Posts filed under ‘Convicts’

Attitude to convicts (1937)

Another historic newspaper report, this time in response to the Celebration Committee’s plans for the 150-year anniversary celebrations of the landing of the First Fleet in Sydney. The Committee decided that for the re-enactment of the landing, and the subsequent parade of floats, there would be no convicts!

THEY PLAYED THEIR PART.

The Celebrations Committee has …decided to ban the birthstain, so far as next year’s pageantry is concerned. No convicts will disembark at Farm Cove, nor in the subsequent procession will there be the slightest reminder that there would have been no Landing except for the need to find a new home for Britain’s surplus prison population. This impressive feat in the bowdlerisation of history has been greeted with varying degrees of derision by correspondent s of the “Herald” and others. Mr. H. J Rumsey, who has boldly called his roll-call of the First Fleet “The Pioneers of Sydney Cove,” suggests that the representation of the settlement without mention of the two thirds who involuntarily participated in it is comparable to the story of Hamlet without the Prince.

…”Conspicuous by their absence,” indeed, will be the “true patriots” who, if they left their country for their country’s good, did a vast amount of good work in the land of their enforced adoption. By discreetly leaving this family skeleton in the cupboard the committee has ensured its attendance at the feast.

…The morals of some of the convicts were in as poor case as their garments. No amount of sentimental whitewashing, by way of reaction to the excessive fastidiousness of the Celebrations Committee can disguise the fact that the convict pioneers included a number of “complete villains,” as even Phillip, who was a humane man for his times and wished to befriend his charges, was forced to admit.

…He [Phillip] pronounced the great body of them “quiet and contented,” and Hunter was able to say in 1812 that “there are many men who have been convicts, and are now settlers, who are as respectable as any people who have gone from this country.” It is a curious commentary on the present ban that convicts were permitted to join in public celebrations from the earliest times, and themselves staged a dramatic performance as early as 1789; 

…The truth is that, not merely was Australia founded on account of the convicts, but that it would have made scant progress in its first 50 years without them. We have, perhaps, more to be ashamed of in our treatment of the aborigines, some of whose pathetic remnants, will stage a corroboree at Farm Cove, than of the penal origins of our country. The brutal transportation system reflected at least as much discredit upon its authors and some of its operators as upon the majority of its victims. It belongs to the old unhappy, far-off things of another age. Yet, as Dr. John Dunmore Lang, whose words are recalled by a correspondent today, wrote in 1875, it is a great historical fact which cannot be ignored. The effort to do so is likely to provoke more ridicule than a candid recognition of circumstances, which, so far from being discreditable to Australia, emphasise the magnitude of our achievement in building up a vigorous, independent, and freedom-loving nation from such unlikely beginnings at Sydney Cove. It would be the poorest sort of snobbery to deny that many men and women who were brought to this country under degrading conditions rose superior to their misdoings and misfortunes, and played their part in laying the foundations of the Commonwealth.

THEY PLAYED THEIR PART. (1937, December 11). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842-1954), p. 10. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article17435749

9 June, 2011 at 4:45 pm 1 comment

Attitude to convicts (1891)

Why is it that we are now proud to claim convict ancestors? I was looking in historic newspapers for evidence of earlier views about convict heritage. I found the following remarkable piece in The Queenslander of 7 March 1891:

Whatever changes may be introduced by the advance of Social Democracy, it is doubtful whether pride of birth will ever be eliminated from human nature. There is no sign of it disappearing now at any rate. In Republican France it is just as strong as it was before the Revolution. In America, where there is no titled aristocracy, people are as proud of being descended from somebody who came over in the Mayflower as the Beauforts are of having come over, in the person of an ancestor, with William the Conqueror. In Australia folks have not yet begun to boast of the fact that their forebears came over with the Sirius, or in one of the transports that accompanied that epoch-making vessel. But I have no doubt that will come in time. Most noble origins, from the founding of Rome to the Norman conquest, start from violence and crime, and in a couple of hundred years the convict taint will be blue blood. 

 

8 June, 2011 at 8:56 am 1 comment

Australia Day, past and present

Today is Australia Day and I am thinking how our attitudes to our history have changed over time. My childhood history book referred to Captain Cook ‘discovering Australia’ in 1770. That completely discounted the presence of indigenous Australians here for at least 40,000 years, not to mention all the European sightings of our continent long before Cook.

