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John Harrison (1786–1839)

by Chris Cunneen

This article was published:

John Harrison (1786-1839) baker, soldier, radical conspirator, convict 

Birth: 1786 in Derbyshire, England, Marriage: (1) in England to Caroline. They had three children. Death: 17 April 1839 at Kelso (Bathurst), New South Wales, aged 54.

  • Served in the 2nd Life Guards, and fought in the Peninsular campaign. In 1814 moved to London but found little work and by 1820 lived at 6 Little Park Street, Marylebone. He joined the Marylebone Union Reading Society and was a participant in radical, republican circles loosely associated with the ideas of Thomas Spence (1750-1814), a writer, land reformer and campaigner for political and social reform. Harrison joined the Society of Spencean Philanthropists.
  • In February 1820 he was with other Spenceans, in a barn he had rented in Cato Street, Marylebone, near his residence, plotting to assassinate the British prime minister and his cabinet as part of a general uprising — “in the cause of liberty”, their leader Arthur Thistlewood claimed. Harrison managed to escape when the barn was raided by Bow Street Runers (police), and was arrested a few days later. He changed his plea to guilty at a late stage of the trial. Five of the ringleaders, Thistlewood, James Ings, Richard Tidd, William Davidson and Thomas Brunt, were hanged and beheaded on 1 May 1820. Though, as a former soldier, he was a significant figure among the conspirators — having rented the Cato Street barn and assisted in setting fire to the Knightsbridge barrack — Harrison escaped execution. With four other conspirators — Richard Bradburn, Charles Cooper, James Wilson and John Shaw Strange — he was convicted of high treason and sentenced to transportation for life. In Mark Dunn’s words all four “ were in trades threatened by the increasing industrialisation in Britain”.
  • The five convicts sailed from Portsmouth, aboard the Guildford, on 14 May and arrived in Port Jackson on 30 September 1820. The ship’s indent described Harrison as 6 feet 2 inches (188 cm) in height with dark eyes, dark brown hair and a pale, sallow complexion. [Later convict records gave varying details of his height and eye-colour.] In October the conspirators were sent in the Elizabeth Henrietta to Newcastle, where he probably worked in his trade in the mess kitchen.
  • In January 1824 Harrison was moved with other Cato street colleagues to Bathurst. He worked as a servant. In the same year he petitioned the governor to have his wife and children travel to Australia but it seems they did not do so. By 1825 he was a police constable working with Shaw Strange, when they helped capture some of the bushrangers in Robert Storey’s gang.
  • He obtained his ticket of leave on 30 April 1829. Dismissed from the police force for a misdemeanour in April 1829, he opened a bakery in Bathurst. Roger Therry described him as “a gaunt muscular man, upwards of six feet in height, with large black eyes starting from his head and thick jet-black hair hanging in profusion over a pale and rather forbidding visage . . . the very impersonation of a conspirator fit to have been enrolled under Catiline . . . he became a well-conducted man and an industrious baker”.
  • Governor Richard Bourke granted Harrison a conditional pardon on 31 December 1836.

George Parsons, The Cato Street conspirators in New South Wales, Labour History, No. 8, May 1965, pp 3-5; Mark Dunn, The convict valley: the bloody struggle on Australia’s early frontier (Sydney, 2020), p 91; Kieran Hannon, Designing and dangerous men: the story of the transported Cato Street conspirators, (Calwell, Australian Capital Territory, 2021), passim, especially pp 214-221; Cato Street conspiracy website (1):;  Cato Street conspiracy website (2):


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Citation details

Chris Cunneen, 'Harrison, John (1786–1839)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 21 April 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]


Derbyshire, England


17 April, 1839 (aged ~ 53)
Bathurst, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death


Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Passenger Ship
Convict Record

Crime: high treason
Commuted To: life
Court: Old Bailey, London
Trial Date: 12 April 1820


Occupation: baker
Married: Yes
Children: Yes (3)