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John Onions

Dr GRAEME SKINNER (University of Sydney)


To cite this:

Graeme Skinner (University of Sydney), "John Onions", Australharmony (an online resource toward the history of music and musicians in colonial and early Federation Australia):; accessed 3 April 2020


(ONION; John ONION the elder)

Musician, teacher of music, conductor of psalmody, convict, political prisoner

Born Shropshire, England, c.1768/72
Married Elizabeth DAVIES, Madeley, Shropshire, England, 19 February 1792
Arrived Sydney, NSW, 14-15 September 1818 (convict per Isabella, from England, 3 April)
Died Sydney, NSW, 25 August 1840, aged "68" (TROVE tagged by Australharmony)

Thomas Webster, A village choir, 1847; Victoria and Albert Museum; Wikimedia commons

Thomas Webster, A village choir, 1847; Victoria and Albert Museum; Wikimedia commons (DIGITISED)

Summary - John Onions, political prisoner, Australian convict, teacher of sacred music

In 1817, John Onions (or Onion) was a married man in his late forties, with several grown children, an iron founder by trade, and a keen musical amateur in the troubled industrial northern midlands of England. On 9 June that year, in his home town of Pentrich, Derbyshire, he and other iron workers joined disgruntled local weavers and quarrymen to organise a protest march on London, only to be arrested the military in Nottingham. Convicted of treason in September, three of the leaders were executed, while nine other ringleaders, including Onions, pleaded guilty in exchange for the lesser penalty of transportation for 14 years. He arrived in Sydney as a convict on the Isabella in September 1818.

Suffering from a "rupture", Onions was soon deemed unsuitable for heavy labour, and after passing through several assignments, found a sympathetic placement as "government servant" to the philanthropist and reformer Edward Smith Hall. In Onions's native midlands, music was widely cultivated among the working classes, and he himself was an experienced singing instructor, music copyist, and wind instrumentalist. As he later advertised in Sydney, he had been a practitioner of sacred music since the late 1780s, and, as a result had memorised "most of the tunes now in use in the Churches and Chapels in England." Hall encouraged Onions to put his experience to use around Sydney, and between 1823 and 1825 he was engaged as choir leader St. John's Church, Parramatta and later at St. Philip's, Sydney, as well as leading the the music on Sunday evenings at the Wesleyan Chapel, and giving singing lessons to school children.

Onions was granted a ticket-of-leave in 1825, and an absolute pardon in 1835. He had been working for many years delivering Sydney newspapers, when, on 31 October 1837, he slipped and fell into an excavation at the south end of Pitt Street, towards Liverpool Street, and broke his hip. A small sum raised by concerned subscribers allowed the elderly invalid to advertise for work as a music copyist, an instructor in "sacred music", and "teacher of the clarionet and German flute". He died, reportedly aged 72, on 25 August 1840.

England (to 1818)

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 (c.1790-1817), an 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:

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.

The trials of Jeremiah Brandreth, vol. 2, 18

According to a witness at the trial, Brandreth repeated some verses of poetry for the men to memorise as a chant:

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.

The trials of Jeremiah Brandreth, vol. 1, 75

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:

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 - the 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 . . .

The trials of Jeremiah Brandreth, vol. 1, 307

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:

. . . 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.

The trials of Jeremiah Brandreth, vol. 1, 6.

In the trial transcript, he appears as:

. . . John Onion the elder late of the said parish of Pentridge in the same county of Derby labourer.

The trials of Jeremiah Brandreth, vol. 1, 4.

A witness made the following identification:

. . . I saw one of the Onions, but I do not know his name, it was an elderly man.

The trials of Jeremiah Brandreth, 1, 147

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:

I have borne a good character before, and I beg pardon for my offence.

The trials of Jeremiah Brandreth, 2, 497

And pardon was, indeed, forthcoming, for all except the three sentenced to be executed, though there was an important condition, transportation for life:

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, [502] German Buxton, John Hill, and George Brassington, received his majesty's pardon, upon condition of being transported for life.

The trials of Jeremiah Brandreth, vol. 2, 501-02

Gaol records further reveal that, in 1817, John Onions was:

49, iron worker, of Pentrich"

That would make his birth year 1768, and him somewhat 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.

The event was noted in the parish register:

On the evening of 9 th June an Insurrection broke out in Pentrich, S. Wingfield, Swanwicke, and Ripley, which was quell'd next day at or in the neighbourhood of Kimberley.

