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Cockatoo Island's Convict Precinct.

John Crudden: The Boy Convict

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5 min read
Despite a life punctuated by prison escape attempts and floggings, John Crudden – one of Cockatoo Island’s convicts – might ultimately be remembered for his bravery. Michele Harper, a volunteer researcher for the Harbour Trust, charts the troubled life of the Irish expat, sentenced to the island’s penal establishment before he had even reached manhood.

In 1840, 11-year-old John Crudden arrived in the colony of NSW as a convict, having been found guilty in Ireland of stealing a looking glass and a pair of boots.

Crudden was initially assigned to a pastoralist but was flogged for losing pigs. Disturbed by Crudden’s treatment, George Gipps – the Governor of NSW – determined the young boy should be returned to government care.

Crudden was sent to the Hyde Park Barracks where he often hid in the barracks to avoid work. He escaped three times and was also flogged on several occasions, before being finally sent, at the age of 14, to Cockatoo Island in March 1842. Being only four feet four inches tall (132cms), he was too small for the prison shirts.

In November, that same year, Crudden escaped from the island by swimming to the shore. He was tracked down, returned to the Island and placed in irons for twelve months and required to work in the quarry.

Records reveal that, by 1849, Crudden had endured 202 lashes, 2 years in irons and 109 days locked up in cells while incarcerated at Cockatoo Island. He received the bulk of his lashes when he was 15, making him the youngest person to be flogged on the Island. It is quite possible that Crudden received more lashes than recorded because prison records form that era were often incomplete.

A newspaper article published in 1900 included an account of an eyewitness to one of Crudden’s floggings. The eyewitness recalled the Island’s doctor intervening when Crudden had received the hundredth stroke of a two hundred stroke sentence because the convict had half swallowed a bullet he’d kept between his teeth to suppress cries of pain. The bullet was removed, and Crudden was given a drink, before the remaining one hundred strokes were administered.

Crudden was released from the Cockatoo Island in 1851, but was sent back the following year for attempting to hold up a cart on the Bathurst plains. When Crudden realised the woman he had sought to rob was poor, he let her go. The victim, however, was able to identify Crudden by his smallpox scars and he was sentenced to life imprisonment for highway robbery. While being transferred to Cockatoo Island, Crudden unsuccessfully attempted to escape again.

In October 1852, Crudden assisted in attempting to save the lives of three prisoners who died in a grain silo accident on the island. As a result of his bravery, he was recommended for a ticket of leave. Despite this positive development, Crudden made a further escape attempt. In September 1853, a sympathetic boatman helped him flee the island, hidden in the stern of a vessel. When a fellow prisoner informed on him, Crudden was recaptured and placed in solitary confinement.

During the next few years, Crudden kept out of trouble as he tried to obtain his ticket of leave. Ultimately, he was denied one as he was deemed to be of bad character and a dangerous bushranger. He was also known for his height and distinctive appearance. Indeed, following a failed escape attempt in 1847, a notice in the NSW Government Gazette described him as a 'labourer, 4 feet 4 inches and upwards, pale and pockpitted' with 'light brown hair, blue eyes, bells of ears large'. Later, in 1851, a newspaper article noted he was 5 feet 9 inches tall.

Crudden died on 21 October 1858 from a disease of the lungs. His death caused disquiet and unrest among the prisoners as it was rumoured that he had been denied treatment for a period.


  • Castrique, S, (2014)  Under the Colony’s Eye.  Gentlemen and Convicts on Cockatoo Island 1839-1869, Anchor Books Australia, pp. 121-123, pp. 136-137, pp.  140-141
  • New South Wales Government Gazette, Friday 20 August 1847, Issue 72, page 888
  • The Evening News, Saturday 4 August 1900, page 9
  • The Freeman’s Journal, Saturday * October 1853, page 9
  • The People’s Advocate and New South Wales Vindicator, Saturday 6 September 1851, page 4.
  • The Sydney Morning Herald, Monday 25 October 1858, page 5.

Article was originally published on 3 July 2020.


When Crudden was sent, at the age of 14, to Cockatoo Island, he was too small for the prison shirts.

– Michele Harper

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