Free Settler or Felon
Convict and Colonial History

Hunter Valley Bushrangers

William Atkinson and Iram Holmes

William Atkinson was charged with robbing thirteen year old Joseph Sandland in London in 1826. He was tried at the Old Bailey on 26th October 1826 and sentenced to transportation for life.

Having been transported to Australia on the convict ship Guildford in 1827 he was sent with other boys to the Carter's Barracks. By 1831 he was assigned to the Newcastle district where he was punished with six days solitary confinement in Newcastle gaol for an unknown offence in July 1831. On release from the gaol, he was assigned to the Newcastle hospital as a wardsman. In October 1831 he was again punished with six days solitary, this time for neglecting his work. On release from the gaol he was re-assigned to the hospital.

By December 1835 he was assigned to William Cromarty as part of the boats crew at Newcastle.[4] Captain Cromarty had taken over the duties of pilot at Newcastle from Newcastle's first pilot William Eckford. The pilots and their crew at Newcastle were brave men. They were often called on in the worst of weather to guide vessels into the harbour and were required to perform rescues as well. Their tiny boats were sometimes scathingly referred to as 'cockleshells'. The only life William Atkinson had known was on the streets of London so it is little wonder that he was unhappy employed as a boat crewman.

Nevertheless he performed his duties bravely at times. One captain was so impressed with his hard work in towing a vessel through heavy seas that he provided William with a quantity of rum as a reward - which unfortunately led to a charge of drunkenness and subsequent punishment. William's master, William Cromarty retired to his farm at Port Stephens after he was injured while piloting a vessel into port. John Patton took over the duties of pilot for a time. William was charged with drunkenness and insolence towards the pilot around this time, however the charge was dropped when the prosecutor failed to appear.

William Atkinson absconded from the pilots department late in February 1837, and after being apprehended in April 1837, he was removed from his perilous duties. He received 25 lashes as punishment for absconding and was 'returned to government service'. After this he was sent to work for John McCrohon, a former Quartermaster with the King's Own Regiment who was employed as Chief Constable at Paterson. He absconded again in December 1837 however his freedom was brief and he was apprehended early in March 1838. He was described at this time as 5'1' with fair ruddy complexion, fair hair and brown eyes. - WAHS on upper, anchor and other letters on lower left arm. JF on lower right arm.

William Atkinson was apprehended in the Muswellbrook area in 1839. He escaped from the lock-up there with several other men - Francis McCarthy, John Main, Robert Sheldon and notorious bushranger Thomas Farrow in April 1839.

Iram Holmes

Iram Holmes was born in Nottinghamshire c. 1811 and was employed as a lacemaker. He was tried 6th April 1837 and sentenced to 14 years transportation for stealing drapery goods from a gig. The UK prison hulk records state that it was two cotton counterpanes that were stolen. He was admitted to the Fortitude hulk and was reported to have a bad character having been twice convicted before and four times imprisoned. He was transported to Australia on the James Pattison in 1837. The convict indents state he was 26 years of age and had already served seven years in Bermuda when he was transported to Australia.

He was assigned to Duncan Forbes Mackay at Dungog soon after arrival. A notice for his apprehension was posted when he absconded in October 1838 and May 1839.

Banding Together

By August 1839 Iram Holmes had teamed up with William Atkinson and several others including William Rowley and Thomas Farrow. Together they attacked The Grange, the estate of Matthew Chapman at Wallarobba near Dungog. The Australian reported that the bushrangers 'having secured the assigned servants, proceeded to rifle the house, and carry away a large quantity of valuable property in plate and goods. They were armed - Atkinson and Holmes with pistols, and another two men with muskets. When remonstrated with by Mr. Chapman, they were exceedingly quiet and civil, and gave up many things desired by Mrs. Chapman. They stated they expected to find £700 in the house.' [1]


Atkinson and Holmes were apprehended and in December 1839 were sentenced to 15 years transportation to Norfolk Island. They were sent on 19 February 1840. Other bushrangers sent to Norfolk Island at this time included William Allen, John Rose, Thomas Spencer and Richard Young

William Rowley and Thomas Farrow were captured in January 1840. They were admitted to Newcastle gaol and charged with robbery and being at large with fire arms. They escaped while in custody awaiting trial at the Quarter Sessions in February 1840. They were apparently armed to the teeth and well mounted on stolen horses when they began their predatory excursions into the Singleton district where Percy Simpson was Magistrate.[2] They were captured by Percy Simpson and the Mounted Police on Christmas Day 1841 'amongst the broken hills of Mount Royal and the Paterson'.

William Atkinson and Iram Holmes arrived at Norfolk Island just a few months prior to Alexander Maconochie taking over Superintendence of the Colony.

Alexander Maconochie was a naval officer, geographer, and penal reformer. He believed punishment for crime should not be vindictive but designed to strengthen a prisoner's desire and capacity to observe social constraints. Criminal punishments of imprisonment should consist of task and not time sentences; instead of being sentenced to a fixed period of imprisonment, an offender should be sentenced to be imprisoned until he had performed an ascertainable period of labour, which should be measured by the number of 'marks of commendation' he earned, the scale of marks being devised to encourage habits of industry and frugality. A sentence should be served in progressive stages, one of which involved membership of a working party where each was held responsible for the conduct of the others. Cruel punishments and degrading conditions should not be imposed and convicts should not be deprived of self-respect

Maconnochie was derided for his ideas and when convict pirates attempted to seize the government vessel Governor Phillip in 1842, the Sydney Herald took the opportunity to voice their opinion, reporting that Norfolk Island was in a very disorganised state owing to the insane treatment of convicts there.

Having had previous experience at Newcastle, William Atkinson was assigned to the boats crew at Norfolk Island. The treatment he received under Maconnochie's rule, would have been more humane than at any other time at Norfolk Island, however when the opportunity arose to escape he didn't hesitate. Following the chaos of an attempted mutiny, William Atkinson was one of twelve men who seized a canvas boat and made for Philip Island six kilometres away. Although it was reported that they had been captured, some at least made it to the Island, where five of them seized a whale boat and made their escape.

One way or another, William Atkinson had finally escaped from penal servitude. Year after year his name appeared in the Lists of absconding convicts. 'All Constables and others are commanded to use their utmost exertion in apprehending and lodging said convicts in safe custody..' No information has been found to date of his fate.

Notes and Links

1). The Australian 21 December 1839

2). Country News, The Australian 1 February 1839

3). Report on Convict Discipline and Management by Alexander Maconochie 1838