Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Matters of Conviction - Francis and Denis Keefe

Francis and Denis Keefe were brothers and cousins to Philip Keefe. Unlike Philip, both Francis and Denis could read and write, and Francis at least tried to turn this to his advantage on a number of occasions.

They were born in County Kerry, Ireland, Francis in 1794 and Denis in 1799. Francis was a reaper and Denis a shearer and reaper. On 23 March 1823 the brothers were up before the Court in Tralee, Co. Kerry, on a charge of coining (that's counterfeiting in more modern terms). They were found guilty and each sentenced to seven years' transportation to New South Wales. They were held first in  Tralee, but soon were shifted to Cork Goal. This posed a threat to the Keefe brothers, as letters from them to the General Governor of Ireland, the Marquis Wellesley, show. Francis had told a Kerry magistrate of the location of a rebel arms stash, resulting not only in the seizing of the weapons but also in arrests. Tralee and Cork Goals held many rebels, so I don't think the Keefe boys felt it was any exaggeration when they wrote "if something is not done without delay for us the results will be fatal for us".

The only thing that was done was to shift them, along with the other transportees, to the Hulk Surprise. In August they were all loaded onto the Isabella. The ship's surgeon, William Rae, recorded that they all appeared healthy, although they were very poorly clothed, few with shoes or stockings, one man with only a blanket "to cover his nakedness" and another with trousers with only one leg in them. Many were suffering from Catarrh, a thick mucus buildup resulting from colds and flu, but were otherwise well. However, about a month out to sea, a number of men came down with scurvy and it was revealed that while on the hulk several had been confined with a fever. On top of the illness, it was not a good crossing. Morale was unusually low. Rae claimed in his journal that there was a gang among the prisoners systematically terrorising and robbing the convicts. Given the state of the prisoners recorded in Rae's journal, I wonder what was being taken. The trouser perhaps, as an item of novelty wear?

Then Rae, and the captain, John Wallis, were informed of a plot by the gang to mutiny and murder all aboard who would not join up:

Through the courage of one man, we fortunately discovered the horrid plot that was hatching against us, which obliged me to replace the most of them in irons and curtail their liberty upon deck as it was improper again to trust men who had been guilty of such base ingratitude for as much liberty granted to them and kind treatment during a period of distress.

Who was this man? None other than Francis Keefe. When the Isabella arrived in Sydney, Rae and Wallis gave to Governor Stewart a fuller account of Francis' role in thwarting the mutiny:

 We have to inform your Excellency that in the course of our voyage hither we had the good fortune to discover a dangerous mutiny which was on the eve of breaking out amongst the prisoners, and but for timely prevention would certainly have ended in much bloodshed.

For the information we are mainly indebted to a prisoner of the name of Francis Keefe who at the risk of his own life concealed himself whilst he wrote a short note containing the information. This plot from all the credible evidence we have been able to collect concerning it had been matured by a few of the worst of characters and they had even evinced some degree of cunning in poisoning the minds with the idea of money being on board which was to be distributed amongst those who should most distinguish themselves.

Keefe is a man superior to most of the prisoners, has conducted himself with much propriety and some of the ringleaders have even attempted to invalidate his evidence.

Situated as we have all been we should be guilty of an act of injustice if we did not recommend this man in the strongest manner to your Excellency 's notice. We here enclose the names of the principal Ringleaders...

The ringleaders were Charles Devatt, James Kelly, Patrick and Denis Brennan, James Lawler, William Cowen and Patrick Macnamara. Devatt, Kelly, the Brennans and Lawler were sent on to Port Macquarie, where Denis Brennan died just under a year later. Cowen was sent on to Parramatta and Macnamara to Newcastle.

Francis was rewarded with a Ticket of Leave, straight off the boat. Interestingly Denis Keefe claimed no part in this, or was given no opportunity to claim part. The thwarted mutiny and subsequent reward of the informant was reported in the Sydney Gazette, although, wisely, it did not state Francis' name.

Sydney Gazette, 25 December 1823, page 2
Mind you, the following week the Gazette published the name of the one prisoner from the Isabella to receive a Ticket of Leave.

Denis, meanwhile, was assigned to Alexander Berry and Edward Wolstonecraft at Nowra. They had been given a land grant of 10,000 acres in the Shoalhaven area and needed convict labour to clear and farm the land. Denis, as a reaper and sheep shearer, was perfectly qualified, although he probably began work as a sawyer.

Being assigned meant that Denis was fed and clothed, provided for, albeit it in exchange for very hard work. Francis, as a Ticket of Leave man, had more freedom but, it turned out, less certainty.

