In our celebrity-obsessed culture, we take for granted the fact that publishers hire ghost writers to assist, if not impersonate, the people considered famous or infamous enough to give us “their” life story. But imagine finding out that your autobiography had been written by someone you had never met, was published entirely without your consent or knowledge and you could do nothing to prevent it being sold as your work.
It may sound like a nightmare scenario from the latest Charlie Kaufman film, but that is exactly what happened to Australia’s first literary celebrity, the Irish-born convict George Barrington. For more than a decade before being transported to New South Wales, in 1791, Barrington was celebrated in the popular press in London as “the Prince of Pickpockets”.
Barrington’s extraordinary media profile was due to the fact that unlike most denizens of the underworld he had the manners of a gentleman and could thus gain access to high society and lucrative plunder. He also had the supposedly Irish gift of dock eloquence, swaying juries with copious tears and subtle rhetoric.
Barrington also impressed with his grooming and sense of fashion. At his January 1777 trial the London Chronicle reported that his appearance, though impressive, wasn’t enough to sway the court.
He is a very genteel man, about 21, and very far from athletic: his hair dressed à-la-mode; his clothes quite the taste; a fine gold headed taper cane, with suitable tassles, and eloquent Artois buckles. In short he is the genteelest thief ever remembered to have been seen at the Old Bailey, and it is a great pity he should have been condemned to so vulgar an employment as ballast heaving.
No serious professional criminal welcomes publicity, and becoming famous made it all the more difficult for Barrington to actually carry out his thefts. Recognised wherever he went, it was inevitable he would be caught.
The press displayed a similar attitude towards Barrington that the media today extends to some of our more notorious celebrities: a mixture of censoriousness and delight. Substantial coverage was given to his pick-pocketing technique, which involved specially made tools - diagrams of which were provided to readers. Such was his fame that souvenirs soon appeared, including earthenware mugs illustrated with Barrington picking a pocket or two. His career quickly became the subject of popular fiction, ballads and melodrama; his portrait was painted by leading artist Sir William Beechey, whose subjects included King George III and Lord Nelson.
The story of Barrington’s life contains many myths but his fame is beyond dispute: in 1827, more than 20 years after his death in Sydney, a writer in Blackwood magazine noted that “ninety-nine out of one hundred English people” would associate the colony of New South Wales with “ropes, gibbets, arson, burglary, kangaroos, George Barrington and Governor Macquarie”. Nearly a century after Barrington arrived in Australia, Marcus Clarke could write: “Most people have heard of George Barrington, the pickpocket. His name has become notorious - I had almost written famous - for gentlemanly larceny.” His fame endures in Robert Bresson’s 1959 classic film Pickpocket in which the Parisian thief Michel treasures his copy of a Barrington biography.
When Barrington disembarked at Port Jackson in 1791 after arriving with the third fleet, he found his reputation as a celebrity criminal preceded him. Watkin Tench, the best known chronicler of early Sydney, noted in his July 1791 diary: “In the list of convicts brought out was George Barrington, of famous memory.” Evidently Tench thought no other felon’s name worth mentioning.
No sooner had Barrington left London on his way to the penal colony at the other end of the world then publishers began printing what purported to be authentic accounts of his life and adventures written in the first person. Overnight Barrington became an immensely successful authorial brand without the man himself writing a word.
Any publisher today can confirm that there is nothing like having a celebrity to sell any kind of book, and Barrington’s name was applied to what Nathan Garvey describes in The Celebrated George Barrington: A Spurious Author, the Book Trade, and Botany Bay as a “dizzying number of republications, translations and adaptations”.
Apparently Barrington became aware that his name and fame were being exploited by unscrupulous publishers, but, as a convict serving time in New South Wales, he was powerless to do anything about it. A reformed character, the real Barrington was granted a full pardon and became Chief Constable of Parramatta. He retired on a state pension and eventually died insane in 1804.