Barrington robbing a Nobleman at Court and Barrington taken prisoner on the Race Course
Recording date:

Treasures Curator Nat Williams explores the infamous life of George Barrington, celebrity pickpocket, convict and chief of police.

A Treasures Gallery Access Program, supported by National Library Patrons.

*Speakers: Alison Dellit (A), Nat Williams (N)
*Audience: (Au)
*Location: National Library of Australia 
*Date: 22/2/18 

A: Ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the National Library of Australia. My name is Alison Dellit and I’m the Assistant Director General of National Collections Access at the National Library of Australia. Before we begin I would like to acknowledge the first Australians on whose lands we meet. I pay my respects to the elders of the Ngunnawal and the Ngambri people past and present for caring for this land that we are now privileged to call our home and for developing some of the oldest and most effective knowledge management strategies in the world.

We are grateful tonight for our supporters and for making this event possible. In particular we’d like to acknowledge the Australian Government for supporting the Treasures Curator through Catalyst, the Australian Arts and Culture Fund. We also thank our wonderful National Library patrons who are supporters of the Treasures Access Program.

Tonight our Treasures Curator, Nat Williams, will be delving into the incredible story of the notorious George Barrington, celebrity pickpocket, convict and eventually Chief of Police. It’s a normal career path, I’m sure you’re aware. 

Barrington’s infamy caught the attention of prolific collector, Rex Nan Kivell, whose collection is one of the National Library’s foundation collections. Rex Nan Kivell collected a very wide range of manuscripts, maps, personal papers and art that related to Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific. The Library was fortunate to begin acquiring the Nan Kivell collection in the 1950s. Instalments, and this is an enormous collection, were received through the ‘50s, the ‘60s and the ‘70s. Following Nan Kivell’s death in 1977 a small number of books, a large tapa cloth and his medals were received under the terms of his will. The later instalments were all gifts and Nan Kivell is unquestionably one of the greatest benefactors in the history of the National Library of Australia. 

Among many portraits in the Nan Kivell collection is the subject of tonight’s talk, a sketch of George Barrington. Please join me in welcoming Nat Williams to explore the significance and complexities of this portrait of the scandalous George Barrington.


N: Thank you, Alison. And thank you for coming tonight. I apologise for my lack of theatrical capacity. The last time I did anything in the field of acting was in MacBeth 40 years ago and the reviews were not that great so this is a song in memory of George Barrington - I won’t sing it – called An Old Song. Ye scamps, ye pads, ye divers who go out upon the lay, draw near and give attention unto the words I say, concerning of George Barrington, the noted prig, I mean who at balls, at plays and churches so often has been seen, with his roe, with his dough, with his roedy doe, oh, with his roe, with his doe, with his roedy doe, roedy doe, roedy doe, roedy doe, oh. 

People sometimes remark today that a particular person’s life was so improbable that if it wasn’t true it would have to have been made up or perhaps even dreamt up. The life of the remarkable person we are to learn about tonight is a slightly unbelievable or at least unreliable narrative. 

Firstly tonight I want to give you an outline as much as can be reliably related of George Barrington’s life and exploits in Ireland, England and then Australia. Along the way I will also include some of the very rich material we hold about Barrington and his life much of which is held in the encyclopaedic Rex Nan Kivell collection.

Nan Kivell, the New Zealand-born master collector, was quite a storyteller himself and very flexible with the truth when it suited him. He liked rogues, rough trade and lords of the realm and I think had he slipped back in time 150 years he would have simply adored hanging around with George Barrington in London. Rex certainly collected a lot of material about him and that brings me to my final point tonight, the commanding portrait of which this is a black and white version of George Barrington attributed to Sir William Beechey which currently hangs in the Library’s Treasures Gallery. The origins of this painting are obscure though it has been accepted as of Barrington and by Beechey by Barrington enthusiasts and scholars alike and it decorates almost all more recent books and articles about him, often on the cover in fact. The pen question is, is it a fake or is it a fortune? I hope by the end of this talk this important question will be a little clearer answered. 

Tonight I want to bring George Barrington back to life, I hope, and to examine him as best can be excavated at this distance his circumstances as he made his way from a boyhood in Ireland in the 1750s to dying a popular, wealthy and insane man in Parramatta in 1804. To survive the passage from one world to another two centuries ago was remarkable enough but to have survived all the adventures Barrington seems to have had seems to beggar belief. At a time when people were convicted and hung or transported for life for often fairly minimal infractions of the antediluvian British legal statutes Barrington generally triumphed against the system. He managed to rally public support around him, people loved to hear him speak eloquently in his defence in court. Women would swoon and cry thinking of his possible fate. He seemed to be a kind of Georgian era Robin Hood figure, stealing from the rich and getting away with it only that he was not really sharing his largesse generally with the poor.

George Barrington’s improbable life lived in Georgian Ireland, England and Australia appears to be such a dreamt-up series of events. George became a celebrity well before the notion applied to anyone who simply blipped momentarily onto the radar through a Tweet, meme or Facebook post. Barrington engaged the public imagination in a manner which led to his image and words being heartily consumed and conveyed around the globe. In the era before ghosted books were even a thing unscrupulous authors literally put words into his mouth. He became a publishing sensation when people rarely read books, chapbooks and newspapers without ever lifting up his pen. Not always to his advantage, it should be said. He never profited from the substantial sales. Poor George.

People seeing Barrington’s fame and exploits realised they could make a quid selling books about him and did so without the subject’s intervention, a publisher’s dream, really. Before we look at Barrington’s history I’d like to dwell briefly on a contemporary Barrington project which I’ve been able to contribute to in a small way. It’s interesting that Barrington, always a popular culture favourite in his era, a legend who was discussed in the coffee houses of London and Europe, has continued and still continues to influence popular culture now. 

