A Feature by Mike Pinnock
Edward Eagar was one of ten children born into a family of landed gentry on his parent’s estate of Gortdromakiery in the parish of Killarney, County Kerry in 1787. He benefitted from a privileged upbringing; he was, from an early age, privately tutored on the estate by his father before being sent, when he was thirteen, to complete his education at Trinity College, Dublin. After graduating he became apprenticed to his uncle Harmon Blennerhasset, who practised law at the Irish bar. A year later he was registered as a solicitor and attorney to His Majesty’s courts and set up his own practice.
In 1809 Edward Eagar, aged 22, made a sudden unexplained career change: he became a forger, charged with uttering a forged bill. The facts relating to the charge can now never be known because the official court archives and convict records for the period that were held in the Four Courts in Dublin were destroyed during the Civil War in 1922.
Edward Eagar was tried before Justice Robert Day, who knew him personally. Trials were quick in those days. Defendants were expected to explain away the evidence presented against them. Eagar apparently could not do so and was found guilty of the charge. Forgery was then a serious crime, and Day had no alternative but to don the black cap. His diary entry simply reads: ‘Edwd Eagar, grand-nephew of Rowley Hassett, capitally convicted of forgery’. Eagar was taken to reside temporarily in Cork Gaol pending his execution.
It is probable that Eagar was held in the old City Gaol. John Carr, an English barrister and travel writer toured Ireland four years before Eagar’s conviction and described the City Gaol as ‘a shocking place, having no yard and the prisoners looking very unhealthy.’ Eagar’s time there would have been spent picking fibres from a length of rope, producing oakum used to stuff mattresses or mixed with tar to seal the wooden seams on ships. The food consisted of some meat, milk, potatoes, and stirabout – porridge of oatmeal and cornmeal boiled in water and stirred. But Edward’s worst tribulation was to come – he knew that he would be taken to Gallows Green in Cork to be hung by the neck.
Eagar was a Deist, so he believed in God but followed no particular religion. The Reverend Boyle Davies, the prison chaplain felt that he’d led a life ‘of great depravity’, but didn’t give up on him and, with a Methodist preacher he’d brought along, they converted him to Christianity. Whether it was the chaplain’s influence on the Bishop of Cork or that of his family or his own acquaintance with Justice Day is uncertain, but in the event Eagar’s death sentence was commuted to transportation for life to the colony of New South Wales.
Having spent sixteen months in gaol, Eagar boarded the convict ship Providence, bound for Port Jackson, Australia in December 1810. He was one of around 40,000 Irishmen and Irishwomen shipped to New South Wales, Van Diemen’s Land and Western Australia in the early 19th century. The ship’s log recorded that only five prisoners and four soldiers had died during the voyage, an achievement that drew mention from the Sydney Gazette who praised Captain Barclay for his ‘humane treatment’. The voyage had taken 162 days.
Within several days of his arrival in Sydney and upon the recommendation of Boyle Davies, who’d written to the Reverend Samuel Marsden, Eagar was despatched to Windsor. There he was assigned to the Reverend Robert Cartwright, an Anglican
Minister, to teach his five children. He also received his ticket of leave that freed him of the usual convict restraints.
After a time Eagar was asked by Cartwright to assist him in spreading the gospel – which eventually led him to organise a Bible class in Windsor. A year later he formed with others the inaugural membership of the Sydney Methodist Church (now the Wesley Mission), and pioneered the first mission to convert Aborigines to Christianity. Eagar along with others wrote to the English Conference of Methodists requesting that a Methodist preacher be sent to the colony. This impressed the governor of the colony so much that he gave Eagar a conditional pardon, enabling him to set up as an attorney. However, Judge Advocate Ellis Bent objected to Eagar’s law practice because of his convict background, so instead he became a merchant trader – one of his many business interests; he was an original proprietor of the bank of New South Wales and co-founder of the Benevolent Society.
But Eagar’s real legacy was that he championed the emancipist and civil libertarian cause of the convicts, and in 1821 he travelled to London, presenting a petition requesting that convicts be tried by a jury. It was successful, but it took a further 20 years for all his emancipist goals to be achieved.
Edward Eagar never returned to Australia, or to Ireland. He died aged 79 in London.
Mike Pinnock’s book, Walk East Until I Die: A Trek through Irish History and Beyond is available from Amazon. See also https://www.walkeastuntilidie.com