WILLIAM TUNKS (Tonks) (c1754 – 1821)

William Tunks (Tonks) was a marine on board HMS Sirius. There is some discrepancy in records as to his life before 1788. Joyce Cowell in 2001 substantiated the following information from original documents. “He served as a marine during the War of American Independence and was discharged from the Marines at the end of that war. Eighteen months later when there was a recruitment drive in Warwickshire, he joined up again as a member of the 69th Company, Portsmouth Division. He served on the Ganges, a British training vessel for the next 20 months and was then discharged to Hasler Hospital at Gosport. While being victualled ashore, his aged was recorded as 26 which ties in with his age of 18 when he first enlisted.”1 

He was victualled at Portsmouth in readiness for the sailing of the First Fleet in May 1787 to Botany Bay. He was one of a party of 12 supernumeraries (all artisans of various trades-William being a gimlet maker.) The Fleet included three store ships, six convict transports and the two naval vessels HMS Sirius and HMS Supply. HMS Sirius was the flagship of the First Fleet. William remained on the Sirius on the long journey to Botany Bay. As history has now recorded, the settlement in Australia was made further north in Port Jackson and Sydney Town was the start of a new life for William in January 1788. 

Life was harsh and got progressively worse in the first two years that William was in Sydney. All inhabitants lived on rations brought out on the ships and then rations were further reduced as crops failed. Grain was also badly affected by weevils. Clothing began to wear out and some marines went barefoot. Basic furniture of chairs, tables and beds were limited.  With declining food stocks and famine approaching, I wonder what William’s thoughts were when the Second Fleet was sighted in June 1790. 

From 1791 to 1792, the marines from the settlement were disbanded as their terms of enlistment expired. Some went back to England. However, William accepted the offer of being a settler and he took up a land grant on Norfolk Island. On the 28th October 1791 he sailed with 29 other ex-marines on HMS Atlantic to Norfolk Island and arrived on the 4th November 1791, just over a year after Sarah had arrived there. His marine life was behind him. 

William and Sarah on Norfolk Island

William’s land grant of 60 acres, by all accounts was on the left of Cascade Road, Phillipsburg.

Official recordings of marriages and cohabitation are scant around this time. Although there is no marriage certificate recorded, they lived as man and wife and their daughter Rebecca, also known as Ann, was born on the 5th August 1792. Modern day calculators of conception dates, based on date of birth, would indicate that it was possible for a child born on the 5th August 1792 to have been conceived on the 5th November 1791. Along with the possibility of premature births, it seems possible and indeed probable that William was the father of Ann. He didn’t waste any time! 

As the wife of a free settler Sarah may have been subjected to less severe discipline than as a convict, which was perhaps a blessing considering how often she was sentenced to flogging in the year before William arrived. 

On the 7th March 1793, just sixteen months after William arrived in Norfolk Island, William, Sarah and their daughter Rebecca (Ann) left Norfolk Island and returned to Sydney on board HMS Kitty. Records on Norfolk Island edited by Raymond Nobbs, show that Sarah arrived as a convict, lived as a married person and was the spouse of marine. By the time they returned to Sydney Town, Governor Arthur Phillip had returned to England, the NSW Corps had replaced the Marine Corps and the colony was now under the command of Major Francis Grose. 

Grose strengthened the authority of the NSW Corps, abolished civilian courts and offered generous land grants with free convict labour to the Officers of the NSW Corps. Alcohol trade became monopolised by the military earning them the name “The Rum Corps”. Rum now became the source of currency due to the shortage of coins. This stranglehold of the economy by the NSW Corps was to stay until the time of Governor Macquarie in 1809. 

Sydney life

Back in Sydney in 1793 William enlisted in the NSW Corps. As a soldier he was able to take up land grants. In 1795 William was granted 25 acres on the Hawkesbury River near Windsor. This land was later sold to John Palmer. Sarah and William’s second child, John, was born on the 8th March 1795. Two other children died as infants, Abraham died in 1798 and Esther died in 1801. Another son, Charles, was born in 1801. In 1803 a further 140 acres of land was granted in the Castlereagh area on the Nepean. This would be in the area we know today as Penrith. Joyce Cowell in Memorial to a Marine, states that William was a substantial and successful farmer. However, he and Sarah also had to endure very harsh times especially during the disastrous floods of 1806 when the Hawkesbury River rose 47½ ft and the settlers were badly affected. Governor King asked the Reverend Samuel Marsden and Thomas Arndell to report on the impact. They commented: “Tunks – No wheat – No corn – No pigs – Wife and 3 children. Wife near her time.” William also had a near death experience in 1809 with some aborigines led by Tedbury, the son of Pemulwuy.2  In 1808 the Colonial Secretary Index, 1788- 1825, State Records NSW states that William was recorded as taking the oath of allegiance to the Sydney and Parramatta Loyal Association. This was a Volunteer corps of 50 men formed among the settlers and the civil officials, as a part time military unit to assist British troops to counteract the threat of convict insurgence. The group was also to meet any French attack upon the colonies, the possibility of which was suggested by the frequent rumours of war between France and England.