He wrote to Sir Thomas Brisbane, KC to the Governor, on 17 August 1824. Beginning with his vital role in quelling the Isabella mutiny and subsequent awarding of a Ticket of Leave, Francis went on 

Petitioner having been out of Employment and unable to get one to suit him, most humbly entreats your Excellency to grant him one

I take this to mean that Francis is asking for a job. The Colonial Secretary understood it to mean a Ticket of Leave (which Francis already possessed) and turned him down. Francis' wording in his letter is interesting "unable to get one to suit him". Any job? Or one that he fancies? Either way, he was clearly out of luck. But Francis came up with at least one backup plan that put him and Denis back in Court and back in the papers.
The Sydney Gazette, 1 September 1825, page 3, had the following police report:

The stacks had been burnt on 1 July. The Australian reported that "(Denis) was observed near the stacks, a few minutes before the fire was discovered, where he remained a short time, and returned to his hut". Denis was tried on 14 October and acquitted on an informality in the indictment, but was then "remanded on a fresh information". The "fresh information" turned out to be rather sensational

Sydney Gazette, 27 October 1825, page3
The penal settlement in question was Port Macquarie, where four of the Isabella mutineers were still serving time (the reference to trusty servants is due to the number of cases involving convicts of Berry and Wollstonecraft in September and October of 1825. More than a few were stealing from their masters).

1829 and Francis made the papers again, although this time as the victim. He was sitting in Pashley's drinking house in The Rocks, when Cornelius Ryan picked his pocket. Ryan took a bag containing £17 in notes and some loose coins - dollars and rupees. Ryan was caught and the bag found on him. But the question must be asked of how Francis got hold of such a large sum of money.

Denis seems to have kept his head down after Port Macquarie. On 31 March 1830 he received his Certificate of Freedom and decided he had had enough of New South Wales. He applied for permission to return home and sailed out of Sydney aboard the Dryade on 16 March 1831. A stowaway, James Thomas, was found on board the following day, so the journey was delayed briefly, and the Dryade eventually sailed through the Heads on 18 March, 1831. I have lost Denis' trail here as I am not yet sure if he made it all the way back to Kerry, or if he decided to stay on in London when the Dryade docked.

So, back to Francis. He also received his Certificate of Freedom in 1830, on 22 March, about a week before his brother.
Francis Keefe's Certificate of Freedom, 1830. Note offence is listed as "coining"
Next he applied for land and a bride. The land was in the Burragorang, not far from his cousin, Philip. The wife came courtesy of the convict transport Princess Royal in the shape of Sarah Clarke, spinner, of Gloucestershire. Francis and Sarah were married in Sydney on 3 June 1830. I can find no record of children from this union. The marriage was not to last. In 1836, Sarah's Ticket of Leave made no mention of Francis, and on her Certificate of Freedom in 1842 she was listed as the wife of Richard Turton per transport Henry.

Francis made another court appearance, this time in Berrima, in October, 1840, charged with receiving stolen goods. He was found not guilty and discharged, but was not so lucky two years later when he appeared in the same court with his cousin, Philip, charged with killing one head of cattle with intent to steal the carcasse. Both men were sentenced to 15 years' transportation to Van Diemans Land. They were held on Cockatoo Island for seventeen months and then put aboard the Louisa bound for Hobart.

In the 1844 indent, Francis described himself as single with no children. When asked about his prior offences he replied

I went to Sydney per Isabella in 1820 for 7 years for being an United Irishman"

Remember, this is the man who had informed on United Irishmen, leading to seizing of rebel arms and of rebels themselves. The year is wrong, but that could be a clerical error in the record, it is recorded as 1823 in the Ross records (along with the United Irishman claim). The huge discrepency in crime, however, has got to come directly from Francis. Last time he was transported, he improved his lot by informing on a mutiny plot. Now he sought again to dress his reputation, at least among the prisoners, by painting himself as an Irish rebel.

On 9 January 1849 Francis received another Ticket of Leave, this time his last one. Ever the chancer, he applied for a Conditional Pardon, but this was refused on 29 July of that year. A recommendation for the Pardon was made by the authorities on 12 February, 1850 and the Conditional Pardon itself was granted on 25 May, 1851. It seems Francis had finally learnt to behave himself, and received six years off his sentence as a result.

At the moment, the last I can find of Francis Keefe is his listing as a steerage passenger aboard the City of Melbourne steamer from Hobart to Melbourne. Where he went from here and how he fared is yet to be uncovered.


  1. Maybe Francis was headed for the goldfields.
    Very interesting story.

  2. Hadn't thought of that. It sounds likely for him, doesn't it. Thanks for the idea.

  3. Hi Megan,

    Do you know whereabout the brothers were born? I assume you don't know because of the lack of records but just in case I thought I'd ask. I heard a story handed down that some of my O'Keeffe ancestors who came from Kerry were transported to Van Dieman's land but that's all I know.

    Frank O'Keeffe
    email: pazbhan1@yahoo.co.uk

    1. Hi Frank
      Denis, Francis and their cousin Philip were all from Kerry, but I don't know where in Kerry. There was an annoying habit in Colonial record keeping here that if someone was Irish, place of origin was listed as "Ireland", or if you were lucky, "Co. (whatever), Ireland", whereas as the English had their actual town recorded. I'm lucky with Denis, Francis and Philip that they had their counties recorded in their Ship Musters, Certificates of Freedom and Trial Records. As usual, the more someone broke the law, the more information was available, and these boys gave it a good go.