Chapter Five 3

Hey Ho Raggedy-O


Chapter 5 – page 4


James Tucker –Convict Author


I’ve been a prisoner at Port Macquarie
At Norfolk Island and Emu Plains
At Castle Hill and at cursed Toongabbie
At all those settlements I’ve worked in chains.

From Moreton Bay: author unknown.
May have been Frank the Poet.

James Tucker, alias James Rosenberg, was transported from England, in 1827, for sending a threatening letter to his cousin. Tucker was nineteen when he arrived at Sydney Cove on the convict ship Midas. His occupation was given as shopman and clerk. He was sent to the penal settlement of Emu Plains, well away from the populated areas of the colony. There was much unrest and political agitation in Sydney at the time, and a convict-led uprising was feared by General Darling, who was the Governor of the colony. Darling was equally disliked by many free men — some of them prominent citizens — and by all the convicts. A clever, educated young man like Tucker, with a history of writing a threatening letter, was destined to be immediately moved on.

By about 1828, Tucker was part of a group of convict actors at Emu Plains. A theatre company of convicts had staged plays in Sydney as early as 1800 in a convict-built theatre, and it would appear that the Emu Plains theatre was also established before Tucker arrived there. It is from the book Ralph Rashleigh, written later by Tucker, that we are given a colourful, enthralling, inside account of the Emu Plains Convict Theatre Company, one of the first theatre companies in Australia. Everything — the building, the props, the distemper-and-pipe-clay-painted scenery, the tallow-candle lighting, the costumes, and the acting were provided by convicts. Many of the plays were written by them, sometimes from memory, sometimes copied from the few books that came their way. Audiences were the free-settlers from nearby, as well as fellow prisoners. It is clear from Tucker’s book that he was well acquainted with the plays of Shakespeare, and also with the popular plays of his time.

Ten years after James Tucker landed at Sydney Cove, he was living almost as a free man, back in Sydney. Two more years of good behaviour, and he would have earned a pardon. He mixed with educated and well-read men, and was able to attend the theatre, and although there is no conclusive evidence, it is likely that he participated in the plays performed there. In 1839 a conviction for drunkenness saw him back in full custody, his pardon further away than ever. Six months later, Tucker joined a group of volunteers who put out a fire in the heart of Sydney. His enthusiasm earned him another ticket-of-leave. Ironically, the fire was started by drunks, making alcohol the cause, this time, of both Tucker’s incarceration and his (relative) freedom. Tucker took his ticket-of-leave in the city of Maitland.

This puts James Tucker right where Billy Barlow in Australia was performed for the first time in 1843. There is no evidence of a connection between Tucker and the actors and writers of Maitland, but it’s probable that there was one, nonetheless.

Tucker was a writer of exceptional talent, and had been a member of at least one theatre company. He had been moved on from Sydney before the arrival there of George Coppin, so that a direct Coppin-Tucker connection is unlikely. It seems more than likely that Tucker based his play Jemmy Green in Australia on the song Billy Barlow in Australia, after hearing it in Maitland.

In 1843 James Tucker fell foul of the law again. In a situation that could have come straight out of a melodrama or a tragic 19th-century song, he forged a letter for a pair of star-crossed lovers. The lovers were John Carpenter and Harriet Woodham. Both were convicts who had gained their respective tickets-of-leave, and they were living in Maitland. The records showed that both had been married before, in England, at the time of their transportation to Australia. Harriet and John applied for permission to marry, stating that their English spouses were dead, proof of which was submitted in the form of two separate letters, one from John’s aunt, and the other from Harriet’s sister. Or so they said! Sadly, the letters were deemed to have both been written by James Tucker, his forging skills apparently not matching his literary talents. There was other damning evidence, too, like the fresh wax on the supposedly old letters.

All three friends lost their tickets-of-leave — and worse. Tucker and Carpenter were sentenced to twelve months, working in irons, and poor Harriet, who was gravely ill at the time of the court case, was sent back to the infamous Female Factory in Sydney, with the recommendation that she never be allowed to leave. Over one hundred and sixty years after the event, the terrible misery that can be felt within this one little story still wrenches our hearts.

James Tucker’s guardian angel must have been watching, because Tucker was sent, not to Norfolk Island, where most re-offenders were sent, but to Port Macquarie. Here, unshackled by irons, as it happened, he became again a storekeeper and clerk. The police magistrate in charge of the establishment had founded a literary association there, and an amateur theatre group was active as well. It seems more than likely that it was during his stay at Port Macquarie that Tucker wrote his novel Ralph Rashleigh and at least two plays, The Grahame’s Vengeance and Jemmy Green in Australia.

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A Study of the Billy Barlow Phenomenon
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