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Dr GRAEME SKINNER (University of Sydney)
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To cite this:
Graeme Skinner (University of Sydney),
Australharmony (an online resource toward the history of music and musicians in colonial and early Federation Australia):
http://sydney.edu.au/paradisec/australharmony/onions-john.php; accessed 25 March 2017
Musician, teacher of music, conductor of psalmody, convict, political prisoner
Born Derbyshire, England, 1768/74
Arrived Sydney, NSW, 14-15 September 1818 (convict per Isabella, from England, 3 April)
Died Sydney, 25 August 1840, aged 72
John Onions (or Onion), the Elder, of Pentrich, Derbyshire has a small place in British history as one of the Pentrich Rebels. A middle-rank player in this extraordinary drama, he eventually agreed to plead guilty to the charge of high treason in a government show trial. He was, as promised, immediately pardoned, but this was conditional on his being transported for life to Australia. In the 1810s, industrial workers in England's midlands and north were suffering a period of unprecedented economic hardship, as a result of unemployment and falling pay rates, due in part to the uptake of machine technology in industrial processes. The Pentrich rebellion was one of several workers' responses. Government intelligence suggested that a workers' uprising was planned at Nottingham on 9 June 1817. On the previous evening, 8 June, at the White Horse inn, in the village of Pentrich, in Derbyshire, a gathering of discontented local workers (weavers, quarrymen and iron workers) was addressed by Jeremiah Brandreth (1790-1817), a 27-year-old unemployed stocking-weaver. Brandreth brought news from a secret organising committee of the mass protest planned at nearby Nottingham. If the Pentrich men would join it, Brandreth promised that they would be part of a force of many thousands setting out to march to London.
As the prosecuting attorney would put it during the trials:
The trials of Jeremiah Brandreth ... and others, for high treason under a special commission at Derby ... taken in short hand by William Brodie Gernrey (London: Butterworth and Son, 1817), vol. 2, 18
Here is a meeting on the 8th of June, at the White Horse at Pentridge; the persons who are there, from that which passed amongst them, could not have met by accident ... they were to meet at that time for the purpose of arranging the order of their march, and the disposition of their proceedings on the following night when the insurrection was to take place ... They were to assemble at Hunt's Barn; some of them (the Southwingfield people) were to be in readiness ... then Brandreth pointed out upon the map or plan, which way they were to march.
According to a witness at the trial, Brandreth repeated some verses of poetry for the men to memorise as a chant:
The trials of Jeremiah Brandreth, vol. 1, 75
Every man his skill must try
He must turn out, and not deny;
No bloody soldier must he dread,
He must turn out and fight for bread.
The time is come, you plainly see
The government oppos'd must be.
Several witnesses also reported that Brandreth said that "a band of music" would meet them on the way to Nottingham, and take part in the march, perhaps a matter of at least incidental interest to our musician, Onions.
In the event, around fifty Pentrich men - including Onions - set out at 10pm, armed with pikes, scythes, knives and as many guns as they could requisition from houses along the way. At one house, the inhabitants resisted and a servant was killed, to the disquiet of some of the party. Another party set out for the Butterley Company Ironworks, where Onions may well have been employed, and where - at the old gatehouse (the only part of the original building still standing) - there was a confrontation with the factory manager and a few constables. The rebels then set off, aiming to meet up with the Nottingham contingent. But, a government agent at Pentrich had informed the authorities, and the party was confronted by soldiers from the 15th Regiment. As a Nottingham magistrate gave evidence at the trial:
The trials of Jeremiah Brandreth, vol. 1, 307
On the 9th of June I was at Nottingham, and found the town in a very
agitated state; I observed marks of the agitation by groups of people
collected in the streets: there was a general apprehension in the town.