He’s inspired people from the 1780s through to the French film director, Robert Bresson, who created the famous film noir classic, Pickpocket, in 1959. Bresson’s film in turn has inspired script writer and director, Paul Schrader, who is perhaps best known for his classic film, Taxi Driver. Schrader described Bresson’s Pickpocket as as close to perfect as there can be and acknowledged it as an unmitigated masterpiece. Susan Sontag went on to list Pickpocket as number one in her listing of her top 50 films ever.

Pickpocket is a similar work in film studies but it is generally little known now. Curiously it seems Barrington’s role in inspiring Pickpocket, the film, has been downplayed with critics seeing the more visible Crime and Punishment narrative by Dostoevsky as a greater model shaping the film’s narrative arc. It is arguable that Barrington was perhaps much more on Bresson’s mind than Dostoevsky and there was a French translation of Barrington’s life so you know he may well have read that. 

In any case Barrington has continued to inspire people up to the present. Recently two German contemporary artists, [Mateus Myer and Alexander Richer] 9:15, have created two works of art entitled The Ballad of George Barrington focused on his peripatetic life and exploits. The first is a book and the second a film to be released in a few months’ time. I had hoped to show you a couple of clips tonight but it’s not quite ready yet. 

[Mateus] and Alexander, both from Hamburg, were inspired by a scene in Bresson’s cult classic in which the main character, Michel, a pickpocket, produces his copy of Richard Lambert’s excellent biography of George Barrington. This book entitled, The Prince of Pickpockets, was published in 1930 and is shown in the film to the chief inspector who is pursuing young Michel played by Martin LaSalle. The book’s title page can be seen here along with a grainy shot from the film. You can clearly see the oval portrait of Barrington which graced the 1802 supposed Barrington narrative, The Voyage to New South Wales. More on both the portrait and the book later.

So from this filmic lead [Mateus] and Alexander have followed Barrington’s trail from his birthplace in Ireland to his death in Parramatta and even tracked down some of the objects he pickpocketed from Count Orloff’s diamond snuff box now in the Hermitage Museum to Henry [Hair] 10:37 Townsend’s gold watch in the V and A Museum. They have documented it all very thoroughly with Germanic precision, a quiet passion, a modest budget and an admirable level of obsession. They have developed a moderate – they have developed a contemporary art project which reintegrates – reinterrogates the Barrington story.

While they were here with us at the Library they immersed themselves in filming and photographed many Barrington treasures, some seen just now. They were fascinated to learn of my interest in Sir Rex Nan Kivell and in his prodigious collection which holds much Barringtonia. 

We recorded film and sound and still images in the Rex Nan Kivell Room which is three floors directly above us. They were fascinated by the depth of our collections and equally interested to hear about Nan Kivell’s obsession with slippery characters such as Barrington and Arthur Orton aka The Claimant, a bankrupt butcher from Wagga Wagga who very nearly hoodwinked the British people into believing he was the heir to a massive fortune and baronetcy in Hampshire in England a century after Barrington’s exploits. I will address Nan Kivell’s interest in Barrington and look at some of his portraits a little later. 

[Mateus] and Alexander’s book is available now in Europe and the film will be released in a few months’ time and I hope if you’re interested in Barrington, his remains at the end of the evening, you might be encouraged to come back here hopefully maybe for a screening later in the year so I’ll let you know some way about that, perhaps add a blog post.

So first to Barrington’s life, lived large in and out of the public eye. From truculent schoolboy to accomplished peripatetic thespian, petty crim, skilled pickpocket, elegant man of mystery to prisoner and transportee and finally superintendent of police in early colonial Sydney seems to be a very unlikely turn of events. However so it was and tonight we will hear some of his adventures and words from some of the varied and more or less reliable narratives that attempted to circumscribe his life and art.

Depending on which version of his memoirs one reads, either the memoirs of George Barrington from his birth in 1755 to his last conviction at the Old Bailey, 1790, or the memoirs of George Barrington containing every remarkable circumstance from his birth to the present time, also 1790, one can glean different facts about him. In the first he was born in the village of Rush in 1758 which you can see here on the screen in the middle slide. In the second he was born in Maynooth, a university town in County Kildare in about 1755 so three years earlier. Maynooth is 11 Irish miles from Dublin. Rush, it was 13 Irish miles from Dublin. The double narrative starts in different birthplaces and dates and follows varying paths crisscrossing over time until finally London is reached.

In the first account his mother was a milliner and his father was a captain named Barrington belonging to a marching regiment quartered at Rush. In the second narrative George was born to a woman, a mantua maker and his father was Henry Waldron, a local silversmith in Maynooth and you can see the evidence for this on the screen, he’s listed and I’ve highlighted it there. Today the latter version of this account is held to be more likely regarding his birthplace and his parentage. 

In the first account and I quote, at the age of six years George was removed to Dublin and placed under the direction of Mr Jones, an apothecary who put him to common academy where he continued one year and was then removed to a grammar school. Here he remained until the age of 12. Mr Jones, who was not deterred by his eccentric talents which our young hero had on some particular occasions manifested, about this time took him into his house in order to instruct him in the business of surgeon, apothecary and man midwife. Nor is there little doubt, they continue, but that he would have shortly have rivalled the most noted sons of Aesculapius if the bent of his inclinations not unfortunately led him to the study of constructing chirurgical instruments, ie, surgical instruments, in his case instruments for thievery or pickpocket, pickpocketing. 

Later in life George was to claim he was a surgeon or at least training to be one. George then in the narrative falls for a young dramatically unchaste woman, runs into debts trying to please her and enjoying a varied social life, allegedly picks the pocket of an Irish MP at a theatre. When apprehended George has some curious instruments about his person, the sort of thing you can see here, constructed for the art of diving or pickpocketing but he persuades his captors they’re surgical tools and he's let off.

