Search billions of records on

The Wicklow Five a travesty of Justice


b. Martin Burke 1789 - 1842
“the founder or ‘father’ of Pitt Water” -
Historical Records of Australia
Series 1 Volume V p. 636
Governor King to Earl Camden
Sydney New South Wales 22nd February 1806
My Lord,
I have the honor to enclose the copy of a Dispatch I received from Mr. Secretary Marsden by the Tellicherry Transport, with my Answer thereto, for Your Lordship’s
inspection previous to the latter being sent. It is true that, since the late insurrection in March 1804, there has been no seditiou Appearances of any Consequence; And, from the attention bestowed in circumventing any designs of this Nature, I hope any attempt to repeat their Wild Schemes will be fully prevented. Still, I cannot conceal from Your Lordship that the Arrival of the five United Irishmen, who appear to have been considerable leaders in the late Rebellion in Ireland, without any conviction, added to the Number of the disaffected of in that Class here already, will call forth the utmost attention of the Officers of this
Colony. By the Tellicherry Your Lordship will observe that 125 male and 35 female convicts from Ireland were landed here in good health. Several of whom have been distributed among the Settlers.
Born in 1789 in Glen Imaal, County Wicklow, Martin Burke was five foot eleven inches in height, had dark hair and a fair complexion. He was hardly good looking, his appearance being marked bya long rather pointed nose, a long face and uneven teeth. However he was well built, with a straight back, strong legs and thighs and although a little bowed at the knees from long periods spent in the saddle he walked with a very upright gait. In all Burke had the strength and skills of a mounted soldier and he was well respected by the bandits he led. In his youth Martin Burke worked in a brewery at Rathdrum but he left this employment at the outbreak of the 1798 Rebellion. Following the defeat of the rebels Burke took to the Wicklow Mountains where he became the trusted second in command of Michael Dwyer.
                                         In his time in the mountains Burke had married a woman called Rachel Bourke but there is little evidence that she shared the mountain hideouts as did Mary Dwyer and Sarah Byrne. In the final year in the mountains Burke’s loyalty was tested when the British apparently offered him the opportunity to join an overseas regiment if he would surrender. The temptation for Burke must have been acute since this would have given him the chance to escape the mountains and to use his skills as a horse soldier in a productive fashion. However Martin Burke remained loyal, a decision which he may have regretted once the British began a concerted drive against the rebels in 1804. In fact Burke was the first to be taken captive and soon afterwards he was placed in irons and imprisoned in the Baltinglass Gaol.
                                      Following the capture of Burke the British authorities decided that he would be court martialled in Wicklow. Although Martin Burke was well respected there were many who were eager that he should be made the example and punished with the full powers of the law. When Dywer learned that his lieutenant had been imprisoned he approached the British with the intention of surrendering himself, hoping to prevent both the court martial of his friend as well as preserving his own life. In 1804 Martin Burke was tried in Wicklow and given a life sentence.
Eventually Burke’s sentence was commuted to transportation for life and he joined the other leaders in preparing to leave the country. It was in this time that Burke’s wife, Rachel appears to have suffered a nervous breakdown and she refused to visit him in prison. Rachel Burke’s final fate is unknown but it appears that she may have died by 1807. In the first few years in the colony Burke faced the same problems as the other Wicklowmen. There was the delay in registering his land grant and also the confusion as to whether the state prisoners were actually entitled to the status of free men. When they finally took possession of their land at Cabramatta their first efforts at farming were hindered by heavy rains which did much damage to the newly sown crops.
