Skip to Content

Decisions of the Superior Courts of New South Wales, 1788-1899

R v Coleman [1830] NSWSupC 77

confession, stealing, in dwelling house, capital punishment, capital punishment, campaign to abolish

Supreme Court of New South Wales

Trial, 23 and 24 November 1830

Source: Sydney Gazette, 25 November 1830

William Coleman, was indicted for stealing, in the dwelling-house of Mr. Samuel Terry,[1 ] in Pitt-street, Sydney, on the 17th Oct. last, sundry monies above the value of £5.

Dr. Wardell conducted the prosecution; the prisoner was undefended by counsel.

The learned counsel for the prosecution then stated the case to the jury, as it was afterwards proved by the witnesses.  The prisoner was an assigned servant to Mr. Samuel Terry.  On Friday, the 15th October last, the prosecutor had occasion to go to an iron chest in which he kept large sums of money, plate, and valuable papers.  At that time there was deposited in the chest a bag containing about £900 in sovereigns, half-sovereigns, guineas, and half-guineas, together with several pieces of foreign gold coins; and on the top of the specie several bundles of notes, of both the banks, amounting to £2,135, all in £50 notes, with the exception of the odd £35.  There were also in the bag the first of two sets of Treasury bills, one for £200, and one for £100, the latter having been placed there on the Friday, which was the occasion of Mr. Terry's going to the chest, whereby he was enabled to state positively that the sum of money stated above was, on that day, safely deposited in the chest, the key of which was invariably locked up in an inner drawer of a bureau to which Mr. Terry alone had access.

On the following morning, Saturday, the prisoner was observed to be extremely anxious to go out, and made several excuses to leave the house; but Mr. Terry, although he did not entertain the most distant suspicion of what was then evidently carrying on, peremptorily desired him not to stir from the premises.  Indeed, it was not till after the robbery was discovered that this, together with other circumstances in the prisoner's conduct on Saturday, Sunday, and the morning of Monday, were recollected.  On Saturday, as has been stated, Mr. Terry refused to allow the prisoner to go out: he did, however, leave the house clandestinely, immediately after his master went out, remained away about an hour-and-a-half, returned somewhat intoxicated, and gave several evasive answers when interrogated as to where he had been. -  He had been ``no where;" was ``walking about he street;" he ``had had a glass, but had not been in any public house."  Nothing farther was observed remarkable in the prisoner's conduct that day; but as Mr. Terry was retiring to bed, between 9 and 10 o'clock at night, he found a paper lying on his bureau, which ought to have been in the iron chest, and which he knew he had placed in it himself a long time previous.  He immediately mentioned the circumstance to Mrs. Terry, but, as she knew nothing as to how the paper came there, Mr. Terry supposed that he must have accidentally left it out of the chest himself, and thought no more of the matter.  On the Sunday morning, Mrs. Terry, hearing a noise in one of the out-houses, went there and found the prisoner knocking off the spout of a tea-kettle, with a brick-bat.  She asked him what he did that for?  He replied ``To make it hold water."  Mrs. Terry said, ``That's a foolish thing, it will run."  ``O," said the prisoner, ``I'll put a cork in it."  This kettle, which has not since been found, there is every reason to suppose, was employed as the depository of the plunder, and is now somewhere buried in the earth.  