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Francis MacNamara (1810–1861)

by R. H. W. Reece

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Francis MacNamara (c.1810-1861), convict, known as 'Frank The Poet', was possibly from County Clare, Ireland, although he was reported at his trial at Kilkenny in January 1832 to be 'a real Corkonian' in his speech. His writings show that he had a good education in English literature and was familiar with the Irish Bardic tradition and its poetic forms. MacNamara was entered in the convict records as both Protestant and Catholic and with different places of origin and occupations. Sentenced to seven years transportation for smashing a shop window and stealing a piece of cloth, he entertained the court to an extempore epigram expressing his happiness at being sent to 'Botany Bay'. Aboard the convict transport Eliza he composed 'a mock heroic poem' about his trial; this did not prevent him from incurring a flogging for 'bad conduct'.

Reaching Sydney on 6 September 1832, MacNamara was assigned to John Jones, but within three months was put in an ironed gang for an undisclosed offence. During the next eight years he received fourteen floggings (650 lashes) and served three and a half years in road gangs, thirteen days of solitary confinement and three months on the treadmill. Early in 1838 he was assigned to the Australian Agricultural Co. at Calala on the Peel River, before being moved to Stroud and in 1839 to the company's coalmines at Newcastle. Apparently refusing to work underground, he was transferred to an ironed gang at Woolloomooloo and from there to Parramatta, then to Berrima to work on road making. For escaping and carrying arms stolen from their guards, he and four others were sentenced to ten years, subsequently reduced to seven years, transportation to Van Diemen's Land in July 1842.

Apart from being punished for leading a successful go-slow protest, MacNamara did not get into trouble at Port Arthur. He received his ticket-of-leave in January 1847, his conditional pardon late that year and his full pardon in July 1849. Moving to Melbourne, he subsequently vanished from the record apart from an appearance in 1861 at the Mudgee goldfields in New South Wales where he made a genealogy for a local innkeeper and an illuminated copy of Burns's 'Man Was Made To Mourn'. An 1868 description by Marcus Clarke of an Irish poet in one of the 'low' Melbourne pubs sounds very like MacNamara, but there is no record of what became of him.

There is dispute over how many of the verses that circulated orally and were written down by other people late in the nineteenth century were composed by 'Frank the Poet'. Incontestably, he wrote his magnum opus, 'The Convict's Tour to Hell', while working as a shepherd at Stroud in October 1839, and subsequently at Newcastle composed three petitions to the authorities, in verse. Other works which can be more or less confidently attributed to him were: 'Dialogue Between Two Hibernians in Botany Bay', 'Labouring with the Hoe', 'The Seizure of the Cypress Brig', 'The Ballad of Martin Cash', the celebrated 'The Convict's Lament' (also known as 'Moreton Bay') and some epigrams. While possessing an extensive knowledge of classical literary allusions, he was also an extempore versifier. His poems and songs had instant appeal to the convict population for their spirited opposition to the 'System' and were enthusiastically rendered around the evening campfire wherever convicts gathered.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Meredith and R. Whalan, Frank the Poet (Melb, 1979)
  • B. Reece, ‘Frank the Poet’ in B. Reece (ed), Exiles from Erin (Lond, 1991).

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Citation details

R. H. W. Reece, 'MacNamara, Francis (1810–1861)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Frank the Poet
  • Hill, Francis



29 August, 1861 (aged ~ 51)
Mudgee, 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: theft (shop)
Sentence: 7 years
Court: Leinster (Ireland)
Trial Date: January 1832