                                    By the end of 1806 Burke had formed a liaison with Phoebe Tunstall, a thirty nine year old convict
who had arrived on the Nile from England in 1801 to serve a seven year sentence. Phoebe had been assigned to a small holder, Thomas Andrews, and she had a child by him in 1803. Her husband had operated a shop in Pitt Street in leased premises and, following his death in 1806, Phoebe and her young daughter Sarah, moved to Cabramatta to live with Martin Burke. In late 1806 Martin Burke was arrested and charged with, “an attempt to disturb the good order and discipline of the colony”. It is not known who had brought the charges but in any event they were 
disproved and Burke was later released. However the arrest had meant that he had not taken delivery of the deeds of his farm and his economic situation remained shaky. This event must have acted
as a notification to the rebel leaders that they were indeed marked men and that they were liable toimmediate arrest at any hint of insurrection. Despite this salutary warning Michael Dywer remained undisturbed by Burke’s situation and instead embarked on a pre Christmas drinking bout during which he visited a number of public houses where he indulged in making vague threats about what might happen if the “Wicklow boys” ever decided to overthrow the government. Most of this loose talk flowed from Dwyer’s intemperance and vanity and there appears to have been no real threat to law and order in the colony but it was enough to alarm the authorities and before long all of the State Prisoners were to pay for
Dwyer’s empty boasting and vainglory. Governor Bligh, never a man to tolerate insolence or the threat of mutiny, decided to make an example of the Wicklow Five and he had all of the men arrested and charged with “treasonable practices”. From the beginning the prosecution case was weak since there had been no meetings of the conspirators, no arms had been discovered and no documents had been seized. Once the trial began it became clear that there was no credible evidence and that the whole case relied on hearsay. A number of witnesses testified about the conduct of the Wicklow men since their arrival in the colony and all affirmed that they were both peaceable and hard-working. Among those who gave evidence was a Tellicherry shipmate, Malachy Ryan, who was also able to testify that the men had not been involved in inciting the Irish to rebel. In the end all of the Wicklow men and Walter Clare, Dywer’s convict servant, were found innocent of the charges which had been brought against them.
                                                                      When William Bligh learned that the Wicklow Five had been found innocent the furious Governor ordered that the State Prisoners be sentenced to imprisonment and it was directed that Martin Burke should go to Port Dalrymple (Launceston) in Van Diemen’s Land. While awaiting transportation on board the vessel Porpoise in Sydney Harbour Burke arranged for Father James Harold to conduct a secret marriage service on the ship so that he was legally united with Phoebe Tunstall. Perhaps Martin recognised that Phoebe was unlikely to wait long for any man and indeed within a short time she had bigamously married a soldier, John Butler, at St Phillips Church in Sydney, ignoring the fact that her legal spouse was in exile in Tasmania. When Burke returned to Sydney in 1809 Phoebe, apparently little concerned about her actions, left her soldier husband and returned to Cabramatta with her young daughter, Sarah, to resume her life with Martin Burke. The reunion of the couple was marked by ill fortune since the house in which the pair were living caught fire and they were lucky to escape with their lives. Pheobe, Martin and young Sarah were left without any possessions or clothing and were reduced to a state of “extreme distress”. It appears that the other Irish families in the area came to the assistance of Burke and his small family and their house was rebuilt within a short period. By 1810 Governor Lachlan Macquarie had arrived in the colony and the State Prisoners presented a joint petition to have their pardons and land grants reconfirmed by the new governor. The five Wicklow men received their pardons in July 1811 and at the same time their finances were given a
boost since they received stock from the government herd. In 1812 Martin Burke, at the prompting of Phoebe Tunstall, took the decision to give up farming and leased a tavern in Pitt Street. In that year he sold his Cabramatta farm to an Irishman, Bernard Burn, for the sum of 190 pound. Burke appears to have succeeded in his new career and in 1813 he took over the lease of another Pitt Street hotel, The Hope and Anchor, paying seventy pound per annum for the property.
                                                                By 1816 Burke had decided to return to farming and he leased 500 acres at Bringelly from the
surveyor, John Oxley, at a fee of thirty pound per annum. Phoebe Tunstall remained the licensee at the Hope and Anchor but it seems that the hotel was by that time less profitable than it had been ,mainly because of the fierce competition in the Pitt Street quarter of Sydney. It was at this time that Martin Burke agreed to become a police constable in the Bringelly area which at that time had a reputation for lawlessness and bushranging. It is evident that Burke needed the pay and provisions which came with the job since by 1820 he was unable to pay the arrears in his lease and John Oxley took him to court for the sum of ninety pound. In that year he resigned from his post as Constable at Bringelly but not long after he was to take up a similar position at Pittwater. To settle his affairs Burke admitted his debt but as a consequence was forced to default on repayment of the debt and as a result thirty acres of land which he had purchased at Pittwater in 1813were forfeited. However the situation was not entirely desperate since at about this time Martin Burke received another grant of fifty acres at Pittwater and he was later bought another thirty acres to add to his holding. In 1821 Martin Burke, Phoebe Tunstall and her two daughters (the second girl probably being the child of the soldier, John Butler) moved to Pittwater. The Irishman now under took a major risk since he lease 700 acres from d’Arcy Wentworth and once again began farming. It was presumably to provide himself with an additional income that Burke had accepted an appointment as a police constable in the Pittwater region. Like his fellow Irish police officers Burke must have been aware of the irony of the situation which saw a one time bandit chief appointed as an officer of the law but, unlike Dwyer, Burke appears to have been a conscientious, if not very effective, policeman. However there were other colonial citizens who were less assured about the suitability of such an appointment and in 1823 Martin Burke’s private affairs came under scrutiny when his marital status was questioned after an allegation had been made that an officer of the law was openly. “living in sin”. Martin Burke replied to this questioning with a letter to d’Arcy Wentworth in which he explained  that he had been,“ Married in Sydney in 1807 by the Reverent W. (J.) Harold, Catholic clergyman. By this marriage I have no children - but my wife’s two. I have always supported and was allowed their rations at Government store......”Burke, having at last admitted his secret marriage felt more secure in his official position and he proceeded to build a farmhouse near Mona Vale where he established a large garden and soon after he set about purchasing additional cattle. In 1818 his step daughter, Sarah, had married an Irish wheelwright, David Foley per Guilford in 1818 and the couple now moved to Pittwater to help Martin and Phoebe run the property. In 1819 Martin Burke leased an additional 200 acres at Bayview and by 1822 he had 34 head of cattle on the farm. The property had thirty four cleared acres of which three acres were under maize, one acre was producing potatoes and another acre was devoted to a fruit orchard.