But John Chrales Cox, in his history of the church, took issue with this:

This entry refers to that unfortunate outbreak of a few half-starved peasants, excited by the designing informers and perjured spies of the Government, that was hatched at the White Horse, Pentrich. To call it an "insurrection" is simply a ridiculous parody on the word. Three of these poor men were hung and beheaded at Derby two of them, William Turner and Isaac Ludlam, being natives of South Wingfield. Several labourers of Pentrich were transported for life. To dignify this disturbance as an insurrection, and to charge its participator's with high treason, was as inhuman as it was foolish.*

[FOOTNOTE] * It has hitherto never been chronicled that the poet Shelley witnessed the execution of Brandreth, Turner, and Ludlam, on November 7th, 1817, at Derby; the ghastly details of which made a great impression on his mind. On the previous day the Princess Charlotte died in childbirth. Shelley seized the occasion to write a vigorous pamphlet, drawing a contrast between the two deaths, and giving various details respecting the Derby execution. It is an 8vo pamphlet of 16 pages, with the singular title: "We pity the plumage, but forget the dying bird." An address to the people on the death of the Princess Charlotte. By the Hermit of Marlow. This pamphlet, which recently came into our hands, is one of extreme rarity, as may be judged from the fact that Mr. Rosetti was unable to procure a copy for reference, when writing his recent life of the poet, and misrepresents its contents.

The disturbance was ingeniously seized upon by the vicar of Pentrich, John Wood, to further a subscription towards the "intended Chapel of Ease at Ripley." In a circular signed by him, and issued in 1819, he says that the smallness of church accommodation in that parish "has occasioned a neglect of religious duties and morals, the lamentable effects of which during the last two years are but too well known, and have rendered it an imperious duty upon the well-disposed inhabitants to take some means for stemming the torrent of irreligion and disaffection." [Add. MSS., 6,673, f. 112.] Ripley church was built in 1821.

J. Charles Cox, Notes on the churches of Derbyshire . . . vol. 4, the hundred of Morleston and Litchurch, and general supplement (Chesterfield: W. Edmunds, 1879), 361-62 (DIGITISED)

An 1831 gazetteer described Pentrich as it was both before and after the 1817 rebellion:

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.

Samuel Lewis, A topographical dictionary of England: comprising the several counties (London: S. Lewis and Co., 1831), vol. 3, 521

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:

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 [348] 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.

Ebenezer Rhodes, Peak scenery; or, The Derbyshire tourist (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, 1824), 347-48

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:

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 [431] 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."

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

Edward Charles Close, St. Philip's Church, Sydney, c. 1825 (detail); State Library of New South Wales (DIGITISED)

Documentation (NSW)

14-15 September 1818, arrival of the Isabella

"Ship News", The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (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.

Lachlan Macquarie, Diary 9 July 1818 - 28 February 1820 (Mitchell Library, ML Ref: A774, 7-11 [Microfilm Reel CY301 Frames #409-413]) (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)

19 June 1823, John Onions assigned to Edward Smith Hall

Letter, from Magistrate's court, Parramatta, 2 September 1823, to Colonial Secretary, Sydney; State Records NSW, Colonial Secretary Index, 1788-1825 (Reel 6057; 4/1768 pp.186-86a) (DIGITISED)

The magistrate's court at Parramatta wrote to the Colonial Secretary in Sydney, on 2 October 1823, inquiring to whom Onions was regularly assigned; [added at foot of page] "answer - to E. S. Hall on the 19 June 1823, Col, Sec's Office, 6 October 1823."

Letter (letterbook copy), from Colonial Secretary, Sydney, 7 October 1823, to Resident Magistrate, Parramatta; State Records NSW, Colonial Secretary Index, 1788-1825 (Reel 6011; 4/3509 p.378) (DIGITISED)

Reply as above

21 December 1824, petition of Edward Smith Hall on behalf of his former servant, Onions, for mitigation of sentence

Memoiral, Edward Smith Hall, Sydney, 21 December 1824, to governor Thomas Brisbane; State Records NSW, Colonial Secretary Index, 1788-1825 (Fiche 3242; 4/1872 p.83) (DIGITISED)

To His Excellency Sir Thomas Brisbane K.C.B / Governor and Commander in Chief / &c. &c. &c.

The Memorial of Edward Smith Hall

Most respectfully sheweth

That John Onions, prisoner of the Crown lately the assigned Government servant of Memorialist but ["lately" crossed out] now ordered into Barracks on account of not sleeping under the roof of Memorialist is one of those deluded men who in the year 1817 was convicted at Derby of sedition sentenced to transportation for life and arrived here in the month of September 1818 in the convict ship Isabella Wallace master.

That the said John Onions being ruptured and upwards of fifty years of age was found incapable of labour & ever since his arrival in the colony though assigned originally as a Government servant to divers individuals earned his own subsistance by writing teaching & performing sacred music.

That the said John Onions formerly led the Choir of Parramatta Church & while he was in the service of Memorialist he led the Choir of St. Philip's Church in the afternoons of Sunday and in the evenings of Thursdays and the Choir of the Wesleyan Chapel of Sabbath evenings.

