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Cats-paws and felonry in colonial New South Wales

Two book spines showing titles

The felonry of New South Wales : being a faithful picture of the real romance of life in Botany Bay with anecdotes of Botany Bay Society, and a plan of Sydney / by James Mudie, 1837. With Marginal Notes to Mudie's Felonry. MRB/F92 .

A recent acquisition by the Library provides a fascinating insight into the feuds and grudges of colonial New South Wales.

This unusual item is a set of ‘marginal notes’ that were distributed by the Blaxland family to be pasted into James Mudie’s The Felonry of New South Wales. Mudie’s book, published in 1837 after he was forced to return to England in some disgrace, viciously attacked many prominent members of New South Wales society.

A page from the Marginal Notes

A page from the uncut marginal notes

The Blaxland family took exception to Mudie’s ‘utter falsehood and malignity…which demands a direct contradiction’, and produced the Marginal Notes to James Mudie’s Felonry of New South Wales in response. The notes are designed to be cut out and pasted around the three leaves of Mudie’s book which discuss Blaxland.

James Mudie (1779–1852) was a Scottish-born settler who was offered free passage to Australia by Sir Charles Forbes in 1822. He was given a land grant on the Hunter River, which he turned into a productive agricultural establishment, employing convicts and an overseer, John Lanarch. In 1830 he was appointed a Justice of the Peace, and quickly gained a reputation for severity and excessive flogging.

In 1834, following the escape of six convicts on Mudie’s farm, Mudie and Lanarch were investigated for their treatment of their convict workers. No charges were laid, but the investigators, John Hubert Plunkett and Frederick Hely, criticised the rationing and overall treatment of convicts on the farm. Their criticism was followed by another attack, by William Watt, a ticket-of-leave convict, who published a pamphlet denouncing Mudie’s treatment of convicts. Mudie responded with attacks against Watts, Governor Bourke, and Roger Therry, who had defended the mutineers at their trial. Mudie was not reappointed to the Commission of the Peace, and he returned to England in 1836 after selling his property. In 1837 he published The Felonry of New South Wales.

A page from Mudie's book, with notes pasted in

Another copy of The Felonry of New South Wales, which has had the marginal notes pasted in (DM/991/21A3)

John Blaxland (1769-1845) was a pioneer settler and explorer, born in Kent to a gentleman farmer. Blaxland drew Mudie’s ire for opposing a pension of £700 voted to the colonial secretary McLeay. Mudie alleged that Blaxland wasn’t intelligent enough to oppose the pension himself, instead:

He had been made a "cat's-paw" by the chief justice who, having a private reason for objecting to Mr. McLeay's pension, which he did not wish to avow in the council, had drawn up the protest in the name of a gentleman who must have had it several times read over to him and explained, before he could be considered capable of even presenting it. (p. 240).

The author of the marginal notes retorts that Blaxland’s objection to McLeay’s pension arose from ‘the manly sense of duty, together with that indestructability Saxon element of courageous will’, his protest against ‘what he considered an imposition on the Colony.’ The notes go on to say, ‘Mudie, the supposed author of the Felonries [sic] was only the catspaw of Mr. M’Leay.’

The Blaxland family also took offence at Mudie’s description of Blaxland as a ‘certainly a very worthy and reputable, as well as a portly and good-natured man…originally a yeoman in the county of Kent’ (p. 239). The notes counter that Blaxland had an irreproachable family history, ‘mentioned in the most ancient histories of England’. An ancestor of his was apparently of the suite of the Saxon king Ethelbert. Blaxland held the rank of Captain in the Duke of York’s Yeomanry Cavalry but ‘in no other sense of the word was he a yeoman’. The author states that Blaxland was highly esteemed in the colony, being invited to stay at Government House on his arrival.

This invocation of a genealogy going back to the Saxons, and the repudiation of the description ‘yeoman’ illustrates that although New South Wales was by necessity a less stratified society than England, traditional notions of class and the importance of family reputation remained strong in the settlement.

The publication lost Mudie the few friends he had remaining, and he was not welcomed on his return to New South Wales in 1840 – in fact he was horsewhipped in the street by the son of Judge Kinchela. For this, Kinchela was directed to pay £50 in damages, however a collection was taken up and the sum was quickly raised by Kinchela’s many sympathisers. Mudie went back to England after two years, where he remained until his death in 1852.

As to which member of the Blaxland family produced the marginal notes, this remains unknown.  Although Mudie’s book takes aim at many leading members of colonial society, including Governor Bourke, no other families (as far as we know) went to the trouble of distributing a rebuttal in this form. The Library holds several copies of Mudie’s book which have the marginal notes pasted in, but this original set of unpasted notes appears to be very rare – no other copies are known of.


Amy McKenzie
Librarian, Collection Strategy and Development

Dowd B and Fink A, 1967 'Mudie, James (1779–1852) ', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 19 February 2018.