John Popjoy and the Mutiny on the CyprusReturn to Famous Pobjoys

In August 1829 the brig Cyprus was seized by convicts being taken from Hobart to Macquarrie Harbour on the desolate west coast of Van Diemen's Land, as Tasmania was then known. The mutineers left the crew, passengers and those convicts unwilling to join them marooned in Recherche Bay. They were only rescued after John Popjoy, one of the prisoners, built a coracle and rowed it up the coast to fetch help. The engraving below, which comes from the Hobart Town Courier, shows Popjoy building the coracle. Lt Carew, the unfortunate commander of the brig, laments in the foreground, while his wife Eliza holds one of their children.

John Popjoy builds a coracle

There are many accounts of the mutiny and the part played by John Popjoy in Australian sources, while Reg Godwin (1), a 4-times great-nephew of John Popjoy, has taken a special interest in the Cyprus affair. There is also a very interesting account (2) of the affair with reference to the career of its commander, Lieutenant Carew, by Joan Carew Richardson in the Journal of One-Name Studies.

John Popjoy was descended from one of the London branches of the family. He was born in March 1800 and baptised at St Leonard's, Shoreditch, the fifth child of William Pobjoy, a butcher, and Sarah Pobjoy, nee Lee. The family moved to the Lambeth/Newington/Brixton/Clapham area soon after. On 3rd April 1817, at the Surrey Lent Assizes in Kingston, John was sentenced to a year's hard labour for stealing a gelding worth five pounds which, it seems, he and his accomplices sold to a knacker: but on 12th April he was apparently sentenced to death for the same offence, subsequently commuted to 14 years' transportation. He sailed on the Larkins under Captain Wilkinson and is recorded in the Tasmania Muster for 1820.

According to the evidence John Popjoy subsequently gave during the trial (3) of the Cyprus mutineers at the Old Bailey, he was charged with highway robbery in the colony, but acquitted. He also claimed to have received 200 lashes at Botany Bay on another occasion. The trial record notes that, since his return to London, he had been taken to a police station for beating the father of a woman he was courting, and he had also been arrested for attempted housebreaking. This was to have fatal consequences for the mutineers, since Popjoy secured his release by telling the Thames Street magistrates of his heroic part (4) in the Cyprus affair.

Seven of the escaped convicts had landed in China and succeeded in persuading the British authorities that they were survivors of a shipwreck (5). They were put aboard ships sailing for England, but an eighth mutineer subsequently aroused suspicion when he got the alibi wrong. He was sent to London in chains on a ship which overtook the mutineers', and they were arrested on their arrival. They were brought before the Bench at Thames Street, and the evidence against them did not seem conclusive. Unfortunately for them, however, the clerk of court remembered John Popjoy's story of the mutiny and put two and two together. Popjoy's evidence made a crucial difference, though one wonders how reliable his identification of the jolly-boat and the soldier's shirt was.

Four of the mutineers were found guilty of seizing the Cyprus and also of 'piratically and feloniously beating and wounding John Popjoy and others'. Popjoy continued to make the most of his part in the affair, both through his contention that the real ring-leaders had escaped justice and by appealing, unsuccessfully, to Queen Adelaide, Viscount Melbourne, the Duke of Wellington and the Admiralty for a pension.

In June 1832 he married Mary Ann Kirke at St Mary's, Newington. Elizabeth Sarah, their only child, was baptised there in October 1833. According to the Hobart Town Courier(6) for 28th March 1834, John Popjoy died before this, on 31st August 1833:

About 4 months ago Popjoy joined the Kingston, for Quebec, returning in the William, laden with timber. When off Boulogne she was blown on to a sandbank and lost, Popjoy, with one other of the crew being washed overboard and drowned.

John's widow Mary Ann married George F. Whitesides in Lambeth in 1847. His daughter Elizabeth appears to have died, unmarried, in Fulham in 1905. There are a good few living Pobjoy descendants of John's older brother Francis Joseph and his younger brother James.

Whatever bravery and initiative John Popjoy showed in effecting the rescue of those set ashore by the mutineers, he does not come across as an appealing character, and the sympathy of Australian accounts (7) tends to lie with the mutineers:

We first addressed the soldiers, "For liberty we crave!
Give up your arms this instant, or the sea will be your grave.
By tyranny we've been oppressed, by your Colonial laws,
But we'll bid adieu to slavery, or die in freedom's cause.

(1) It is to Reg Godwin that I owe much of my information about John and the seizure of the Cyprus. John's surname is spelt in various ways in different records, but Pobjoy is the standard spelling in his branch of the family. Back to text

(2) Joan A. C. Richardson: Two-part article, 'The Carews of Garrivoe' in the Journal of One-Name Studies,Vol. 5 Nos. 2 and 3. Back to text

(3) For an account of the trial, see The Times, 5th Nov 1830.See also Mitcham, The Mutiny and Piratical Seizure of the Convict-Brig Cyprus When on a Voyage from Hobart-Town to Macquarrie Harbur during August 1829, being the Apprehension, Trial, Sentence of the Mutineers, as Reported by The Times of Oct 14th to Dec 14th 1830, (Sydney, 1968): copy in the British Library. Back to text

(4) For John's accounts of his exploits and attempts to reap the rewards of his heroism, see the Times, 13th May 1830, 14th Dec 1830, 13th Aug 1832 and 10th Sept 1832. Back to text

(5) The 'shipwreck': According to Bill Wannan in Legendary Australians, a colonial cavalcade of adventurers, eccentrics, rogues, ruffians, heroines, heroes, hoaxers, showmen, pirates and pioneers (Rigby, Adelaide, 1974), the mutineers had come across the wreck of the Edward and found the captain's name engraved on a sextant. Other sources I know of for the Cyprus affair are:

(6) Quoted in Mitcham, op. cit., p. 69. Back to text

(7) From Frank Macnamara ("Frank the Poet"), 'Seizure of the Cyprus Brig in Recherche Bay', quoted in Wannan, op. cit. Back to text

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