His rapacious girlfriend starts pickpocketing herself and is caught with George as an accomplice. They are jailed but George is recognised by Lord M M S, whoever that is, who recalls his father of course and they are soon liberated. George then flees Dublin on board a ship as a surgeon’s mate heading for the West Indies. Unrecorded elsewhere this seems to be a rather – a simply narrative licence thrown in.

We will turn to the more reliable Barrington narrative to see what may have happened next. In this George’s mother and father were recognised for their honesty and their industry and for their temperance however they were never able to extricate themselves from that state of abject poverty in which they were sunk in consequence of a law suit imprudently commenced and unskilfully conducted against a powerful and wealthy relation whom they successfully sued for a sum of money. Sounds a bit like Jarndyce v Jarndyce in Dickens. They couldn’t afford to educate the boy. They however contrived to have taught to read and write and he was by a neighbouring surgeon instructed in common arithmetic, the elements of geography and the general principles of grammar.

When he entered on his 16th year of his age supported by Dr C of Leixlip of an ancient and illustrious family and ample fortune young Waldron was placed at a free grammar school in Dublin to prepare himself for university. The doctor supplied him very liberally with money to render his situation in school not only comfortable but also respectable. After six months this ill-fated youth got into a dispute with an older boy who was a much larger lad and the dispute degenerated into a quarrel and some blows ensued in which young Waldron suffered considerably but in order to be revenged he stabbed his antagonist with a pen knife. And had he not been prevented, would have in all probability, the narrator records, murdered him. 

The wounds weren’t fatal but George received a severe flogging and he determines at once to run away from school, from his family, from his friends thus abandoning the fair prospects that he had before him. He then found means to steal 12 guineas from Mr F, the headmaster, and a gold repeating watch from Mrs Goldsborough, the master’s sister. With this booty, a few shirts, two or three pairs of stockings, all stolen, he silently but safely effected his retreat from the schoolhouse in the middle of a still night in the month of May 1771. 

And pursuing the Great Northern Road all that night and all the next day he late in the evening arrived in the town of Drogheda. Clearly he was a determined lad. George Waldron quickly comes across a set of strolling players managed by John Price, a native of Poole. He’d been a clerk to a petty flogging attorney and was involuntarily exiled to Ireland. George is described at this point in the narrative and he’s about to become an actor, he had a speaking eye, an expressive countenance, a tolerable theatrical figure, a very pompous enunciation and a most retentive memory. He might one day make a first-rate figure on the boards of Drury Lane, Covent Garden. And apparently George had memorised all his lines in one night for the play.

The golden-haired youth now playing Jaffeir, the leading man in Otway’s drama, Venice Preserved, made a tender impression on the heart of Miss Matilda Egerton who was playing the role of Belvidera. Sadly at the age of 16 Matilda had been debauched by a lieutenant in the marines and fled her wealthy father’s house for Dublin only to be promptly dumped. A week later George arrives on the scene. He writes her verses as they say, being of an age at which love makes almost everyone a rhymer though not a poet. The verses are pretty enough – well you can make up your own mind, here’s one stanza. 

Place me beneath the burning zone, where nothing human ‘ere was known, still Egerton’s enchanting tongue, her looks and smiles shall be my song.

Thanks George. Price works the crowd lifting what he can from the audience’s pockets, he teaches George, now adopting the name, Barrington, the finer points of picking pockets and between them they apparently garner 40 guineas and 150 pounds in one go. The name, Barrington, had useful subliminal associations in the public’s mind. There was the actor, John Barrington, and also Admiral Samuel Barrington were pillars of the community. Under Price’s tutelage George seems to have been a natural and who would suspect that a charming but youthful lad could be lightening their pockets?

So Barrington is 16 and still love blossoms with Miss Egerton. He falls quite ill with a fever and Miss Egerton tenderly nurses him back to health. Then tragedy visits. While crossing the River Boyne from Miss E – from Ballyshannon, Miss E drowns. Heartbroken Price doesn’t allow George to dwell on his terrible loss and instead invents a new strategem. There is to be no more theatre. Price now acts in the role of servant to this young gentleman who is said to be from a noble and wealthy family. Horses acquired the pair lucratively follow the summer races program in southern Ireland. One thousand pounds later, a small fortune, they head to Cork and Barrington leads the life of the bon ton or as a member of higher society.

Here he is described by a journalist following – sorry, he was described by a journalist - he was already piquing the press’ attention at an early age – as a young fellow of fashion following the usual career of amour, intrigue and debauchery, of gambling, drinking and fighting, indispensable requisites in the character of a man of the ton in Ireland in order to gratify all the suggestions of vanity, profligacy and whim. Or perhaps just being an 18-year-old unparented boy, you might think.

It’s 1773 and Price soon tumbled picking the right Honourable H K’s pocket and transported to America. Unperturbed George lies low then moves back to Dublin and then when he needs some cash starts stealing from the person as it was legally framed. However his luck changes and whilst picking Lord B’s pocket he’s apprehended. Luckily the m’lordy takes pity on the pleading young man and doesn’t press charge. Barrington was to be lucky often throughout his criminal career.

He seizes the opportunity to escape and finds a passage to England on the yacht, Dorset, captained by Sir Alexander Schaumburg who you can see here painted by [Hogar] 23:02. Barrington meets both the aristocrat, the Earl of Leinster, and Captain W H N, another fellow traveller who is one of the noblest English families and possessed of a vast fortune. They become firm friends on the boat and Barrington confides that he is leaving home to study law and to escape his unrelenting stepmother. Perhaps a good reason? Who knows?

Barrington can see his way clear to a bold new chapter of exploits and the two men travelled to London together and are based for the summer at the Bath Coffee House in Piccadilly. Barrington must keep up appearances and blows his remaining funds, describing the account as economy was never of the number of his virtues. He spared no expense to procure all the various articles which the vanity of women, the cunning of tradesmen or the folly of fashion have held forth as essentials in the composition of a genteel, well-dressed man. 

