Now Reading
Barney Duffy: Truth or Legend? Or a bit of both?

Barney Duffy: Truth or Legend? Or a bit of both?

Just about everyone who comes to Norfolk Island hears the story of Barney Duffy. Barney was a convict escapee who spent seven years hiding in a hollow pine tree until captured and hung, although not before he cursed his captors. The curse apparently worked as the young soldiers who captured Barney later drowned while fishing.

What do we know about Barney Duffy? The answer is “Not much!” In fact, I don’t know where Barney’s story comes from. Obviously, the subject matter relates to the convict period, but how did the Pitcairners come to know it?

When the Pitcairners came to Norfolk in 1856, they were greeted by a holding party of convicts and officials. This holding party didn’t stay long, but they did tell the Pitcairners some tall stories. For example, upon finding a whale bone on the beach, the convicts told the Pitcairners that it was Captain Deering’s soup ladle. (The Pitcairners, of course, were experienced whaling men and knew exactly what the bone was. They were probably more interested in the possibility of whaling on the island.)

The story of Bloody Bridge also seems to have been transmitted at this time, according to Rosalind Amelia Young (Mutiny of the Bounty and Story of Pitcairn Island 1790–1894, 1894). Rosalind was born on Pitcairn Island, the daughter of Simon Young and Mary Buffett Christian. She came to Norfolk Island in 1856 but returned with her parents to Pitcairn in 1864. Later she became Pitcairn Island’s schoolteacher and chronicler, and was certainly very knowledgeable about the Pitcairn heritage on Norfolk Island.

Rosalind, however, makes no mention of the Barney Duffy story. In fact, the first published
reference to the story occurs in the Sydney Daily Telegraph in 1923: A CONVICT’S HIDING-PLACE. In the hollow of this tree on Norfolk Island, a convict lived for seven years, but was ultimately caught by soldiers. Before he was shot, he was asked had he anything to say. “I hope that the two soldiers who caught me will be drowned the next time they go fishing.” — They were. A head-stone in the cemetery close by records their death. The convict’s name was Barney Duffy, and the valley is still called Barney Duffy’s Valley.

This account contains all the main elements of the story: the escape, the seven years in the tree, the capture, the curse, the execution, the drowning, and the headstone. It was repeated in The Australian Traveller in October 1928, and by the 1930s the story was so popular that it appeared on a postcard published by local photographer Henry Spencer-Salt. Spencer-Salt embellished the story with additional elements: the murder of two warders, Barney’s long, straggly beard and shreds of clothing, his extraordinary height, and the lurid curse.

In 1967, well-known journalist Frank Clune pooh-poohed this story because he could find no reference to Barney Duffy in the historical records, but modern writers continue to tell Spencer-Salt’sversion of the story, although they generally present it as legend.

I should point out that Barney Duffy has also become a mainstay of the island’s tourist culture. He is a staple of the bus drivers’ patter, and he turns up in the name of a popular restaurant. He is one of the characters in the Norfolk Island Museum’s play, The Trial of the Fifteen, and in 1974, well-known musician and composer Eric Jupp included “The Ballad of Barney Duffy” (lyrics by June Ryves) on his album Beautiful Norfolk Island.

So what is going on here? Is there any truth to the story of Barney Duffy? Well, there was certainly a place called “Barney Duffy’s Gulley”. It appeared on an 1840 map of Norfolk Island, located in the western part of the island near present-day Strawberry Fields on Anson Bay Road. We can be sure then that Barney Duffy, whoever he might have been, was alive and active some time before 1840.

Incidentally, the Pitcairners named a place on the west coast “Barney Duffy”, adjacent to the gully. They used to fish there and gather hihis (mollusks) off the rocks. Barney Duffy’s hollow pine was also in this vicinity, before it burnt down some time in the 1940s or 1950s.

Back to the historical Barney. The first clue was found by museum worker, Jeanine Brown, when doing some family history research. Jeanine’s research showed that Barney was transported from Norfolk Island to the Sydney Hulks on 20 July 1832, and that he was then forwarded to Hyde Park Barracks. It also showed that he had first arrived in New South Wales in April 1817 on the Shipley.

The next piece of information came when I was noodling around on the Internet and came across Barnard/Bernard Duffy’s name on the Descendants of Convicts (DOC) Group website. The listing showed that Duffy had arrived in Sydney on the first voyage of the convict ship Shipley on 24 April 1817. (By the way, the next entry was for Margaret/Mary Duffy who arrived in Sydney on the second voyage of the Friendship on 14 January 1818. We’ll come back to Margaret a little later.)

