Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Joseph Gerrald (1760–1796)

by John Earnshaw

This article was published:

Joseph Gerrald (1760-1796), political reformer, was the only son of an Irish planter of St Kitts in the West Indies. Brought to England as a child, at 12 he was left an orphan with a substantial inheritance. He was placed under the care of the celebrated pedagogue, Dr Samuel Parr, at Stanmore, who gave him a fatherly affection and became a lifelong friend. On attaining his majority Gerrald returned to the West Indies where he found his fortune dissipated. He married imprudently and was left a widower with two young children. Following these misfortunes he went to the United States where he practised at the Bar in Philadelphia and published several essays on universal suffrage.

In 1788 he returned to England to prosecute a lawsuit for the recovery of his patrimony; he became a prominent figure in radical circles centred on the London Corresponding Society which strongly advocated drastic parliamentary reform. Gerrald's own views were forcefully expressed in a pamphlet, A Convention the only means of saving us from ruin, in a letter addressed to the People of England (London, 1793). Arising out of these activities he and Maurice Margarot were sent as delegates of the society to the 'British Convention of the Delegates of the People' then assembled at Edinburgh, where his impassioned and indeed revolutionary eloquence made him one of the outstanding figures of that assembly which modelled its procedures and modes of address on that of the French revolutionaries. This and the increasing public clamour greatly alarmed the Tory government and on 5 December 1793 he and Margarot were arrested for sedition but allowed bail. Gerrald returned to London where Parr and others urged him to leave England and so escape the sentence of transportation already passed on his fellow reformers Thomas Muir, William Skirving and Thomas Fyshe Palmer, but he refused saying 'But my honour is pledged; and no opportunity for flight, however favourable—no expectation of danger, however alarming—no excuse for consulting my own safety, however plausible, shall induce me to violate that pledge'. Brought to trial at Edinburgh on 3 March 1794 before a prejudiced bench and jury, he conducted himself with great dignity, and although the reasoned eloquence of his defence drew admiration from all present he was convicted and sentenced to fourteen years transportation. The severe and perhaps illegal sentences passed on Gerrald and his fellow reformers caused widespread indignation from those advocating reasonable change in public affairs and formed the subject of debate in parliament. Despite this outcry, and although in failing health, Gerrald was kept for over twelve months in Newgate gaol, though he was allowed for a time the company of his young daughter, who died soon afterwards, and was frequently visited by many friends including Parr and William Godwin.

On 2 May 1795, without warning or being able to make any preparation for the voyage, he was taken from his sick bed to the storeship Sovereign at Gosport, then about to sail for New South Wales. He arrived at Sydney on 5 November 1795, far advanced with tuberculosis. Governor John Hunter allowed him to purchase a small house and garden at Farm Cove where he lived the retired life of an invalid. Early in the next year he became so enfeebled that he was taken to the house of his fellow exile, Thomas Palmer, where he received the constant care of John Boston and his wife, who lived there, and also that of the liberal minded surgeon, George Bass. He died on 16 March 1796, and was buried at his expressed wish in his garden at Farm Cove, where a tombstone carried the inscription 'He died a martyr to the liberties of his country, in the 36th year of his age'.

Gerrald's character is best summed up in the words of Lord Cockburn, the Scottish judge: 'He was an Englishman, a gentleman, and a scholar; a man of talent, eloquence, and fidelity to his principles and associates; the rashness of whose enthusiasm in the promotion of what appeared to him to be the cause of liberty, though not untinctured by ambition and vanity, was the natural result of the political fire which at that time kindled far less inflammable breasts. The purity of his intentions was above all suspicion'.

Select Bibliography

  • The Trial of Joseph Gerrald (Edinb, 1794)
  • T. J. Howell (ed), State Trials, vol 23 (Lond, 1817)
  • J. Johnstone (ed), The Works of S. Parr … With Memoirs of His Life and Writings, vols 1-8 (Lond, 1828)
  • H. Cockburn, An Examination of the Trials for Sedition … in Scotland, vols 1-2 (Edinb, 1888)
  • H. W. Meikle, Scotland and the French Revolution (Glasgow, 1912)
  • ‘Memoirs and Trials of the Political Martyrs of Scotland … 1793-4-5’, Tait's Edinburgh Magazine, Jan 1837
  • Chartist Circular, 14 Dec 1839
  • Thomas Fyshe Palmer papers (Manchester College, Oxford, copy at State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

John Earnshaw, 'Gerrald, Joseph (1760–1796)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]




16 March, 1796 (aged ~ 36)
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
Convict Record

Crime: insurrection
Sentence: 14 years