On Tuesday morning, the 10th, I went on the road towards Eastwood on
horseback; in the villages within a mile of Eastwood, the people were
very much alarmed, most of them out of their houses: I proceeded till I
came within a quarter of a mile of Eastwood, where I met a considerable
body of men, armed with pikes; I returned, and procured troops from the
barracks ... eighteen privates, commanded by captain Phillips and a
subaltern officer, and proceeded with them towards Eastwood. When we got
as far as Kimberley, four miles from Nottingham, and about two miles
short of Eastwood, the people told us that the mob had dispersed; we
followed them, and found a quantity of arms, guns, and pikes scattered
about upon the road. I continued the pursuit till within about half a
mile of Eastwood, when I turned off on the left after a party which I
had observed in that direction. I took with me only one dragoon -
number I pursued consisted of thirty or forty; they were dispersing and
throwing away their arms: we secured two or three, and then we turned
towards Eastwood again, after the main body, and came up to them just at
Langley-mill, which is about half a quarter of a mile from Eastwood;
they were at that time all dispersed, and the mob were pursuing them in
all directions, and there were thirty of them brought to Nottingham ...
Having been held in the meantime in Derby Gaol, in September-October 1817, John Onions the elder was one of the arrested participants tried at Derby for being:
The trials of Jeremiah Brandreth, vol. 1, 6.
... unlawfully maliciously and traitorously assembled and gathered together against our said lord the king ... by force and arms to subvert and destroy the government and constitution of this realm at by law established in contempt of our said lord the king and his laws to the evil example of all others contrary to the duty of the allegiance of them the said Thomas Bacon, Jeremiah Brandreth otherwise called John Coke otherwise called the Nottingham Captain, George Weightman, William Turner, Joseph Turner otherwise called Manchester Turner, Isaac Ludlam the elder, Isaac Ludlam the younger, Samuel Ludlam, William Ludlam, Samuel Hunt, Edward Turner, Robert Turner, Charles Swaine, John Onion the elder, John Mac Kesswick, John Hill, Joseph Rawson otherwise called Joseph Thorpe, Joseph Topham, German Buxton, Edward Moore, Josiah Godber, George Brassington, William Adams, William Hardwick, John Wright, Thomas Ensor, Joseph Savage, John Moore, William Weightman, Thomas Weightman, Joseph Weightman the younger, James Weightman, Thomas Bettison, Alexander Johnson, John Bacon, Joseph Weightman the elder, James Barnes, Edward Haslam, John Horsley, Samuel Briddon, William Barker, William Elliot, James Taylor, Joseph Taylor, Benjamin Taylor, and Samuel Walters otherwise called Samuel Dudley.
In the trial transcript, he appears as:
The trials of Jeremiah Brandreth, vol. 1, 4.
... John Onion the elder late of the said parish of Pentridge in the same county of Derby labourer.
A witness made the following identification:
The trials of Jeremiah Brandreth, 1, 147
... I saw one of the Onions, but I do not know his name, it was an elderly man.
In the final proceedings under the special commission, on Saturday, 25 October, Onions was one of nine minor players who were offered, and took, the opportunity of change their Not Guilty pleas to Guilty, and throw themselves on the mercy of the court. Addressing the court, Onions said:
The trials of Jeremiah Brandreth, 2, 497
I have borne a good character before, and I beg pardon for my offence.
And pardon was, indeed, forthcoming, for all except the three sentenced to be executed, though there was an important condition, transportation for life:
The trials of Jeremiah Brandreth, vol. 2, 501-02
On Friday the 7th of November, Jeremiah Brandreth, William Turner, and Isaac Ludlam the elder, were drawn on a hurdle to a platform erected in front of the county gaol of Derby, where they were hanged until they were dead; when they were cut down, and their heads were severed from their bodies ... George Weightman, Thomas Bacon, John Bacon, Samuel Hunt, Joseph Turner, otherwise called Manchester Turner, Edward Turner, John Onion the elder, John Mac Kesswick,  German Buxton, John Hill, and George Brassington, received his majesty's pardon, upon condition of being transported for life.
Gaol records further reveal that, in 1817, John Onions was:
49, iron worker, of Pentrich"
That would make his birth year 1768, and him considerably older than was later suggested in Australia.
Otherwise, apart from his interest in radical politics (perhaps borne out by his later association in Australia with Edward Smith Hall), nothing is known of his early life, except, we can assume, that he acquired early the musical skills and interests he later manifested in Australia, and possibly, too, his attachment to the church. According to a local legend, some of the 1817 rebels swore an oath before the altar of the parish church of St. Matthew.
