Rehabilitating the Convicts

Australia’s Birthstain: The Startling Legacy of the Convict Era by Babette Smith

THERE ARE THREE cruel libels perpetrated against the Australian people. One is that we are a nation of racists; the second is that we have conducted a “genocide” against the Aboriginal people; and the third is that we are “stained” by our convict heritage.

Babette Smith, in her new book Australia’s Birthstain, takes on the third libel with a passion that should re-invigorate those despairing of the last three decades of nihilist academic research and publication. Like an old Bgrade black-and-white gothic movie, our history-writers have been happy to drag the swamp of our past in search of evidence of our “misdeeds”. Smith has returned to that same swamp but instead of dragging up the same old canards, she has noticed, coming up from the murky water, waving hands, trying to attract her attention. Thank goodness they succeeded.

The fortunes of some of the 1100 convicts from six ships—the John, the Princess Royal, the St Vincent, the Lord Dalhousie, the Sir William Bensley and the Duchess of Northumberland—are the characters that come to life in Australia’s Birthstain, and Smith ensures that we get to know them better. They form the backdrop to her very different interpretation of our convict heritage.

The notion of thousands of convicts clunking about in chains on road gangs, flogged senseless and living a life of despair slowly became the accepted view of early Australia. But the vast majority of convicts did not endure anything like this and would most likely not recognise present-day descriptions of their experience. Also the idea that convicts were simple poachers, or lads who stole a slice of bread for their starving families, does not always measure up to reality any more than the generalisation that they were heartless, hardened criminals.

A fourteen-year-old chimney sweep called Samuel Rowney was sentenced to seven years transportation to New South Wales for stealing a coat from his father. Daddy may have managed the same trick a few years earlier, as Samuel’s older brother, George, was serving time in Sydney for the same offence. James Jaye (twenty-two) got nicked for stealing lead from the roof of the Asylum for the Homeless Poor in London. Constable Attfield spotted James and his mate struggling down the street carrying the lead wrapped in a pair of trousers and a jacket. Seven years!

Then there is Joseph Sowden (aka Joseph Sowden Ledger) whose luck ran out in Scarborough, Yorkshire, when he found himself at thirty-seven on the Lord Dalhousie, bound for Western Australia. A blacksmith by trade and a robber by conviction (ten years) Ledger eventually did well in Western Australia, building a large engineering company with his migrant brothers. The family is better known today for the work of Heath Ledger, the late actor.

The second part of Smith’s book deals with the creation of the “birthstain”, which emerged as a sort of a nineteenth-century perversion of “political correctness”. Australia’s first fifty years of European existence— which had been celebrated locally and internationally as an egalitarian frontier society with its own unique sort of culture and ethos (created mainly by ex-convicts and their offspring and free settlers)—suddenly became an anathema to lobby groups bent on stopping transportation.

Their weapon of choice was the depiction of Australia as a cesspit of criminality and sexual depravity. So began the sad shaming of our convict past and the stories and experiences of the 160,000 men and women that forged the nation’s beginnings. Families from about the 1850s went into denial about mummy’s or daddy’s background (or grandpa’s or grandma’s). This is the theme that Smith is developing.

As Smith explains, “With vast areas of actual people and events corralled out of sight, the spotlight of history was forced to shine on what remained.” She goes on:

As reality increasingly receded, lurid tales of the convict era were published which entertained while they fudged the facts even further. Increasingly, Australian history gyrated simplistically around hollow men and confected issues. The search for drama, any drama other than the real one, created villains from the very ordinary mould of squatters, pastoralists and employers (many of whom were actually convicts and descendants of convicts) and underdogs such as gold diggers, shearers and poor immigrants.

SMITH HAS THREE main culprits in her sights as the architects of the myth of Australia’s birthstain: Father William Ullathorne, Sir William Molesworth and the Rev. John West. Her basic premise is that sensational pamphlets written by Ullathorne in 1834 and 1837 were exploited by Molesworth around 1838, then exploited even further by West in 1842.

Father William Bernard Ullathorne, a former cabin boy, entered the Benedictine order at Downside (near Bath) in 1823. He was ordained a priest in 1831 and two years later found himself Vicar General to the Colony of New South Wales—ministering to the souls of convicts. In 1834 he was sent to Norfolk Island to hear the confessions of thirteen condemned prisoners. His shock at what he says he saw resulted in him giving evidence in London to the Transportation Committee. The Committee urged Ullathorne to write of his experiences, and the good priest produced a well-circulated pamphlet describing the “iniquities of the [Hyde Park] barracks” and referring to homosexual activity among the convicts in the dormitories at night. Smith cites Ullathorne’s The Catholic Mission in Australia but doesn’t mention Ullathorne’s The Horrors of Transportation Briefly Unfolded to the People. Ullathorne damned New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land to a global audience:

Sixty thousand souls are festering in bondage. The iron which cankers their heal [sic] corrodes their heart; the scourge which drinks the blood of their flesh, devours the spirit of their manhood … we have taken a vast portion of God’s earth and have made it a cesspool … we have poured scum upon scum, and dregs upon dregs … we are building up with them a nation of crime, to be, unless something be speedily done, a curse, a plague and a by-word to all peoples of the earth.

