Elizabeth Anderson > The Convict Harpsichordist > John Grant
brought the first harpsichord to Australia
The first harpsichord to come to Australia arrived on the convict ship, the Coromandel in 1804. Needless to say, the instrumentís owner, John Grant, was not pleased to find himself amongst the 199 abominable villains whom the British Government had given him as companions.
Frustrated in love, Grant shot a London lawyer in the buttock and was sentenced to death at the Old Bailey. His was a crime of passion, arising from an illicit relationship with a certain Miss Ward. Grant, an honourable man, had asked the young ladyís guardian for a formal introduction. The guardian and family solicitor, Spencer Townsend was also an honourable man, loyal to Miss Wardís deceased father. He not only refused Grant access to his lover on any terms, but also arranged for her to become engaged to a more eligible gentleman.
One fine afternoon in April 1803, Grant followed Townsend to his home in St. Jamesí Place. On the steps outside the lawyerís door, Grant accosted him, offering him one of a pair of pistols. Townsend, refusing the pistol, told Grant that he was a foolish fellow, and bid him go about his business. There was a struggle, and as Townsend turned to run away, Grant pulled the trigger.
John Grantís much publicised trial took place at the Old Bailey in May 1803. In his defence, he stated that he had not intended to harm Townsend, but merely to frighten him, knowing that no harm could come to either of them through the firing of pistols, which he had loaded with swan-shot and powder.
Grant was sufficiently well-connected to have a petition written on his behalf to King George III, signed by 38 important people of the city of London. As a result, 12 hours before the death sentence was due to be enforced, it was commuted to transportation for the term of his natural life to the penal settlement of New South Wales.
While detained on the transport, Coromandel, at Portsmouth, Grant began a correspondence with his mother that was to continue throughout his exile until his pardon, and return to England in 1811. It is from one of his earliest letters, dated the 2nd December 1803 - that we learn of the contents of his luggage:
" I had almost forgotten to say, the Screws to my Lock with Hinges on the Harpsichord box are too large for the holes, but we make them do; but three small screws are wanting to fasten the Hasp on the Lid and I cannot do without some. Pray send me a few of different sizes, some very small. "
Grant was obviously keen to preserve his harpsichord in the best possible condition so that he might make good use of it during his time in the Colonies.
During his exile, keeping his diary and writing letters became Grantís raison díÍtre. While in New South Wales, he begged his mother to have some of his letters published in England " where thinking men dwell. " Above all, he wanted to expose the mistreatment of convicts and corruption that was rife in the penal colony. But Mrs Grant wisely consigned the letters to a banking friend. It was in a trunk in the vaults of a London bank that British Historian, William Hill-Reid came across the papers in 1953. Hill-Reidís book John Grantís Journey: A convictís story 1803-1811 (London, Heinemann) was published in 1957, and Grantís papers were donated to the Australian National Library.
The papers provide us with a unique glimpse of a gentleman convictís life.
Well-informed as to the state of the rum trade in New South Wales, Grant had acquired Spanish dollars while still in London, which he had exchanged in transit in San Salvador for a barrel of Aqua-Dante, " excessive fiery in its nature. " Grant knew that with the 60 gallons purchased, he would be able to buy sufficient livestock to support himself comfortably. The barrel of rum was confiscated on arrival, and despite many letters to Governor King, Grant never saw it again.
Having received no answer to his most recent letter, Grant decided to approach Governor King personally. As he sailed the little boat he had borrowed toward the little promontory from Sydney Cove, it was clear that there was a private gathering underway on the lawns of Government House. No one questioned Grant as he walked up the lawn to the group where Governor King was standing. " I waited on him " and announced my name." It was clear that he did not recognise Grant as a convict, " for he civilly touched his hat ". As Grant reminded the governor of the letter that he had sent last week, Kingís face betrayed a growing astonishment. " This Sir, is a most unwarranted intrusion, " he said sharply. " This is no way to seek audience with me " . At that moment, Grant was seized by the arm and collar. " Leave him go! " the Governor ordered, waving the soldier away. " Let him have his say, gentlemen. This is a free country surely. " This remark caused a burst of laughter, due to which the Governor did not at first hear what it was that Grant requested. " Your Excellency, I request a reply to my letter. That is all I ask. " Since Grantís most recent correspondence had been sent only a week earlier, the Governor quite fairly replied: " Mr Grant, I always like time to consider my replies. " Making the most of his opportunity, Grant continued, " I ask for freedom within the Colony sir, and I shall not rest until it is given to me! " At this the Governor cut him off: " Thatís enough Sir, Iíll hear no more. " Go sir ... I have had cause to remember your impertinence before. Go before I feel bound to bring further hardship upon you! " Grant slowly retired to his little boat.
Surprisingly, Grant was punished neither for this particular episode nor for the angry letter that he wrote Governor King on his return to the farm where he lived in Parramatta. But Grant had sworn himself upon an unfulfillable quest for justice. More letters followed. He publicly denounced King, and distributed a leaflet criticising his administration. This vexatious behaviour inevitably led to a sedition trial, resulting in his further confinement on Norfolk Island.
Many more colourful stories are to be found amongst John Grantís papers. A selection of these are published in the detailed booklet accompanying Elizabeth Andersonís new CD: The Convict Harpsichordist. Elizabeth has dramatised excerpts from the diary, in a show to be presented around Australia during 2004 to mark the 200th anniversary of the arrival of first harpsichord on these shores in 1804. For more details see forthcoming concerts
This show was premiered at the Old Bailey, in London by the City of London Festival in 2001.
Copyright © 2003-6 Elizabeth Anderson. All rights reserved.