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George Barrington: Australia’s first literary celebrity and a fake author

By Simon Caterson - posted Thursday, 8 October 2009

In our celebrity-obsessed culture, we take for granted the fact that publishers hire ghost writers to assist, if not impersonate, the people considered famous or infamous enough to give us “their” life story. But imagine finding out that your autobiography had been written by someone you had never met, was published entirely without your consent or knowledge and you could do nothing to prevent it being sold as your work.

It may sound like a nightmare scenario from the latest Charlie Kaufman film, but that is exactly what happened to Australia’s first literary celebrity, the Irish-born convict George Barrington. For more than a decade before being transported to New South Wales, in 1791, Barrington was celebrated in the popular press in London as “the Prince of Pickpockets”.

Barrington’s extraordinary media profile was due to the fact that unlike most denizens of the underworld he had the manners of a gentleman and could thus gain access to high society and lucrative plunder. He also had the supposedly Irish gift of dock eloquence, swaying juries with copious tears and subtle rhetoric.


Barrington also impressed with his grooming and sense of fashion. At his January 1777 trial the London Chronicle reported that his appearance, though impressive, wasn’t enough to sway the court.

He is a very genteel man, about 21, and very far from athletic: his hair dressed à-la-mode; his clothes quite the taste; a fine gold headed taper cane, with suitable tassles, and eloquent Artois buckles. In short he is the genteelest thief ever remembered to have been seen at the Old Bailey, and it is a great pity he should have been condemned to so vulgar an employment as ballast heaving.

No serious professional criminal welcomes publicity, and becoming famous made it all the more difficult for Barrington to actually carry out his thefts. Recognised wherever he went, it was inevitable he would be caught.

The press displayed a similar attitude towards Barrington that the media today extends to some of our more notorious celebrities: a mixture of censoriousness and delight. Substantial coverage was given to his pick-pocketing technique, which involved specially made tools - diagrams of which were provided to readers. Such was his fame that souvenirs soon appeared, including earthenware mugs illustrated with Barrington picking a pocket or two. His career quickly became the subject of popular fiction, ballads and melodrama; his portrait was painted by leading artist Sir William Beechey, whose subjects included King George III and Lord Nelson.

The story of Barrington’s life contains many myths but his fame is beyond dispute: in 1827, more than 20 years after his death in Sydney, a writer in Blackwood magazine noted that “ninety-nine out of one hundred English people” would associate the colony of New South Wales with “ropes, gibbets, arson, burglary, kangaroos, George Barrington and Governor Macquarie”. Nearly a century after Barrington arrived in Australia, Marcus Clarke could write: “Most people have heard of George Barrington, the pickpocket. His name has become notorious - I had almost written famous - for gentlemanly larceny.” His fame endures in Robert Bresson’s 1959 classic film Pickpocket in which the Parisian thief Michel treasures his copy of a Barrington biography.

When Barrington disembarked at Port Jackson in 1791 after arriving with the third fleet, he found his reputation as a celebrity criminal preceded him. Watkin Tench, the best known chronicler of early Sydney, noted in his July 1791 diary: “In the list of convicts brought out was George Barrington, of famous memory.” Evidently Tench thought no other felon’s name worth mentioning.


No sooner had Barrington left London on his way to the penal colony at the other end of the world then publishers began printing what purported to be authentic accounts of his life and adventures written in the first person. Overnight Barrington became an immensely successful authorial brand without the man himself writing a word.

Any publisher today can confirm that there is nothing like having a celebrity to sell any kind of book, and Barrington’s name was applied to what Nathan Garvey describes in The Celebrated George Barrington: A Spurious Author, the Book Trade, and Botany Bay as a “dizzying number of republications, translations and adaptations”.

Apparently Barrington became aware that his name and fame were being exploited by unscrupulous publishers, but, as a convict serving time in New South Wales, he was powerless to do anything about it. A reformed character, the real Barrington was granted a full pardon and became Chief Constable of Parramatta. He retired on a state pension and eventually died insane in 1804.

One of the texts falsely attributed to Barrington was A Voyage to Botany Bay, an account of his journey to and life in the penal colony that was first published in 1795. Publishers either made up the details of the story or else they shamelessly plagiarised worthy but comparatively dull official reports of the colony, making them racier and more sentimental in order to sell to a popular readership.

The Barrington book publications typically took the form of chapbooks - a form of popular literature that had its origins in the 16th century, and was short and inexpensive (between a penny and sixpence); easy to carry around; and sold by hawkers or “chapmen” - but the first major publication to appear under the George Barrington name was An Impartial Narrative of the Present State of Botany Bay in the 1790s, later reissued and expanded under the snappier title A Voyage to New South Wales (and later still as A Voyage to Botany Bay). A second book, The History of New South Wales, appeared in 1802. These appeared in the same period as the first-person accounts of colonial officials such as Arthur Philip, Watkin Tench, John Hunter and David Collins.