The second culprit is a young British parliamentary fop, Sir William Molesworth; at twenty-seven, the Chairman of the Select Committee on Transportation. From the illustration of Molesworth on page 201 of Australia’s Birthstain, Sir William might have needed a Maori bodyguard and suit of armour had he appeared today in Sydney’s Oxford Street after dark. In 1837 a parliamentary colleague of Molesworth observed:

Of all the groups in the House, the one that strikes you as containing the youngest and best-dressed men is the Radical Group. At their head sits Sir William Molesworth, who does not look more than twenty-eight, a dandy in dress and somewhat Dundrearyish in delivery; fair in complexion, with hair approaching in colour red; eye-glassed, and altogether like a radical leader who has a rent roll 12,000 to 14,000 [pounds] a year.

Of Molesworth, Babette Smith says:

It was an anomaly of Molesworth’s entire career that he lived richly and well within aristocratic circles in London and the counties, while passionately advocating the rights of the poor with whom he had no personal acquaintance. His was an intellectual passion, humanitarian in abstract rather than in practice.

Molesworth’s Transportation Committee managed to get Father Ullathorne to appear again in 1838, on the 8th and 12th of February. According to Smith:

his evidence consolidate[ed] vague allegations into solid accusations that transportation spread homosexuality, that homosexuality was rife among the prisoners, particularly on Norfolk Island, that men already homosexuals “contaminated” others who were not, and the community at large was at risk from this stain.

If Ullathorne’s accusations, based on his personal experience, having lived in or visited New South Wales, Norfolk Island and Van Diemen’s Land were to be believed (and they certainly were by the Select Committee on Transportation), then the Australian colonies were the new Sodom and Gomorrah. “Sixty thousand souls … devours the spirit of their manhood”, sounds a trifle excessive.

With 60,000 leg-ironed males indulging in lurid sex it must have made one heck of a noise. Van Diemen’s Land at night must have sounded like the Anvil Chorus while the din from New South Wales must surely have been heard from outer space. Of course there were not 60,000 manacled prisoners in the colony, and according to the colonial records of Van Diemen’s Land, between 1824 and 1835 just three cases of “unnatural crime” were recorded—one in 1830 and another two in 1833.

The convict returns from 1835 to 1837 (from my cursory glance after a quick dash to the Launceston Reference Library) seem to show no reference for “unnatural crimes” unless they were buried under some obscure heading, like misdemeanours or execution. Indeed, the 1835 census for Van Diemen’s Land reveals 16,968 convicts of which only 2451 (men and women) were in road parties, chain gangs or houses of correction. Of these only 1209 were in the notorious Port Arthur prison. If it is any help, the population of sheep had shot up to 744,265.

The libel now had the two elements that set it running —religious fervour and political expediency. It now needed the third, the media. Enter the Rev. John West, co-founder of the Launceston Examiner (and later to become editor of the Sydney Morning Herald).

In her introduction, Smith asks:

Why was there such a fundamental national silence that the real-life characters—whose true stories abound in success, failures, optimism and in tragedy, triumph and pathos—were forgotten? Was it the crimes they committed in Britain? Or did the source of the birthstain, so terrible that it must be hidden, lie in the colonies?

TRANSPORTATION, or rather “banishment”, was not a uniquely Australian experience. The Transportation Act of 1718 saw offenders of an increasing array of British laws being sentenced to “Banishment Beyond the Realm”. Prisoners were assigned to sea captains for transportation to the Americas. By 1770 about 1000 per year were arriving in Maryland and Virginia. Those who could, bought their freedom upon arrival; the rest were sold to settlers for the term of their sentence. But the Boston Tea Party and the 1776 War of Independence put an end to this eighteenth-century Green Card. In 1784 an act of parliament authorised the finding of some place “beyond the seas” for the “reception of convicts”. The place chosen was Botany Bay.

The passengers on the six convict ships Smith has studied reveal a startling array of characters, not only for the variety of crimes they committed but also the survival skills they employed. She points to Governor Arthur Phillip’s directive (as the First Fleeters faced starvation) “that all people regardless of rank should share equally in the remaining supplies”. She says, “In issuing that order Phillip overturned every expectation of the class ridden society from which the colonists had come, making it clear that the humanity of the most lowly convict was as important as his own.” From that moment, “sharing on an egalitarian basis became entrenched in the ethos of the convict community … and common practice by its residents by the 1830s”.