To take his mind off his looming financial crisis he heads out with his friends and associated gay sprightly lads to visit the Ranelagh Pleasure Ground in Chelsea. Ranelagh which opened in 1746 was one of a number of such amusement grounds but it catered to a higher class of visitors than the Vauxhall Gardens, its competitor. The entry cost was two shillings and sixpence. There was – there, the sprightly fellows could escape the hustle and bustle of city life while being offered a variety of entertainment including picturesque gardens, strolling paths, musical concerts, al fresco dining, balloon rides, waterfalls, fountain displays, masquerades, balls and even firework shows. It was a pickpocket’s dream, plenty of diversions. That night Barrington made off with £80, 35 guineas and a lady’s watch, having earlier met the Duke of Leinster for a chat and one of his victims, a knight of Bath, in the busy throng. 

Before I venture further into some of Barrington’s richer exploits and ultimately his downfall I want to make a brief digression. Later in life Barrington was to boast that in and about London more pickpockets succeed in making a comfortable living than in the whole of the rest of Europe. Certainly recognition of his fame as a successful pickpocket was not limited to England and Ireland, he was known across the Continent. But why was the practice so successful and what about pockets which we all take for granted now and the picking thereof?

Where did the word pocket come from? It appears in middle English as pocket and is taken from a Norman diminutive of old French word, poke, modern poche, a pouch. In European clothing [fichets] 25:58 resembling modern-day pockets appeared in the 13th century, vertical slits were cut into the overtunic which did not have any side openings, to allow access to purse or keys hung from a girdle of the tunic. In her interesting article, Hands Deep in History, published in the Journal, Costume, Rebecca Unsworth analyses fragments of history – information from a wide variety of sources to reveal that pockets did not only come into existence in the late 17th century, as often been previously assumed, instead pockets can be found in the garments of both men and women, paupers and princes in a range of forms from at least the end of the 15th century. 

For example as you can see here in this painting of Prince Maurice and Prince – and Frederick Henry at the Valkenburg horse race from 1618 and you can see this fellow in the blue tunic standing there at the front has clearly got his hands in pockets. However on the left we can see a much earlier view of – well not that much earlier, a bit earlier view of a cut purse, a precursor to the pickpocket, relieving a monk of his loot, painted when pockets began by being hung like purses from a belt. And they could be concealed beneath a coat or jerkin to discourage pickpocketing and could be reached through a slit in the outer garment.

During the 16th century pockets increased in popularity and prevalence. However criminals soon adapted to the use of pockets, both using them as spaces within which to secure their stolen goods and developing the art of pickpocketing. Simon [Goden] 27:41, it is recorded, a jeweller from Lyon, had parcels of jewels robbed out of a pocket of his coat in 1550. And in 1585 a school for pickpockets was discovered in an ale house in Billingsgate in London and at that time pickpockets were known as foisters and cut purses were nippers. 

Picking pockets was virtually institutionalised in London over centuries and Barrington rose to fame in the period before Dickens memorialises the demimonde of the pickpocket in the novel, Oliver Twist, published serially, 1837 to 1839. The films and musical distilled from Dickens’ second novel, Revel in Fagin’s School for Pickpockets. It’s hard to believe Dickens wasn’t aware of Barrington’s trajectory when penning his novel.

Now back to the story. Certainly recognition of his fame as a successful pickpocket was not limited to England and Ireland. After Barrington’s visit to Ranelagh Gardens his life in the world of social levees and theatre flourished. He worked the room with aplomb while relieving the unsuspected of their funds and jewellery. He had the perfect disguise, wealthy friends, fine attire and a great eloquence to help cover his tracks. He was even armed with specially designed tools to make this job simpler as you can see here. [Mateus] and Alexander who I mentioned earlier actually commissioned a friend of theirs who was a master silversmith to recreate Barrington’s tools which you can see on the left. I told you they were obsessed, it’s a level of obsession which is quite remarkable. These beautifully crafted tools are faithfully based on the drawings in the illustration painted – printed beside it.

This is an image often copied and repeated and also known through its transfer onto a surprising Barrington souvenir, a Staffordshire mug in the National Gallery’s collection here. So you could drink your cup of tea or coffee or gin while listening to Barrington’s exploits or reading them in the newspaper and appreciating him close at hand. There is something rather special about the idea of a hand holding a mug depicting a man whose subtle handiwork robbed the unwary. Each time you put the cup to your lips you could be reminded to keep an eye out for George or his like.

From 1773 until his undoing in 1790 George Barrington ruled the roost when it came to picking pockets. He used his pilfered gains to keep up appearances and was entertaining and no doubt good company. His raised profile in the press was no doubt something of a worry to him. Having one’s image and description circulated isn’t good for business, especially when you need to rely on slipping your hand unnoticed in somebody’s pockets.

His activities sparked rumours and his exploits took on grand dimensions. To quote Suzanne Rickard’s excellent book, George Barrington’s Voyage to Botany Bay, which I’ve relied heavily on for this talk, Barrington’s panache and ability to constantly outwit the law, his adroitness and haughty remonstrances rather than provoking an outcry turned him into a celebrity and provided a sharp reminder to all that the law was often powerless to act when manipulated by a virtuoso. And I think you could still say the same thing probably today.

There are many capers which Barrington pulled off, to sound a little like Michael Caine, too many to record in detail tonight, hopefully a couple of highlights will suffice. With an accomplice Barrington dressed as a priest, managed entry to Queen Charlotte’s birthday celebrations in 1775, aiming to steal the diamond orders of some of the assembled knights of the garter, thistle and Bath. He gets away with Lord C’s diamond-encrusted order scot-free.

