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A Sketch From Convict Life

The Convict Ship York to Western Australia

1862


The Sketch below was published in The Alexandra Magazine and Englishwoman's Journal in 1865.  It is an account written by a convict while on a voyage to Western Australia in 1862. The name of the convict ship and of the Surgeon were not divulged, however from the information given the vessel can be identified.  It was revealed that the ship departed Portsmouth in September and arrived at Fremantle in December with 300 male convicts.  The only ship in this time frame was the York which arrived in Fremantle on 31 December 1862.

The Surgeon-Superintendent was Arthur W.W. Babington. His appointment to the York convict ship was announced in  Colburn's United Service Magazine and Naval and Military Journal, Volume 18 in 1862.

The account gives an almost daily account of life on the York - fights, punishment, illness and death. Rations are mentioned and altercations between convicts and also between the free women on board. Entertainment such as gambling - dominoes, cards and thimble-rigging are mentioned. A fiddle was sent on board but it was found that not one amongst 300 men could play! The men received lectures from the school-teacher on board where they learned about the customs of Australian Aborigines. There is a description of their celebrations on Christmas Day 1862 which was spent on board the ship. There is also a passage at the end which describes some of the cant language used by the prisoners, cant being in many ways the forerunner of Australian Slang...........

A SKETCH FROM CONVICT LIFE........Some couple of years ago, there were papers found in a convict ship, which had been unintentionally left by the prisoners, and they have fallen into our hands.

One of them is a diary kept by a convict, written for no eye but his own—a veritable record of the thoughts and feelings of a man who was proved beyond doubt to have committed a series of crimes of the blackest dye. We will extract from it freely, not omitting the worst sentiments, nor selecting the best, preserving the orthography, and leaving the whole as intact a specimen as possible of the man's mental and moral state.

It is a concise narrative of the voyage of a convict ship from England to Western Australia, and, unconsciously, the writer gives us a curiously minute insight into the thoughts and feelings of the men we send to form the foundations of our colonies. The ship in which this paper was found was one of those ordinarily employed in the deportation of criminals—a common "transport," and it was fitted up in the usual manner. On the occasion referred to, three hundred convicts, with a guard of fifty pensioners, accompanied by their wives and families, "free emigrants," accepting colonial advantages in lieu of annuities, and availing themselves of this common mode of conveying them to their new home, formed the shipload.

This mass of men, women, and children, the latter two classes numbering nearly eighty souls, together with the captain and crew, were all given in charge to one head, a "surgeon superintendent;" and, according to the general plan of managing this matter, he had to be custodian and physician of the bodies of all this party, and master also of their morals during the voyage. A serious undertaking truly, and one for which the men are, as a rule, sought for in the ranks of the medical branch of the naval service. That some of these are mostly to be had, willing to take the position, is no proof that they are always fitted for the work. In the document before us, there is valuable testimony to the ability with which its duties are sometimes fulfilled. The tale, plain and unvarnished, will afford evidence on more than one point of interest, and there is a distinctness in the picture of convict life which it conveys, that is highly instructive.

23rd Sept. - 90 prisoners left Chatham and joined the at Sheerness.

24th Sept. - Towed by steamer in morning from daylight, sickness prevalent.

25th Sept. - Head wind: nearly all sick.

26th Sept. - Anchored at Spithead, and paper delivered to prisoners to write there farewell.

27th Sept. - Nothing particular.

28th Sept. - Fight between Brown and Weaver, first fight on board. 3 o.clock, a fresh captain came on board, to supersede the one that was with us before, who had committed himself by drunkenness.

29th Sept. - A girl had some altercation with her reputed father and desired the Dr. to set her ashore but was denied. 10 a.m., fight on the poop between 2 soldiers' wives. 11 a.m., prisoners came on board from Portsmouth, 77 in no. Old capt. left the ship, cheered the capt, all on board


3rd October. - At night men singing and dancing. Four Portland men came on board at 1.30 p.m. Officers came to restore order for confusion and being thickly stowed almost created suffocation.

4th October. - 7 a.m. Reading letters - another fight with Brown. Chaplain of Portland addressing the prisoners; a tin whistle brought by Mr. Lloyd, and none could play it out of 300 men.