That the said John Onions played at Festivals by the express permission of Memorialist but not at public houses. And Memorialist not requiring all the music which the said John Onions could furnish as to writing & playing during the week Memorialist permitted him to teach sacred music to the schools respectively of Henry Rainford, Daniel Burstow & others by which means the habit of [verso] [? playing] hymns was much promoted among the children of Sydney and Memorialist always considered the said Onions to be in this respect a valuable member of society.

That by these means aided by the occasional orders for written music of Memorialist which were always paid for the said John Onions earned for himself a frugal subsistence and during the six years he had been in the Colony was never brought before any Magistrate for any fault but always behaved himself as a quiet sober man.

Memorialist therefore humbly prays Your Excellency to grant unto the said John Onions a Ticket-of-leave - or to permit him to sleep out of barracks & to be under the guidance & protection of Memorialist.

And Memorialist will ever pray &c. / [signed] E. S. Hall / Sydney the 21st December 1824

[Annotation:] John Onions in whose behalf this Memorial is written, is an aged, infirm Man, and incapable of ordinary labour as a Prisoner of the Crown - I believe him to be in other respects worthy of the indulgence herein prayed for in his behalf / [signed] T. Campbell, J.P.

[Annotation:] John Onions was employed to conduct the Psalmody in the Church of St. Philip on Sunday afternoons, and Thursday evening, nearly 6 months Viz. from 17 March to 7 Sept'r. 1824 / [signed] William Cowper.

John Onions, paid from the Colonial Fund, 31 December 1824, for conducting the psalmody at St. Philip's, 18 March to 17 September 1824; NSW, Colonial Secretary's papers, 1788-1825 (Reel 6039; 4/424 p.417) (DIGITISED)

[Government notices], The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (3 October 1825), 1

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. 18, 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 . . .

New South Wales, general muster, 1825, M-Z; State Archives of NSW

Onions, John / C [convict] / Isabella / 1818 / L [life] / G.S. [general servant] E. S. Hall, Sydney

[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 . . .

1828 New South Wales, Australia Census (Australian Copy), L-T; State Archives of NSW, series 1273

88 / Onion, John / 55 / [T. L.] / Isabella / Life / [assigned] Thos. Evans, Elizabeth St. / Sydney

Sydney Wesleyan Chapel, records, 12 May 1828; Rushworth 1988, Historic organs of New South Wales, 37

The first Wesleyan Chapel in Sydney opened in 1817 and was situated in Princes Street. A larger Chapel opened in 1821 on the west side of Macquarie Street, near the corner of King Street . . . The minute book of the Chapel Committee for the Princes Street and Macquarie Street Chapels records a resolution passed on 12 May 1828, "That John Onions be in attendance every Monday evening for the purpose of raising the tunes". Onions evidently used a violin or bass viol, for a payment of 6s for "music strings" is also noted, in addition to his quarterly salary of £2 3s 4d. When he purchased a bassoon for £5, his salary increased to £3.

[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.

Tickets of leave butts, February to November 1831; State Archives of New South Wales

[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 . . .

Recommendation for absolute pardons; New South Wales, convict registers of absolute pardons, 1826-44; State Archives of NSW

[1835] Jan 1 / Onion, John, the elder / [ship] Isabella / [master] Berry / 1818 / Shropshire / Iron founder / Riot / Life / 1784 / 5ft 8 1/2 ins / [complexion] dark ruddy / [hair] dark brown to grey / [eye] Chestnut dark / Scar top of fourth finger of left hand

1 January 1835; Absolute pardon; Sydney Living Museums, Hyde Park Barracks (DIGITISED)

[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

and thereafter also in The Monitor and 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

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

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 and Chapels in England, 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

JOHN ONIONS. Teacher of the Clarionet and German Flute, Writer of Music, &c., Elizabeth street South, two doors from Park street.

Advertisement re-run until 2 July 1840

"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 . . .

Musical resources

Beaumont's funeral ode, Alas! alas! and is the spirit fled, from Humbert's Union harmony 2nd edition, 1816, 272

Funeral ode - Alas! alas!and is the spirit fled - by John Beaumont (1761-1822)

One identifiable Wesleyan musical work for which John Onions may well have led a performance, was the funeral ode by John Beaumont, Alas! alas! and is the spirit fled, sung at the evening service at the Wesleyan Chapel, Macquarie Street, on 6 August 1826, when the Rev'd Ralph Mansfield read a funeral sermon for the the late Mary Cover Lawry, wife of the Rev'd Walter Lawry, and daughter of Rowland Hassall. Mrs. Lawry died in England, shortly after having returned there, but her death was commemorated by her co-religionists in Sydney as soon as news of it was received.

"AN ANTHEM", The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (9 August 1826), 3 


ALAS! alas! and is the Spirit fled?
And is our Friend now numbered with the dead? . . .

