~ writing niche history



S. T. Gill (STG) ~ 6. Are They Still Following Me?


Episodes: 1. The Controversy | 2. Why is the Sun Shining from the South? (Hindley Street) | 3. Alibis and Mystery | 4. Sunshine and Dating (Rundle Street) | 5. 10 August 1844 | 6. Are They Still Following Me? | 7. Gill’s Newfoundland Dog | 8. A Mystery of Provenance | 9. Man Dead! News Murdered!! | 10. More to Reveal … 




The Story So Far … And Some Side Excursions


I was initially enthusiastic about Babette Smith’s claim of convict origins for S. T. Gill. Her theory seemed plausible and it intersected with several interests of mine: the use of newspapers in colonial art (William Strutt’s Bushrangers), the upcoming STG exhibition at the National Library of Australia and tracking colonial characters who did not always want to be found. I saw the potential to hammer Trove Digitised Newspapers with search requests!


I set out neither to prove nor disprove Smith’s theory. I assumed Smith had accumulated much evidence for it. I just wanted to see what I could find.


I approached the research-writing cycle as a serial blog. As an admirer of, I aimed to share my research progressively before knowing its outcome. It put some extra pressure on me! And I hoped others might engage with the subject along the way.


In Episode 1, I placed a few extra hurdles before the “convict Gill” theory. The highest of these was the diary of John Howard Angas: “Out with Mr Gill the artist.” This meant the timing of the convict-artist transition was implausible, although perhaps not impossible if instead he escaped in September instead of December 1844. But I also had an issue with this diary reference in Appleyard’s timeline – he cited only a secondary source. However the diary itself is microfilmed in the State Library of South Australia. I’ve not heard if anyone has yet checked the primary source!


I followed some early leads that became dead ends. For a very short while, I thought STG may have appropriated an Adelaide newspaper nom de plume of someone who’d actually left Australia. But it turned out that the shipping report incorrectly identified the vessel’s destination and the writer had only made an intercolonial return trip, not an international one! It would have been nice to find a “smoking gun” for the convict theory. But had anyone really been shot?


I pressed on. I thought I could use Trove to date the scenes in some STG paintings. Business names in Hindley Street (Episode 2) and Rundle Street (Episode 4) were dateable. Both watercolours were dated to 1845. But in the case of the former, I could date the actual street scene itself to May 1844 – not possible under the “convict Gill” theory.


Between making these street level posts, I was emailed by Frank Campbell about his work on the genealogies and family histories of both the convict and the artist (Episode 3).


By this stage, the evidence weighed overwhelmingly against the “convict Gill” theory.


Minor leads also contributed to the overall impression. One such was that STG frequently includes grass trees (Xanthorrhoea) in his paintings. Although these are much more widespread in the east of Australia, they were well noted by contemporary artist George French Angas whilst exploring the Adelaide Hills stringybark forest. "Amongst the low flowering shrubs, the bulrush-like heads of the grass-tree (xantharea) impart a singular character to these Australian forests."


My research into Sturt’s departure (Episode 5) was further circumstantial evidence for STG’s presence at this major public occasion on 10 August 1844.


*   *   *


The STG controversy has not been without its collateral benefit. It has focused attention on what is known about STG and what can still be discovered. In coming episodes, I have significant finds to share about STG and his art.


STG painted himself looking over his left shoulder for the cover of The Australian Sketchbook, but we can confidently say he was not checking for convict hunting police.


Nevertheless, below are some interesting snippets I found while I was out with the hounds!


I’ve included links to references, including the newspapers and this page, in a Trove list: - S. T. Gill (STG) ~ 6. Are They Still Following Me?


Convict Gill Absconded from Van Diemen’s Land


On 28 April 1845, a John Gill (also reported as Joseph Gill) was charged at Port Phillip “with being a runaway convict from Van Diemen's Land, and with stowing himself away on board the Lillias. It seems from the statement of Captain Smith, that he discovered the prisoner concealed on board his vessel, and knowing he was not the John Gill who had cleared out at Hobart Town, he gave him into custody.” Gill claimed he was a freed convict and incredibly, that “the reason he had not provided himself, on leaving Hobart Town, with a certificate of freedom, was, because he did not reckon on being called upon to produce such a document in a free colony.” It was ordered that he be returned to Hobart by the Lillias.


It turns out he did have a ticket of leave, but the ink may not have been dry on it before he crossed Bass Strait.


The Southport Boat Tragedy


Convict Gill arrived in Hobart from Norfolk Island aboard Lady Franklin on 24 September 1844. On 20 December he absconded. His record notes “Absconded from Southport on the 20th Dec 1844 in a fisherman's boat. Supposed to have been lost at sea.”


Southport only rates one newspaper mention in that time span. It is illuminating. On 8 November, four constables from the Southport station were drowned.


Fatal Accident.—Four Constables Drowned.— We regret to record that, on Friday last, district constable Thomas Smith, of the Southport station, and three other constables (whose names we have not been able to ascertain,) were drowned by the capsizing of the boat during the gale, whilst crossing the Recherche with rations. There was a fifth constable in the boat, who, being a strong swimmer, miraculously saved his life. What renders the accident more distressing is, that inspector Smith has left a young wife, recently confined, entirely without support, and that two of the other constables were also married, and their widows are left to struggle through the world, with young children. We hope something will be done for them.


[Since the above paragraph was in type, we have learned, from a correspondent, that the names of the sufferers with inspector Smith, were two constables, of the names of Hodgkinson and Williamson, and the third a probation man of the name of Ward. The accident occurred off Sullivan's Point. Smith fought bravely for two hours, but at last sunk from exhaustion. Constable Williamson has left a widow and three children. The only survivor was picked up by Mr. Bruce, the pilot.]


The drowning tragedy may have meant that the Southport station had to become more reliant on convicts for transporting rations. And convict Gill may have seized such an opportunity. (I could not find a report of Gill’s Southport escape, but I imagine authorities would have been reluctant to report all abscondings to the press.)



COMING SOON – episodes on Provenance, Patronage and Poison.



David Coombe, 22 August 2016.



  7. Gill’s Newfoundland Dog



CITE THIS: David Coombe, 2016, S. T. Gill (STG) ~ 6. Are They Still Following Me?, accessed dd mmm yyyy, <>


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