5th October. - Prisoners stole the guard's pork. Chaplain of Portland conducted service. 3 p.m., surgeon promised to issue private property to prisoners.

6th October. - Fight on deck

7th October. - Contemplated plan of robbing the stores, by the prisoners, but were defeated, the sentry shouted " all wrong," four dozen promised by Dr. to any caught at robbery. 10 a.m. Fight below. 11.30, a man brought on board for one that was sent ashore, subject to fits. Portland men blamed for the noise in the ship at night. Wife of one of the guards sent ashore hopelessly ill of a consumption.

8th October. - Warders went ashore, wished us good speed. 2.15 p.m., weighed anchor, fair wind, prisoners and all on board turned sick; sickness very sore, picture may more easily be imagined than drawn. 3 p.m. Pilot left; prisoner tried to steal a pie from the galley.

9th October. - Fight on deck, men better. Fair wind, and ship steady. 1 p.m. Dr. sent some newspapers below for prisoners

13th October. - Weather moderate; men crawling on deck; rules hung up...... Dr. assembled the petty officers (prison) to inform them that he had placed H. Fidler over them as boatswain, immediately afterwards he was reported by a corporal for being drunk, and put by Dr.'s orders in black box, in his madness he stripped off, and defied any one to touch him. Prisoners seeing the scuffle, thinking Fidler about to be flogged, shouted, on which Dr. ordered all guard to stand at arms, and the crew of sailors likewise, with cutlasses, pikes, etc., thinking the prisoners meant mischief.

14th October. - A petition signed by capts. of messes to the Dr. on behalf of Fidler. 1 p.m., capts. called aft by the surgeon, who after a feeling and manly address dismissed Harry with a caution. God bless the Dr., he appears to be the right man in the right place. . . .

16th October. - Dr. sent a fiddle below and no one could play it, a library book served out to each mess.

17th October. - A lamp in the forecastle was broke, this is the 2nd lamp that has been broke through smoking.

18th October. - Lime juice stopped for dirty mess.

19th October. - Morning service, the surgeon attending, the Scripture reader delivered a very searching lecture from St. John. Sham fight hetween decks, caused several to sit up all night

20th October. - Classes arranged for school, altercation with prisoners, and Dr. gave his assent to smoking if they could obtain tobacco.

21st October. - Books distributed to each mess. 12 at noon, a fight below, a woman complaining of her rations was impertinent to him on which he threatened her with blind box. One of the warders was reported by prisoners on account of the water, case dismissed

22nd October. - Several bullocks' tongues, etc., and pork stolen out of harness cask, the Dr. threatened to stop our privileges if not found, disgraceful behaviour at the prayers that night for being sent down sooner because the bullocks' tongues were not found; musical instruments served out to prisoners, flute, cornopean, concertinas, etc.

23d October. - Service on the forecastle; several fights below.

24th October. - Disputes with cooks and capts. of messes. Entered the tropic of Cancer to-day.

26th October. - 4 p.m. Fight below. 8.30, fight between a Scotchman and a black, the Scotchman got the best of it.

27th October. - Fight on deck Dr. saw it, put the men in irons, made them pick oakum on the poop

28th October. - Schoolmaster read a book about Australia 8 p.m., very hot, very, very hot. Lying about naked, perspiration to a fearful extent.

29th October. - Awoke by men who could not sleep the heat being intense. 1.30, a man taken ill, the Dr. called by the guard; fight with 2 soldiers, Dr. not aware of it, prisoners promised to leave off smoking.

30th October. - Watch was set that none was to usurp the promise by smoking

1st November. - 8 p.m. men melting; almost suffocated; great noises; very distressing.

2nd Nov. - Nearly calm; sun hot; 18 men got a bottle of wine for cleanest mess

3rd Nov. - A gambling mania as seized the whole of the men to-day, for draughts, dominoes, tossing, pitching) and even thimble-rigging.

5th Nov. - A man's hair anointed with grease and tar to sit in long boat to watch the women one of which he as fallen in love with, Brown the fighter is his name.