Eventually their farm of 140 acres situated on the Nepean was advertised for sale in 1814.3  It is not clear where Sarah and William lived after their farms were sold or how they made a living. However, in 1820 the Sydney Gazette listed William working in his old trade of gimlet making.4 A gimlet is a small tool with a screw point for boring holes. 

By the time William died he had lived and worked in the era of the first five Governors of the colony. He was there from the start of the colony with the arrival of the First Fleet and witnessed the good but difficult job Governor Phillip had in establishing the colony. In 1791 he moved to Norfolk Island and took up his first land grant. William returned to Sydney when it was under the command of Major Grose and the strengthened authority of the NSW Corps. William was given his second land grant during the time of Governor Hunter. He would have been aware about the explorations done by Bass and Flinders. William’s third land grant was given to him during the time of Governor King. In 1806 William had experienced the horrendous flood of the Hawkesbury River. Later that year, Governor Bligh was generous with flood relief to the settlers on the Hawkesbury River. I wonder what involvement William had if any, in the Rum Rebellion and the first and only military coup in Australian history with the overthrow of Governor Bligh. William would have witnessed the enlightened and progressive changes that Governor Macquarie undertook in his time as Governor of N.S.W. During Governor Macquarie’s time, William signed on as a member of the Sydney and Parramatta Loyal Volunteer Association, he had survived an Aboriginal attack, sold his farm and moved back to Sydney. William died in August 1821 the same year that Macquarie was replaced by Sir Thomas Brisbane, who became the 6th Governor of the colony on the 1st December, 1821.

Death and Burials

William was buried on the 8th August, 1821, at the age of 67 years old most likely in the Sandhills Cemetery near the present day Central Station in Sydney. Whilst there are no records of his remains begin re-interred at Botany Cemetery, it is highly likely that this did happen. A memorial plaque was attached to the Tunks family vault in St Johns Cemetery in Parramatta to record William’s life.

Sarah died 16 years after William and was buried on 27th July, 1837, aged 74 in the parish of St John’s, Parramatta, however there is no headstone. There was an inquest into her death and the finding was death caused by drowning at Cockle Bay near King Street. The Australian on 1 Aug 1837 stated that “Sarah Tonks, an elderly female, and very old inhabitant of the Colony, having arrived here in the second fleet. A laboring man named McKnight, deposed, that on going towards the Government Wharf, in Sussex-street, that morning for his master’s horse and cart, he discovered the body of the deceased lying in the water quite dead. He fastened it to a boat, and then made the Police acquainted with the circumstance. Mrs. Mary Handley, wife of Mr. James Handley, landlord of the Horse and Jockey, deposed that she knew the deceased to be Mrs. Sarah Tonks, and that she went up to Parramatta, on the previous day in one of the steam boats, for the purpose of seeing her son, who resides there, and who is in opulent circumstances. It was conjectured, that in returning back, and coming from the steam boat ashore, the deceased must have fallen into the water, for the body was found at the precise spot where the steam boats stop. No evidence was offered as to whether the death of the deceased had been caused by accident or otherwise. Dr. Stewart examined the body, and certified that the deceased came to her death by drowning. The Jury, under direction of the Coroner, returned a verdict of ” Found drowned.”


Sarah’s burial certificate notes a Curate of the Church of England performed the ceremony. Perhaps her Jewish background was forgotten by her family when she died or perhaps there was no provision for a Jewish burial in 1837. Sarah may have simply renounced her Jewish background or stopped being able to follow the observances of her religion when faced with the difficulties and pressure of day-to-day survival firstly as a convict and then as a pioneer. 

A question arises about why there was no headstone found in St Johns Cemetery for Sarah. We know her son John was a successful businessman at that time and would have been able to afford an appropriate headstone.  Was her background or reputation a problem for the family after William’s death? Or has the memorial stone simply weathered with time? In 1992 descendants placed a stone memorial at the base of the Tunks’ vault to record Sarah’s life.