Australia’s Birthstain suggests that not all convicts were reluctant guests of King George or Queen Victoria. One convict, upon being sentenced to transportation, doffed his hat to the judge and smilingly said, “Thank you, your honour!” Two Irish girls who were sentenced to transportation for life for setting fire to another woman’s house were far from being downcast. “A Long life to your honour,” they chorused. Smith, quoting research by Dianne Snowden, suggests that of 279 Irish women who arrived in Van Diemen’s Land between 1841 and 1853, “at least 79 were actively using arson as a means of emigrating”.

Smith, quoting Dr George Rude’s research, found at least 360 English arsonists out of 10,000 West Australian convicts studied. Convict Henry Sherry, who arrived on the Lord Dalhousie, was certainly a bright spark. At his trial, evidence by a neighbour, Harry Andrews (who was fighting the fire at Sherry’s father’s house), stated that Henry Sherry said he was disappointed that the fire in the barn was out. “You don’t mean to say you set your father’s house on fire?” Andrews asked. Sherry replied, “And the barn and stable too.” It is curious that a land of seasonal bushfires should have attracted so many firebugs.

Susannah Watson (thirty-four) was more typical of the accepted notion of a convict. Her husband, Edward, a frame-work knitter, was caught in 1827 poaching and sent to the House of Correction at Southwell. In April 1828 Susannah was convicted in the Nottingham Assizes of stealing goods and food from a shop. It was her third offence. Her defence was that she had to support five children and a fifteen-week-old baby. The judge was unimpressed and gave her fourteen years transportation, with the comment ringing in her ears that, “It would be beneficial for your children that you be removed from the country.”

Not all judges and magistrates were without feelings. James Wilde (twenty-two) and Thomas Haw were convicted as pickpockets for stealing a farmer’s pocketbook and sentenced to transportation in 1832. From the hulk Cumberland Wilde petitioned the King claiming that he alone had committed the crime. Wilde’s efforts were so compelling and persistent that the Chairman of Quarter Sessions and the committing magistrate wrote to support the plea that Haw be discharged.

In New South Wales Wilde spent an unhappy two years working for Henry O’Brien, a wealthy landowner on the Yass Plains. Eventually he walked back to Sydney, for which he got two months on the No. 8 Iron Gang. In 1835 Wilde was assigned to the Cox family at Glenmore Park. Smith continues:

Wilde must have been happy as a gardener at the Cox property … because he stayed with the family for a long time. While there he met Edward Cox’s sixteen-year-old servant girl, Elizabeth Lawrence, and when James received his certificate of freedom in 1839 they married at St Thomas’ Church in nearby Mulgoa.

The first four of their twelve children were born at Glenmore Park. James Wilde died in 1864 after falling from a bridge on New Year’s Eve at the age of fifty-four. Wilde, who had insisted on taking the blame for pickpocketing so his co-accused, Thomas Haw, could stay with his family in England, would have experienced before he died the uproar of the anti-transportation campaign— but he was not to know that many of his descendants would die on the battlefields of the Great War.

The Rev. John West, Congregational preacher, left Coleshill in Warwickshire in 1838, bound for Van Diemen’s Land. He may have been encouraged to go to the colony by fellow Warwickshireman John Fairfax, who had recently emigrated to New South Wales. At West’s farewell party fellow preacher Rev. John Sibree assured the crowd that West was “not leaving for any moral delinquency” (the parish day books for West’s time at Coleshill are missing). Sibree went on to talk about the nobility of leaving England for “that Isthmus between heaven and hell, that receptacle of the felony and filth, the ignorance, hardihood, impudence and crime swept from the parent land, Van Diemen’s Land”.

Babette Smith puts the case that the Rev. John West and other clergymen were the most virulent anti-transportation campaigners, with the charge of rampant homosexuality their most potent weapon. This caused a seismic shift in how the colony saw itself and the emancipists, ticket-of-leavers, and the pardoned, who made up so much of the colonial population. She believes that the shame generated by the anti-transportationists— there were far better arguments against convict transportation— created such a stigma that ex-convicts found it necessary to hide their past from their children and grandchildren.

It has been suggested that Ned Kelly’s father, “Red”, a former convict from Van Diemen’s Land, was a bit of a “wandering transvestite” and Ned himself was partial to scented handkerchiefs. This didn’t stop Ned becoming a local and national hero. The question as to whether homophobia was the sole cause of the “birthstain” or whether other forces such as creeping “Victorian morality”, the quest for national pride, or simply parents not wanting to hinder a daughter finding a “good” husband, or a combination of all three, remains open. West’s legacy certainly endured in Tasmania, where it took until 1997 to legalise homosexuality. Tasmania was followed a year later by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Australia’s Birthstain is the sort of history the nation needs: not a hint of ideology or left-wing resentment, but alive with the dead, characters who, each in their own unique way, shaped who we are, how we think and what we have made from our colonial experience. Whether Smith fully makes her case, her readers will have to judge. To some degree whether she has joined all the dots is not the point of this book—it is not so much the final destination, but the journey she takes us on that is important.

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