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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.

Described as short, with big ears and a face badly scarred by smallpox, 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 hid in the barracks to avoid work and escaped three times. He was flogged several times and 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 flogged. Crudden was placed in irons for twelve months and worked at the quarry.

He was flogged a further three times during his sentence before his release from the Island in 1851. An eyewitness to one of these floggings 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 sent back to the Island in 1852 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.

In October 1852, Crudden assisted in attempting to save the lives of three prisoners who died in a silo accident at Cockatoo Island. As a result of his bravery, he was recommended for a ticket of leave.

For the next four years, Crudden kept out of trouble as he tried to obtain his ticket of leave. Ultimately, he was denied the ticket of leave because he was considered to be of bad character and a dangerous bushranger.

Crudden died on 21 October 1858. His death caused disquiet and unrest among the prisoners as it was rumour that he was 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

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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