I wrote to the DOC Group and they gave me details about three Barnard Duffys. One had been transported to Tasmania in 1841 and was clearly not our man because he was never on Norfolk Island. Another was shipped on the Britannia from Madras, arriving in Sydney on 24 February 1814. This was not our man, but we need to keep an eye on him because he can muddy the waters.

The third Barney Duffey (not Duffy) was convicted at Berwick-upon-Tweed Gaol on 24 July 1816 and sentenced to Transportation for Life. This is our man — a 45-year-old flax dresser from Antrim in Ireland, 5 feet 6¾ inches tall with a fair to ruddy complexion, grey hair and grey eyes.

With this new information I now searched the online indexes on the State Records of New South Wales website. I soon found that Duffy/Duffey had received a Conditional Pardon — “conditional” that he didn’t return to Britain.

The pardon gives us a few tantalising new pieces of information. First, it appears that Duffy was being rewarded with a pardon, because the Governor mentions that “some favourable circumstances have been represented to me on his behalf”. These “favourable circumstances” may be a general reference to Duffy’s good behaviour on Norfolk Island, or they may be a specific reference to something Duffy had done. Keep in mind that Duffy was on Norfolk through a very troublesome period in the early 1830s and perhaps he was a trustee or even an informer.

Second, I knew a bit more about Duffy’s personal appearance. If he was 45 in 1816 then he was about 62 when he received his pardon. Now his complexion was sallow, and his hair grey and balding, and he had a tattoo of a square and compass between his thumb and forefinger, perhaps a Masonic symbol.

Finally, the pardon tells us that Duffy had been re-transported after being convicted of burglary in September 1823. When we dig deeper into the Colonial Secretary’s correspondence, we find a lot more about this offence and its consequences. In the company of two other men, Duffy had burgled a house in Richmond. He was found guilty and sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to Transportation for Life. In December 1823 he was transported to Port Macquarie on the Lady Nelson. Being a flax dresser by trade, Barney may have been one of the first chosen to go to Norfolk Island at the beginning of the second convict settlement in 1825.

The Colonial Secretary’s files also revealed another surprise: Barney’s wife, Mary, and his two children, Bernard and Catherine, also requested permission to go to Port Macquarie. So Barney had his family with him in Australia. Mary (aka Margaret) had been transported on the Friendship in 1818. Perhaps she deliberately committed a crime in order to follow her husband to Australia. In December 1830, when she was probably in her sixties and when Barney was still on Norfolk, Mary received an Exemption from Government Labour, allowing her to live with her now married daughter, Catherine Rolfe, in Port Macquarie and later in Sydney.

Now that I can place Barney, Mary and Catherine in Sydney in 1832, I thought there might be some evidence of his death. A Bernard Duffy was buried on 14 March 1838 in the Parish of St Philip’s in Sydney. He was said to have been a labourer living in Sydney and was 84 years old when he died. Except for his age, this man fits what is known about our Barney Duffy. And age is always a difficult thing. Our Barney would have been about 67 in 1838, but he may have looked a lot older. Keep in mind that he had been in the convict system for 16 years, including an extended period on Norfolk Island. It must be admitted however that this Barney may have been the one transported on the Britannia in 1814.

In the end, we are left with two Barney Duffys. The fictional Barney was a rogue who escaped his prison, lived rough, and was captured and executed, although not before cursing his captors. The fictional Barney will live on in various island stories and places. The real Barney Duffy must also have been a bit of a rogue who was sentenced twice for Life, but who was followed to Australia by his family, and was a trusted convict on Norfolk Island, even to the extent of having a gully named after him. He was eventually given his freedom and lived out his days in Sydney, labouring for a living. He was survived by at least two children, perhaps there are still descendants of Barney Duffy in Australia.

Image Credit: Robin Nisbet


Article content disclaimer: Article first published in 2899 Magazine V1 Iss2, 2008. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.

Discover Norfolk, YourWorld & 2899 Magazine
© 2023 Insprint. All Rights Reserved.

Disclaimer: Contents of Discover Norfolk, YourWorld & 2899 Magazine are subject to copyright. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission of the publisher is prohibited. The publication of editorial does not necessarily constitute an endorsement of the views or opinions expressed therein. The publisher does not accept responsibility for statements made by advertisers. All images are copyright unless stated otherwise.