A fraudster Down Under: Robert Atcherley Taylor – Part 3

< Back to Part 2.

Quote The post office department was in an exceedingly primitive condition in those days. Mr. James Mitchell was postmaster at Hobart Town. A weekly messenger carried letters to Coal River and Pittwater, but no further. In October, 1816, a vast stride was made in this branch of the public service by the appointment of Robert A. Taylor as ‘Government messenger’ between Hobart Town and Port Dalrymple, the name by which Launceston was then known. Unquote — A History of Tasmania.

Robert Atcherley Taylor [] spent about six years of his seven year sentence of transportation in the colony of New South Wales, which at that time included the island known as Van Diemen’s Land (where Robert arrived, on the Indefatigable, in October 1812). For most of that period I have, unfortunately, found no records which would confirm Robert’s whereabouts and activities (although I suspect that he did not leave Van Diemen’s Land until the very end of his sentence).

Governor Lachlan MacquarieA despatch dated 28 January 1813, sent by Governor Macquarie (pictured right) to Major Andrew Geils, then administrator of Van Diemen’s Land, provides some information regarding the fate of the consignment of convicts of which Robert was a part:

Quote I approve of your having sent Eighty of the Male Convicts, arrived in the Indefatigable Transport, for the use of the Settlement of Port Dalrymple; but you omitted to send me a Return of those you retained at the Derwent, which you ought to have done, specifying to whom they were assigned. I hope most of them were given to the Settlers, and that you retained very few of them for Government excepting the real mechanics. Unquote

Whether Major Geils eventually sent the return desired by Governor Macquarie I do not know. If he did, and a copy survives, it would give an indication as to where Robert Atcherley Taylor was sent after his arrival at Hobart Town. The Australian Government website notes that “From 1810, convicts were seen as a source of labour to advance and develop the British colony. Convict labour was used to develop the public facilities of the colonies – roads, causeways, bridges, courthouses and hospitals. Convicts also worked for free settlers and small land holders.” Who did Robert work for?

Thankfully, Robert’s years on Van Diemen’s Land are not a complete blank, as you will have gathered from the above extract from A History of Tasmania. As an educated man, Robert may well have been assigned to Government administrative duties. His good conduct in such a position might then have marked him as a suitable person for the position of Government Messenger, to which he was appointed  on 23 October 1816. The following notice was published on the front page of The Hobart Town Gazette and Southern Reporter on 26 October 1816:

Robert Atcherley Taylor - Govt Notice 1817

James Fenton, the author of A History of Tasmania, stated that Robert “was to leave each place on alternate Sunday mornings”, a statement which does not tally with the above notice, clearly stating that Robert was “to leave either Hobart Town or Launceston every Tuesday morning alternately.” I suspect that Fenton’s source was not the original notice, but James Bonwick’s Curious Facts of Old Colonial Days published in 1870. Bonwick got Sunday confused with Tuesday in his otherwise accurate transcript of the Government notice, and went on to say:

Quote The two places were above one hundred and twenty miles apart. No road existed. The country was very mountainous and scrubby. Bushrangers and hostile natives beset the traveller in the bush. But the postman was required to take only a week to convey letters from one place to the other. Unquote

Undertaking the role of Government Messenger was clearly a significant challenge, though by no means a unique one. There are parallels here between Robert’s job and that of Paul Hollywood’s ancestor, Donald McKenzie, a ‘post-runner’ in the Scottish highlands who featured in Paul’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? (shown August 2015 on BBC TV). However, although both Taylor and McKenzie  had to complete weekly round trips of 120 miles over rugged country, it is unlikely that the latter was faced with “bushrangers and hostile natives”!

The establishment of this messenger service was a big deal for the residents of Port Dalrymple (a.k.a. Launceston – the two names appear to have been interchangeable at that time). To return to Fenton’s account:

Quote The arrival of a mail only one week from Hobart Town was an occasion of great joy at Launceston, whose inhabitants now felt that they were living in an age of progress. Hitherto the settlement on the Tamar had been more isolated than either Sydney or Hobart Town, as but few vessels entered Port Dalrymple. Now there was a chance of a fortnightly mail, if it did not miscarry on the way. Unquote

If it did not miscarry on the way? The Government Messenger was a convicted fraudster, what could possibly go wrong?!?

As you might guess, Robert did not stay on the straight and narrow (though a 120 mile weekly round trip across the mountains is probably not best described as ‘straight and narrow’). To his credit, he appears to have stuck to his task for nine whole months before ‘straying from the path.’ Then, on 26 July 1817, the following notice appeared in The Hobart Town Gazette and Southern Reporter:

14th July, 1817.
ROBT. Taylor, crown servant (commonly called Parson Taylor), having absented himself from Public Works, all Constables and others are hereby strictly required to use their utmost Exertions in apprehending and lodging him in safe Custody.
The said Robert Taylor was seen at Herdsman’s Cove on Thursday Morning, and exhibited certain Papers, which he said he was authorized by Government to take to Port Dalrymple; but the said Robert Taylor having no Pass or other Authority to Absent himself from Public Works at Hobart Town, any Person or Persons harbouring, concealing, or maintaining the said Absence will be prosecuted for the Offence.