Then there is the changed attitude to a convict past. Not so many years ago it would have been a dreadful shame to have convict forebears. Now such ancestors are much sought after, as it associates us with pioneers, and we are amused by some of the rogues and think the Kelly gang bushrangers were forced into their crimes. Perhaps some people rewrite their history a bit by glossing over their ancestor’s ‘crime’ (“they were hungry so stole a loaf of bread”). I wonder what misrepresentations our descendants will accuse us of making?

The following is a letter to the editor published in the Sydney Morning Herald  on Thursday 9 December 1937 (page 3, see it  in Trove) in response to preparations for the upcoming 150th anniversary of ‘Australia Day’. At that reenactment of the landing, they chose to gloss over even the presence of convicts in the First Fleet!

AUSTRALIAN HISTORY.

TO THE EDITOR OF THE HERALD,

Sir,-Dr. Mackaness, speaking at a meeting of the Royal Australian Historical Society last week, said that the 150th celebrations had done much for historical work and research. That may be so. It is interesting to note, however, that Dr. Mackaness made no protest against the inaccurate presentation of Australian history about to be made at the forthcoming celebrations. The landing of Governor Phillip without reference to the convicts, as decided by the 150th Anniversary celebration committee, is in conflict with Dr. Mackaness’s book, “Admiral Arthur Phillip,” just published, and here quoted . . .

“On 25th January at daylight, the Supply, with a company of marines and forty convicts on board, had weighed anchor, but could not leave the bay (Botany) till noon … anchoring the same evening at 7 o’clock, being obliged to turn up … At daylight on 26th January … the marines and convicts were landed from the Supply … The convicts were immediately set to work clearing a piece of land on which to erect the tents … After noon the Union Jack was hoisted on shore and the marines being drawn up to it, the Governor and officers to the right, and the convicts to the left, their Majesties and the Prince of Wales’s health, with success to the colony, was drank, in four glasses of porter, after which a feu de joie was fired and the whole (sic) gave three cheers …”

Here then is the landing scene. Take away reference to the convicts and you have the skeleton which is to be presented at the coming clebrations. Where are the protests of Dr. Mackaness, or the Royal Australian Historical Society? The silence of this society, which aims at historical accuracy, is astounding, while its motto, “Not unmindful of the past,” would appear to be a misnomer, at least as regards the convicts. The official voice of this society is dumb regarding the decision of the celebration committee to ban references to the convict pioneers, when this society’s protest should be loudest.

I am, etc.,

B. T. DOWD. Waverley, Dec. 7.

26 January, 2011 at 10:26 am Leave a comment

Convicts & Prison Hulks

I made another discovery today, again in Ancestry.com This time I was searching the recent addition to Ancestry’s convict records, the “UK Prison Hulk Registers & Letter Books, 1802-1849″. I found my 4g.grandfather!

Convicted of bigamy, in fact Thomas MILLS married 3 times. He married first to Sarah CUTTRISS / CUTTRESS in 1805 in Ely, then (as Thomas MILLER) he married Rhoda WINNELL in 1813. Finally (as Thomas Ward MILLS) in 1825 he married Ann POCKNELL, before he was taken to Newgate Prison in 1827. (At his trial, when asked about his 3rd marriage he said that – having deserted his 2nd wife – years later when he wrote to her and she didn’t write back, he assumed she was dead and so felt free to marry again.)

There’s a wonderful record of his various trials in the Old Bailey Online records in 1827 (real “he said, she said” comments). Thomas was finally found guilty and sentenced to be transported for seven years. However he never arrived in Australia – three years later he petitioned for pardon and that pardon was granted.

In the collection of UK Prison Hulk Registers on Ancestry.com, it was exciting to actually see the record of him in the hulk York, which was moored in Portsmouth Harbour. According to this document, he served 3 years 11 months and 18 days of his sentence before he was pardoned. The UK Prison Hulk Registers are digitised copies of documents held by The National Archives (UK) in PCOM 4 & HO 9.

This was another reminder about new digitised collections making it easier to access copies of original documents.

Incidentally, Thomas’ son (Robert MILLS – aka Robert CUTTRESS) was convicted of “poaching with a gun” and was transported to Tasmania. Digitised copies of many Tasmanian convict records can be found online at http://www.archives.tas.gov.au.

York prison hulk

Thomas Ward MILLS, prisoner on the York hulk

27 September, 2010 at 7:09 pm 1 comment


Discoveries and musings of a family history researcher and instructor - including tips and hints.

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