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The cabin in the woods

Dr James Dunk
The madness of a free settler and a convict found expression on the outskirts of the new colony.

For months after a gang of bushrangers raided his farm at Prospect Hill, Charles Bishop was anxious to find a companion to live there with him.


The outlaws had woken him at 3 o’clock one morning in March 1804, demanding that Bishop give up his weapons. When he shouted back that he would shoot anyone who entered, the front and back doors were immediately broken open and two gun barrels pointed in from each direction.

Bishop stood at his fireplace, a pistol in each hand, ‘watching right and left’. The bushrangers rushed in, overpowered him, and left with his substantial arsenal and his convict servant, whom they pressed into service. ‘If I had had a 2nd person to have stood by me,’ Bishop wrote to the governor, ‘they would have been easily dispersed.’

Little more than a year earlier, Bishop had a business partner: naval surgeon and sailor George Bass. A merchant seaman working the new markets at the edges of the East India Company’s monopoly, Bishop had crisscrossed the oceans from India and Cape Colony to China and Chile. Reaching the southern shores of Australia, he entered into the brutal sealing industry, making use of unskilled ex-convicts to beat, skin and boil down seals.

In 1798, Bass helped the navigator Matthew Flinders survey those shores, and the following year he began a commercial partnership with Bishop. Their sealing ventures were truncated in 1803 when Governor Philip King introduced controls to limit the devastation of the seal populations, and the partners turned their attention north, to Tahiti, looking to capitalise on the flourishing pork trade.

A map of the hitherto explored country contiguous to Port Jackson

But Bishop was beginning to show signs of madness, and Bass left him out of his ambitious plans for an illegal trade venture to Peru. ‘Bishop’s ill health has thrown all cares & concerns upon my head both for ship & cargo,’ he complained to his wife late in 1802. Writing to his father-in-law, he was less circumspect:

Bishop has been totally useless to me and the concern for many months past, indeed ever since I left him at Otaheite in February … I shall leave him here to recover. It is more than probable he will be in the grave before I return.

Bass sailed through the Heads in February 1803 and was never heard of again.

Though Bishop wrote to Governor King — by chance an old naval comrade — for redress after the theft, he had little hope of success. Prospect Hill was a remote community, and the safety of those who built and farmed there could not be guaranteed. Bushrangers, absconding convicts, and skirmishes with Aboriginal people were common, as Stephen Gapps has shown in The Sydney wars.

So when Bishop met a convict of unusual refinement at Judge Advocate Richard Atkins’ house, he was warm and inviting. The convict, John Grant, had been a young bankrupt poet in Buckinghamshire, England, when he fell for a rich heiress. His neighbour, the woman’s lawyer, helped arrange her marriage to a major in the army and cast aspersions on Grant’s character. In retaliation, Grant forced a duel upon the lawyer, and shot him in the upper thigh, ruining his jacket.

For this he was sentenced to death, then granted the mercy of transportation across the seas. With a satin waistcoat and a silver creamer, a harpsichord and a violin, Grant embraced his ‘emigration’ as a second chance. He befriended the officers of the Coromandel, tried to ignore the ‘199 abominable villains’ on board, and purchased a hogshead of rum (about 250 litres) in San Salvador to use as capital to establish a merchant business in the colony.

Sydney was a dynamic place with a volatile economy, where, according to deputy judge advocate David Collins, the ‘passion for liquor operated like a mania’. The officers of the New South Wales (‘Rum’) Corps boarded ships and bought goods at wholesale before retailing them at exorbitant prices. Rum quickly became a currency, used to pay convicts for taskwork completed outside their obligatory labour. Many consequently became bibulous and obstreperous.

As part of a general campaign against spirits, King confiscated John Grant’s rum and remunerated him at a reasonable rate. This rank injustice set Grant spiralling into a wild conflict, with King and the other representatives of the Crown, and with the ‘horrid system’ of transportation, which he derided as an affront to the Magna Carta and the glorious British common law.