Perhaps the grandest heist was the affair also in 1775 of Russian Count Orloff’s diamond-encrusted snuff box, supposedly a grateful gift from Catherine, the Great, his lover. Orloff had reputedly strangled Tsar Peter III in the 1762 palace coup singlehandedly and she was rather grateful to him. Again times may not have changed that much in Russia.

The snuff box was reputedly worth more than £30,000, a simply staggering amount of money then and now. Barrington approached Orloff, not as seen here in his private box at Covent Garden Theatre as depicted in the print for dramatic effect, but rather as the Count was leaving and he felt Barrington’s hand at work. Orloff accosted him but Barrington deftly slipped the snuff box back into his hand. He was still taken into Bow Street and held for questioning for two days. Barrington came before the blind magistrate, Sir John Fielding, who very carefully questioned him about his earlier life and circumstances. Barrington eloquently spoke about his life and aims for a future medical career. Barrington appeared contrite and his voice quavered as his tears fell. He was a skilful actor without doubt. The copious tears may not have had the effect he intended on the blind judge but greatly affected onlookers, they await the Count’s appearance in court but he was not forthcoming. The case had to be terminated and Barrington was acquitted. It was a very lucky day for him as the value of the snuff box might easily have led to have him being snuffed at the end of a piece of rope.

The surrounding publicity included images of Barrington and the papers delighted in the celebrated affair. Barrington was to meet Fielding again soon and the judge then recognised him just by the sound of his cultured voice. Barrington continued his precarious life, now devoid of most of his friends after the publicity from the Orloff affair. They wrote his person was avoided like infection. However he still managed to steal the Earl of Mexborough’s diamond order, his most valuable prize ever, which he sold for £800 and money and a gold watch from a Miss Hurst for which he is arrested, appearing again before Fielding, the magistrate, but again acquitted for lack of evidence.

The next affair was to be truly unfortunate. 1776, Barrington stole a purse from Mrs Anne Dudman in the pit of the Drury Lane Theatre. She intercepted him and he was arrested. Appearing in front of Fielding again he was confirmed to – confined awaiting trial for the first time now at the Old Bailey. 

Despairing, recklessly Barrington wrote to Mrs Dudman throwing himself on her mercy. The elegantly penned letter is now in the State Library of New South Wales collection and can be seen here. His fluent protestations, he writes my character if not lost is injured in the highest degree. Barrington appears in court dressed a la mode with gold cane and elegant Artois buckles. He was said to be the genteelest thief ever remembered seen at the Old Bailey.

Mrs Dudman was not swayed however and Barrington was sentenced to three years’ hard labour, heaving ballast as Woolwich as you can see here in this image, and life on the notorious prison hulk, Justitia. You can also see this wonderful little convict-made token of Barrington labouring with a wheelbarrow.

The stench, the filth, typhus, moldy biscuits as food, sleeping on hard floors and the company of much coarser and violent criminals was stultifying. Through the intercession of a parson the ill, depressed and now contrite Barrington manages to wrangle a pardon as a first offender in late 1778. Barrington with nothing to fall back on other than his acting skills and pickpocketing could not obtain honest work and had to continue his profitable crimes. Unfortunately he’s soon caught again. He’s sentenced to the five years on the hideous Justitia, he looks after the sick, perhaps putting some medical skills to use. A friend, Miss West, visits weekly, bringing money and food. On visit she picked the pocket of fellow prisoner, David [Dignam Brown] 36:21, who you can see on the left and Barrington ensures that she returns the booty to him. Honour among thieves even in extremis, it seems. Miss West, early in Barrington’s sentence, offends, is arrested, branded and dies of jail fever in Newgate. How Barrington must have missed her visits and friendship.

Barrington, depressed, stabs himself deeply in the chest. This probably contributes both to his early demise in Paramatta and his remission in 1781 for good behaviour but he’s banished from the Kingdom. He leaves London and pursues his pickpocketing in disguise in Scotland and Ireland but two years later decides to return to London and apparently while watching a fire in Greek Street he suffers a head injury due to a falling chimney which may also have hastened his end. Later he’s captured and serves out the remains of his sentence in Newgate Jail. Free again in 1785 he’s back to his old habits. In January 1787 he’s again arrested for stealing 23 guineas and a watch from Mr Havillard’s [Lemasura] 37:31 at Drury Lane Theatre. Remarkably he talked his way out of the charges. However Barrington was on borrowed time now as plans to exile England’s petty thieves to Botany Bay had commenced. He may have taken to the stage in the beggar’s opera playing a highwayman, [McKeith] 37:54, in Scotland but for three years he’s at large.

Meanwhile the British publishers have a field day. They print numerous books and articles about the famous Barrington and they write titles such as The Genuine Life of George Barrington, The Memoirs of, Accounts of George Barrington, Barrington’s Speeches, The Trial of Barrington, The Life, Amours and Wonderful Adventure of, you get the picture, rather a lot of publications. Sadly for him Barrington’s next arrest was to be his last. Prowling the Enfield Races on the first day of autumn 1790 Barrington picked the pocket of Henry [Hair] Townsend and acquired this beautiful gold watch and three carnelian seals. He didn’t hold it for long, though, as he was collared and dropped the booty but was witnessed, this time the gig was up.

We can see him elegantly attired in the court. On September the 17th, 1790 his stern-looking judge, Sir James Eyre, heard the evidence and declared – and this is rather telling – it ought to have been a capital indictment and if ever there was a man in the world that abused and prostituted great talents to the most unworthy and shameful purposes you are that man. He held out no hope of his possible reform. Barrington stated that he had not been able to escape the venomed tooth of calumny, in part a reference to the press coverage he’d received. Impassioned, he spoke of his failed hope of attracting somebody earlier in his life that might have had faith in him and put him on the right course. His pleas left many weeping but he acknowledged himself the dye was cast and so it was, he was bound for Botany Bay.