An 1831 gazetteer described Pentrich as it was both before and after the 1817 rebellion:
Samuel Lewis, A topographical dictionary of England: comprising the several counties (London: S. Lewis and Co., 1831), vol. 3, 521
PENTRICH, a parish in the hundred of MORLESTON and LITCHURCH, county of Derby, comprising the townships of Pentrich and Ripley, and containing 2143 inhabitants, of which number, 508 are in the township of Pentrich, 2¾ miles (S. W. by S.) from Alfreton ...The church is dedicated to St. Matthew. There are places of worship for Independents and Unitarians. The parish is bounded on the west by the river Amber. The population of the township of Pentrich has decreased one-third since the disturbances which broke out there in 1817, when the agents of the Duke of Devonshire razed many of the houses to the ground. It had anciently a market and two fairs, the latter are still held on the Wednesday in Easter-week and October 23rd. At Butterley are iron-works, established about 1793 ... There are also considerable coal and iron-stone works in the parish ...The Romans had a camp on the adjoining common, near which passed the Iknield-street.
In 1824, in a tourist guide to Derbyshire, Ebenezer Rhodes gave his judgement both on the "silliness" of the
rebellion, and the heartlessness of the government agents in provoking it:
Ebenezer Rhodes, Peak scenery; or, The Derbyshire tourist (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, 1824), 347-48
About four miles from Belper we passed through Pentrich, a small village, but of some note in the local history of this district. During the wars between King Charles the First and the parliamentary forces of that period, Pentrich Common was the theatre of military operations; and in the year 1817 it was the scene of one of the most silly and absurd attempts that ever entered into the contemplation of men. Here, in the month of June, an infatuated rabble, nearly without arms and destitute of a leader, assembled together for the purpose, as they avowed, of overturning the government of the country. Such conduct would really excite contempt, were not the consequences frequently of too serious a character to admit of such a feeling. These misguided men entertained the idea of progressively increasing their number by terror. As they proceeded, they demanded arms and men at every dwelling; and being denied admittance at a house in the vicinity of  Pentrich Common, Brandreth, the reputed captain of this "set of lawless resolutes", shot a man who refused to accompany him in this mad expedition. More outrageous conduct never characterised the proceedings of any body of men, however hardened and atrocious they had previously been. The scheme ended, as all such attempts generally do, in the speedy dispersion of the force collected, and the consequent punishment of the most active. About forty of these revolutionists were convicted at the ensuing Derby assizes. Brandreth, the murderer of the man at Mrs. Hepworth's house, was executed, as he richly deserved; two of his less culpable associates shared the same fate, and the greater part of the others, who had pleaded guilty, were transported. It is impossible to think of this transaction without reverting to the generally disturbed state of the country when the South Winfield and Pentrich men undertook their hazardous expedition, and the means that were resorted to to organize disaffection and foment disturbances. The agents in this wicked business were far more reprehensible than the men whom they misled; they were labouring under many privations, their sufferings had made them desperate, and prepared them for the commission of crime and outrage. Under such circumstances, it was worse than cruel to send spies and informers among them, to make them rebels, that they might be punished for being so.
