29 Feb 1788 - first pardon granted (at a cost)

#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.


The convict James Freeman was found guilty in the Criminal Court on 29 February 1788 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.

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…

First published in the 50th Anniversary Gallery


From the Collection

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