This was followed by another notice in the same publication on 2 August 1817:

Government & General Orders.
Saturday, 25th July, 1817.
IT appearing that Robert Taylor (commonly called Parson Taylor), who is Advertised as having absented himself from Government Employment without leave, was allowed to pass the River and through the Country without any pass, merely showing an Old Letter, which he called a Dispatch for Port Dalrymple; It is hereby ordered that no Letters, Proclamations, or Dispatches, even though marked outside with the LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR’s NAME, be admitted as a Pass, but that in all Cases a Regular Pass signed by the Lieutenant Governor be required. And all Ferrymen and others are warned, that they will be called to severe account for neglecting and disobeying this Order.
By Command of His Honor the Lieutenant Governor,
W. A. ROSS, Secretary.

So, Robert had absented himself from his duties and was using paperwork in the name of the Lieutenant Governor as a ‘pass’ to roam freely across Van Diemen’s Land. He was also going by the name of Parson Taylor, despite the fact that it was because of his actions as a ‘pretended vicar’ that he was sent Down Under in the first place!

Simon Barnard, author of A-Z Of Convicts in Van Diemen’s Land, has noted that “after absconding and using an appropriated letter with the lieutenant-governor’s signature as a pass to roam the colony, [Robert Taylor] was sent to the goal gang for three months.” This was indeed the case. Entries in the Conduct Register for Robert A Taylor of the Indefatigable (1) of 1812 include the following, dated 11 August 1817: “Going to Port Dalrymple witht. a pass – 3 mos. g. Gang”. This was a severe punishment. Southerly (the Magazine of the Australian English Association) defined ‘a gaol gang as “a gang confined to the gaol, working a twelve-hour day, often in irons, and allowed no time (as others were) to work for themselves”.

Lieut.-Governor William SorellDespite this misadventure, for Robert Atcherley Taylor the end of his seven year sentence – and a return England – were both in sight. On 11 August 1818 Lieut.-Governor William Sorell (pictured right) at Hobart Town sent a despatch to Colonial Secretary Campbell, which began as follows:

Quote Sir,
Robert Taylor, who arrived at this Settlement in the Indefatigable, Cross Master, and whose sentence will expire in September ensuing, having had my permission to proceed from Port Dalrymple to Sydney, I beg to state, for the Information of His  Excellency, that my motive for allowing him to do so has been in consideration of his having had a decent education, and his representation of a prospect, from the Rev. Mr. Cartwright’s former knowledge of him, in obtaining from that gentleman some assistance with his Endeavours to get back to England. He is furnished with an Extract from the Indent of the Indefatigable at this office (copy of which I enclose) and he will apply for his certificate on the Expiration of his sentence next month. … Unquote

The news contained within Colonial Secretary Campbell’s reply of 23 September 1818 was not good however. He stated that Robert Taylor would have received his Certificate, “but previous to the regular time of applying for it, He Committed a fresh Offence which has Subjected him to a fresh Sentence from the Criminal Court for a further Period of Seven years.”

> On to Part 4

Picture credits. Governor Lachlan Macquarie: Adapted from a public domain image at Wikimedia Commons. Government notice in The Hobart Town Gazette and Southern Reporter: Published before 1954 and therefore out of copyright; taken from Trove (National Library of Australia) (see Trove’s Using digitised newspapers FAQ). Lieut.-Governor William Sorell: adapted from a public domain image at Wikimedia Commons.


[1] James Fenton (1884), A History of Tasmania, page 59. Copy viewed at the Internet Archive.
[2] Frederick Watson (ed.) (1921), Historical Records of Australia, Series III, Despatches and papers relating to the settlement of the states, volume II, pages 4-5. Copy viewed at La Trobe University website (15Mb PDF file).
[3] Convicts and the British colonies in Australia. Formerly at Australia.gov.au website (accessed 23 Sep 2015); link now directs to archived version of page at Internet Archive Wayback Machine.
[4] Frederick Watson (ed.) (1921), (see [2] above) page 25.
[5] The Hobart Town Gazette and Southern Reporter, 26 Oct 1816, page 1. Copy viewed at Trove.
[6] James Bonwick (1870), Curious Facts of Old Colonial Days. Page 293. Copy viewed at the Internet Archive.
[7] Jon Bauckham (2015), Paul Hollywood episode summary. At: Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine website (accessed 27 Sep 2015).
[8] The Hobart Town Gazette and Southern Reporter, 26 Jul 1817, page 1. Copy viewed at Trove.
[9] The Hobart Town Gazette and Southern Reporter, 2 Aug 1817, page 1. Copy viewed at Trove.
[10] Extra Information. At: A-Z of Convicts in Van Diemen’s Land (website, accessed 22 Sep 2015).
[11] Conduct Registers of Male Convicts Arriving in the Period of the Assignment System, Convict surnames beginning with T (1810 – Jan 1830), U ( 1810 – Jan 1830) and V (1810 – Jan 1830) (Tasmanian Archives and Heritage, ref. CON31/1/42, entry for Robert A Taylor). Copy viewed at Linc Tasmania.
[12] Australian English Association (1973), Southerly. Page 205. Snippet viewed at Google Books.
[13] Frederick Watson (ed.) (1921), (see [2] above) pages 347-8.
[14] Colonial Secretary, Letters sent, 1808-25 (New South Wales Government, Series 897, letter dated 23 Sep 1818 regarding Robt. Taylor and others). Copy viewed at Ancestry – New South Wales, Australia, Colonial Secretary’s Papers, 1788-1856.