As to the musical life of the region, perhaps, before his arrest and transportation, Onions had an occasional opportunity to visit some of the larger towns in the area, famed for their amateur choral and orchestral music-making:
George Hogarth, Musical history, biography and criticism: being a general survey of music from the earliest period to the present time (London: John W. Parker, 1835), 430-31
In the densely peopled manufacturing districts of Yorkshire, Lancashire, and Derbyshire, music is cultivated among the working classes to an extent unparalleled in any other part of the kingdom. Every town has its choral society, supported by the amateurs of the place and its neighbourhood, where the sacred works of Handel, and the more modern masters, are performed with precision and effect, by a vocal and instrumental orchestra consisting of mechanics and work people: and every village church has its occasional holiday oratorio, where a well-chosen and well-performed selection of sacred music is listened to by a decent and attentive audience of the same class as the performers, mingled with their employers and their families. Hence the practice of this music is an ordinary  domestic and social recreation among the working classes of these districts; and its influence is of the most salutary kind. The people, in their manners and usages, retain much of the simplicity of "the olden time"; the spirit of industrious independence maintains its ground among them, and they preserve much of their religious feelings and domestic affections, in spite of the demoralizing effects of a crowded population, fluctuating employment, and pauperism. Their employers promote and encourage so salutary a recreation, by countenancing, and contributing to defray the expenses of their musical associations; and some great manufacturers provide regular musical instruction for such of their work-people as show a disposition for it. "It is earnestly to be wished" says a late writer, "that such an example were generally followed, in establishments where great numbers of people are employed. Wherever the working classes are taught to prefer the pleasures of intellect, and even of taste, to the gratification of sense, a great and favourable change takes place in their character and manners. They are no longer driven, by mere vacuity of mind, to the beer-shop; and a pastime, which opens their minds to the impressions produced by the strains of Handel and Haydn, combined with the inspired poetry of the Scriptures, becomes something infinitely better than the amusement of an idle hour. Sentiments are awakened which make them love their families and their homes; their wages are not squandered in intemperance; and they become happier as well as better."
"Ship News", The Sydney Gazette and New Sotuh Wales Advertiser (Saturday 19 September 1818), 3
On Monday arrived the ship Isabella, Captain Berry, from England, with 227 male prisoners, under the Superintendance of Dr. HALLION, R. N.. Two of the prisoners died on the passage, and one was drowned. The military guard consists of a detachment of the 48th Regiment, under the orders of Lieutenant REEVE. - Passengers, Captain and Mrs. Minchin. The Isabella left England the 3d of April, and called at Rio, where she left the Tottenham.
Concerning the Isabella's shipment, governor Lachlan Macquarie recorded in his journal:
Lachlan Macquarie, Diary 9 July 1818 - 28 February 1820 (Mitchell Library, ML Ref: A774, 7-11 [Microfilm Reel CY301 Frames #409-413])
http://www.mq.edu.au/macquarie-archive/lema/1818/1818sept.html (modern edition online)
Monday 14. Septr. 1818 !!! ... On this same day in the afternoon, anchored also in the Harbour, the Male Convict Ship Isabella. Commanded by Capt. Robt. Berry, and of which Mr. William Hallion of the R. Navy is Surgeon Supdt., with 227 Male Convicts from England, from whence She sailed on the 3d. of April last - touching at Rio Janeira [sic] - ... The Guard over the Prisoners come out in the Isabella, consists of Detachments of the 48th. & 69th. Regts. Commanded by Lieut. Reid of the former Corps. - The Convicts on board this Ship have all arrived in good Health. - William Minchin Esqr. late Capt. in the 102d. (N.S. Wales) Regt., with his Family is come out in the Isabella as a Free Settler to reside in this Colony.
Tuesday 22. Septr. 1818. I this day mustered and Inspected in Person the whole of the Male Convicts recently arrived from England in the Glory and Isabella Transports (and from which Ships they were landed this morning) - previous to their being Distributed in the usual manner. The Prisoners were all in good Health - looked well - and had very few Complaints.
John Onions, on a list of prisoners assigned, 29 August 1822 to 24 December 1824; State Records NSW, Colonial Secretary Index, 1788-1825 (Fiche 3291; 4/4570D pp. 94, 95)
John Onions, assigned to Edward Smith Hall, 19 June 1823; State Records NSW, Colonial Secretary Index, 1788-1825 (Reel 6057; 4/1768 pp.186-86a)
John Onions, re-assigned to Edward Smith Hall, 7 October 1823; State Records NSW, Colonial Secretary Index, 1788-1825 (Reel 6011; 4/3509 p.378)
Edward Smith Hall, petition for mitigation of sentence on behalf of his former servant, John Onions, 21 December 1824; State Records NSW, Colonial Secretary Index, 1788-1825 (Fiche 3242; 4/1872 p.83)
John Onions, paid from the Colonial Fund for conducting the Psalmody, 31 December 1824; State Records NSW, Colonial Secretary Index 1788-1825 (Reel 6039; 4/424 p.417)
[Government notices], The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (3 October 1825), 1
DISBURSEMENTS ... ECCLESIASTICAL ESTABLISHMENT; St. Phillip's Church, Sydney.
