Robert Cox

Tasmanian author Robert Cox writes mainly in two genres: history and short fiction. Originally considering himself a journeyman, a writer by trade, he has had stints as advertising copywriter, public relations consultant, government communications manager, book reviewer, magazine journalist and editor, and newspaper reporter and subeditor. During a five-year spell as a freelancer, he wrote anything and everything from documentary film scripts to verses for greeting cards. His real interests, however, were more literary, and through all those incarnations he continued to write and publish short stories, poetry, feature articles, and essays, producing work that has been commended in national short story competitions and several times anthologised. He has been the recipient of an Arts Tasmania literary grant. No longer a jobbing hack, he now writes full time. A Compulsion to Kill is his sixth book, and he is co-editing reminiscences of the celebrated Tasmanian poet Gwen Harwood as Behind the Masks: Gwen Harwood Remembered by her Friends (Ginninderra Press). His other current project is a biography of the seminal Tasmanian resistance fighter Kikatapula, whom he calls ‘perhaps Australia’s most influential indigenous warrior of the colonial period’. Robert Cox lives an eremitic life in a rural valley in southern Tasmania.


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from First Blood: John Brown and Richard Lemon


Neither man could ever have entertained the faintest expectation that he would make history. They were just a couple of petty criminals, one in Ireland, the other in England, who were individually apprehended, tried, and transported to New South Wales and later to Tasmania, where each absconded, eventually to join forces. But despite their unprepossessing beginnings, John Brown and Richard Lemon went on to achieve a unique place in Australian history.

They became the country’s first recorded serial killers.

The full extent of their depredations more than two centuries ago and the actual number of their victims will never be certain. Although they were originally sent to New South Wales, the crimes ensuring their sanguinary place in history were committed later, in Tasmania between October 1807 and March 1808. At that time there was no newspaper in either of the island colony’s two tiny settlements and official records were scantily kept, if kept at all. There is no Tasmanian convict conduct record for either man and not much readily identifiable New South Wales record. The motives for their murders are unknown but inferable, yet the day-to-day details of their brief and bloody rampage are lost in time.

John Brown’s name is too common to make him easy to identify among the convicts in Sydney, the mother colony, in the early years of the nineteenth century. There were at least two Irish prisoners of that name in the Sydney area (as well as a Scottish-born John Brown who was tried and sentenced in Ireland) and two others (who might in fact have been the same men) who used John Brown as an alias. One John Brown was sentenced to death there in 1803 for stealing wheat, although it is uncertain whether the sentence was carried out or commuted. Another—or the same—John Brown was flogged in March 1804 for being absent from government labour for several weeks without leave.

Nevertheless, two likely candidates suggest themselves in New South Wales convict records:

• John Brown, tried Limerick 1800, arrived per Atlas 1802

• John Brown, tried Londonderry 1801, arrived per Hercules 1801

Since it is known that the Tasmanian serial killer spoke Irish, the John Brown tried at Limerick, in Gaelic-speaking western Ireland, is more likely to have been the man who was soon to join Richard Lemon in leaving indelible bloodstains on Australian history.

Brown was not to stay in Sydney. In February 1804 the first British settlement in northern Tasmania, known as Port Dalrymple, was established in the Tamar Valley under the command of Lieutenant-Governor William Paterson. Convict labour was essential for the settlement’s establishment and growth, and Brown was among those embarked in chains in the Buffalo at Sydney on 14 October 1804. The ship reached the Tamar about three weeks later, on 3 November. Brown was immediately assigned as a labourer to one of the settlers struggling to establish farms there.

The fact that his being sent to Port Dalrymple was only seven months after a John Brown was flogged in Sydney for absconding suggests they might have been the same man, for the new arrival absconded from the Tamar in March-April 1806, some sixteen months after arriving, with another prisoner whose name is unrecorded.

In a letter to London dated 25 August 1807, Paterson wrote that ‘Not less than ten prisoners have absconded with their Masters’ Dogs, fire-arms, etc., and are living in the woods and Mountains … It is but a few days since … two … runaways (who have been absent for sixteen Months) seized on two of the Soldiers who were collecting firewood, tied, and carried them to their Post, robbed them of everything, their arms and ammunition, and effected their escape.’ John Brown was one of the ten; he was probably also one of the two ‘absent for sixteen months’. His precise movements during the eighteen months between his absconding and his teaming up with Lemon are unknowable. He certainly joined a group of other absconders and they kept on the move.

The New South Wales Governor, William Bligh, in a letter to Hobart’s Lieutenant-Governor David Collins dated 1 October 1807, specifically referred to prisoners deserting from the Tamar settlement to the Derwent settlement at Hobart, so it seems the runaways kept moving between the two settlements via the east coast. Brown would use knowledge gained that way when he joined forces with Richard Lemon.

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