The Times noted that as he was carried towards his ship in a carriage he tore up letters and threw them out the window. If only we could read them now. The third fleet carrying him consisted of 10 vessels and left England in early 1791 with Barrington on the ship, active. An irony for him must have been the presence in the fleet of the ship, The Admiral Barrington, just to rub a bit of salt into the wounds. The 175 convicts aboard were grossly underfed and arrived emaciated in July that year, 21 died en route. According to the book, An Impartial and Circumstantial Narrative, which was written using Barrington’s name he had provisions from friends and travelled well. This was very, very unlikely. 

Barrington’s arrival in the colony was noted given his celebrity status. His irreproachable conduct meant that he was soon sent to Toongabbie where as part of a police watch he oversaw government stores. Set a thief to catch one must have been the thinking behind it. His intelligence and charm not to mention his criminal abilities quickly led to his promotion in the struggling settlement where food was short and theft rife.

In November 1792 he was one of the first to receive a conditional pardon. Four years later Governor Hunter granted an absolute pardon and Barrington was made Chief Constable at Parramatta, the larger of the two settlements at the time. He was trusted and liked in the community, it seems. People visiting or now residing in the colony visited the famous Barrington. 

In Richard Atkins’ handwritten journal, a manuscript treasure acquired by Rex Nan Kivell, Atkins, who was Deputy Judge Advocate in Sydney for about 18 years, he described life in the colony in 1792 when Barrington was working at Parramatta first. The ration for the week was five pounds of flour, four pounds of pork or seven pounds’ beef per man without distinction. The following week he notes reduced rations and writes God help the poor wretches that work hard and have nothing but their allowance to fall back on. It was a hard life, Atkins noted. In May that year 80 convicts died and he talks of the emaciated wretches he sees out at Paramatta. It was a long way from the sumptuous food, entertainment and the flesh pots of London for Barrington. Sadly we do not have Barrington’s observations on record, only the ghost-written accounts penned to satisfy the buyers of chapbooks and the narratives of settlement which flourished and ran into large editions. 

In what contentious memorable narrative of the expedition the first fleet lieutenant records Barrington of famous memory arriving in the colony. He notes in 1791 that Barrington had been in the colony for two or three months and he had not yet seen him. He continues, I saw him with curiosity. He is tall, approaching six feet, slender and his gait and manner bespeak liveliness and activity. Of that elegance and fashion with which my mind had decked him, I know not why, I could distinguish no trace. Great allowance should however be made for depression and the unavoidable deficiency of dress. His face is thoughtful and intelligent. To a strong cast of countenance he adds a penetrating eye and a prominent forehead. His whole demeanour is humble, not servile. 

On his passage and since arriving his conduct has been irreproachable. He notes his appointment as High Constable and says his knowledge of men, particularly that part of them into whose morals, manners and behaviour he is ordered especially to inspect, eminently fit him to his office. [Tench] 43:40 then bears testimony that Barrington’s talents in future will be directed to make reparation to society for the offences he committed against it. [Tench’s] seems a good analysis of the man and his potential for good in his new home. His apparent conversion to the rightful path on board the ship to Sydney suggested to colonial authorities that transportation had the potential to be morally uplifting.

Barrington soon owned his own house in Paramatta, now a more remote real estate purchase for people, I imagine, and acquired 60 acres of land and a farm on the Hawkesbury which he ran with assigned servants. He was becoming a wealthy man and all legally. Things were looking up, he could eat well now, he had a good income and same prestige in the community. It seemed he had put his past behind him or had he? The signs of his failing were soon seen. 

In French naval visitor Pierre Bernard Milius’ journal, now owned by the Kerry Stokes Collection and published by the National Library several years ago, Milius writes eloquently about visiting colonial Sydney and Parramatta. After commenting on the weather, agriculture, penal system in which he compares the convicts to slaves, he goes on to admire the improved conditions in Parramatta. This is 10 years after Barrington’s arrival. He continues, the soil seemed to me to be quite superior to that of Sydney for the people have an abundance of everything, the air is perfectly pure and the convicts’ houses have china vases and good furniture. They all have gardens where they grow vegetables, raise pigs and poultry which bring in good income. He then mentions Barrington.

Of all the curiosities in Parramatta the infamous Barrington known throughout Europe as the most cunning rogue of the century must take first place. This extraordinary man, a convict, was appointed Chief Constable of this town and for several years he carried out his duties with all the integrity of an honest and upright magistrate. He had managed not only to gain the Governor’s affection and the esteem of all the most distinguished people in the colony but became as well the scourge of the wicked and the protector of the weak.

When I paid him a visit I had the impression that he had lost all his intellectual faculties. He was taking a bath and when he emerged I thought I was looking at a Tenerife mummy and this is a slightly shocking image. That is a Tenerife mummy. So thin were his legs that I was at a loss to understand how they were able to take the weight of his body. He appeared not to see me even though his eyes were fixed on me. He was served a cup of chocolate that had to be fed to him as though he were a 15-month-old child, so depleted was his strength.

I was struck by the length of his fingers, he seemed to have been designed by nature to take fullest advantage of them which indeed he had done throughout most of his life. The parlous state to which he was reduced had to be attributed to the remorse that was wracking his soul and the poisonous memories of his past life. I was assured he was only 45 although I would have taken him for 60 so feeble and spent did he seem. He had in his service a woman who took the greatest care of him.

At least then we know in his dying days the prince of pickpockets had someone close to care for him. George Barrington died on the 27th of September 1804 in the heat of an Australian summer. We do not know where he is buried although I should add [Mateus] and Alexander think they found the grave but that’s yet to be proven.

