AFW – The British Army…the mid years



The 1820s – The Governors

Sir Thomas Brisbane (1773-1860) was commissioned into the 38th Foot in 1789 and served in Ireland, Flanders and the West Indies before retiring to the study of astronomy in 1805.

At the request of the Duke of Wellington, whom he had first met as a fellow subaltern, he led a brigade in the Pyrenean campaigns, saw action in America and commanded a division in the occupation forces in France.

As governor from 1821 he was competent, presiding over growth in the colony’s population and extent, but his administration was hampered by obstructive civil officials and he gratefully returned to his observatory in 1825.


Officer, 3rd Foot, East Kent, The Buffs. Note the bell topped shako which was introduced in 1829. A number of the ‘new arrival’ units were equipped with this headgear.

Large numbers of convicts, the products of industrial and agricultural distress in Britain, arrived in New South Wales during the years following Napoleon’s defeat. The colony’s penal system kept some in government gangs, most in the service of landowners, and could not keep others at all. The severity of punishment and the often intolerable life of an assigned convict prompted many to ‘bolt’ into the bush and live by robbery.

It fell to the military garrison of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land to ensure, as the inefficient constabulary could not, that crime and disorder did not threaten British colonial rule. By 1825 bushranging was so prevalent in the counties around Bathurst, Sydney and Newcastle that Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane reported that ‘nothing short of regular military movements will … put it down’

The spread of settlement, the ruggedness of the country and the fact that most bushrangers were by this time mounted created problems for the colonial government. Before his departure, Brisbane despatched a party of the 3rd Foot (the Buffs) mounted on government carthorses to Bathurst and the Hunter Valley to pursue the bushrangers who were attacking farms in those districts.

After seeing the ‘salutory effect’ which his mounted infantry produced he planned to form a ‘Corps of Mounted Soldiers’. This body was established in 1825 by Colonel William Stewart, the Buffs’ colonel and acting governor, ‘for the express purpose of pursuing and capturing Bushrangers’.

Although intended originally as a temporary measure, a substitute for a ‘Body of Native Youth’ (that is, Australian-born Europeans), the corps remained the most effective police unit in eastern Australia for the next twenty-five years. At first numbering only a dozen, but by 1830 up to 100 men, the Mounted Police, as it was called, was continually engaged in hunting bushrangers and bolters.

Governor Sir Ralph Darling, Brisbane’s successor, was able to record that, ‘the corps is much dreaded by the Runaways and Bushrangers’, noting that east of the Blue Mountains absconding convicts were apprehended within four or five days. Darling described the troopers as ‘of more importance than all the Troops put together … if they cannot catch [bushrangers] then they harry them into giving up’.

While the Mounted Police enabled the colonial government to deal with, if not control, bushranging, its formation was sometimes detrimental to the regiments serving in New South Wales. If colonels allowed reliable men to be transferred to the force their regiments’ discipline often suffered. If they sent bad soldiers the policing of the colony was jeopardised. This added to the strains on the troops, for during the 1820s the garrison’s responsibilities were widened to include a number of outstations.

The colony was not only growing from Sydney and across the mountains but distant settlements were established along the Australian coast, and responsibility for their security fell to the army. Men detached to garrison these isolated stations were entered on the regimental rolls as being ‘on command’. Port Macquarie and Moreton Bay were settled as penal stations in 1822 and 1824.

Mounted Trooper, 1830

In 1825 Norfolk Island, abandoned since 1813, was reoccupied, also as a penal settlement, by Captain Robert Turton and 33 men of the 40th. It was intended to be “the extremest punishment short of death” for convicts who had committed a second offence on the mainland.

In 1825 signs of French interest in Australia, of which only parts of the east coast and of Tasmania had been settled, prompted the occupation of several sites around the continent. Twenty men of the Buffs were located at Western Port, in what became Victoria, from 1826 to 1828.

On Christmas Day 1826 a detachment of the 39th landed at King George’s Sound in what became Western Australia. The strategic significance of these settlements outweighed their practical value. King George’s Sound, although scenic, was described as ‘a barren waste’, and was abandoned in 1831.

Most effort was devoted to the establishment of forts in northern Australia in the hope that they would stimulate trade with Asia. Fort Dundas on Melville Island was established in October 1824. It was garrisoned by 23 men of the Buffs and 26 Royal Marines, who were relieved by 40 men of the 57th in 1826. The outgoing party gave their relief a gloomy picture of the settlement, telling of ‘the scarcity of vegetables, the deficiencies of fresh meat … the hostility of the natives and many other mortifications’.

