Skip to content

Curator Rebecca Nason, National Museum of Australia, 11 June 2008

REBECCA NASON: Welcome, I am pleased to speak to you today about the National Museum of Australia’s recent acquisition of two Staffordshire figurines, both of the Irish nationalist parliamentarian and convict, William Smith O’Brien. [Shows image] William Smith O’Brien’s story is very detailed and long but today I will be providing an overview of his political life in Ireland, his transportation to Van Diemen’s Land and his triumphant return.

William Smith O’Brien was born on 17 October 1803 at Dromoland Castle in County Clare, the second son of Sir Edward O’Brien and his wife Charlotte. William’s father, Sir Edward, was a member of the old Irish House of Commons who had opposed the 1800 Act of Union which saw Great Britain and Ireland form as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

[Shows image] A protestant, William was educated at Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge, speaking several languages including Latin, Greek, French and German. He graduated in 1828 and was then brought in to parliament by his father and served as the conservative member for the borough of Ennis from 1828 to 1831 and then for Limerick from 1835 until 1849. After joining parliament he met Mary Ann Wilton in London and fathered two children to her. In the autumn of 1832 he married Lucy Caroline Gabbett of County Limerick. Together they had seven children, five boys and two girls. The family home was known as Cahermoyle House.

During his time in parliament O’Brien was prominent in debates on Irish issues including the establishment of an Irish poor law, removing tithes, improving education and encouraging emigration. O’Brien was also active in trying to alleviate the misery of the Irish Famine of 1845-49 by forwarding suggestions for cultivating waste land, establishing fisheries, adjusting landlord-tenant relations, and providing employment through railway building.

During his lifetime, O’Brien was actually imprisoned twice. A true obstructionalist, O’Brien was placed under house arrest by the sergeant-at-arms in 1846 for contempt of the House for refusing to serve on non-Irish committees after receiving a summons to serve on a Scottish railways committee.

O’Brien was placed in prison - an apartment on the ground floor half way between the entrances to the Commons and Lords chambers. The cell was about 14 feet by nine with only seven feet of head room. It contained a small deal table, trestle bed, chest of drawers and a few chairs. The worst feature was an unventilated privy. O’Brien considered his gaol small and not cheerful. However O’Brien was placed in high regard and adulation in Ireland because of his defiance. He wasn’t in prison for very long, it was only until the end of the session of the House.

[Shows image] This is an image of O’Brien in his prison from the London Pictorial Times [9 May 1846]

O’Brien was an ardent supporter of Catholic emancipation and, although a political opponent of Daniel O’Connell, the liberator, he joined O’Connell’s Repeal Association in 1843. The Repeal Association strove for the repeal of the 1801 Act of the Union. O’Brien soon became an authority within it second only to the liberator himself. [Shows image] However, disputes over the repeal soon divided the Irish nationalist leaders. O’Brien at first adopted a conciliatory role but, disillusioned by O’Connell, he walked out of the association with other members of the Young Irelanders, including John Mitchell, Thomas Meagher and other militants in July 1846. The following year they formed the Irish Confederates which sought independence of the Irish nation.

In May 1848, John Mitchel, one of the Young Irelanders, was arrested for the publication of his newspaper The United Irishman, which they say was a manual on how to attack British troops. He was convicted for treason and sentenced to 14 years transportation, first to Bermuda and then to Van Diemen’s Land.

From this time forward O’Brien was the most experienced and respected of the leaders of the Young Irelanders. O’Brien sought to build up a network of armed clubs throughout the country which would force Britain to concede Irish self-government without bloodshed. The Catholic Church opposed the rebellion and enthusiasm soon evaporated. However, on 29 July 1848 O’Brien, along with Meagher, McManus and Patrick O’Donoghue led a failed uprising against the royal Irish constabulary in the widow McCormack’s cabbage patch garden at Ballingarry in County Tipperary. [Shows image]

O’Brien was arrested at Thurles railway station on 6 August 1848 and was sent to Dublin. O’Brien, McManus, Meagher and O’Donoghue were all convicted of treason and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered at Clonmel. The sentence was commuted to transportation for life. O’Brien and his principal lieutenants sailed in the Swift to Hobart Town, where they arrived on 27 October 1849.

On arrival in Hobart, O’Brien refused to give his parole in return for a ticket of leave and was in consequence denied the privileged treatment afforded to other Young Ireland leaders. O’Brien was sent to the Darlington Penal Station on Maria Island of which he wrote:

To find a gaol in one of the loveliest spots formed by the hand of nature in one of her loneliest solitudes creates a revulsion of feeling which I cannot describe.

