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Disciplining of Soldiers
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Disciplining of Soldiers

'The Flogging Of Charles Maher ', Robert Jones , 1823. Image Courtsey Mitchell Library

Disciplining of Soldiers in New South Wales

Military discipline was very harsh in the colony, and soldiers often felt that they weren’t treated as well as convicts.



Convicts could be sentenced to no more than 100 lashes of the cat o nine tails for misdemeanours, but soldiers could be sentenced to any number, and some were executed for crimes that were considered minor in civilians.

In 1789 John Hunt of the Marine Corps received 700 lashes, delivered in two sessions over three weeks, for being absent from his post. Soon afterwards he gave evidence that led to six of his comrades being executed by hanging for stealing from the stores.



Desertion was not unusual; some soldiers took to bushranging, while others tried to escape by sea. In 1793 two soldiers were tried for planning to steal a longboat to sail to Batavia (Jakarta). One was acquitted, but the other was sentenced to 300 lashes. After receiving 225 lashes he gave the names of other men from his regiment who were involved; two of them had deserted, but when they were arrested one received 800 lashes and the other 500.


Sudds And Thompson In Irons In Gaol .  1833 Image Courtsey Of Mitchell Library 


Some ex-convicts became very wealthy, which helped to fuel the idea that convicts were better off. In 1826 Privates Joseph Sudds and Patrick Thompson of the 57th Regiment decided to commit a crime, in order to be sentenced to transportation. Dressed in their uniforms, they stole cloth from a draper on York Street, close to their barracks. 

The two soldiers were initially sentenced to seven years’ transportation, but Governor Darling decided to make an example of them to deter others:

The Lieutenant General, in Virtue of the Power with which he is vested as Governor in Chief, has thought fit to commute the Sentence, and to direct that Privates Joseph Sudds and Patrick Thompson shall be worked in Chains, on the Public Roads, for the Period of their Sentence—after which they will rejoin their Corps.

It is ordered, that the Prisoners be immediately stripped of their Uniform, in Presence of the Troops, and be dressed in the Felons' Clothing; that they be put in Chains, and delivered in Charge to the Overseers of the ‘Chain Gangs’, in Order to their being removed to the Interior, and worked on the Mountain Roads … being drummed, as Rogues, out of the Garrison. 

Sudds and Thompson were marched out of the barracks to the gaol on the corner of Essex and George streets, with a piper and drummer playing The Rogue’s March.

 Darling had them placed in irons which he designed for the purpose, weighing around 18kg—three times the weight of normal chain gang irons. They were too short to allow the men to stand up straight, while a heavy spiked iron collar prevented them from lying down.

Sudds, already ill when sentenced, died after an agonising five days; his chains were then added Thompson’s, who wore them for a further 12 days before they were removed.

Governor Darling was already widely disliked, and the public and press were outraged. The legality of Darling’s sentence was questioned, with an inquiry eventually held ten years later in London—by which time Patrick Thompson had returned to his native Ireland as a free civilian.



At dawn on Thursday 5 April 1832, a subdued crowd gathered on the rising ground of Dawes Point to witness the execution of a young soldier by firing squad. 

Some days earlier Private Thomas Brennan, of the 39th Regiment, had been tried and found guilty of attempted murder, having allegedly fired a loaded musket at his superior, Sergeant Millwood, at Emu Plains.

It is not clear why Brennan fired at Millwood, but in keeping with the harsh military code of the time he was sentenced to death. The following account has been adapted from a report that appeared in The Sydney Gazette two days later:

The first rays of sun are falling on lines of armed troops parading in Barrack [now Wynyard] Square. Brennan is escorted from the guardhouse by the firing squad. The coffin, carried by several of Brennan’s friends, is followed by the condemned man accompanied by the priest, Father Therry, then the main body of troops.

The procession moves slowly …onto the gentle grassy slope between Dawes Battery and Sydney Cove. Near to the buttress wall of the battery is a freshly dug grave.

Brennan stands quietly with while the death warrant is read before the crowd. He is then taken to the graveside, where he is joined by Father Therry. They both kneel beside the coffin to pray, while the band of the 39th plays the mournful tune of the death march.

Father Therry emotionally embraces the condemned man and leaves him kneeling at the graveside.

A sergeant pulls the white cap over Brennan’s eyes; six of the twelve men in the firing squad advance to within 10 metres of the kneeling man, raise their guns and, at the command of Major Innes, fire. Brennan falls dead on his face into the coffin. Father Therry approaches, and with bowed head reads the burial service.

The band takes up its position near the northern end of the battery and plays the death march as Brennan’s regiment, in columns of four, marches by the body to pay their respects to their dead comrade, some wiping away tears.

A small party of comrades from the regiment bury the dead man where he lies. 

That night the tragedy took a bizarre twist. In the dark of night the coffin was secretly dug up, but as they were carrying it away from Dawes Point the bodysnatchers were disturbed, so they hid it nearby. 

The coffin, remained hidden until Sunday afternoon, when some playing children stumbled across it. They immediately informed the police of their grisly find and the coffin was returned to the grave. The body was covered with quicklime, and a guard was placed to prevent it being stolen again.

Brennan had served in the regiment since his youth. He had died bravely, and many of his comrades felt that it was shameful that his body was not buried on holy ground. Brennan’s friends were the prime suspects, as it was thought that they had intended to re-bury him in a proper cemetery, but no one was ever charged.

 Brennan’s military execution is believed to have been the last undertaken in Sydney.