In the meantime another settlement named Fort Wellington had been established at Raffles Bay on the mainland, an even worse spot than Melville Island. By October 1827 half the detachment were night-blind with scurvy, the heat was oppressive and the Aborigines hostile. Both settlements were abandoned in 1829.

On Waterloo Day, 18 June 1824, Governor Brisbane reported to the British government that the Wiradjuri Aborigines around Bathurst had committed some ‘violent outrages’ on stock keepers. After seven Europeans and fourteen Blacks had been killed he declared martial law in the district in August and increased Bathurst’s garrison to 75 men.

Brisbane devised a scheme to subdue the Wiradjuri with the limited force at his disposal. The troops were divided into small parties (some of which may have been mounted) headed by local magistrates, who were usually retired army officers. These patrols set off in different directions with orders to meet at various points, marshalling the Aborigines in order to attack them.

Neither the Wiradjuri nor Brisbane’s men thought that they were engaged in anything but war. Martial law was repealed early in December and the governor was soon able to report that ‘this system of keeping these unfortunate people in a Constant state of alarm soon brought them to a sense of their Duty’.

The use of troops against Aborigines resisting the spread of settlement was not always as bloody, or as effective, as around Bathurst. Early in 1826 Darling learned of the deaths of convict stock keepers in the county of Argyle’ 160 kilometres south west of Sydney in one of the colony’s most valuable agricultural districts. He despatched a military expedition to Argyle to ‘enforce obedience’ and ‘disperse’ the Blacks.

In May Captain Peter Bishop, a lieutenant and 30 men of the 40th marched about the almost unexplored southern highlands for a month. After travelling for several hundred kilometres, having seen virtually no hostile Aborigines, Bishop’s party returned to Sydney. The Sydney Gazette sarcastically pointed out that his expedition was the only one known to have returned without spilling blood. Darling, however, chose to believe that the ‘prompt and unexpected appearance of the redcoats had some effect’ in convincing Aborigines that resistance was futile.

In 1826 the Mounted Police and parties of infantry from the Hawkesbury were sent in pursuit of Aborigines in the Hunter, where the density of settlement in the valley brought collisions over the ownership or use of land. The Mounted Police gained an ugly reputation for brutality in these operations. On at least several occasions it was recorded that they executed Blacks without trial, though their conduct was strongly supported by local settlers. Australia was often not so much settled as conquered.


One of the major theatre of war against the Aborigines of eastern Australia in the 1820s was Van Diemen’s Land.  On the arrival of Lieutenant-Governor Sir George Arthur in 1824 the settlers and Aborigines had already been in armed conflict for nearly twenty years.  The Blacks resisted the intruders and Arthur’s efforts at conciliation failed. In November 1827 he declared the Aborigines ‘open enemies’, later issuing futile proclamations forbidding their entry into settled areas.

The Black War intensified. Military expeditions were mounted to drive the Aborigines into the interior and break their spirit to resist. Though numbering only 1000 people they were a difficult and determined enemy and Arthur came to respect them as did few at the time. ‘The Chieftains of each Mob’, he wrote, ‘have evinced … cunning and tact which very evidently shows that this race, however barbarous, is by no means as void of intelligence as has hitherto been supposed’.

He described the Aborigines’ guerrilla tactics: ‘they suddenly appear, commit some acts of outrage and, then, as suddenly vanish if pursued, it seems impossible to surround and capture them. . .’ As always, the job of pursuing and dealing with the Aborigines fell to the rank and file of the regiments in the field.

In 1829 officers of the 40th enquired into the hardships which their men endured while serving against the Aborigines. Sergeant Armstrong testified that he had been part of a detachment stationed at Bothwell. Twenty of the 77 men under a Lieutenant Williams generally remained in the barracks, 32 were posted at small outstations and another 25 formed several ‘roving parties’. The roving parties left Bothwell for patrols of up to three weeks, carrying what salt rations they could. After using up the meat, which would have frequently gone bad in summer, they relied on settlers for provisions, often receiving poor rations in return for government receipts.

Armstrong recalled that they were ‘very frequently lost in the Bush for 3 or 4 days together. The parties, usually comprising three or four men under a corporal, rose before daylight to march through thick scrub or forest. Sergeant Armstrong claimed that ‘the stoutest men of the Regt were frequently knocked up on these fatiguing marches’.