At Maria Island, O’Brien was allotted a small cottage and placed under the guardianship of one of the overseers, Mr Miller. [Shows image] He is more of a privileged convict. He didn’t have to work. He had his own cottage. He could stroll around the gardens accompanied by Mr Miller. O’Brien spent much of his time observing and exploring all the novelties which surrounded him, describing in a journal to his wife the 130 convicts and officers who lived on the island, the flora and fauna and his small cottage. [Shows image] This is an image of his handwriting in the journal he wrote to his wife from the National Library of Ireland.

However William Smith O’Brien was determined to leave and attempted an escape on Monday, 12 August 1850. O’Brien details his attempted escape in his journal:

On Monday last the 12 August I made an attempt to escape from this detestable colony ... having learnt that a small vessel which was in the habit of bringing goods to Maria Island was about to proceed from Hobart Town to California and that it was probable that she should touch at Maria Island I resolved if possible to obtain a passage in her.

Accordingly I was on the watch and as my walks were not restricted within any limit I strolled during several successive days along the seashore in the direction from which she might be expected to arrive. Upon several of these occasions I was attended only by my keeper (Mr Miller) but upon the day in question I was followed by one of the constables who have latterly been in the habit of watching my proceedings more closely than usual. It seems that some vague information may have been given to Dr Tenant the surgeon who has, since the death of Captain Bailey, acted as resident magistrate and to Mr Lahpam (the superintendent), which induced them to believe that this vessel might possibly be brought to Maria Island for the purpose of carrying me away.

Between one and two o’clock P.M., I observed a vessel in the distance bearing towards the point of the shore on which I was walking. ... you could easily imagine that during this interval my breast was full of emotion. No one however would have discovered this emotion from my demeanour. I sat down with calmness to eat my lunch after which I took up my book and continued to read to my keeper, as had been my usual practice in our rambles. ... A boat was sent from the vessel towards the point. I continued to read to my keeper until the boat approached within two or three hundred yards of the shore. She was rowed by two men and steered by a third. I then strolled down to the rocks on the edge of the sea and when the boat was within about fifty yards of the shore I dashed in. The rocks were less shelving than I expected and I was soon out of my depth but as I can swim this was of little importance. I had dove into the water in order to avoid a struggle with the keeper and I fully expected that I should be pulled up into the boat and carried off without delay.

To my great surprise however I found that no hand was reached to me and on looking round I observed that the constable who had concealed himself until I plunged into the water had rushed out of his hiding place and was presenting a gun at the men in the boat. Without any parley or any effort whatsoever to carry me off, the men in the boat at once cried out that they surrendered. In the mean time I was left in the water among the reeds and being very heavily laden with dress and with articles contained in my pockets my position became somewhat perilous. At length I got to the shore by the aid of an oar.

All hope of escape was now nearly extinct but I was desirous to use every chance that delay could offer. I therefore told the constable that he might take my life if he pleased but that he should not compel me to leave that spot until I felt disposed to so myself. I then jumped into the boat and refused to leave it. This proceeding however, was of little avail as the keeper and the constable using an axe the boatmen had brought with them cut a hole in the boat with it. ... the boat being rendered useless I now lost all hope of escape but became anxious for the sake of those on board the vessel that they should obtain whatever advantage might arise from delay. I therefore refused to stir and told the constable and my keeper that they must carry me if they wished to compel me to proceed. They accordingly made an attempt to carry me but they soon found that my weight was too great a burden to be carried a distance of five miles. The constable then directed the boatmen to carry me and the cowardly wretches absolutely consented to do so and each took a limb for the purpose!

Not wishing to annoy the men who had already exposed themselves to some risk on my account I told them that I would not give them the trouble of carrying me but that I would walk leisurely home. I then proceeded at the slowest possible pace.

This shows what a stubborn and determined man he was. For his failed attempt to escape, O’Brien was transferred to the infamous secondary penal settlement at Port Arthur on 24 August 1850. [Shows image] This is an image of his cottage at Port Arthur. As at Maria Island O’Brien was placed in solitary confinement in a small, two-bedroom cottage next to the barracks.

In November 1850 he was persuaded to give his parole and was granted a ticket of leave. O’Brien settled first at New Norfolk and later at Avoca where he acted as tutor to the children of Dr Brock, the local doctor. On 22 February 1854, responding to representations from Irish politicians and even the American ambassador, James Buchanan, Lord Palmerston, Home Secretary in the Aberdeen cabinet, acted and announced a conditional pardon for the three remaining Young Irelanders. They were still excluded from the United Kingdom but they were free to travel elsewhere. Great rejoicings occurred throughout Ireland and at his parents’ estate, Dromoland, huge bonfires were lit for William Smith O’Brien.

