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Michael Morton – The Irish Rebel

Posted by on March 1, 2012
This is a scanned image of the "Guardian's" column of one hundred and fifty two years ago.

This is a scanned image of the "Guardian's" column of one hundred and fifty two years ago.

Early in July 1847, a young Irishman in the County of Tipperary stole a cow.

Was he registering a protest against the poverty and oppression he and his family were suffering?

Poverty brought on by the failure of yet another of their meagre potato crops due to Potato Blight, and oppression from the harsh treatment of their landlord from whom his family rent their small plot of land.

Perhaps there was a much simpler reason. He may have hoped that this “crime” would have resulted in his transportation to Van Dieman’s Land where he would be reunited with his brother, sent there two years earlier for attempting to assassinate a wealthy landlord, but then other people stole cows with gay abandon and got off with a couple of months imprisonment.

The newspapers of the day carried many reports of this activity resulting in light sentences. Was this the defiant action of a politically motivated person, vehemently opposed to the occupation of his country by the British Crown and its privileged supporters? Was he in fact a member of “The Young Irelanders” movement? A group dedicated to the harassment of these foreigners and their eventual eviction from Ireland.

The severity of his sentence almost certainly indicated that he was a political thorn in the side of the English, who will use any excuse to get rid of him. Later writings by senior English bureaucrats, including Earl Grey, refer to people such as he as “political prisoners.”

The cow, which belonged to Mr. William Meara, was grazing on the grounds of “Moona Mona”, one of the town commons near the Northern Tipperary town of Roscrae and quite handy to the little settlement of Cullahill, where this young “thief” lived with his parents, Thomas Moten/Letsome and Catherine Madden.

On Tuesday July 13th. 1847, in the Quarter Sessions Court in Nenagh, Tipperary, Queen’s Counsel Mr. Sergeant Howley, sentenced the 19 year old labourer, Michael Morton, to 10 years transportation for his crime.

One of the local newspapers,”THE NENAGH GUARDIAN,” reported the Court proceedings. This publication is still being produced.

We are indebted to Liam Doran, a journalist with the “Guardian,” for taking the trouble to reseach the files of the paper and provide press clippings relating to Michael’s trial, and to the capture and trial two years before of John Morton (Moton) one of Michael’s brothers. Liam is also Morton descendant.

John attempted to assassinate a wealthy English landlord, was captured after an exciting chase, tried and transported to Van Dieman’s Land for life.

The transcript of the judge’s statement when sentencing Michael follows:

“Michael Morton was found guilty of stealing a cow, the property of William Mearn.

His Worship, addressing the prisoner said – you are a farmer’s son and having employment when you stole the cow from the poor man, not through want or destitution but through the corruption of public example – that contagion of dishonesty has has spread like an epidemic through the country. It is deplorable to perceive that gentlemen and farmers are compelled to send their servants to take care of their places, to protect their property from being plundered. It is very painful for me to be obliged to pass severe sentences on persons who are found guilty of these offences. Nothing but the severity of the law and the influnece of example will terminate those aggressions on the property of the industrious. Not a single iota can be offered in mitigation of the sentence which it is my duty to pass on you. You were employed upon the railway where the labourers receive good wages, where you perpetrated the offence of which you habe been properly found guilty. The sentence of the court is that you be transported for ten years.”

Michael is placed aboard the ship “MEDWAY” on the 10th. of November 1847 to begin his journey to the place of transportation.

Little does he realise that he is embarking on a unique adventure that will remain a secret from his family and descendants for almost 150 years, and rate as one of the most unusual journeys of a convict to Van Dieman’s Land.


To better understand the reasons for Michael’s lawlessness, we need to appreciate what conditions were like for people such as he in Ireland at the time. Most of the rural land in Ireland belongs to wealthy men, some of whom live on their properties, administering them personally. Others are absentee English gentry who probably inherited their estate, and not wishing to live there, employ agents as Managers. Landlords rent out much of their land to the local farming people, taking a substantial percentage of any crop as part payment of rent. Poorer people unable to afford to rent a plot may get some work with the small farmers, work as servants of the rich-or starve!

The mainstay of the economy and staple diet of the common people is the potato, which, since 1846, has been rotting in the ground due to the Blight. People are unable to pay their rents or obtain food. Additionally they are all expected to pay “Tithes” (One tenth of any proceeds from their land) to the Anglican Church-known as the Church of Ireland-the Church of the upper classes.