The 40th (2nd Somersetshire) Regiment saw more action in Australia than any other regiment. It served in Van Diemen’s Land during the Black war from 1824 and returned for a second tour from 1852 to 1860. This illustration depicts Sergeant Armstrong as he would have appeared on a ‘roving patrol’ from Bothwell. Such patrols, undertaken to locate and attack Tasmanian Aborigines, were exhausting.

He wears the white duck trousers issued between October and May during the southern summer. Due to an oversight the men of the 40th serving in the bush at this time were without haversacks, and Armstrong carries his ration in a cloth bag slung from his cross-belt. Sergeant 40th Regiment of Foot, 1829.

With the exception of Light Infantry and Rifle Regiments, the India Pattern Musket known as the Brown Bess, was the regulation musket for the Infantry of the Line stationed in the colonies in the 1820’s and 1830’s until the advent of the Pattern 1839 and 1842 musket. The India Pattern Brown Bess was a .75 smooth bore flintlock weapon with a 39” barrel,  fitted with a triangular socket bayonet.

When they found Aborigines the conduct of these parties and of the convict constables who accompanied them was often savage. Sharing the disparaging attitudes of the colonists, away from the control of their officers and sergeants and unrestrained by the knowledge that they fought a ‘barbarous’ enemy, the troops often committed excesses.

Despite such measures Arthur was forced to admit in September 1829 that ‘the hostility of the Aboriginal Natives is in no degree decreased’, and he devised a plan, known as the Black Line, to end the war. In October and November 1830 over two thousand men, including soldiers, free settlers, emancipists and even armed convicts, attempted to drive the Blacks across Van Diemen’s Land towards the Tasman Peninsula.

The seven-week campaign, mounted at a cost of 30 000 pound, was a costly failure, netting only one man and a boy. The Aborigines, skilled in bushcraft, had evaded the searchers. Its one result was to clear the settled districts of Aborigines, who moved into unsettled country. In 1831 Arthur admitted failure, changed his policy, and began to entice the Aborigines to move to a government reserve, where they suffered from disease and despair.

But if the 1820s had imposed hardships on the troops stationed in the Australian colonies, the following decade was to strain the garrison to its limits.



The 1830s – “The Worst Country”

During the 1830s the British army in Australia was at its most active. In addition to maintaining order and suppressing Aboriginal resistance the regiments of the garrison which, with the arrival of the King’s Own in 1832 had been increased to five, assumed greater responsibility for the enforcement of convict discipline. The army, particularly because of its exertions in subduing bushranging, enjoyed better relations with the colony’s more prosperous settlers, and the embarrassing public feuds and intrigues which had marked the 1810s and 1820s diminished.

New South Wales’ poorer colonists, however, were less inclined to admire soldiers. Soldiers were an obvious symbol of the presence of authority in the streets of Sydney and the garrison towns such as Hobart, Parramatta, Windsor or Bathurst.
A visitor to Sydney remarked on its ‘military aspect’. The military barracks, known as the Garrison to distinguish it from the convicts barracks, dominated the centre of town; batteries were mounted on either side of Sydney Cove while soldiers stood guard at public buildings or at the Main Guard in George Street.

The Mounted Police patrolled roads in the bush. As they acted independently and were often stationed amid convicts the troopers often became discontented and un-soldier like, and were resented for their high-handedness. By 1836 there were 27,000 convicts under sentence in New South Wales, the majority of whom were distributed among the landholders of the colony as labourers, shepherds and stockmen.

This system of assignment, while ensuring a plentiful supply of cheap labour, carried with it the constant threat of insurrection as had happened at Castle Hill in 1804. Such happened with the so called Ribbon Gang in Bathurst who were eventually captured and hanged, not without causing some consternation for the locals in the area.

The colonial authorities’ guarantee against convict revolt was the military, and especially the Mounted Police. Without the troopers, declared Governor Bourke, ‘the country would be untenable’. By the early 1830s they had succeeded in practically eliminating bushranging from the roads of New South Wales and were widely admired by prosperous settlers. ‘Hordes of banditti’ had been discovered by the troopers’ energetic methods.

80th Regiment of Foot, 1838

The Sydney Herald praised the soldiers’ persistence, for ‘If once set on the … print of a bushranger’s foot, they have never quitted it till they have secured their prey’. The troopers also rounded up absconding convicts; 200 between January and May 1835; over 500 in 1838-39. Although it was not to be, the newspaper predicted that the Mounted Police, ‘ the only military establishment we possess’, would be ‘the germ and basis of all our future military institutions’

The regiments stationed in New South Wales during the 1830s saw the hardest service of all those which served in Australia. This soldier, a battalion company man epitomizes the hardships which they endured.

