People Australia

  • searches all National Centre of Biography websites
  • searches all National Centre of Biography websites
  • searches all National Centre of Biography websites

Browse Lists:

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

John Herbert Keeling (1764–1806)

John Herbert Keeling (1764-1806) was found guilty (as John Kellan) on 10 April 1783 at the Old Bailey, London, of stealing a sword from a house. Sentenced to 7 years transportation he, and his brother Charles, who had been sentenced to transportation at the same session for the theft of a silver tankard, were embarked on the transport Swift for America on 16 August 1783. Both men joined in the convict mutiny on the ship; John Herbert was retaken on 31 August 1783 and Charles on 1 September. The brothers were sentenced to death, commuted to life transportation, for being at large before the end of their term of transportation: the judge dubbed them both as ringleaders in the mutiny. 

John Herbert was sent to the Censor hulk on 20 October 1783. Charles was dispatched to the Mercury transport where he again joined in the convict mutiny, escaped, was recaptured and was being held on the Dunkirk hulk in 1786. The men's mother wrote pleaing letters to Evan Nepean and Lord Sydney begging for her sons' release. The letters worked for her eldest son Charles (b.1754), who was pardoned and released from the Dunkirk hulk five days before the convicts were removed to the transports for New South Wales. Herbert, however, was delivered to the Scarborough on 27 February 1787 and arrived at Sydney in January 1788 as part of the First Fleet.

John Herbert Keeling made an initial impression in the colony. Major Ross wrote to Nepean that, 'He has been unremitting in his diligence care and attention to detail to the discharge of the trust reposed in him, that of assistant to the Surveyor General. He is a man of education and considerable abilities... and I really believe... a sincere convert to reformation'.

In November 1789 Keeling was made principal of the night watch at Port Jackson. He was sent to Norfolk Island on the Sirius in March 1790 where he lived with Mary Martin. On 1 July 1791 he was subsisting two people on a Phillipsburgh lot and had cleared 96 rods and felled timber on 20 rods. In October 1791 he was sent to cultivate public ground at Ball's Bay with five other men who, wrote Ralph Clark, were 'nearly as great Rascals as Keeling'. He received 50 lashes on 31 October 1791 for contempt of Major Ross's orders not to come into camp.

Keeling left Norfolk Island on the Kitty for Port Jackson in March 1793 and received a conditional pardon in 1800. In January 1803 he was charged with assault and battery. In April 1806 he was charged with forging two £2 promissory notes. He conducted his own defence but the evidence was overwhelming and he was sentenced to death. He was hanged on 28 April 1806.

* information from Mollie Gillen, The Founders of Australia: A Biographical Dictionary of the First Fleet (1989), p 202

Additional Resources

Citation details

'Keeling, John Herbert (1764–1806)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 13 June 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Kellan, John Herbert
  • Killan, John Herbert

31 August, 1764
London, Middlesex, England


28 April, 1806 (aged 41)
Sydney, 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.

Passenger Ship
Key Events
Key Places
Social Issues
Convict Record

Crime: returning from transportation
Sentence: life