"LAMENTED OBITUARY", The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (26 July 1826), 3 

John Beaumont (1761-1822), a Wesleyan preacher, first published the music in his Four anthems adapted for publick worship . . . . . . with a thorough bass for the organ, to which are added sixteen psalm or hymn tunes (London: G. Paramore, for the author, [1793]).

The words and music were reproduced, as pictured above, by Stephen Humbert in a Canadian collection in 1816.

Union harmony; or, British America's sacred vocal musick, from the most approved English and American composers . . . second edition . . (St. John, New Brunswick: Stephen Humbert, 1816), 272-79 (DIGITISED)

Beaumont discussed how he came to compose music in the autobiographical appendix to his A treatise on the lowness of spirits:

I shall just beg leave to mention the little concern I have had with music since I became a Minister - the reasons of my composing and publishing, and my views of introducing the praises of God into public worship.

I have already said, that after my first becoming serious, I was about fourteen years without paying much attention to it . . . The first time I paid much attention to it again, was in Nottingham Circuit; then I began to write out a [397] few things for my own private use, just to refer to when necessary, and, from less to more, I went on till I had collected the volume which I first offered to the public . . .

All my own compositions have chiefly been the impressions of the moment, occasioned by some peculiar circumstance. My first anthem was occasioned by my wife's affliction, Have mercy upon me, O Lord, for I am in trouble. My second was to encourage myself under it, I cried unto the Lord, with my voice did I make my supplication. My third was composed on her recovery, It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord, and to sing praises unto thy name. The last was to return thanks to God for her recovery, In thee, O Lord, do I put my trust, let me never be ashamed. My Funeral Ode was composed on the death of a good young man at Hathorn, in Leicestershire, of the name of John Harriman, "Alas! alas! and is the spirit fled? and is my friend now numbered with the dead?" . . .

A treatise on lowness of spirits, and the disease of melancholy; also, a number of short sermons on various subjects . . . by John Beaumont (London: Printed for the author, 1808), 396-97 (SIGITISED)

On Beaumont, see also his son's autobiography, The life of the Rev. Joseph Beaumont, M.D. (London: Hamilton, Adams, and Co., 1856) (DIGITISED)

Williams's hymns

A collection of psalm and hymns tunes in common use among church and dissenting congregations in England during Onions's youth, c. 1770s and 1780s:

British psalmody, being a new and complete sett of one hundred and sixty psalm and hymn tunes, all in four parts and correctly figured for the organ, originally compiled by the late A. Williams (London: J. Preston, [1770]) (DIGITISED)

Rippon's hymns

A collection of psalm and hymns tunes in common use among dissenting congregations in England c. 1790s to 1820s:

A selection of pslam and hymn tunes from the best authors, in three and four parts, adapted principally to Dr. Watts's hymns and psalms and to Mr. Rippon's selection of hymns . . . by John Rippon, A.M. (London: Sold by Mr. Rippon, [c. 1795]) (DIGITISED)

The selection of tunes in miniature, adapted to the Piano Forte, &c., containing the air and the bass of all the tunes in the large volume, being above 300, with odes, &c., by John Rippon, D.D. with new familiar lessons (London: sold at Dr. Rippon's Vestry, 1817) (DIGITISED)

On Rippon's hymns in Sydney, see this advertisement placed by the Wesleyan printer, Robert Howe in 1823:

, [Advertisement], The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (15 May 1823), 4 

RIPPON's COLLECTION OF HYMNS will be purchased of any Person having such Book to dispose of, by applying to R. HOWE.

Bibliography and resources

The trials of Jeremiah Brandreth, William Turner, Isaac Ludlam, George Weightman, and others, for high treason under a special commission at Derby . . . October 1817, with the antecedent proceedings . . . volume 1, taken in short hand by William Brodie Gurney (London: Butterworth and Son, 1817) (DIGITISED) (DIGITISED)

The trials of Jeremiah Brandreth, William Turner, Isaac Ludlam, George Weightman, and others, for high treason under a special commission at Derby . . . October 1817, with the antecedent proceedings . . . volume 2, taken in short hand by William Brodie Gurney (London: Butterworth and Son, 1817) (DIGITISED) (DIGITISED)

"Pentrich rising, 1817", in John Cannon (ed.), A dictionary of British history (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001) (PREVIEW)

Graeme D. Rushworth, Historic organs of New South Wales (Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1988), 37 

Stephen Bates, "England's forgotten armed uprising to be celebrated in Derbyshire", The guardian (7 June 2017) (ONLINE)

Online only

The Pentirch rebellion 

"Jeremiah Brandreth", Wikipedia 

"Pentrich rising", Wikipedia 

© Graeme Skinner 2014 - 2020