He wears his summer uniform, which in fact meant only that he exchanged dark blue trousers for white ones. He carries full marching order and has improvised a neck-cloth under his forage cap.


Meanwhile garrison duty continued for the troops of the regiments in Sydney and the outstations. Circumstances varied depending on their location. In 1833, for instance, the King’s Own was divided between Sydney and Norfolk Island. The 17th, however, was scattered all over New South Wales; 237 men were kept at headquarters in Parramatta; 95 served at Moreton Bay, 1200 kilometres to the north. Two parties, of 76 and 62 men, were stationed at two outposts on the road to Bathurst, with 32 at Bathurst itself.

The provincial towns of Newcastle, Port Macquarie and Windsor accounted for a further 44, 35 and 25 men respectively, while the tiny settlements of Port Stephens, Bong Bong and Wellington Valley contained between 7 and 13 men each. In 1836 a further call was imposed upon the hard-pressed troops when a detachment of the King’s Own was sent to the newly-settled Port Phillip District, and Mounted Police followed as the overland route to Melbourne was opened up in the following years.

Such postings damaged the regiments’ ‘internal economy’. At the 17th’s headquarters, for example, so few troops were available that half the regimental band was compelled to mount guard daily. It was difficult for officers to supervise the training or discipline of their men, so much so that Colonel Breton of the 50th called New South Wales ‘the worst country in the world for a soldier’. It required ‘the most unremitting care’ from the often inexperienced subalterns sent out in command of detachments to maintain ‘even common order’ in the ranks.

During the late 1830s bushranging again became common and for a period in the last years of the decade the regiments in Australia were stretched as far as they ever were. It was even rumoured that a regiment of light dragoons would be ordered to Australia to assist the hard-pressed infantry.

Land-owners claimed that the colony was close to anarchy, the Sydney Herald, for example, thundering that ‘intelligent settlers [from] … all parts’ agreed that ‘at no time in their recollection has the country been more disturbed … the whole of the interior is overrun by robbers’. Bad though bushranging grew, and slack though the Mounted Police became, the settlers’ fears were not realised. The crisis passed. In 1840, to the relief of the garrison’s commanders, transportation to New South Wales ceased and over the next decade the huge convict establishment was dismantled.

Mounted Police field dress, 1832

By 1832 the Mounted Police had acquired a full dress uniform of blue jacket with red facings. This uniform would rarely have been seen, for as a working dress the troopers wore plain rifle green shell jacket with green, and sometimes white, trousers.

While on patrol they often wore broad-brimmed cabbage-tree hats. The arms used were sabre, carbine and horse pistols. This uniform would have been worn by Major Nunn’s men on their campaign against the Kamilaroi in 1838.

By the 1830s European settlers and Aborigines were engaged in an intermittent but savage conflict in each of the colonies of mainland Australia, for the 1830s saw a greater extension of settlement than ever before, and all along the pastoral frontier the two races speared or shot each other for possession of land.

It was an unequal though not an altogether one-sided contest but ultimately European fire-arms, horsemanship, organisation and sheer numbers told, and by the end of the 1850s Aboriginal resistance had been overcome in south-eastern Australia.

Most of this conflict is poorly documented, although Major James Nunn’s campaign against the Kamilaroi people of northern New South Wales is reasonably well recorded.

The Kamilaroi, a numerous and warlike people, inhabited the Liverpool Plains north of the Hunter River. They had defended their land in accordance with their traditional ways of warfare, giving shepherds notice of a fight and then attacking in waves until the attackers had either taken a settler’s hut or sustained heavy losses in the attempt.

Late in 1837 alarming reports were received from the lonely stations scattered along the rivers of the Liverpool Plains. The Aborigines were said to be ‘extremely hostile’. clashing with stockmen over water and cattle in the drought. Colonel Kenneth Snodgrass, the acting governor, summoned Major Nunn and ordered him to take a detachment to the plains to suppress the ‘outrages’.

Nunn, who bore a striking resemblance to the Duke of Wellington, set out for the north late in December, taking with him Ensign George Cobban, three sergeants and 19 troopers of Mounted Police. The party entered the land of the Kamilaroi in the New Year. At the Namoi River Nunn arrested fifteen Aborigines for ‘all manner of outrages, but released all but two, one of whom was retained as a guide and the other shot while attempting to escape. The detachment then moved on to the Gwydir River, the centre of conflict.