Thos. Taber, Clerk, salary for the year 15l and Rich. Wade Steeple-keeper ditto at 10l - 25 0 0 - 125 00
Paid Serjeant Reid, and others of the band of the 48th Regt. for performing sacred music, from 1st April 1823, to 1st April 1824 - 42 00
Ditto John Onions, for conducting the psalmody, on Thursday evenings, and Sunday afternoons, from Mar. l8, to Sept. 7 - 19 00
Ditto Edward Hoare, for ditto from 8th Sept. to 7th Dec. - 10 00
Ditto Serjeant Kavanagh, and others for conducting the psalmody on Sunday mornings, from 7th March, to 7th Sept. - 21 00
Ditto Mr. Roberts, for ditto and writing music, from 8th Sept. to 7th Dec. - 13 00
Ditto James Bloodworth, for 60lbs. of candles, from 16th Jan. to 22dDec. - 12 00
Ditto Robert Howe, for 2 advertisements, 10s. 100 printed receipts, 12s. 6d. and 10 quires of medium paper for music, 50s. from 25th Dec. 1823, to 13th June, 1824. - 14 10
Ditto R. Butt, joiner, for alterations in vestry room, making a small table, repairing a window sash and the belfry door, parting a pew, making a door, and sundry jobs - 19 00
Ditto T. Edwards, for a mop, 1 hair, and 2.rush brooms, 8s. 6d. binding 4 music books, 20s. - 5 70 ...
[Government notices], The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (28 November 1825), 3
NOTICE. COLONIAL SECRETARY'S OFFICE 26 Nov 1825 HIS EXCELLENCY the GOVERNOR has been pleased to give Directions ... that Tickets of Leave be granted to the Persons undermentioned; viz ... John Onions ... Isabella, 1818. By His Excellency's Command, F. Goulburn, Colonial Secretary.
[Advertisement], The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (22 December 1825), 1
Public Notice. The undermentioned Persons have obtained Certificates, or Tickets of Leave, during the last Week: -
TICKETS OF LEAVE ... Isabella (I). John Onion, the elder, Sydney ...
[Advertisement], The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (5 May 1831), 1
PUBLIC NOTICE. THE Tickets-of-Leave granted to the following Persons have been cancelled, for the reasons set against their names respectively, viz. ... John Onions, Isabella (1), for harbouring a runaway Female.
[Advertisement], The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (26 November 1831), 1
Public Notice. COLONIAL SECRETARY'S OFFICE. SYDNEY, NOVEMBER 21, 1831. THE following Prisoners of the Crown have obtained Tickets of Leave since the last day of Publication, viz. ... SYDNEY. ... Onions John, the Elder ...
[Notice], The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (15 March 1836), 4
Principal Superintendent of Convicts' Office, 8th March, 1836. NOTICE. THE Conditional Pardons granted to the undermentioned Persons are
now lying at this Office, and will be delivered to the respective Parties, on payment of the Fees due thereon to the Public.
Baring (1), Isaac Slater.
Glatton, Sarah Wood.
Isabella (1), John Onion the elder.
Ditto, Edward Turner.
Ditto, Samuel Street.
Minerva (1), John Croneen.
Ocean (1), Joseph Treble.
Princess Royal, Joseph Aarons.
Three Bees, Connor Boland.
Ditto, Denis Bryan.
Tottenham, George Weightman.
Ditto, John Mactieswick.
Ditto, German Buxton.
Ditto, Joseph Turner alias Machester Turner.
Ditto George Brassington.
Ditto, John Hill.
THOMAS RYAN, Chief Clerk.
[Advertisement], The Australian (19 June 1838), 3
http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article36858616; and thereafter also in The Monitorand The Sydney Gazette
APPEAL TO THE HUMANE. JOHN ONIONS, aged 64 years, who was for many years a distributor of the Sydney Newspapers, and whose punctuality and attention are well known, had the misfortune on the 31st October last, of falling into the undefended excavation in Pitt-street, between Bathurst and Liverpool-streets, thereby breaking his thigh and dislocating the hip bone; in consequence of which he has been, and is still, incapable of following his occupation. He is, therefore, constrained to throw himself upon the consideration of the benevolent, who, even in this infant Colony, are ever ready to assist suffering humanity. The Proprietors of the various Papers will feel great pleasure in appropriating the amount of such Subscriptions as may be received by them, in the way most likely to contribute to the comfort of this unfortunate man.