Nothing further was observed in the conduct of the prisoner, who went through his ordinary duties during the day, and waited at dinner, until Mr. and Mrs. Terry went to church, at 3 o'clock, when the prisoner absented himself from the house, and returned shortly before his master and mistress came home.  When he returned, he asked a fellow servant whether his eyes looked as if he had been drinking, who replied that any one would perceive he had,.  Shortly before 7 o'clock the same evening, Mr. and Mrs. Terry again left the house, to attend Divine Service.  Immediately after their departure, the prisoner, without attending to his usual duties of preparing the lights and closing the window-shutters, was employed in some part of the premises where the servant who, in the absence of the family, is left in charge of the house, could not find him.  He did not go out, because to do so he must have passed this servant, who was always stationed in the hall.  Sometime after 8 o'clock, the prisoner again made his appearance in the house, and was seen by the cook endeavouring to obliterate some stains of dirt on a pair of white trowsers which he had worn during the day, with pipe-clay, and shortly after went to his sleeping place and changed his dress altogether.  On Monday morning the prisoner was seen up about the premises at half past 5 o'clock; full half an hour before his usual time of rising.  He also, on the same morning, obtained from a sadler, in the service of Mr. Terry, some nails and a hammer, and from a shoemaker, also in Mr. Terry's service, an awl and some thread, stating to both these men that he wanted the articles to mend his shoes; a circumstance which particularly surprised the shoemaker, as he was kept for the express purpose of making and mending shoes for the whole of Mr. Terry's family, servants included.  The prisoner was also observed to be slightly intoxicated that morning.  About 11 or 12 o'clock the same day (Monday) Mr, Terry had occasion to visit his iron chest, and, to his utter dismay, discovered that it had been plundered of the bag mentioned above, with the whole of its contents, except the set of Treasury bills for £100, which appeared to have accidentally fallen from the top of the bag as it was being lifted out of the chest.  The peculiarity of the prisoner's conduct during the two preceding days immediately flashed across Mr. Terry's mind, and, pointing to the prisoner, who was employed at the pump in the yard, and now and then casting side-looks up at the window of the bed-room, he said ``That's the man who has robbed me!"  The Chief Constable was instantly sent for, and, after examining the lock, on his arrival, declared that, in his opinion, it had been opened with its own proper key, although that key had been found in the bureau drawer where Mr. Terry had placed it, and the key of which drawer he always carried in his pocket.  The prisoner was now sent for up stairs, and when called by one of the servants, he enquired what he was wanted for, saying, ``What, has the old fellow got a fit?" - rather a shrewd surmise, certainly of the consequence of a man suddenly discovering that he had been robbed of £3,400.  Mr. Jilks searched the prisoner, who was all the time outrageously abusive to his master, but found no money on his person.  The circumstances of suspicion, however were so strong, that the prisoner was taken into custody, and conveyed to the watch-house; but before he left his master's premises he asked and obtained permission of the Chief Constable, who supposed he wanted to mend some part of his clothes, to take with him a needle and some thread.