Sarah and William have a rightful place at the head of our family dynasty. At present there are ten generations who owe their beginnings to the convict Sarah and William the marine. They both showed endurance and stamina in the face of constant hardship. Sarah would no doubt understand that women in each generation since, have needed to overcome their own obstacles with the same perseverance and forbearance that she showed as a convict, a wife, a mother, a pioneer in a new colony and a grandmother all in the burgeoning community of Sydney Town. William would have shown how patience, loyalty, working hard and adapting to changes in occupation enabled him to be a pioneer of the early colony of Sydney Town. 

It is a fitting gesture that their son John named his house Norfolk House, no doubt after the start of Sarah and William’s life together.


  1. Memorial to a Marine-Joyce Cowell 
  2. The Second Fleeters -C J Smee 
  3. The Second Fleet Britains. Grim Convict Armada of 1790 Michael Flynn.
  4. The Floating Brothel 2010-Sian Rees
  5. The Commonwealth of Thieves 2005-Tom Keneally
  6. These Are The Names-John S Levi
  7. John Nicol, Mariner, Life and Adventures of a Mariner edited by Tim Flannery
  8. Founders of Australia-Mollie Gillen
  9. The Tunks Family Tree edition 2004
  10. Australian Genesis-Jewish Convicts and Settlers 1788-1960
  11. The Journal and Letters of Lt Ralph Clark 1787-1792 edited by Paul G Fidlon 1981
  12. Old Bailey Proceedings Online https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/index.jsp
  13. Researcher- Judy Steel-daughter of Joyce Cowell
  14. Researcher-Gillian Hughes in England
  15. Norfolk Island 1788-1814 edited by Raymond Nobbs.

Where did William Tunks come from?

Report by the late John Daniell extracted from Tunks Talk June 2002

In 1996 my wife and I were in the UK and as part of our ‘Visiting our Roots Trail’ visited what we then thought was William Tunks’ birthplace “Middle Littleton”.  We took a photograph of the ancient baptismal font imagining William as a child being baptised. Horror!  We arrived back home and read in the September 96 issue of Tunks Talk that the William Tunks born in 1758 and baptised in St Nicholas’ Church Middle Littleton Worcestershire was buried inthe church graveyard five years later (1763). Therefore there was no possibility of this being our William. Ever since then we have from time to time searched in vain for William Tunks’ beginning. I believe that through the TDAI we should pool all our research on William’s beginnings then we might have a chance of solving the riddle.

As I understand it the earliest known documented fact pertaining to William Tunks is that:

• The attestation (enlistment) of Wm Tunks on14th March 1778 in the 100 Company, Chatham Division of the British Marines. The document copied by Gillian Hughes, a researcher in the UK, for Joyce Cowell states that he was age 18: height 5’4”: hair/ complexion fair: his trade was that of a collier and he was born in the city of Worcester.

Now the fact that the document states his age as 18 could be read simply that he was over 18 and the fact that they put down his place of birth as Worcester may mean that is where he was recruited or where he was press ganged: or alternatively that he was born in the county of Worcestershire which pre 1832 covered a different area than that county currently does. To search the Parish records for the city of Worcester would mean checking the records of 12 churches and one cathedral. But this we must organise as a systematic collective research project.

Another parameter in the equation that must be considered is William’s Record of Death.  When he died in Sydney on 6th Aug. 1821, the St Phillips Register and the RG Death Cert. give his age as 67 indicating that he was born in 1754 whereas his enlistment papers would indicate that he was born in 1760.  So ideally it is back to the Parish records! This could be a mammoth task with a lot of blind alleys.

Has anyone done any research in this area?

Do you have a theory about where William was born?  Please contact us on member@tunksaustralia1788.com.au

Timeline William and Sarah

Follow their life milestones from their births in England to their deaths in Australia


Tunks Descendants Family Tree

Five generations of descendants of William Tunks and Sarah Lyons.  Update your own part of the Tunks Family Tree.


  1. Joyce Cowell 2001 reprinted in the Tunks’ Family tree edition of 2004 []
  2. Trove-Tunks-The Sydney Gazette Sunday 3 September 1809 []
  3. Trove-Tonks Farm-The Sydney Gazette Saturday 12 November 1814 []
  4. Trove-William Tunks-The Sydney Gazette Saturday 8 January 1820 []