Donations toward his support, including a pound each from several prominent citizens, came from significant quarters, as Onions acknowledged in advertisements of thanks in July and August:
[Advertisement], The Colonist (18 August 1838), 1
http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article31721541; also in The Australian
JOHN ONIONS, many years a News-carrier in Sydney, who being by an unfortunate accident disabled from earning a livelihood, was induced to offer an appeal to the charity of the Public, gratefully returns his sincere thanks for the undermentioned donations received.
Mrs. Marsden, Penrith ... 1 0 0
Mrs. Brabyn, Windsor ... 1 0 0
R. B. ... 1 0 0
Mr. A. Cohen ... 0 10 0
Mr. J. Blanch ... 0 10 0
Mrs. S. Terry ... 1 0 0
Mr. W. Roberts ... 0 7 6
Charles Windeyer, Esq., J.P. ... 0 10 0
Mrs. Duke ... 0 10 0
W. T. ... 0 10 0
W. B. ... 0 1 0
J. Norton, Esq ... 0 10 0
His Honor Chief Justice Dowling ... 1 0 0
R. Shadforlth, Esq. ... 0 10 0
J. Hosking Esq. ... 0 5 0
R. Dawes ... 0 10 0
A Friend ... 0 5 0
His Honor Judge Burton ... 0 10 0
W. B. ... 0 10 0
Rev. Mr Draper ... 0 2 6
Thomas Gore, Esq. ... 0 10 0
H. C. Semphill,Esq. ... 0 2 6
A. M. L. ... 0 10 0
E. M. ... 0 5 0
Dr. Bland ... 0 5 0
E. S. Hall, Esq. ... 0 5 0
C. H. Chambers, Esq. ... 0 2 6
Miss S. Vine ... 0 2 6
Mr. W. Moir ... 0 2 6
W. C. ... 0 2 6
Mr. C. Appleton ... 0 10 0
Mr. W. Nash ... 0 5 0
J. M. C. ... 0 5 0
R. Campbell, junior, Esq. ... 0 10 0
Rev. Mr. Watkins ... 0 2 6
J. S. ... 0 2 6
C. Roberts ... 0 10 0
[Advertisement], The Australian (9 October 1838), 1
http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article36859356; also in The Colonist and The Monitor; rerun until November, and again in April-May 1839
SACRED MUSIC. THE undersigned (many years one of the Distributors of this Paper) being unable, from infirmity, to follow that occupation, is desirous to employ his time in teaching SACRED MUSIC, with which he has been well acquainted for the last fifty years; and having most of the tunes now in use in the Churches aud Chapels in Englund, he will be happy to WRITE MUSIC for the use of Families in their private devotions, in or about Sydney. - Please address J. O., Australian Office.
[Advertisement], The Australian (6 June 1840), 3
http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article36861382; re-run until 2 July 1840
JOHN ONIONS. Teacher of the Clarionet and German Flute, Writer of Music, &c., Elizabeth street South, two doors from Park street.
"LAW INTELLIGENCE", The Sydney Herald (13 May 1841), 2
... Ann Lindsay, free by servitude, per the ship Southwell, was indicted for having, on the 30th of March, 1840, committed the crime of bigamy, by marrying one John Handley, a ticket-of-leave holder, in the district of Campbelltown, she having been lawfully married at Sydney, by the late Rev. Richard Hill, to one John Brown, on the 23rd of January, 1833, the said Brown being still alive. In opening the case, the ATTORNEY GENERAL stated that, in consequence of the death of the Rev. Richard Hill, and also of one of the witnesses named John Onions, he should only be able to give secondary evidence of the first marriage ....
The Pentirch Rebellion
"Pentrich rising", Wikipedia
Jeremiah Brandreth, the Nottingham captain; London, BL
© Graeme Skinner 2014 - 2017