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The New South Wales Marine Corps and New South Wales Corps, 1788-1809
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The New South Wales Marine Corps and New South Wales Corps, 1788-1809

The 1815 Military Hospital on Observatory Hill


The military got off to a poor start in Australia, with six Marines hung for stealing food two months after arriving in Sydney Cove. Their commander, Major Robert Ross, was difficult to work with, and wouldn’t allow his men to sit on the Criminal Court or act as gaolers. Shortly before leaving the colony Ross fought a duel with fellow Marine Corps officer Captain William Hill.

Other Marines officers, such as Captain Watkin Tench and Lieutenant William Dawes, left more positive legacies. They formed warm relationships with the local Cadigal people, and the colony benefited greatly from their insight and hard work. Dawes, for example, conducted astronomical and other scientific observations on what became known as Dawes Point, at the northern edge of The Rocks.


The responsibilities of the New South Wales Corps, taking over from the Marines in early 1792, expressly included the control of convicts. Recruited in Britain, they were offered inducements to accept a posting to a barely formed settlement at what was considered the end of the earth, populated by criminals.

Officers were offered promotion and land grants. The soldiers were not dissimilar to the convicts: struggling semi- or unskilled victims of the Industrial Revolution and the economic fluctuations of the time. Their number included recalled Marines—who had been offered a bounty and a double land grant if they transferred to the NSW Corps—and former military prisoners, as well as troublemakers offloaded by other regiments.

Convicts and ex-convicts could also enlist. Many convicts took up an offer which included a pardon, land and wages. By 1802 former convicts made up 14% of the corps.

The New South Wales Corps exploited the power vacuum after Governor Phillip returned to England in 1792. Corps majors acted as governors between official appointments, and granted substantial land holdings to Corps members.

The first four governors, all navy men, couldn’t control the army officers, who resented what they saw as interference on land, and had the power of their units behind them.

Corps officers took control of imports into the colony through Sydney Cove, having a virtual monopoly on trade and earning them the nickname of the “Rum Corps”.

Officers backed their soldiers against convicts regardless of conduct. For example, during a dispute between a former convict Corpsman and First Fleeter John Baughan (his former convict overseer). Baughan took the soldier’s unattended weapon from the sentry box to the sergeant of the guard. The solider was confined for this dereliction of duty, but his comrades took revenge, threatening Baughan with an axe while demolishing his cottage at Campbells Cove. Although Governor Hunter, backed by the Duke of Portland, stated that the soldiers should be charged with mutiny, they were merely made to compensate Baughan. In other instances Corps members even got away with murder.

Despite censure from some of Britain’s most powerful men, and the pleading of three governors that they be recalled, the NSW Corps, or ‘Rum Corps’, continued to control the colony. They rebelled against Governor Bligh in 1808 in the ‘Rum Rebellion’, the only military coup in Australia’s history, and ran the colony for almost two years. Order was eventually restored by the arrival from Britain of the new governor, General Lachlan Macquarie, at the head of his own military regiment while the NSW Corps was recalled to England in disgrace and renamed the 102nd Regiment of Foot.

Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: Sydney Barracks on the edge of The Rocks, 1817, by Sophia Campbell.