Rush of the “Isabella”

I was quite surprised by last night’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are on SBS, featuring actor Geoffrey Rush.

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… Rush learned that on both sides of his family there were great, great, great etc grandfathers who battled unfair treatment. On his mother’s side, in northern Germany, an ancestor fought a local mafia which was trying to keep him from running the musicians’ guild. “I read the letters that he wrote to the king,” Rush says. “They were pretty amazing, pretty bold, saying ‘I’m really talented and I’m better than these people, I’m born to fulfil this role’.”

On his father’s side, Rush found a convict sent to Sydney for “diddling a pig jobber” (stealing from a seller of farm animals) who campaigned against being unfairly transferred to the dreaded Port Macquarie. “He ultimately was so tenacious, he was serving his seven-year sentence, and right till the very end he was placing that in jeopardy by wanting to right a wrong, for which he had considerable support. He proved that he was a victim of controlling ruling forces. He was either very smart or a loudmouth Irish ratbag.”…

Rush’s convict ancestor fell foul of this man, apparently:

Archibald Bell (1773-1837), soldier and magistrate, was the son of Archibald Bell, a Nonconformist minister and schoolmaster of Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, England. He worked for a time as a schoolteacher, and in 1794 married Maria Kitching of Cheshunt. He served in the Hertford Southern Yeomanry as a lieutenant, and was commissioned an ensign in the New South Wales Corps in December 1806. He arrived in Sydney on 12 July 1807 in the Young William with his wife and nine children, and property worth more than £500; unfortunately the transport commissioners had felt it ‘totally impracticable’ also to convey his Alderney cow. He was recommended by ‘persons of great respectability’, notably Sir Abraham Hume, as leaving the country ‘not from distress, unfortunate antecedents, or any circumstance affecting his conduct or character’, but in hope that the colony might offer him better prospects. He received a town allotment and 500 acres (202 ha) near Richmond, which Major George Johnston confirmed when he seized power. Another child was born soon after his arrival, and his colonial life was characterized by a continual effort to provide for his large family…

What particularly struck me about John Thomas Rush was that he arrived in Sydney in 1822 via the convict transport “Isabella”!  He also spent some time in the Hyde Park Convict Barracks – which are still there today as a tourist attraction.


So did my convict ancestor. See especially my post Tangible link to the convict ship “Isabella” and the immigrant ship “Thames” and Search Results for:Jacob Whitfield.

There are lots of details about the “Isabella” here.

The vessel was moored at Cowes on Thursday 2nd August 1821 when the detachment of the 24th regiment under orders of Lieut. Harvey from Albury Barracks embarked. There were 28 Privates and Corporals and three women. The following day at noon they weighed anchor and passed through the Needles under light and variable winds. On the next Friday (10th) they arrived at the Cove of Cork after a rough passage when the Guard and women suffered very much from sea sickness. They remained at the Cove of Cork for some time during which time several of the guard became unruly and rebellious. A court-martial took place on board and six soldiers were sent back to shore.

On October 14th forty-seven convicts were received onto the vessel making the total to 200 men. They were divided into messes and sent on deck during each day in two divisions. This routine continued until nearly the end of October when rain set in and the men were kept below. The surgeon reported that the prisoners were orderly and well behaved. The bad weather continued and the men were allowed on deck intermittently. By November they had set sail and most of the convicts, guard and women were all experiencing sea sickness in the boisterous weather.

Over the next four months Surgeon Price kept a daily record of the position of the vessel and weather experienced as well as the various illness of the convicts.

There were light winds on the 10th March when they came to anchor in Sydney Cove. The convicts were mustered on deck and divine service performed. The following day the Colonial Secretary came on board to muster the men.

On the 14th March at daylight the guard and the convicts were all disembarked and at 11am Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane inspected the prisoners in the gaol yard.

4 thoughts on “Rush of the “Isabella”

  1. Hi Neil. Thank you for alerting me to this. I can’t get SBS on TV. I thought that the Australian segment was bad to the point that I felt that I don’t want to watch this stuff anymore because its distorting my own writing.I really need to finish my book and then it won’t matter. The European segment was quite gripping and I loved the musical overlay. One again, my thanks.

  2. I really don’t see why there was an issue for you, Jim, as the episode merely traced a particularly family history which happened in important respects to parallel my own. It wasn’t purporting to be THE history of the period surely, though WDYTYA does at times raise interesting social history.

  3. Hi Neil. Sorry for the delay in responding. There was an interpretation overlay about the convict system that I didn’t like that goes to Robert Hughes et al. Port Macquarie and some of the players referred to falls smack within my my own research and writing. I am trying to write on what was, how it worked, looking from different perspectives. I find that that interpretation overlay distorts. Port Macquarie was meant to be a punishment settlement for recalcitrants, but it actually didn’t quite work out that way.

  4. Just a further brief comment. This is something I should probably not try to argue about at this point, Neil, for it draws me into questions of interpretation of evidence that I don’t want to address when I’m trying to consolidate my own views. If I start trying to explain interpretation problems and directly address the issue involved in my own reactions, then I am going to end up arguing a case that I don’t necessarily want to argue.

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