header

a day in a life of a convict

A Convict Tale of Moreton Bay Settlement

By J. J. Knight, in the "Queenslander"

At The Triangles

Undoubtedly the most serious offence was an attempt to escape. The punishment awarded - death during Logan's time - was 100 lashes for the first and 300 lashes for the second endeavour. An "old hand" referring to one of the many cases which came within his recollection, related the following incident to the writer:-"Bill Smith-Smith was not the name, which is withheld for family reasons and I were working together in a sawpit just about where Herschell Street is now, when Bill asked me to run away with him.

After some consideration I consented, but before we could carry out our plans we were separated - I got 'lumbered'. The next thing I heard about Bill was that he had bent his leg-irons, greased his heels, and being thus free, had cleared. But he wasn't long out, for after having hidden for a day or two he was spotted at the Green Hill. Where was Green Hill? Where the reception house now stands in Countess Street. Bill was taken to court, and, gray-headed old man that he was, he was ordered to receive 300 lashes.

I shall never forget that day. We were all mustered round the triangle at dinner time, for that was generally when the whipping took place ; Bill was placed against the three sticks, his breast resting on a piece of board, his legs strapped, and his arms stretched above his head.

Of course old Bumble was there with his cat, and if that blood-thirsty villain didn't lay it on-well, I never saw the cat laid on. About 200 lashes had been given when the doctor thought Bill had fainted, but he quickly discovered that he hadn't - The other hundred were then awarded, and I can tell you he was regularly cut to pieces.

When Bill was let down I said, ‘Well, it's all over now,' to which he replied, throwing his arms about wildly, 'I could stand them cutting me to pieces.' He was sent up to the lumber yard, which was where the Longreach Hotel now is, to work with me, and I dressed his back with young banana leaves.

What did I put them on for? Why, they were the best thing out-they were cool and 'drawed' splendidly. Bill could scarcely crawl, but the rule was to start work immediately after the whipping.

A Man Who Made His Presence Felt

But all whippings were severe. Old Bumble took good care that his work was done effectively and well. Bumble in fact (who obtained the nickname owing to the deformity in his legs) was a most brutal individual, who rejoiced when he heard the appeals of his victims, and gloried in his calling.

Sometimes five or six men were ranged before him to be whipped, and these wholesale orders were those he liked best. After finishing one job he would wash his "cat" in a tin of water, which he always carried with him, and it is affirmed that he has been known to quench his thirst with its contents. An individual after Logan's own heart, truly !

' Fiddle Cake ' How It was Made, and the Risks Run to Secure It

A very common offence was the purloining of a few cobs of corn and potatoes, the chief ingredients of the convicts' much-prized " fiddle cake," the love for which cost many sore backs at the triangle and weary legs on the treads.

These two things having been obtained, the corn was grated on an improvised grater made usually of a piece of tin or zinc, in which holes had been punched, and meal having by this means been made it was mixed with boiled sweet potatoes, and the whole baked a la damper.

The baking was generally done, secretly of course, by the first-class men, who had greater facilities, and who retained a certain portion of the cake for their share in the work.

But it was often more difficult to obtain the material for the grater than the corn and potatoes, and in one case at least a convict finding this so, resorted to a very questionable means of gratifying his desires.

Mr. Parker, who held an official position at Eagle Farm, was unfortunate enough to lose one of his children, and the body having been placed in a tin box, was laid in one of the vaults on the river bank, near Herschell Street. This fact was, of course, known to the prisoners, and a day or so after the funeral, one who had so ardently desired the possession of a "grater", effected an entrance to the vault.

Taking out the dead body of the child found in the box the material for the manufacture of this necessary implement of the " fiddle-cake" maker. Fortunately for the sacrilegist he was not found out, and was enabled to make many specimens of that delicacy which is described as being "better than any pie going”.

On another occasion a gang of prisoners were engaged in sawing timber in a hollow on the North Quay, which has of late years been filled in, and has entailed much expense on the corporation owing to the landslips that have occurred there. Between this point and Tank street was a sweet-potato patch which favourably impressed itself upon the minds of two of the sawyers.

Stealing in between the furrows one day they scooped out some of the potatoes, taking care of course to cover up the holes. But, alas! for the uncertainty of luck! As they were returning they were observed by the Commandant, who at once dispatched "Big Green," the overseer, to bring the delinquents to justice.