Labouring class people are almost all Catholic, but are still required to pay these tithes, famine or no famine! People are being evicted from their homes and dying in thousands from starvation. Typhoid fever is rampant, claiming many more lives. Many realise that their only hope of survival is to flee the country by any means possible. During the famine years 1846 to 1851, about one million people died in Ireland and two and a half million left the country as emigrants or convicts.

Could it be that Michael’s “crime” was his desperate attempt to avoid death from starvation or disease by deliberately getting himself arrested, with the almost certain consequential sentence of transportation given his political activism? Or was it an act of political protest? Answers to questions such as these would enhance the somewhat sketchy image that we have of the man so far.


Groups of Irish men, mainly from the labouring class, banded together to plan campaigns of action against the injustices of the system which treated them so unfairly.

Their aim was to make their grievances known, and to reclaim “Ireland for the Irish.” They planned and carried out almost constant harassment of the property of the wealthy landlords. These actions became known as the “Agrarian Outrages” and included:-

Burning buildings, hayricks and crops.

Stealing livestock – sometimes for food – sometimes for revenge. Cows were often taken to provide the milk in which the potatoes were cooked whenever possible.

Killing or maiming livestock, leaving it to be found by the owner or his agent.

Predictably the privileged class soon had laws passed to outlaw belonging (or being suspected of belonging) to any protest group.

At the time of Michael’s arrest the most active protest group, “The Young Irelanders,” was causing great havoc. The severity of his sentence, compared to that handed out to others convicted on the same day, almost certainly indicates that the Magistrate believed him to be a member of that group.

Many interesting stories of how Michael came to Australia have been handed down through the various branches of his descendants. Each of these stories has been checked, but no records can be found to verify them.

No ships carrying either assisted or unassisted immigrants to Australia listed a Morton from Tipperary, or anywhere else in Ireland. The vast majority of Mortons came from England or Scotland.

Only two other Michael Mortons have been found in all of the record checking carried out-one an Englishman who arrived with his wife Sophia and infant son John in the 1850s-the other a convict transported to Van Dieman’s Land in 1822, six years before our ancestor was born.

During 1988, the Irish Government presented Australia with a Bicentennial gift-a computer data base containing records of all Irish people transported to Australia between 1837 and the early 1850’s when the transportation system ended.

These records contain the following information:





Microfilm records of the original gaol lists and transportation records revealed more details:


HEIGHT: 5ft. 7¼in. HAIR: BROWN




We are indebted to Lyn Mc Innes for her discovery of this information in Latrobe library. Lyn maintains that she leapt up and shouted “Eureka” when Michael’s name appeared on the monitor screen.

The next step in verifying that this man was our ancestor was to discover where the ship went-a task made difficult by the fact that there were seven “MEDWAYS”, six of which had come to Australia at various times.
None of these ships however had brought a Michael Morton here.

“Bound for Australia”, a book by David Hawkings, along with some British Home Office records on microfilm at the Victorian State Library, led to the discovery of the particular “MEDWAY” into which Michael had been herded in November 1847.

Following his sentencing, it is most likely that Michael was transferred from Nenagh to the convict prison on Spike Island in Cork harbour to await embarkation.

Commissioned as a convict ship in October 1847, the “MEDWAY” took her human cargo aboard a short time later, probably at Cork harbour. She set sail for Bermuda on November 10th. 1847, having ridden out a severe storm two days before. Several other ships had broken their moorings and collided, causing much damage. “MEDWAY” appears to have survived the storm unscathed.

After a journey of some three months, the “MEDWAY” berthed at the wharves at Ireland island in Bermuda. As she was to be converted to a floating prison “Hulk”, her prisoners were immediately moved to other accommodation. Records show Michael was transferred on Feb.9th. 1848 to the “THAMES”, a twenty five year old hulk, destined to sink at its moorings there in June 1863. He was returned to the “MEDWAY” about nine months later, presumably when the conversion was complete.

Most hulks used as long term gaols were made by stripping the ships superstructure and replacing it with a two or three level dormitory style building with kitchen, mess hall, ablution block and chapel.