                                                     In 1822 Martin Burke was accused of dealing in the “slop” clothing which was issued to prisoners.
It appears that he was buying the official clothing which was issued free to convicts, probably in return for liquor, and then selling the garments for profit. It was a cheap and miserable trade since
the garments were issued on a yearly basis and, once a convict had parted with his clothing, the winter months would see him ragged and shivering with insufficient protection from the chilly
winter days.In 1823 John Clark, a Veteran soldier of the 102 Regiment who had come free to the colony per Tellicherry, was granted land about Great and Little Mackerel Beaches (so named for the abundant
supplies of this fish caught off the beaches in the early days of settlement). Together with Martin
                                                                  Burke the two men began farming and grazing cattle in the area in a partnership which lasted for a number of years. In 1825 Martin Burke subleased his 700 acres to David Foley but he retained the right to graze his cattle on the land as well as to retain one room in the dwelling house and half an acre for a garden. By this time Martin Burke was again the subject of a complaint, the basis of which was that he grazed cattle in the area but had no stockyards or stockmen so that his animals frequently were grazing on the properties of others. Given that Martin Burke was the district pound-keeper the local residents had no means of seeking to have the Burke cattle impounded since Burke would immediately release his own animals while keeping other “stays” firmly under lock and key until hefty pound fees were paid. In 1826 the Superintendent of Police, Captain Rossi, reported on the situation when he wrote, “ the man’s interest is certainly at variance with his public duty”. Rossi recommended that the next constable and pound keeper should be someone who held no land in the area
and he went so far to say that, given that Burke had made very few arrests in his six years as a police officer, he did not appear to be very diligent in the execution of his duties. Martin Burke was now in his mid fifties and, given that his suitability for the role of officer of the law had been called into question, he appears to have been ready to give up the role of policeman. Burke continued to work on the property which he had leased until the acreage was sold in 1829. He also purchased an 100 acre holding at Mackerel Beach (Currawong) in partnership with a John Clark( e), the soldier whom he had first met on the Tellicherry. The first record of European settlement in this area occurs in 1823 when land at Little Mackerel Beach, first promised to John Clarke by Governor Brisbane, was sold it to his friend Martin Burke. Burke retained the land even after Clarke removed to Launceston. By 1824 Burke was the sole owner of this land and in the 1830s he continued to buy and sell land in the Pittwater area. By this time Phoebe Tunstall had died and Martin Burke began to prepare for retirement. He gradually disposed of his holdings but retained the house, outhouses and enough land to support himself with hens and vegetables. By 1832 William Booth also claimed he had been promised the land, which he was farming, but possibly because Booth had made no improvements the first Crown grant was given to Martin Burke in 1835. Burke’s final years were spent in a wooden cottage near Mackerel Beach where he was close to old friends, the Sheehan and Flynn families. Martin was still living at Mackerel Beach at the time of the 1841 census but he became ill in 1842 and then moved to the Sydney Asylum, a home for old men, where he died peacefully at the age of 79.
For some time Martin Burke has been remembered as “the Father of Pittwater”.

Information Supplied by Norma

Family Members, Military records  ,Pay rolls, Pay Musters, Cemetery Records, Church Records & General Muster Records, Mitchell Library ,Sydney Australia
The information is intended for short Historical value only,
E- mail address
Refer to Home Page
© Copyright Images setout B & M Chapman (QLD) Australia
Last revised: Sunday, 06 June 2010 12:59:23