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James Hardy Vaux (1782–1841)

by Averil F. Fink

This article was published:

James Hardy Vaux, c.1819, engraving

James Hardy Vaux, c.1819, engraving

State Library of New South Wales, DSM/A923.41/V385/3A1

James Hardy Vaux (b.1782), convict and author, was baptized on 20 May 1782 at East Clandon, Surrey, England, the son of Hardy Vaux, butler and house steward to George Holme Sumner, M.P., and his wife Sophia, daughter of James Lowe, an attorney who was clerk of papers and deputy-warden of the Fleet prison. After moving with his parents to London, where Hardy Vaux set up as a hatter in Great Turnstile, Holborn, James Vaux apparently attended a boarding school in Stockwell, but spent most of his childhood with his maternal grandparents in Shifnal, Shropshire. At 14, according to his own account, he persuaded his grandfather to apprentice him to a linen draper in Liverpool and it was here that he began the loose living which led to his downfall. Dismissed by his employer, he induced his grandfather to let him go to London, where he became a copying clerk in a legal firm in Lincoln's Inn but again lost his job owing to dissipation. Other intervals of employment followed including a spell in the navy: he volunteered in December 1798 and served in the frigate Astraea in the North Sea, according to the muster as an ordinary seaman, but originally as a midshipman by his own account. He deserted at Yarmouth next August and returned to his old life in London. After working for an attorney in Bury St Edmunds and for a Covent Garden clothing firm he was arrested in April 1800 for pilfering from the latter. He was acquitted but was by this time a professional thief, and in September he was sentenced at the Old Bailey to transportation for seven years for stealing a handkerchief, valued by the jury at elevenpence so that the accused might escape a capital sentence.

Vaux reached Sydney in the Minorca in December 1801 and worked as a clerk at the Hawkesbury, in Sydney and in Parramatta. Despite a term in the road-gang after he forged Governor Philip Gidley King's initials to commissariat orders he succeeded in ingratiating himself with the Parramatta chaplain and magistrate, Samuel Marsden, and with the governor, who agreed to take him home in the Buffalo in 1807. Vaux was employed on board in writing King's log and in teaching his and Marsden's children, but when his sentence expired he became insubordinate and was compelled to enlist as a seaman. When the ship reached Portsmouth Vaux deserted and resumed his old activities in London. On 21 July at St Paul's, Covent Garden, he married Mary Ann Thomas, a prostitute, in the hope that, if he were again transported she might be allowed as his wife to join him in New South Wales. In December he narrowly escaped a further conviction, this time for stealing a snuffbox, but in February 1809 he was sentenced to death at the Old Bailey under the alias James Lowe for stealing from a jeweller's shop in Piccadilly. This sentence was commuted to transportation for life and after a period in the hulk Retribution he sailed in the Indian and reached Sydney in December 1810. Assigned to a Hawkesbury settler and then appointed deputy-overseer of the town gang in Sydney, he was sentenced in 1811 to twelve months hard labour for receiving property stolen from the judge-advocate, Ellis Bent, and soon afterwards was sent to the Newcastle penal settlement. In January 1814, after returning to Sydney, he was caught while trying to escape in the Earl Spencer, flogged and returned to Newcastle.

During his previous spell there Vaux had compiled a slang dictionary for the use of magistrates, and he was now encouraged to write the famous Memoirs of the First Thirty-Two Years of The Life of James Hardy Vaux, A Swindler and Pickpocket; Now Transported for the Second Time, and For Life, to New South Wales. He implied that he wrote at the bidding of Captain Thompson, the commandant, and promised in his dedication that his future conduct would justify this patronage. The manuscript came into the hands of Barron Field who arranged for its publication in London by John Murray, along with the slang dictionary, but Murray's imprint does not appear on most extant copies. Vaux received £33 18s. 8d. in royalties. The Memoirs were republished by John Hunt in 1827 and reprinted in 1829 and 1830. As the first full-length autobiography written in Australia the book provides a fascinating picture of criminal life in London and the penal system, while the Vocabulary of the Flash Language, probably the first dictionary compiled in Australia, gives a valuable glossary of London slang. In 1827 the London Magazine described the work as 'one of the most singular that ever issued from the press'.

On 3 August 1818 at Newcastle, during a visit by Governor Lachlan Macquarie, Vaux married Frances Sharkey, a former Irish convict. Next month he was allowed to return to Sydney where Field used him as a clerk. In January 1820 he received a conditional pardon and soon became a clerk in the colonial secretary's office. In 1823 Vaux was converted to Roman Catholicism by Father John Joseph Therry, but on 2 April 1827 he was married to his housekeeper, Eleanor Bateman, another Irish convict, by Marsden, although Frances Vaux was still alive. At the end of 1826 Governor Darling dismissed Vaux in accordance with his policy of not employing convicts and ex-convicts as clerks. Vaux was then employed in an ironmonger's store but in April 1829 he absconded and so broke the terms of his conditional pardon. He went to Ireland, where in August 1830 at Dublin he was convicted once more under the alias James Young, this time for passing forged bank-notes. He pleaded guilty and, with the co-operation of the bank concerned, his death sentence was commuted to transportation for seven years. On his arrival at Sydney in the Waterloo in May 1831 he was recognized, his previous life sentence was revived and he was sent to Port Macquarie penal settlement. In 1837 he was allowed to return to Sydney and became clerk to a wine merchant. In May 1839 he was charged with criminal assault on a girl aged about 8. He was sentenced to two years imprisonment, and although Governor Sir George Gipps decided that his life sentence should be reapplied he was released in 1841 on the recommendation of Chief Justice Sir James Dowling and disappeared. No reliable record of his further life and death has been traced. Although he is the only convict known to have been transported three times to New South Wales he was probably not unique in this respect, nor was he an outstanding criminal. What does distinguish him is his Memoirs, which were republished (edited and with an introduction and notes by Noel McLachlan) in 1964.

Select Bibliography

  • A. F. Fink, ‘James Hardy Vaux, convict and fatalist’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 48 (1962).

Citation details

Averil F. Fink, 'Vaux, James Hardy (1782–1841)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

James Hardy Vaux, c.1819, engraving

James Hardy Vaux, c.1819, engraving

State Library of New South Wales, DSM/A923.41/V385/3A1

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Lowe, James
  • Young, James
  • Yonge, James

20 May, 1782
East Clandon, Surrey, England


1841 (aged ~ 58)

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
Sentence: 7 years
Court: Old Bailey, London
Trial Date: 17 September 1800


Left the colony: Yes