The key of the cell in which the prisoner was locked up, was given to Sutland, a Police officer, who, on going his round the same night, discovered that the prisoner had nails in his shoes.  Suspecting something he stripped off the shoes although the prisoner made very great resistance, and examined them in the presence of two other constables, when, perceiving that the nails had been only recently driven, and in an unusual place, he proceeded to separate the outer from the inner sole of one of the shoes, and discovered several half-sovereigns, and a gold ducat.  Sutland, immediately gave information of the discovery he had made to the chief constable, and they both proceeded the same night, to the residence of the Superintendent of Police, in whose presence the fellow shoe was cut open in the same manner, and 7 other half-sovereigns found similarly secreted.  On the following morning when Sutland again visited the cell, the prisoner expressed a wish to have some tea; and without being apprised that the discovery of the gold had been made, said, ``Sutland, take care of my money which you got in my shoes."  On the arrival of Captain Rossi at the Police Office, the prisoner was again searched in his presence, and four more half sovereigns, covered with cloth and sewed on as buttons on the waistband of the prisoner's trowsers, were found by the Chief Constable.  Mr. Terry was then sent for, and on being shown the gold, at once possitively swore to the ducat found the in the prisoner's shoe, as his property, it being peculiarly marked in several places, and in his possession for upwards of fifteen years.  The prisoner, in accounting for the money at first stated that he had brought it all with him from home, but afterwards said that he found the ducat in the bed-room on one occasion when he was sent there by his mistress to look on the carpet for some rings she had dropped of her finger; - an occurrence which Mrs. Terry swore most positively had never taken place.  Subsequently to this several examinations of the prisoner took place, Mr. Terry's household began to remember the peculiar circumstances in his behaviour during the two days prior to the robbery, and he was remanded from day to day in the hope that he would at last be induced to make a disclosure and state where the money was concealed.  During the prisoner's confinement in the watch-house, he sent at various times to Mr. Terry, requesting to see him.  At the first of these interviews in the cell, the prisoner asked Mr. Terry to send him a blanket and some provisions.  Mr. Terry replied that it was not in his power, unless he (the prisoner) would tell where the money was, and that he had better at once tell the truth; adding that if he did so, he (Mr. Terry), would use all his interest to save his life, if he were found guilty, and that the Superintendent of Police had promised to do the same.  Mrs. Terry was also sent for by the prisoner, but she could not prevail upon him to make any disclosure, although it is difficult to divine, with what other object he, in the first instance, solicited these interviews.  Subsequent to these transactions, the prisoner made a statement to the Superintendent of Police, that, in a certain part of Mrs. Terry's clothes-box, there was a key which would open the drawer of the bureau, in which the key of the iron chest was deposited.  Capt. Rossi, immediately repaired to the residence of Mr. Terry, and without acquainting him with the object of his visit, requested to have the key of the box mentioned by the prisoner; and, in the situation pointed out by him, was found a key which easily opened the bureau drawer, but which Mrs. Terry solemnly swore that she never, to her knowledge, set eyes on before.  After this, the prisoner again sent for Mr. Terry, and informed him that he was about to be committed for trial, adding that if he would come down after him to the gaol, he would tell him all about the robbery.  Mr. Terry did go to the gaol, and on his entering the cell, the prisoner said ``Sir, your money is all safe; don't be alarmed, you shall get it again, but I want you to do something before I tell you where it is."  He then proposed that Mr. Terry, should advertise that he had found his money, and that it had never been stolen, but merely mislaid.  Mr. Terry at once refused to accede to this proposal, but repeated his offer to make every exertion to have his life spared, and even, should he be sent to a penal settlement, to make him a present of £50.  The prisoner, however, refused to make any disclosure on these conditions, but added, ``I know I shall be transported for seven years for being fool enough to have that piece of money (the ducat) about me, for taking the money was a breach of trust."  Mr. Terry told him that whoever put such a notion as that into his head was deceiving him, and again pressed it upon him to confess where the money was, before he was brought to trial, but without effect; all that the prisoner could be got to say, being ---- ``That he knew he should be transported for seven years, and that when he was transported he would tell where the money was; as, if he could not enjoy it himself, nobody but Mr. Terry should."