The typical Barrington voyage narrative is essentially utopian: transportation not only removed a criminal from England but also caused him to undergo a conversion while on board ship so he emerged a reformed and useful character. One episode that’s certainly pure invention has Barrington quell a mutiny almost single-handedly. When Barrington arrives at Botany Bay the captain’s report to the governor on his loyal service during the mutiny leads to his appointment as superintendent of convicts at Parramatta. While Barrington himself did eventually secure a similar position, it wasn’t until he’d been living in the colony for a few years, and certainly not because of any mutiny.

Suzanne Rickard writes in George Barrington’s Voyage to Botany Bay that the Barrington voyage narrative not only met the public demand for accessible tales of the new colony but also pandered to the widespread expectation that transportation would prove an effective means of reforming criminals so they’d be fit to found a new civilisation. Less high-minded interests were also catered for:

While some of the public’s curiosity about the penal colony’s development was pedagogic, others maintained a more prurient interest in the gothic horrors of punishment, transportation and convictism.

Although the indigenous population is represented as primitive, infantile and “filthy” in Barrington’s encounters, they’re also represented in sentimental terms that suggest a paternalistic approach is necessary and justified. In one incident Barrington saves the life of a boy who’s been shot with an arrow. The boy’s sister Yeariana, who just happens to be comely, is persuaded by the kindly Barrington that she has nothing to fear and her brother will recover:

I beckoned at my young friend who advanced with the utmost confidence, and giving her the hand of her brother, she exclaimed with great emotion, “Diggery-goor, Digger-goor,” I thank you - and turning to her father called him to her, I immediately quitted my station and resigned him to their care; the old man examined the wound and with great skill extracted the barb. During the operation the youth lifted his eyes, and observing his father, a glance of filial affection beamed forth.

As Rickard notes, this touching scene resembles an episode mentioned in the journals of John Hunter; one of many apparent plagiarisms carefully reworked into the Barrington story.

And in commercial terms the Barrington publishing swindle worked; countless editions of the fake memoir appeared within the first 20 years and beyond and it was translated into several languages. And among the original reviewers there’s at least one who was persuaded that Barrington not only wrote the book but was truly a changed man:

We confess that we took up this performance with prejudice and suspicion, arising from the name which appears on the title page being that of the author. Not that we supposed Mr George Barrington to be incapable of writing a very readable book, but the well-known character and exploits of the man at once brought to our minds such a recollection of past imposture and depredation on the public, that it was impossible for us to read a line of such a production without caution and distrust. On perusing, however, a few pages of the work, our suspicion abated; and, before we arrived at its conclusion, not a doubt remained of its authenticity.

Another reviewer stopped short of vouching for the authenticity of the book, but tacitly approved of its factual basis and moral tenor:

Whether this be a genuine work of the celebrated convict or not, it contains nothing that has not been seen before on the subject; and if it gives a genuine account of Mr. B’s reformation, we are glad to find that his distance from his native country had put him beyond the reach of temptation to violate her laws and the laws of society in general.

It certainly seems that Barrington was a reformed character in New South Wales, though it’s unclear whether the transformation was due to rehabilitation or simply because there were few pockets in the penal colony worth picking. In any case, Barrington was among the first to receive a conditional pardon in 1792 - he was given a full pardon in 1796 and subsequently made chief constable of Parramatta, where he owned and farmed over a hundred acres of land. Such privileges were not unknown for convicts who were considered to be of a superior class; such was the shortage of personnel in positions of authority. Perhaps there was also an element of setting a thief to catch one, since food theft was rife.

The George Barrington whom Tench describes with evident fascination accords with the image of a man who was once a successful celebrity criminal but had become resigned to his fate. Like an ageing movie star, the aura of fame still hung about him:

I saw him with curiosity. He is tall, approaching to six feet, slender, and his gait and manner bespeak liveliness and activity. Of that elegance and fashion, with which my imagination had decked him (I know not why), I could distinguish no trace. Great allowance should, however, be made for depression and unavoidable deficiency in dress. His face is thoughtful and intelligent; to a strong cast of countenance he adds a penetrating eye, and a prominent forehead. His whole demeanour is humble, not servile. Both on his passage from England and since his arrival here, his conduct has been irreproachable.

Though the Australian historical record indicates Barrington became a model citizen, his name is associated with one other dubious colonial legend: he was long thought to have written (and spoken) the prologue to the inaugural production of the first Australian theatre in 1796.

From distant climes o’er wide-spread seas we come,/Though not with much éclat or beat of drum,/True patriots all; for be it understood,/We left our country for our country’s own good.

It wasn’t until over a century later that Sydney bibliophile Alfred Lee discovered the lines been plagiarised from a poem written by Englishman Henry Carter, who’d never even visited Australia. Carter, who died in 1806, was described in his obituary as “a gentleman of considerable literary attainments and great benevolence”; it seems the myth of Barrington’s authorship arose when a publisher appended Carter’s poem to an edition of the equally falsely attributed History of New South Wales.

Which just goes to show the truth of the famous saying attributed to Mark Twain: “A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on.”

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Simon Caterson’s Hoax Nation: Australian Fakes and Frauds from Plato to Norma Khouri is published in November 2009 by Arcade Publications.

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About the Author

Simon Caterson is a freelance writer and the author of Hoax Nation: Australian Fakes and Frauds from Plato to Norma Khouri (Arcade).

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