When the pardons arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in May 1854, an enthusiastic reception was organised at the Bush Hotel in New Norfolk, where 30 of O’Brien’s friends led by Captain Michael Fenton and Major Henry Lloyd dined with him and presented him with an address. On 6 July, O’Brien sailed for Melbourne on board the Ladybird. The esteem in which O’Brien was held by many Irish Australians was shown through the large demonstrations held in both Melbourne and Bendigo in his honour. At the final demonstration at the Criterion Hotel on 22 July, he was presented with a large nine carat gold vase. The vase, which cost 1000 guineas, was made by emigrant Irish silversmiths, the Hackett brothers, and was financed by Irish Australians, including many miners. The vase was later delivered to Ireland after being shown at the Paris exhibition of 1855. O’Brien was also presented with an address by the Irish settlers of New South Wales to celebrate his release from detention. [Shows image]

After his tour of Victoria, O’Brien sailed for Europe via India settling with his family in Brussels where he finished his book Principles of Government. In May 1856, following the intercession of 140 British parliamentarians, O’Brien was granted a free pardon, which allowed him to return home to Ireland.

In 1859 he paid a brief visit to New York. In America, O’Brien was treated not as a failed revolutionary leader living in retirement but as a major world statesman. William Smith O’Brien died in Bangor, Wales, on 18 June 1864.

Last year the National Museum of Australia purchased two Staffordshire figurines of William Smith O’Brien. O’Brien was captured by the Alpha Factory potters for his criminality and the romance of both his sentence and his relationship with his loving, loyal and long-suffering wife Lucy with whom his portrait figure is frequently paired. William Smith O’Brien is the only figurine to have two versions made both seated and standing. [Shows image] The seated one is the one that is often paired with a seated Lucy O’Brien. These are the two that we have in the Museum collection.

The production of Staffordshire ceramic figures reached its peak during the Victorian era, flourishing during the period 1840-1880. The relatively inexpensive, simply made porcelain facsimiles of the famous or notorious were produced in response to the current events of the day, making Staffordshire figures excellent examples of popular culture. Staffordshire figurines have been described as ‘ceramic time capsules that not only managed to reflect popular taste, but also recreated it with great verisimilitude’.

The method of production was simple and cheap, requiring only a three piece mould. They were sold at weekly fairs and market days throughout England and exported to markets in Australia and North America. Little decoration was employed so as to keep prices down and gold was rarely used except for titles and incidental decoration. You can see on the standing O’Brien there is only very small gold detail on the handcuffs and on his collar.

Figures were produced to satisfy the ever-growing demand for likenesses of persons in the news, including members of the royal family, politicians, clerics, war heroes and heroines, theatre performers and famous characters from plays, opera singers, sporting celebrities and notorious criminals. Over this period more than 500 different subjects were produced as figurines but only a small percentage relate to Australia. These are Captain James Cook; English prison reformer Elizabeth Fry; Lady Jane Franklin and Sir John Franklin; William Smith O’Brien; Prince Alfred, then Duke of Edinburgh; bushranger Frank Gardiner; and the Tichborne claimant Arthur Orton.

The National Historical Collection also has two other Staffordshire figurines of Captain James Cook and the Tichborne claimant. [Shows image]

There is also another possible Staffordshire figurine which also relates to Australia titled ‘The smugglers quarrel’ [shows image]. A Staffordshire dealer in England believes that this figurine relates to the story of Margaret Catchpole, a horse thief and gaol breaker who was transported for life to New South Wales in 1801.

This identification is a distinct possibility as the story of Margaret’s life entitled The History of Margaret Catchpole: a Suffolk girl, was published in 1847 at the height of Staffordshire manufacture in England by the Reverend Cobbold, son of Margaret’s mistress from whom she stole the horse. Although the book is very romanticised, Cobbold recounts Margaret’s life and how she had fallen in love with the smuggler William Laud and how Laud and another smuggler fought over Margaret, hence the story of the smuggler’s quarrel. Margaret’s notoriety and Cobbold’s story would have certainly inspired Staffordshire potters to use their artistic licence to produce such a piece, although it would warrant a lot more research to determine if this was actually Margaret Catchpole. It would be nice to think there is another convict Staffordshire out there.

The story of William Smith O’Brien, the two Staffordshire figurines, his journal and address will be going on display with many other wonderful exhibits in the new Australian Journeys gallery due to open in December this year. I hope that you have enjoyed today’s talk. There is a so much out there about William Smith O’Brien. It’s a very detailed story. I hope this gives you a little insight into who William Smith was and to our Staffordshire figurines.

Disclaimer and Copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy.

© National Museum of Australia 2007–22. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.

Date published: 01 January 2018

Return to Top