These were the main circumstances proved by the witnesses for the prosecution.

The prisoner's defence consisted in a general denial of the truth of the statements made by the several witnesses; a direct assertion that Mrs. Terry was constantly in the habit of opening Mr. Terry's drawers and chest during his absence, and that she was then actually in the possession of the money which he was accused of stealing; and a declaration that the money fund in his shoes was the proceeds of a watch which he employed one of the guard of the convict ship in which he came out to this colony, to sell for him at one of the Portuguese Islands, where the vessel put in for water.  The prisoner also named the soldier; but, on enquiry, it turned out that he had returned to England fifteen months ago.

The learned Judge told the Jury, although he was of opinion, in strictness of law, that that portion of the evidence which amounted to something very near a confession by the prisoner, was legitimate evidence - inasmuch as, although something like a promise had been held out by Mr. Terry, still the prisoner had voluntarily sent for him - yet he thought the safest way was to reject it altogether from their minds, and to found their verdict upon the other, and independent circumstances which were pressed against the prisoner.[2 ]

The Jury almost immediately found a verdict of guilty, and the Court ordered the prisoner to be remanded for sentense.


William Coleman, was this day placed at the Bar, and received sentence of death.  The learned Judge animadverted in strong terms upon the line of defence, adopted by the prisoner, and warned him to make good use of the little time he had yet to live, inasmuch as, under all the circumstances of the case.  His Honor, as a Judge of the land, could not conscientiously recommend the Executive to extend mercy to him.[3 ]



Execution, 13 December 1830

Source: Sydney Gazette, 14 December 1830


Execution of Coleman. - The mortal career of this misguided and unhappy youth terminated yesterday morning.  Before eight o'clock a considerable number of persons had taken their station in various sports, commanding a view of the melancholy platform, and by nine, the concourse of spectators who had arrived to witness the sad spectacle, was unusually dense.  About this time the poor culprit, his irons having been knocked off, and his arms loosely pinioned with a new rope, came forward to the yard, habited in white and attended by the Rev. J. J. Therry; he walked with a firm unhesitating step, seemingly unconcerned at every surrounding object, and intent only on the devotions in which he was joining.  Having arrived in front of the gallows, and the warrant for his execution been read by the under Sheriff, he proceeded to join his spiritual attendant in the prayers usually offered on such occasions.  The executioner then advanced to tighten the rope that bound his arms, to which he at first slightly demurred, but being addressed by Mr. T. on the subject, immediately consented.  He again engaged in supplication, with great apparent fervour, which ended, he walked with astonishing composure without assistance up the steps, and placed himself under the rope appointed to terminate his existence, followed by Mr. T. the executioner, and another individual.  He now for the first time looked toward the assembled multitude, and spoke nearly as follows, ``All you good people who have come here to see me suffer, understand that it was I who committed the robbery, but I was starved into the confession of it.  I had intended to have said a good deal to you, but in submission to the wish of my clergyman, will only say further that I die in charity with all men, and beg of you to unite in praying for my poor soul."  He then resumed his devotions for a few moments, at the close of which, Mr. T, and the others having heartily shaken hands with him descended; the poor culprit ejaculating ``Lord have mercy upon me!  Jesus have mercy upon me!" while uttering these words the fatal bolt was withdrawn, and he was ushered into an awful eternity.  He struggled but little, and in less than two minutes had apparently ceased to exist.  Throughout the whole of this dreadful ceremony his self-possession, never for a moment forsook him.  Not a nerve of his body moved, nor was the slightest flush visible in his countenance.  Indeed he appeared less concerned at his awful situation than those around him, but although he betrayed no emotion of sorrow, displayed not the least sign of levity.  After hanging the accustomed time the body was cut down and deposited in a shell preparatory to interment.



[1 ] Samuel Terry, a former convict, was one of the richest men in New South Wales.

[2 ] In R. v. Whaley and Snell, Sydney Gazette, 24 May 1831, the following exchange took place:

"Mr. Moore here tendered the examinations of the prisoners, taken before the Coroner.

"Mr. Therry objected to the admissibility of the evidence, on the authority of 2nd Russell 661.

"Mr. Moore said he did not offer the depositions of witnesses, but the statements made by the prisoners themselves, when examined before the Coroner.

"The Chief Justice overruled the objection, on the ground that as what a prisoner states to any person out of Court may be given in evidence against him, so also may a statement made by him before a Coroner or Magistrate, and committed to writing.

"The examinations were then put in and read by the Clerk of the Court.

"Examination continued - The prisoners were summoned in the first instance as witnesses; Whaley was sworn, but refused to sign the statement made by him.

"Mr. Therry submitted that, upon this evidence, the statements made before the Coroner, were clearly inadmissible, as the prisoners had been sworn.

"By the Court - The prisoners were both sworn before me, as witnesses, in the first instance.

"The Chief Justice - Upon the authority of decided cases, the examinations of prisoners taken before magistrates, and sworn to, are not admissible being considered as not coming voluntarily, but under the compulsory obligation of an oath."

[3 ] Some prisoners showed remarkable composure at this fatal point in their lives. John Judd, on being sentenced, said "My Lord and Gentlemen of the Jury, it is only five minutes choaking": Sydney Gazette, 6 May 1830.

The campaign to restrict and eventually abolish capital punishment had already begun at this time.  The Sydney Gazette, 9 March 1830 stated that it wanted to restrict capital punishment to treason, murder, rape and robbery with extreme violence.  See also Sydney Gazette, 12 May 1829.

Published by the Division of Law, Macquarie University