To conclude tonight I want to talk quickly about Barrington portraits and return to the fake or fortune question about whether the oil painting that I mentioned earlier, and you’ve just seen, is by Sir William Beechey and of George Barrington. I have been undertaking research and talking to experts in the field of British 18th century portraiture. I did try to get Philip Mould from the BBC Fake or Fortune program to venture an opinion via my friend, Professor Anthony [Acallan] 48:05 who’s a star on that show. So far he has resisted. He may come around, I’ll let you know in a blog post if he does.

Well on the news front to do with Fake or Fortune I have good and bad news but first some images. Here you can see a partial set of x-rays taken in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s by the preservation lab here. They don’t tell you a great deal however you can see the original nails stretching the canvas. The painting was relined about 40 years ago and so you can’t see the back of the canvas so no inscriptions, canvas makers, label stamps, that sort of thing. I recently had the painting removed from display for a couple of days to examine it with our conservator, Janet, and one of our brilliant photographers, Craig, worked his magic on the reverse of the painting and they use a special technique of photography where they illuminate the object from 40 different degrees, 40 different angles and get incredibly interesting and quite high-resolution images of things like inscriptions and texture and surface marks which can all add to narrowing down the provenance hopefully of the object.

So here are the most interesting inscriptions on the back of the painting stretcher. You can see upper – at the top there’s a James [Borlay] 49:36 & Son partial label. Borlays are still in business, a frame-making company, they were art-packers and frame-makers of which Nan Kivell used almost exclusively but when I approached them quite some time ago because we have many paintings with [Borlay] labels on the back of them all their archive was apparently destroyed in 1993. Rex’s destroyed in 1939, theirs 1993. But you can see, there’s two numbers here, 28 and 38 which could be lot numbers for an auction and then in the middle one, the black and white image reads to me June 11, ’39. 

Now I’ve been touch with Sotheby’s and Christie’s in London and others but mainly them and they have said well it’s not likely to have been an auction on that date because it was a Sunday so it made me think well could it possibly be 1839? That’s something I’ve got to further explore. But a date in 1939 for an acquisition would tie in with Rex Nan Kivell’s records which we have here in our library in the archives and manuscripts but they start in 1934 – 9 and go through to his death in 1977. Everything before, from 1920 say until 1939 was destroyed during the blitz in London so this painting he would have probably had an invoice for or recorded buying it through an auction and torn out the page of an auction catalogue. We don’t have that so it’s very difficult to tie it down.

So that – so really there’s not much to go on on the back of the picture and I haven’t been able to track down through Sotheby’s and Christie’s much further. And it’s actually extraordinarily difficult from Australia to look into auction catalogues of that period, it’s virtually impossible in the ‘30s and ‘20s and earlier. 

So now to the fugitive painter of the portrait. The British artist, Sir William Beechey to say also sometimes whose dates – interestingly was almost an exact contemporary of Barrington’s but he lived a lot longer and had a very illustrious career. He had the longest exhibiting career at the Royal Academy for over 65 years and he showed 360 plus portraits of worthies and became much loved by the royal household as their official painter. They had fairly plebeian tastes in art and his work was solid, sometimes unimaginative and it’s fair to say also sometimes uneven. He could be quite good and have some insight into his sitters or he could quickly dash something off and here’s three paintings by Beechey, oil portraits, quite good ones which give some comparison to the image that we have, the oil that we have. 

So we have Queen Charlotte in the centre and as I said the royals were very big on Beechey. We’ve got the Captain Robert Stopford at left and the Duke of Sussex at right. It is interesting that Beechey and Barrington were born at virtually the same time, although one in Ireland and one in England, and they both had sort of run away to the circus-type childhoods, Barrington’s I’ve outlined, Beechey’s was that he was to become an accountant, I think it was, and he was so appalled at that idea he ran away in the middle of the night and ended up at an art school so he had a very successful career. 

The next painting shows a work by Beechey from a slightly later period than the one that is supposedly the Barrington work that we have and I think you can see it’s got a very different sort of feel to it, to our painting. The detail which I’ll show you now makes this even more apparent, I think. The looser brush work, the frothier background treatment, the flattened, unmodeled face of the midshipman you know the Barrington image is more focused, more carefully modelled and had a sort of better sense of light in the picture, a more realistic rendition of light as a portrait.

Beechey was at the very beginning of his time in London and early in his career if this painting is actually to be dated as it’s been said to be, 1785 which would put Barrington at the age of 25 which you could say that young man looks about the age of 25 which sort of works. However I think this comparison gives a sense of the greater similarities of our picture with a work by somebody painting earlier, [Pompea Betoni] 54:17, in – and this work you can see is painted in circa 1762, now in the National Gallery of Washington, and I think has you know apart from the fact that there is quite a similarity in the dress between the two men, there’s something more about the tone of it that suggests the ‘60s or ‘70s rather than ’85 or ’90, that period. 

So back to the good news which is that our painting, a favourite of mine and reason why I selected it for display in the Treasures Gallery and for this lecture, can be considered a good work and of some substance. It was singular acquisition for Nan Kivell and he catalogued it in – as NK13 in his prioritised and very long listing of his collection. It also came here in the first shipment from Nan Kivell in London in 1948. I believe the oil was probably purchased in the 1930s, possibly as I’ve said 1939. As I mentioned earlier Nan Kivell had a fascination with Barrington and much of the material you’ve seen tonight has been from his extraordinary collection which we acquired formally from 1959 ‘til 1977. 

Some of you may recall the painting – our painting has been – graced the walls of the National Portrait Gallery for several years with other notable characters, the influential and the worthies from our past. My friend and colleague, Angus Trumble, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, considers it as I do, a good portrait and quite engaging. It was also considered recently in a similar light by the eminent Brian Allen, a very widely known British art historian. Brian was Director of Studies at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art for nearly 20 years in London and is a specialist in 17th and 18th century British art and has written widely on the subject area. He’s organised a number of exhibitions with the Yale Centre for British Art, the Hermitage Museum and others.

