he had bragged he would burn down.

This did not end the insurgency, with Irish plots bubbling along, keeping the Government and its informers vigilant, with military callout rehearsals, over the next three years. Governor King remained convinced that the real inspirers of revolt had kept out of sight, and had some suspects sent to Norfolk Island as a preventive measure.

  • Nine rebels were executed.[2]
First Name Surname Means of death
Phillip Cunningham Executed at Windsor.
William Johnston Executed at Castle Hill and then hung in chains, just outside Parramatta on the road to Prospect.
John Neale Executed at Castle Hill.
George Harrington Executed at Castle Hill.
Samuel Humes Executed at Parramatta and then hung in chains.
Charles Hill Executed at Parramatta.
Jonothan Place Executed at Parramatta.
John Brannan Executed at Sydney.
Timothy Hogan Executed at Sydney.
  • Two were "reprieved, detained at the governor's pleasure."[2]
First Name Surname
John Burke
Bryan McCormack
  • Four received "500 lashes and exile to the Coal River chain gang." (Coal River was the original name for Newcastle.[2])
First Name Surname
John Griffin
Neil Smith
Bryan Burne
Cornelius (Connor) Dwyer
  • Three received "200 lashes and exile to the Coal River chain gang."[2]
First Name Surname
David Morrison
Cornelius Lyons
Owen McDermot
  • Twenty-three other rebels were also exiled to the Coal River.[2] This group included:
First Name Surname Other information
John Cavenah
Francis Neeson
? Tierney Convict
Robert Cooper Assisted rebels.
Dennis Ryan Assisted rebels.
Bryan Spaldon Emancipist. Also punished with as many lashes as he could stand without his life being endangered.
Bryan Riley Emancipist. Also punished with as many lashes as he could stand without his life being endangered.
  • Thirty-four prisoners were placed in irons until they could be 'disposed' of. It is not known whether some, or all of them, were sent to the Coal River.[2]
First Name Surname
Owen Black
Thomas Brodrick
Brien Burne
Thomas Burne
Jonothan Butler
Jonothan Campbell
William Cardell
Nicholas Carty
Thomas Connel
James Cramer
Peter Garey
Andrew Coss
James Cullen
William Day
James Duffy
Thomas Gorman
Edward Griffin
Jonothan Griffin
James Higgans
Thomas Kelly
Jonothan Moore
Edward Nail
Douglas Hartigan
Peter Magarth
Jonothan Malony
Joseph McLouglin
Jonothan Reilley
Jonothan Roberts
Anthony Rowson
George Russell
Richard Thompson
Jonothan Tucker
James Turoney
  • The remaining rebels, as well as other suspects, were allowed to return to their places of employment.

The battle site is believed to be near the present-day Rouse Hill Regional Town Centre (a sprawling shopping mall). 'The Government Farm at Castle Hill' was added in March 1986 to the Australian Registry of the National Estate (Place ID: 2964), a special place of international and Australian significance intended to occupy over 60 hectares. Residential development, including dubious land dealings, has significantly diminished the area of the prison town. Less than 0.2 km² (19 hectares) has remained undeveloped and conserved, as Castle Hill Heritage Park (2004). There is a sculpture near the battle site at Castlebrook Cemetery commemorating the sacrifice. However, there is some debate as to where the battle actually occurred.[3]

The bicentenary of the rebellion was commemorated in 2004, with a variety of events.[4]

See also

On screen

An Australian 1978 TV series, Against the Wind, included a dramatization over two episodes of the build-up to and ultimate defeat of the rebellion.

The re-enactment in 2004 was significant in that exact numbers were recruited to form the rebels, the militia and the Red Coats (military). The event was held in close proximity to the original site on a similar landscape. It was this event that has caused many historical accountings to be reviewed in light of this full-scale exercise which was two years in planning. It was only possible with the support of Blacktown and Hawkesbury Councils, as Baulkham Hills Council declined to be involved, yet took responsibility for events at the Government Farm site in Castle Hill.

The reenactment was covered by the ABC.


  • Anne-Maree Whitaker (2004), 'Mrs Paterson's keepsakes: the provenance of some significant colonial documents and paintings', Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society.[1]

External links

  • Dictionary of Sydney

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