A Typical “Hulk”




All above images from David T Hawkings book “Bound for Australia”
(Published in Australia by Library of Australian History)

Convicts had been working in the dockyards and quarries of Bermuda since 1824, and from 1846 onwards much labour had been used to extensively alter and add to the fortifications of the islands. The English were afraid that the Americans planned to attack Bermuda to capture convicts to add to their slave numbers.

The British Home Office required the Supervisor of each hulk to make a quarterly report on each prisoner, and it was during his stay on the “THAMES” that Michael Morton became Michael Moreton – a misspelling that remained in his records until his arrival in Australia. These quarterly “hulk returns” provided the information that allowed the next stage of Michael’s journey to be discovered.

Earl Grey of the British Colonial Office keenly supported the idea of allowing well behaved prisoners to be selected for resettlement in the colonies as “Exiles”- an Exile being a prisoner accepting the option of serving his or her sentence as a free person in a colony. He also maintained that many convicts, particularly the Irish, were not criminals, and should be seen for what they really were, political activists.

Grey had an ideal opportunity to put these ideas to the test when, in May 1848, it was decided to dispatch 600 convicts to the Cape of Good Hope. They were to build a breakwater in Table Bay. In August of that year, Grey proposed that these convicts be exiled to the Cape, and immediately directed that 300 political offenders in Bermuda should be sent there.

In a letter to the Administrator of the penal colony at Bermuda, Grey refused to accede to a request that these prisoners be sent to the Cape at no charge to themselves. He ordered that each should pay ten pounds for his passage to the Cape. Presumably this fee was deducted out of any money the prisoners earned whilst working for their jailers!

The hulk return from the “MEDWAY” for the quarter to June 1849, shows Michael transferred to the “NEPTUNE .” The actual notation against Michael’s name on the hulk return reads:-

“Transferred to the Neptune on 20th of April 1849 for the Cape of Good Hope on Ticket of Leave.”

“NEPTUNE” was a 35 year old sailing ship of some 644 tons built in Calcutta in 1814, and the fourth convict transport ship to carry that name, the first being the infamous vessel which was part of the Second Fleet of 1790. An unusually large ship for those days of 809 tons, she gained her notoriety by having 161 of her cargo of 500 convicts die on the journey.

Michael’s “NEPTUNE” was always referred to as a “ship” which meant that it was a “full rigged” or “square rigged” vessel with three masts. She had been used only once before as a convict transport – this being in 1838 when she brought 350 male prisoners to Hobart.

“NEPTUNE” sailed from Bermuda on the 24th. of April 1849. For this journey she was under the command of Captain Henderson. The surgeon entrusted with the formidable task of keeping “passengers” and crew alive and as healthy as possible, died before they reached the Cape. He was replaced by Surgeon Superintendent Thomas Gibson on their arrival.

Being put on a Ticket of Leave meant that on their arrival at the Cape they would be handed the “Ticket”, which would allow them to work for themselves in any spare time they had outside their required convict labours.

The people of the Cape colony were violently opposed to these arrangements, and in June 1849, well before the arrival of the “NEPTUNE,” had formed an Anti Convict Association to lobby the Colonial Office against the move.

After making a brief stop at Pernambuco on the east coast of Brazil on July 18th. to replenish water and supplies, the “NEPTUNE” dropped anchor in Simon’s Bay at the Cape on September 19th. 1849.

By this time opposition to the landing of these men had reached hysterical proportions in the Cape colony and they could not disembark. The colony refused provisions, medical supplies and water to the “NEPTUNE,” all of which had to be obtained from Mauritius.

Grey came under increasing pressure to abandon his plans and eventually bowed to the wishes of his opponents, both in England and the colonies. On February 13th. 1850, some five months after arriving at the Cape, he ordered Captain Henderson to take the ageing “NEPTUNE” on her second voyage to Van Dieman’s Land.

In the flurry of activity preceding the departure, people from the mainland were deployed in helping with the stowing of materials and provisions on the “NEPTUNE.” She sailed with 282 convicts (18 had died since leaving Bermuda), 43 troopers as guards, and 6 paying passengers. The number of crew is unknown.