He’s also been the past Chairman of the National Art Collections Fund, was a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery, the Strawberry Hill collections of the British Sporting Art Trust so he’s a man with a considerable pedigree and we made contact with him about the painting and he wrote back and he said – so now for the bad news – I quote from Brian's email received only the day before yesterday, I don’t think this is by Beechey, I would date it to circa late 1770s, question mark, and although Beechey is a difficult artist who always seems to me to be rather inconsistent this really doesn’t look like his work especially at that, ie, 1785, date. I wish I could conjure up a more appropriate attribution for what isn’t a bad picture. It has something of the Robert Edge Pine about it but I don’t feel confident enough to give it to him and so here’s an image by Robert Edge Pine, British artist who works in America and you can see sort of similarities apart from the oval format. And that’s something I intend to explore further. 

So I think this mashup of the various known Barrington portraits, for want of a better word because - the media interpretations of the man give some sense of the variety and the depictions of his illusive figure. The common denominator seems to be a rather aquiline nose. I think Rex Nan Kivell having bought many of these images of Barrington in print saw the oil portrait somewhere, perhaps at an auction, perhaps in 1939 and purchased it.

He probably attributed it to William Beechey who he thought was prolific enough to have just possibly captured the image. He had another small study of George III attributed to Beechey also in his collection. But our painting is too early to be Beechey as in the later 1770s given the dating referred to just earlier Barrington was still a teenager. I should also add that the last thing that Barrington needed haunting him as a crim often on the run was an accurate or even a relatively accurate oil portrait of him doing the rounds and possibly being seen at the Royal Academy and elsewhere. It would quickly have made its way into print and wide circulation, just what he didn’t need. This portrait didn’t ever get copied leading to the conclusion, at least my conclusion, that it’s not of Barrington. To have such an oil portrait in existence would have been like an identikit image today and I really can’t imagine Barrington actually sitting for a portrait, even if it was a flattering idea as a youngish man, to have his features solemnised in oil paint.

So I believe just as Rex Nan Kivell had purchased this beautiful portrait of a young man on the left and had drawn the conclusion rather to his advantage as a collector that this was the preparatory drawing for the printed image of Barrington in his famous account on the right and there are some similarities but not definitive which of course Barrington had nothing to do with. He also found a visual similarity between the printed images of Barrington and the oil painting which he purchased, ie, the nose. It was too good to be true, it must be Barrington. The intriguing question then remains who is it? Who’s it by and who is it of? Anyone has any ideas I’d love to hear them.

So it’s interesting that a painting which has been so reliably believed to be of a famous figure for the last 60 years or more since books have been produced about him I think turns out to be not. It leaves the tantalising prospect of what is it? It’s a good picture, it’s a great frame, it’s got a real presence about it. It’s had a bit of damage to it over time but I think it’s Rex Nan Kivell just being creative with provenance and attribution.

So I hope tonight I’ve given a glimpse into the life of the intriguing George Barrington. I only wish our budget ran to offering drinks as we could then celebrate the prince of pickpockets with his eponymous cocktail, the celebrated Barrington which contains champagne, a cube of sugar, [patios] 00:42, bitters, quince brandy and Tasmanian pepper, a confection dreamt up not in Sydney or Canberra but in Adolf [Lucer’s] 00:56 American bar in Vienna, showing the truly global reach and still current interest in George Barrington. Thank you very much.


A: Thank you very much for a fascinating presentation and some very interesting research. We’re running a little over time but we do have time for one question or maybe two. If someone has a question do you want to raise your hand and we’ll bring you the microphone? I’m sure someone has a question. 

N: Must be one. Oh here.

A: Just down the front. Just wait ‘til the microphone comes to you, yeah. 

Au: Given his apparent rehabilitation is he commemorated anywhere in Sydney, street names, geographical points, anything of that nature?

N: That’s a very good question and in fact the Germans who have invested a huge amount of time and effort in Barrington and others for that matter have rued the day that you know his death or his birth date have never been commemorated. You know he was this extraordinary celebrated figure and yet he seems to have just disappeared. And I made a remark about his grave because without sounding too whimsical [Mateus] and Alexander really invested a huge amount of time and effort looking into the story, reading all the accounts, looking at everything, going to St Petersburg you know going to the V and A looking at the watch and all those sorts of things.

They actually had a kind of – I don’t know what you’d call it exactly, a sort of diving rod-type arrangement, twitching-type thing, you know? And they pulled it out and showed it to us when we were meeting with them and they basically showed how it worked and they said they had gone to the outskirts of Parramatta where there’s still this piece of land which they found a lovely spot with an old tree and it was on a slightly high part of Parramatta near where – close to where he’d died and lived and they said they felt that this was the spot where his body lay. And I said well it’d be interesting if we could prove that but I think Australia could do – given that he did make good and he was rehabilitated it would be nice if there was something more about him. Given that we’ve taken away the portrait of him now perhaps it would be good to have something – a memorial perhaps out in Parramatta.

Au: A trivial question –

N: No such thing as a trivial question.

Au: - distinction between guineas and pounds and I was curious about why the distinction.

N: Well pounds I think were folding money and guineas were gold and guineas I think from memory were 22 - 21 shillings so there was a distinction so the paper money was perhaps easier than coins, yeah. And there was distinction between Irish miles and British miles but don’t let’s go there, it’s not that different as it turns out but you know it’s a bit like the train gauges in Australia. Thank you.

A: We might close it there if I can just ask for another thank you for Nat.


A: Finally I would just encourage everybody to go and visit the Treasures Gallery and see the portrait which is not of George Barrington as it turns out. And if anybody does have fascinating ideas as to who it was please let us know either via email or through social media which we would love. Thank you very much.


End of recording