At the river Ensign Cobban led a patrol in search of Aborigines accused of spearing shepherds at a nearby station. He found a group perched on inaccessible rocks. They taunted his men, shouting that they were not afraid of the soldiers. Perhaps, in accordance with Kamilaroi tradition, they even tried to arrange a battle.

In the third week of January 1838 Nunn, accompanied by local stockmen leading pack-horses, took his men back down the Gwydir. His scouts came across a smoking log, and they mistakenly assumed that the Aborigines were a day’s march away.

They were surprised when, on rounding a bend of a creek, the leading trooper ‘came suddenly upon a great number of Blacks’. A Corporal Hannan attempted to ‘apprehend’ the nearest Aboriginal, but was speared in the calf. Nunn recalled that he heard on a sudden the words ‘black fellows’ in front … I rode up immediately and the first thing I noticed was Corporal Hannan returning … he appeared to be in great agony, and cried out ‘I am speared, I am speared’.

Sergeant Lee rode towards Hannan and fired the first shot in what became known as the Slaughterhouse Creek massacre. Nunn and Cobban lost control; their men opened fire, charged and separated, leaving Nunn ‘perfectly unable to collect them’. Sergeant Lee later testified that – “The confusion was so great and the scrub so thick, that I had enough to do to take care of myself and my horse … every man had to act for himself”.

This initial confusion seems to have lasted about an hour. The Blacks fled, pursued by the troopers for about a mile towards the Gwydir. When Nunn collected his men they paused, questioned some women and, dividing into two parts, attempted to drive the Blacks into the creek-bed from each bank. The Aborigines, unnerved by twenty or more horsemen plunging through the scrub, separated from their weapons and terrified for their women and children, routed down the creek to the swampy banks of the river. Nunn had his force retire to ‘a secure position for the safety of the people during the night’ and soon after returned directly to Sydney after a campaign of 53 days.

Kamilaroi warrior, 1838.

The collision was a very bloody affair. Corporal Hannan’s spear-wound was the only injury recorded by the police, but estimates of Aboriginal casualties vary. Nunn and Cobban thought four or five were killed, Sergeant Lee thought forty or fifty.

It seems likely that startled by the sudden appearance of the Kamilaroi, disoriented by the heat and thick scrub and frightened by Hannan’s screams, the inexperienced young troopers lost their heads and, heedless of their officers, rode up and down the creek slashing, stabbing and shooting, killing at least fifty Aborigines. That would have however require each soldier to kill at least 2 natives which seems highly unlikely given the terrain, the circumstances and weapons available.

The Kamilaroi people of northern New South Wales had a reputation as fighters. Warfare among the Kamilaroi was regulated by elaborate customs including the arranging of battles and the practice of abusing opponents before fighting, which continued until grievances had been settled. 

Warriors carried spears up to twelve feet long, shields, clubs called ‘pundi’ and large war boomerangs called ‘burran’. Spears were propelled accurately by throwing sticks fitted to the spear and held by the thrower., the ‘woomera’. The Kamilaroi resisted the occupation of their country with great bravery, fighting the settlers for years before being subdued by native police in the 1850s.


In the Swan River Colony, which had been settled in 1829, the 63rd suffered at least ten casualties from Aboriginal warriors in the settlement’s first few years in fights which cost the lives of several times as many Blacks. The most significant action in the colony occurred when the lieutenant governor, Captain James Stirling, took a punitive expedition to Pinjarra, 80 kilometres south of Perth, in October 1834 after the Murray River Aborigines had killed a soldier.

The Murray River people, like the Kamilaroi, were a determined enemy who resisted the occupation of their country. The battle of Pinjarra, as the affair became known, cost the lives of between 14 and 80 Aborigines, though only one soldier was killed and another was wounded. Stirling surprised the Aborigines’ camp, who were then determined to fight, and thence drove them toward the Murray River into the guns of the remainder of his force.

Soldiers, however, were usually employed only against serious resistance, for the settlers enjoyed most of the military’s advantages. Tactically, a group of stockmen was as good as, and because of their bushcraft often better than, a patrol of Mounted Police.

Major Nunn’s expedition was the last major campaign undertaken by the troops against the Aborigines in Australia. Conflict on the frontier would continue up to the twentieth century but it would be carried on by white settlers, their stockmen and by the civil police.

2 thoughts on “AFW – The British Army…the mid years

  1. Hi Roger,

    I’m not actually sure who did the pictures. They are likely from “Peter Stanley – ‘Remote Garrison”…but I am not sure.


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