#OnThisDay 29 February 1788 the first pardon was granted to James Freeman by Governor Arthur Phillip. Freeman had been found guilty of stealing flour in the fledgling Colony and his pardon was conditional on him becoming the Colony's public hangman.
James Freeman was found guilty on 3 March 1784 at Hertford, England, of a highway robbery and his death sentence was commuted to seven years transportation. He embarked for New South Wales on the Alexander in January 1787, arriving in Sydney in January 1788 as part of the First Fleet.
James Freeman Convict Indent entry INX-77-12376
On 29 February 1788, James Freeman was found guilty in the Criminal Court of stealing flour. The fledgling Colony was barely a month old, and supplies of food were limited. Theft of such items was therefore viewed with the utmost seriousness, hence the draconian death sentence that was handed down. This punishment was at once severe, merciful, and pragmatic.
There was a need to find someone to undertake the task of dispatching condemned felons via the hangman’s noose, and who better than a convict who could hardly refuse the job offer, given the alternative. This condition applied up to the time he had served his original sentence of 7 years.
Life continued to be difficult for Freeman and in the Proceedings [Judge Advocate's Bench] of 11 December 1789, he was sentenced to 100 lashes and a stoppage of his grog for being drunk and insolent and out of hut after 10.45pm.
The general musters, held in the UK National Archives, tell us James Freeman served his 7 year term and was then life emancipated, living a much quieter existence as a landholder in Richmond and later a labourer in Windsor. He died in 1830 having escaped two death sentences.
While few administrative records have survived from the earliest days of the Colony, there are many records of court proceedings and the administration of justice within the State archives collection. This document, bearing Arthur Phillip’s neat signature, is the official copy of the first pardon granted in New South Wales.
Extract – third paragraph of document
…In Pursuance of the Power & Authority vested in me, I do hereby grant him the said James Freeman, a Pardon for the said Offence, on condition of his becoming the public Executioner…