“We sail this day: the wind full against us, blowing straight up the bay: no matter – the commodore has sent the war steamer “GEYSER” to tow us out. We have got the hawser fixed, and are slowly moving out of Simon’s Bay, and down the broad expanse of False Bay. The mountains are fading behind us. Another continent has arisen from the sea before me, now Africa vanishes too. Shall I ever set foot upon dry land more?”

Entry (Dated 19th.February) in the diary of John Mitchel, one of the prisoners on board the “NEPTUNE”, and a well known political activist for the freedom of Ireland.
Much of Mitchel’s diary writings are included in the book “The Gardens of Hell” edited by Peter O ‘ Shaughnessy.

It is possible that “NEPTUNE” did not clear the Cape until the 21st., as this is the departure date shown in the shipping movements columns of the “Hobart Town Gazette” and “Argus” newspapers of the day. The unfavourable winds mentioned by Mitchel may have delayed the departure.

No doubt Michael and the other sea weary people on board shared Mitchel’s sentiments as they braced themselves for the next stage of their journey.

“At length the question of whether the Cape shall be a penal colony has been settled. The “GLENTANNER” arrived in Table Bay on 12th. February, brought despatches from Earl Grey, intimating that the Order in Council constituting the Cape a penal colony would be revoked, and directing the removal of the “NEPTUNE” with her loathsome freight to Van Dieman’s Land. As might be expected the Cape colonists were in high glee at the success of their “passive resistance”, and they testified their gratitude and joy by public thanksgiving, illuminations and feasting.”

Pretty stale news item, “NEPTUNE” arrived Hobart April 5th.

Michael’s Five Year Journey

Immediately after clearing False Bay “NEPTUNE” steered due south to latitude 46°, where she could run before the strong westerly wind (The Roaring Forties), and ride the Antarctic Drift current. She often covered 200 miles in a day.

“NEPTUNE” reached the mountainous southern coast of Van Dieman’s Land in early April. The waters were placid as they rounded the many promontories, wooded to the waters edge. After one night becalmed, the ship made way to the head of the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, taking on a pilot there to guide them to anchor in the Derwent river, a quarter of a mile from the quays and Custom house of Hobart Town.

Officials and police were soon aboard, checking the roll and informing the men that they would be landing as free men. Thomas Gibson had kept everybody on board alive to this point, but sadly he died just ten days later at Newtown.

All except John Mitchel received conditional pardons, which meant that they gained total freedom on the condition that they did not return to England until their sentence had been served. Mitchel was given restricted freedom with a “Ticket of Leave” requiring him to report regularly to the police.

Michael and his fellow passengers received their conditional pardons on Tuesday April 5th.1850.

Almost three years after his trial-HE WAS FREE!

Hobart Town to Melbourne

Michael stayed in Tasmania for about two and a half years, another period in his life which he does not appear to have revealed to his family, who believed that he had lived only in Victoria. This segment of his life was not recorded in any official records or documents (Presumably his convict records were destroyed when he was conditionally pardoned) until he embarked from Launceston on November 8th. 1852 on the “YARRA YARRA,” bound for Melbourne. Goldrushes had begun in many parts of Victoria, and people were flocking to them from all over the world.

We do not know whether Michael made contact with his brother John during this time in Tasmania – indeed what happened to John remained a mystery for some time until records of his marriage, birth of his children and his death in Victoria were found in 1993.

Michael apparently never knew that John had moved to Victoria-although rumours of the existence of a mystery brother did exist amongst some older family members.


By early 1854 Michael had made his way to the rich gold producing region of Central Victoria known nowadays as “The Golden Triangle” an area bounded roughly by Bendigo, Wedderburn and Maryborough. In March 1855 at Maryborough, he married Elizabeth Hawkins, a Scottish lady from Roxburghshire. No record of the marriage has been found to date, and it is only from information given by Michael and Elizabeth when registering the birth of some of their children that this marriage detail was discovered.

