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Monday, 14 November 2016

The gold mine that never was

James Daly ended his life on the gallows, but for a while, he probably hoped that he had a chance of leaving Botany Bay, one way or another. Like a lot of history, there are different versions. This might be because Daly told different stories at different times. 

Then again, maybe the people who wrote about it were more interested in telling a good yarn. Whoever really wrote George Barrington’s A Voyage to Botany Bay was a good story-teller, but it probably wasn't the alleged author.

Barrington was a pickpocket who could pass as a gentleman. He spoke well, and probably got away with a lot because he had good manners when he robbed you. That said, most of what we know about him is fantasy, created by him or somebody else. [1] For example, Barrington almost certainly did not write the prologue to a play, first heard in 1796, and referring to the convicts: —

True patriots all, for be it understood,
We left our native country for our native country’s good.

That was probably the work of Henry Carter, but it gets worse when we look at what Barrington tells us about Daly (he called him Dailey).

First, Daly was hanged at the end of 1788, and Barrington only arrived in Sydney in 1791. The book in which the story appears was published in 1803, but after about 1800, Barrington was probably either mentally ill or an alcoholic.

Perhaps somebody else wrote the book and put Barrington’s name on it because he was a celebrity. (Yes, they had celebs right back then!) So the book might have been written by Barrington, but taking into account the probabilities, most probably it wasn’t.

There are better accounts, written by people who were in Sydney at the time, so here are the most likely facts. To begin with, while Daly is the most common spelling used today, he was also known as Daley and Dealey.

He was tried at the Old Bailey as James Dealey on May 26, 1784. [2] The charge was stealing clothing and a small wooden trunk, the property of Joseph Shilling. He was sentenced to be transported for seven years. No place was specified, but after almost three years in a prison or a hulk, he left Portsmouth in Scarborough in May, 1787.

He landed safely in Sydney, but apparently had no wish to stay there, and so in August of 1788, he hatched a plan to get away. Some of the transport ships had remained in Sydney, providing accommodation for some of the First Fleeters until there were houses, huts or other shelters.

More importantly, the ships provided safe storage for the food, the tools and other essentials that the First Fleet had brought. By August, the ships were almost unloaded, and ready to sail away, and Daly and a lady friend hoped to sail with them.

We don’t know exactly how they hoped to do it. Daly later asked to be pardoned and sent away as a reward for “finding a gold mine”, but some people thought he really planned to use the “gold dust” he made to either buy his way onto a ship or maybe he just wanted to buy things from the ships’ crews before they left, using the fake gold.

The source of the gold varies: George Barrington said the gold came from a broken ring, other and miore reliable accounts said it came from a sovereign that Daly had got hold of. We do know for sure that he made some stuff up that looked like gold, and when it was tested with acid by one of the two convict silversmiths, the gold seemed genuine.

Having announced his find, Daly showed samples of his “gold”, and tried to drive a hard bargain. He offered the secret of his gold mine’s location in exchange for pardons for himself and the woman he was living with, a passage back to England on one of the transports, and a sum of money, according to John Hunter—though Hunter couldn’t later remember how much Daly wanted. [3]

Daly was only in his mid-twenties, and not very bright, if you look at the evidence from his Old Bailey trial. He was in no position to bargain with the tough officers who were the colony’s authorities. The governor was away exploring and they refused to deal. Rather, they ordered Daly to show them the mine right away. Nervously, Daly went down to South Head in a boat with the adjutant, Captain Campbell, a corporal and several marine privates.

They landed, probably at Watson’s Bay, though it might have been some other beach near South Head. Daly persuaded Campbell to send the boat away, arguing that the smaller the number who knew the secret, the better. Then he led the party inland, before, as Hunter puts it, seeking “permission to go to one side for a minute upon some necessary occasion”.

Back then, a common English term for what later Australians would call “the dunny” was “the necessary”. In other words, Daly went off to relieve himself, and knowing the tracks through the coastal scrub, he headed back to the settlement at Sydney Cove. Once there, he said he had left Campbell and his men happily in charge of the gold mine. He quickly headed for his tent, grabbed up a few possessions, and went bush.

In the evening, Governor Phillip returned to Sydney Cove, and the man William Bradley called “the Goldfinder” [4] surrendered later, saying he would only tell the governor about his mine. Alas, the governor was unimpressed and ordered that Daly get fifty lashes for “his conduct respecting Captain Campbell”.

John Hunter said one of the two silversmiths tested the sample and confirmed the presence of some gold, while Watkin Tench [5] said later that the assay detected the presence of brass. One way or another, Daly confessed all, and gained another hundred lashes, and had to wear a canvas frock with the letter R (for ‘rogue’) on it. In December, burglar Daly stole clothes worth eight shillings and three pence. He was sentenced to hang, and the following day, December 3, he did just that.

To put Daly’s theft in perspective, 8/3 was about a week’s pay for an agricultural labourer in England at that time, and Hogarth’s 1751 painting Gin Lane features the slogan “drunk for a penny, dead drunk for tuppence”, so that much would keep somebody dead drunk for seven weeks.

Daly’s original sentence of seven years had also been for taking clothes worth 54 shillings, but in an isolated colony, the offence of lesser value was far more serious.

It was a sad end for Australia’s first goldfinder. Later, even when most people had forgotten Daly’s name, they remembered his “gold mine”, and a number of early real finds were dismissed as similar fakes.

Perhaps rational people assumed all gold finds were fakes, but conspiracy theories happened even then, and some of the other convicts believed the find was real, and that the authorities had forced him to offer a false confession—and then silenced him for good.

[1] ‘Barrington, George (1755–1804)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 14 May 2012.
[2] JAMES DEALEY, Theft: grand larceny, 26th May 1784 (Reference Number: t17840526-89),
[3] Hunter, John, An Historical Journal, 57-58. Online at
[4] William Bradley, A Voyage to New South Wales, December 1786 - May 1792, 122.
[5] Watkin Tench Sydney’s First Four Years, 137, note on p. 303.

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