Skip to Content

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

R. v. John Palmer [1809] NSWKR 1; [1809] NSWSupC 1

criminal libel - seditious libel

Bench of Magistrates

 18 March 1809

Source: Sydney Gazette, 19 March 1809, 1[1]

Yesterday evening at 5 o'clock a Bench of Magistrates was convened for the purpose of enquiring into the mode in which several copies of a paper were distributed among the Commanders of vessels in this port, to whom they were severally addressed.

John Palmer and Charles Hook esq., having been charged on information with the delivery of the said papers, appeared before the bench to answer to the charge, which was supported by the testimony of several commanders to whom they had been directed and delivered, stating their having received them from Mr Palmer in presence of Mr Hook, which was acknowledged by Mr Palmer to have been by him delivered; and also admitted by Mr Hook to be the same, as he believed, that were by Mr Palmer so delivered, and which was done in his presence. In consequence of which the bench came to the following resolution: that the several "letters acknowledged by Mr Palmer to have been delivered according to their several superscriptions, and it having been acknowledged by Mr Hook that they were so delivered in his presence, the bench considered the same as libellous, seditious, and inflammatory, tending to sow sedition and discontent among his Majesty's liege subjects in this colony; and therefore commit the said John Palmer and Charles Hook to his Majesty's county gaol, to take their respective trials before a criminal court, to answer for the same". Admitted to bail, each being bound by recognizance in the sum of ¿600 and two sureties in ¿300 each.


Court of Criminal Jurisdiction,

Atkins J.A., 21 March 1809

Source: Sydney Gazette, 26 March 1809

A Court of Criminal Jurisdiction assembled on Tuesday, when John Palmer and Charles Hook, esquires, were arraigned on a charge the substance of which was contained in their commitment, recited in last Sunday's Gazette, when both the defendants refusing to plead, they were declared guilty, and sentence, John Palmer esq. three months imprisonment, and also to pay a fine of £50; Charles Hook, esq. one months imprisonment, and also to pay a fine of £50 to the King.



[1] Woods observes that the rebel government used the criminal courts as an instrument for political revenge. John Palmer was Governor Bligh's Commissary. Palmer appears to have released three detailed and damning reports (31 August 1808, 4 November 1808, and February 1809) on the rebel method of peculation. A significant aspect of the charges laid out by Palmer in these reports relates to "the detailed account he furnishes as to the distribution of government cattle" (Evatt, 198). John Macarthur is a central figure in Palmer's charges. The prosecution of Palmer arose in an environment where peculators were acutely aware that the Commissary was keeping them under close observation. In relation to Palmer's prosecution Bligh commented "that such loyal subjects should be under persecution of these monsters of iniquity is truly deplorable. They have borne their imprisonment with great fortitude, looking forward to that return of justice from their country which alone had supported their minds under a long trial of resistance to unlawful measures put in sever course against them" (Evatt, 199 citing Historical Records of New South Wales, vol. 7, 183).

Hook later sued Atkins for this illegal trial, but failed on a technicality. He had failed to sue within the six months limitation period. See Hook v. Paterson and others, 1810 below; B. Kercher, Debt Seduction and Other Disasters: the Birth of Civil Law in Convict N.S.W., Federation Press, Annandale, 1996, 38, 40.

See also in State Records N.S.W., Court of Criminal Jurisdiction, Minutes of Proceedings, February 1809 to November 1809, 5/1150, p. 111; Court of Criminal Jurisdiction, Indictments, Informations and Related Papers, 1796-1815, 5/1146, p. 9. Further on this case, see Woods, A History of Criminal Law in New South Wales : The Colonial Period 1788-1900, Federation Press, Annandale, 2002, 36; Evatt, Rum Rebellion, 195-200; H.R.A. series 1, vol. 6, 113-114, 603-686; Historical Records of New South Wales, vol. 6, 721, 800; H.R.N.S.W., vol. 7, 183.

Published by the Division of Law, Macquarie University