Wife of Michael Morton

Shortly before her death in 1909Despite a great deal of time and effort, very little information, has been found to indicate how Elizabeth made her way to Australia and thence to Waanyarra.
One romantic story related to her grandchildren, told of her being widowed as Mrs. Hawkins-Black, hailing from Edinburgh and traveling to Australia on the same ship as Michael.
Predictably the tale of a shipboard romance between them unfolds, with a mysterious brother of Michael also vying for the lady’s fair hand.
Michael, who according to another family legend was a defrocked Catholic priest, emerges triumphant, willing to marry Elizabeth despite her refusal to abandon her Presbyterian faith. The brother, being of stronger religious resolve presumably, retires from the contest, never to be heard of again.
This saga reaches its predictable romantic conclusion with a shipboard wedding.
The facts we know do not support this fable. By their own statements recorded on documents, we know when and where they married, that Elizabeth came from Roxburghshire, and Michael’s age and birthplace match the convict records.
At the time of writing, how Elizabeth Hawkins came to Australia remains a mystery. An Elizabeth Hawkins about the correct age and time of arrival in Australia arrived on a ship called “Blonde” in 1848, but hailed from Oxford shire in England.
Another Elizabeth Hawkins is being investigated—her name appears on a record of departures for the Brig “SWAN” which sailed for Port Phillip on April 26th.1849. This listing was made by Police at Georgetown (Launceston), to ensure that only “authorised persons” left Van Dieman’s Land.
This lady maintained that she had arrived in Tasmania aboard the “ROYAL SAXON,” a ship which made several journeys to Tasmania. No shipping list has yet been found to confirm this.
Elizabeth Morton (nee Hawkins) died of stomach cancer at Waanyarra on May 24th.1909, aged (78?). She is buried with Michael in the family grave at Waanyarra.

Michael and Elizabeth ?

Michael and Elizabeth

Michael and Elizabeth were in the County of Gladstone (probably at Waanyarra) when their first child Catherine was born, c.1855. About this time Michael began to establish himself in business in the area, erecting a substantial stone building as a combined dwelling and store, much of which still stands today on the road called Morton’s Lane at Waanyarra.

Morton’s store soon became one of the main sources of provisions for the many gold miners in the area, and it seems that Michael soon realised that there was money to be made by adding the sale and serving of stimulating alcoholic beverages to his business. Unfortunately he neglected to obtain the necessary licence for this part of his business, and eventually fell foul of the law.

In April 1865, Constable Patrick Fahey carried out a Court Order issued by the Tarnagulla Court of Petty Sessions, confiscating a quantity of liquor in Michael’s possession. On February 2nd. 1866 he was granted a licence, and by 1872 the establishment was known as “MORTON’S WELCOME INN.”

The “WELCOME INN” and Catherine Morton both feature in the recorded details of the inquest into the death of Swiss miner Stephen Pozzi on September 17th. 1872. The body had been brought to the inn late that day. At the inquest the following day Catherine gave evidence that she had served the deceased with a number of beers, not long before his death.

Buying and selling gold became another branch of the business.Michael’s gold measures are today looked after by one of his great-grandsons. The only other possession of his known to exist is his three quarter Hunter silver pocket watch-still in the family, and still working.

Undoubtedly Michael overcame many disadvantages to become a respected citizen in the Waanyarra community. He was unable to write in 1863, the year in which the inquest into the accidental death of his second daughter Elizabeth was held. Michael signed his testimony with a cross. He was able to sign his name by November 1865, when he was one of the jury at the inquest into the death of Alexandrina Draper at Grassy Flat.

The only public office he seemed to have held was that of Trustee of the Roman Catholic section of the Waanyarra cemetery, to which he was elected in 1871.

Sadly very little verifiable information can be found to build an accurate image of this somewhat mysterious man. That he possessed great resilience, determination and resourcefulness is beyond question. Regrettably he did not pass on details of his adventurous early years to his family, but then how was he to know how prestigious having a “Convict” in the family was to be today?

Michael died of asthma and senility in 1905, aged 77. He is buried in the family grave at the Historic Waanyarra cemetery in Central Victoria.

Michael’s Family.

Michael and Elizabeth appear not to have registered the birth of all of their children, even though the law requiring this was established in 1853. Maybe Michael’s inability to read at this time meant that they were ignorant of this law.

In order of birth, their children were:

CATHERINE TERESA Born 1854? or 1856?
MARY MAUDE Born 1857.
ELIZABETH Born 1858.
THOMAS Born 1861.
JOHN * Born 1862.
MICHAEL Born 1864.
EDWARD * Born 1866.
MARGARET * Born 1868.

* Births registered.

The years of birth shown for the unregistered children have been calculated from information in Marriage, Baptism or Death records.

From the book “In Neptune’s Wake” by Ken Morton


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