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Fifty Years Under the Lash


(By Charles White.)

Author of “ Australian Buahranging,” “The Story of the Blacks,” etc


CHAPTER XIV, VAN DIEMEN'S LAND. (Continued). Writing in the “Fifties/' Bonwick says :■ —“One who visited Macquarie Harbour after an interval of twenty years went in pilgrimage over the scenes, formerly so fearfully active with life. He saw the old roofless barracks, and walked over the prisoner’s tombs, and the deserted garden of the commandant. The stone walls of the gaol gave forth a damp and noxious smell. The cells’ floors were -strewn with bones and rubbish, and upon the pine doors were several well-executed drawings. The very planks were studded with initials and devices, which told of sorrows past. Thank God ! the miseries of Macquarie Harbour are over and gone. They belong to an age of comparative barbarism in the treatment of criminals. A better day has dawned, in which the bodily comfort of the prisoner is regarded, and the wants of his moral nature are sapplied.” Port Arthur settlement was formed in September, 1880. It was built on the edge of a large bay or harbour, which runs into the centre of Tasmen’s Peninsula. The place was a second Norfolk Island, but worse, if that were possible, in its herding of vicious, hopeless wretches, the severity of the punishment inflicted, and the abominations practised. The convicts sent there were also those who had been twice convicted, and the worst characters sent out from England, such as desperate housebreakers and murderers ; a class known as “gentlemen convicts” w T as also sent there. These gentlemen convicts, men of education, received certain privileges, and if they conducted- themselves tolerably well were after a short space sent back to Hobart Town, where they could obtain situations as clerks or schoolmasters in private families —with what result has been previously described in the chapters dealing with New South Wales. To give an idea of the strange mixture on the settlement, there were mixed with the general class of housebreakers, pickpockets and felons, Ikey Solomons, the famous London thief ; Collons, the old soldier, who had thrown a stone at King George ; men who had been condemned for firing haystacks ; a clergyman from Scotland ; an attorney from Ireland ; and a number of boys, London pickpockets, who had been sent to learn trades from the convicts who were mechanics. The work of classification was very limited in extent. The majority of the convicts worked in gangs, and were congregated during meals and hours of leisure, and at sleeping times ; the worst working in irons and the others out of irons. The punishment inflicted for misconduct was flogging, the chain gang, and solitary confinement, although this latter could not be effectively carried out owing to the few cells available.

It was useless for the prisoners to to attempt to escape, for the only means of getting out—a narrow neck of land about 450 feet across 1 —was guarded by soldiers and dogs tied to the lamp-posts. These dogs were fierce, and were always kept fed with raw meat to keep them savage. Like the convicts at Macquarie Harbour, the prisoners sometimes committed outrages for the purpose of being sent away from the settlement, and cases of reform were remarkably rare. Those who were not brutes were made brutes, and then were made more brutish by the treatment they received. Port Arthur was rather a school for eliciting and perfecting immoral propensities and depraved habits than a reformatory ; and the same thing may be said concerning the whole of the penal settlement®. The reader will not, I am sure, require any further or fuller illustrations of this saddening truth, although many might be given.

In one of his despatches the Governor broadly stated the design of the establishment at Port Arthur to be "the severe punishment of the vicious part of the community, as the means of deterring others from the commission of crime as well as the reformation of the criminals themBelves. And that design was faith-

fully carried out in every particular, for until the penal settlement was broken up there was one monotonous unceajsing round of strokes and sobs, and blood and tears. In Van Diemen’s Land there were several female factories, and most of them appear to have passed through stages similar to those which marked the career of the mother establishment in New South Wales. They were all to a greater or lesser extent utilised as lying-in hospitals and nurseries as well as reformatories. From a newspaper report in January of 1-851, I gather that there was no less' than five factories in full working order at that date, the majority of the occupants being female passholders awaiting hire . At Hobort Town Brickfields Depot there were 276, at New Town Farm 71, at Cascades Factory 38, at Ross Hiring Depot 49, making a total of 610. A description of one of these will serve to indicate the character and uses of the whole.

The Cascades Factory was situated at the foot of Mount Wellington, wedged in a gully between hills. The buildingr, of which there were several, wore inclosed within a high waif, with barred gates and vigilant turnkeys, most of whom were drawn from the good conduct class of male convicts^ —being in every respect a gaol, according to the respective deserts of its inmates. During the agitation for the abolition of transportation there were nearly 900 inmates in this establishment, including 130 children ; and the matron took some, pride in conducting visitors over the well-or-dered place, with its several courts, solitary cells, hospital, refectories, dormitories, and lavatories. In one yard would be formed up the betterconducted and the pregnant women, numbering about a hundred 1 , who were open to be hired as servants. In another yard would be a division, equally strong in numbers, of the more troublesome characters, who were kept under restraint, and .denied the privilege of going out to service. These wore a distinctive dress which gave them an uncouth appearance—a roughly-made dress of grey duffle and a white mob hat. A large exercise shed with an open shed in the centre, furnishing shelter from the sun and rain, served the purpose of a nursery, and was generally occupied by sixty or seventy women, and as many babies, ranging in age from two days to two yeai'S. The women were not necessarily mothers of the children, for many of these would merely enter the factory to be confined, leaving it when strong enough to re-enter service, the little ones to be cared for by women who served in the establishment as nurses. A large ward was allotted to the midday sleep of the forlorn little ones, and here they would be stowed away in a score or so of wooden cribs, three or four in each, either packed like sardines, head to tail, or curled about like a litter' of kittens in a basket of straw. One visitor, speaking of this department, said : “ Women and children were ail silent ! One would have thought them all deaf and dumb. Fever was I before in so numerous a nursery ; I hope 1 never may again.”

The horrors of solitary confinement in dark cells formed part of the discipline’’ of this establishment. "Going along the avenues' of solitary cells,” writes one visitor in 1850, "there was a great unlocking of massive doors and a questioning of ‘Have you any complaints ?’ I only looked into two or three. One woman was carding, another combing wool. A third cell, on being opened, I found to be completely darkened ; It seemed empty, so I passed within the door to examine'its construction. It looked like the den of a wolf, and I almost started back when from the extreme end of the floor I found a pair of bright, flashing eyes fixed on mine. Their owner arose and took a step or two forward ; it was a small, elight and quite young girl very beautiful in feature and complexion, but it was the fierce beauty of the wild cat ! I am a steady married man, of a certain age, but at no period of my life would I, -for a trifle have shared for half an hour the cell of that little sleek savage ; for when she purred loudest I should

have been most afraid of her claws ! As the heavy door slammed in her face and the strong bolts shot into .'the grooves, the turnkey informed me \ that this was' one of the most reIfractory and unmanageabfe charactf ers of the prison. ... I had no more stomach for solitary cells that day." The labour of some of the females in this factory was turned to good account. One of the great yards was devoted to laundry work, and here squads of women could always be seen doing work that was at any rate not undignified. One section would be over their elbows in suds,

another would be serving as ‘‘wrings ers," while a third would be spreading the linen over the drying lines. In this laundry the townspeople could have'their washing done at Is 6d per dozen, the money paid helping to defray the expenses of the institution. Adjoining this department was a large room full of seamstresses, and here also work' —some of the finest — was done for the public ; but ,the majority were kept engaged in making up prison dresses from a rough, coarse kind of woollen tweed, or in effecting repairs. (To be Continued).

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Bibliographic details

Fifty Years Under the Lash, Southern Cross, Volume 15, Issue 5, 4 May 1907

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Fifty Years Under the Lash Southern Cross, Volume 15, Issue 5, 4 May 1907

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