Grant had been at Atkins’ house seeking patrons, and found one in Bishop: a ‘gentleman of great respectability’, and a man of ‘noble mind’, as ‘open and artless as my own’. He accepted Bishop’s invitation to live with him at Prospect Hill, in a little cottage set amid the verdant forest which sprang from rich volcanic soil. It was ‘a beautiful farm’, wrote Grant, only five miles from Parramatta through the woods, perched upon the tallest outcrop in the Cumberland Basin. Grant wrote happily of his first days ‘in such a sweet House of his Here (for I am now with him!)’. He ‘sometimes went out shooting Parrots etc. (with which the Woods abound) in Company with my friend Bishop,’ using paper bark for wadding.

Birds of New Holland, with their natural history, from Volume 1

In time he became friends with John Lewin, a naturalist who was very taken with New South Wales, and one of the most exquisite painters of its wildlife. Lewin was granted 100 acres nearby, and as their friendship grew Lewin asked the young poet to help edit the text of his collections of animal and insect drawings. ‘I know no employ more congenial to my poor harass’d mind,’ Grant wrote home to his family, ‘for I love Nature in all her Works.’ In his ‘Panegyric on an Eminent Artist’, included in some editions of Lewin’s Birds of New Holland, Grant sang to the artist:

Insect, or Bird, or crimson Warrataw,
In each, in All, thine Art we can forgive,
When things inanimate appear to Live.

Grant seems to have filled the empty place in Bishop’s affections, in addition to helping to secure his farm. ‘He advises me to accept no offers from Judge Atkins,’ he wrote home, ‘but to wait patiently, to live with him, to keep him company, to amuse myself as I please.’ Bishop’s voice breaks into the pages of his companion’s diary: ‘“and why Grant!” (he will say) “will you be anxious about leaving me? Adjoining my Farm is another of 40 acres,” he said. “You shall settle near me. Think no more of England, make this your adopted country, as I certainly shall do.”’

Grant was deeply moved. But Bishop’s mental health continued to deteriorate, and after six months of music, companionship, and poetry (for Bishop, too, was a ‘poet in his way — i.e. on sea-subjects’), the landholder was conveyed to the nearby goal, where the colony’s insane were housed with reoffending criminals.

Grant himself was not well. Witnesses had testified at the Old Bailey that his obsessions amounted to insanity. Despite the second chance he had been given through transportation, his mind began to buckle in the colony. The gibbet that had been swinging over Pinchgut Island in Sydney Harbour when he arrived remained burned in his memory; the precarious place of convicts at law, the strong discretionary power of the governor, and life under the shadow of the flogging frames and gallows proved too much for him. He barely survived exile on Norfolk Island, where he was often imprisoned, and found his way back to England in 1811 with a certificate of sanity from William Bligh.

The cottage in the woods at Prospect Hill, overlooking the plains below, captures something striking about life in colonial Sydney. It was an ‘idyll’, filled with beauty and warmth, and it was a house of madness. If we peel back the walls and doors, the poetry rushes out, the music fades, and in their place we find the anxiety of maritime trade, the violence of the frontier, and the severance of exile.

A drawing of two men in ranger outfits, each carrying a rifle, with a backdrop of plains in the countryside.
Voyage a Bathurst (nouv. holl.), Une vue de Prospect Hill, Maison de Camp de M. Lawson

Whether it was recognised formally, like Bishop’s, or whispered and joked about, like Grant’s, madness offers a glimpse of the breakdown of men and women in the midst of the great energies being expended to begin new lives. Tracing its contours and telling its stories helps us see a place like Sydney with new eyes.


A man stands smiling in front of a set of heavy wooden doors.
Photo by Joy Lai


Dr James Dunk is a research fellow at the University of Sydney. His book Bedlam at Botany Bay is available now (NewSouth Publishing, June 2019).

This article was first published in SL magazine, Winter 2019.