The convicts had, however, been on the alert, and dropping both bag and potatoes in the river ran as fast as their legs would carry them to the spot where they had been engaged in sawing. The start they had from "Big Green" enabled them to be hard at work with the others when, the overseer came up, and the official in question was naturally much exercised in the identification of the thieves.

In fact he was unable to do so, all denying that they had been near the patch. Eventually he said he would have to take two of them, as the Commandant had seen them. With this the two offenders stepped forward.

Now, "Big Green" had a reputation of being one of the very few "good sorts," a man who would not unnecessarily get prisoners into trouble. In this particular case he made no exception. Having hunted round, Green found a bag and placed in it several old potato sets.

With this evidence he marched the culprits before the Commandant, remarking as he laid the potato sets before the captain that "they must have been hungry, sir, to eat these!" They were nevertheless found guilty, for even hungry men might not steal, and were ordered to be sent to Stradbroke Island for two months - a sentence much preferable, though the authorities did not know it, to life in the Settlement.

Now and again Commandants were seized with fits of generosity and kindness, and since these were few and far between it is not perhaps astonishing that such events should have so become impressed on the minds of the convicts as to be recalled even at this late period.

An old resident now near his grave related to the writer one or two of the favours which had been shown him by Captain Clunie, remarking at the same time that had a little more kindly treatment been accorded to the majority of the prisoners many of them would have died better men.

One of these took place 'in the old lumberyard’, where the relater was with others cutting cypress pine blocks for Lieutenant Otter. While on a visit of inspection to the yard, Captain Clunie manifested a desire to possess the timber, and gave his instructions for its removal to his house. My informant was one of the two men sent to carry them, and on the work being completed they were marched by the overseer back to the yard.

Noting this Clunie ordered them back to his house, where he regaled each with a "nip" of rum and a small quantity of tobacco loaf, remarking, when handing them the latter, "I suppose you will tell them the Commandant gave you that." The significance of those few words will be the better understood, no doubt, when it is stated that man of the class to which these two convicts belonged were not supposed to possess tobacco.

How Responsibilities Were Shirked

It did not necessarily follow, however, that because a man was not supposed to have a certain thing he did not sometimes get it. Occasions frequently arose when officers required something to be done which either fear or shame made them undesirous of carrying out, and it was at those times that the convict came into possession of articles which the regulations should have made it impossible for him to obtain.

As a rule the officers felt no compunction in requisitioning the services of the prisoners and securing the aid of the men who were supposed to have no conscience or, if they had, were perfectly willing to set it aside in consideration of a small quantity of rum or tea or a few leaves of tobacco. There was nothing to be feared: the prisoner ran all risk.

A very good instance of this occurred at Redbank station, which at the time of which we write (1832) was in charge of a corporal and a private. Early in the year mentioned three of the convicts stationed at Redbank took to the bush, and search not having revealed their whereabouts three others were sent up from the settlement to fill their places.

One of the new arrivals was made watchman in succession to one of the escapees, and during his second week was told by the overseer that if he wanted a sleep he could take one, as nothing unusual ever occurred there, and if it did he "would see him right." It is perhaps necessary to state that the new watchman had done a "favour" for the overseer, and "seeing him right" was one of the means of repayment.

Of course the innocent watchman took advantage of the privilege, for which he was afterwards sorry. While peacefully reposing one night his predecessor with the other two escapees stole back into the station and carried away all the available ammunition from the storeroom.

When this was discovered there was a great row, which was not so easily got over owing to the fact that the corporal was responsible for the safe keeping of the ammunition, and would have to answer for any shortage. No one was more astonished than the watchman when he was told that instead of his being saved by the corporal it was he who was to save that official.

On inquiry as to how this could be done he was informed that he must agree to swear to the corporal's report to the Commandant, which set forth that some of the sheep got away from the station, and that on the watchman waking the corporal all hands turned out.

While thus engaged, the report went on, the three runaway convicts must have got into the quarters and cleared with the ammunition. Thus it will be seen the onus was thrown upon the watchman, who dared not refuse to swear to the truthfulness of the report, which was at last an ingenious one.

Captain Clunie quite believed the story, and consequently there was much rejoicing at Redbank. The joyousness, however, was short-lived, for two months later the three runaways were captured near the Settlement and the truth of the matter leaked out through the confession of one of them.

As a result the watchman was brought up on a charge of aiding and abetting, and the four were dispatched to Sydney, where they were each sentenced to three years in the iron gang on Cockatoo Island.