6th Nov. - Fight on deck, sea life don't agree among many of the prisoners

8th Nov. - Up at sunrise to see an unusual phenomena the most beautiful display in the morning's sunrise, no painter or art, or devise of man could picture the various colours and serenity of sight by the rising of the sun till six o'clock

9th Nov. - Brown in it again

12th Nov. - Woman crying through cockroackes eating her boots; very hot; fight with 2 women (jealousy).

13th Nov. - Women tried by Dr. for fighting. Mary lost her bed until the end of the passage, the other, besides having two black eyes, forfeited a week's butter and lime juice. Dr. congratulating us on the healthy condition of prisoners, and all on board in general, he said it was an extraordinary thing as was ever known to proceed so far without one single death, we have been on deck from daylight till dark all the passage, 4 p.m., fight below, soldiers had a row with Dr. about their grog, one saucy, got 24 hours

16th Nov. - Controversy between schoolmaster and prisoners.

17th Nov. - Schoolmaster congratulated us as having come such a journey and none of us committed to the deep

20th Nov. - Very hot, sparring on deck for exercise . . . wonderful no one near the hatchway: no noise below

22nd Nov. - Mustard issued .... Dr. warned all hands to stop smoking according to our promise

23rd. Nov. - 2 men contrived to stop on deck and thought to effect their escape but were detected and placed in irons, fine subject for gossip . . service below; fight below . . . some prisoners assisting the sailers were ordered to stop, and refusing were reprimanded. . . .

24th Nov. - Poor fellow slipped down the hatchway and fractured his ribs, fight below. . . .

28th Nov. - Schoolmaster reading of the Australian explorers. 3 p.m., a man died of consumption, first death in the ship, at the time he died there was a fight on deck, the remains were carried on the poop covered with the union jack, in half an hour a man was dancing in dead man's shoes. . . .

29th Nov. - 5 a.m., ceremony of consigning his remains to the deep, many have been very ill, but by kind treatment and humanity, none proved fatal before ... all men in first rate spirits, talking of their future (though unseen) days.

30th Nov. - The ship searched to find forbidden articles, none being found, men who tried to escape was reprimanded, and cautioned as to their future conduct, and their irons struck off . . . some of the prisoners agree together to leave off swearing.

1st Dec. - Ship rolling . . . fight on deck, one man bit the other severely in the thigh . . .

3rd Dec. - Dr. brought down to a man in a fit . . obliged to go to bed to keep warm, it is dreadful cold now, can't say how it is at midsummer, I feel for any ship that as to encounter it in winter . . .

4th Dec. - Fires ordered below, prisoner - the assistant carpenter - put in black box for intoxication, and corporal Roberts hauled up on the poop with block and tackle for drunkenness.

5th Dec. - Corporal reduced . . . Dr. declined punishment until a future time. Guard with fixed bayonets during the time of serving wine out . .

7th Dec. - Many gamblers on Sunday afternoon, several sick through rough weather . . .

9th Dec. - A man stole 1/2 pint of wine . . . thread stole from the officer while serving it out, and one prisoner reported the officer to the Dr. for not serving it to his mess (after it being robbed) what an idea . . . C. Barlow singing in bed like a nightingale . . .

10th Dec. - Cards the chief amusement . . .

11th Dec. - —Smoking below, several interfering it was stopped to the credit of the men.

12th Dec.—A poor old harmless man was most cruelly ill-treated by another prisoner in a most scandalous manner, by rubbing cayenne pepper in his eyes and mouth while asleep, he was in excruciating agony for hours, he was not able to see until the afternoon of next day . . . the crew are greatly dissatisfied with the skipper, etc.

13th Dec. - Dr. examined the man's eyes, his sight his not seriously injured . . . above a dozen parties playing at cards during prayer time. 3 p.m., Dr. held a court of inquiry into the pepper case, he announced his intention of laying the case before the colonial authorities

14th Dec - Schoolmaster had to check card playing again .... report of gambling by one of the prisoners, viz. 12 card parties, 5 dominoes, 3 at draughts . . .

15th Dec. - I am so cold I can hardly tell whether I have any feet on or not. ... a judge and jury presided again to substantiate charges against prisoners who have committed themselves in the mess or amongst their comrades, 4 floggings were inflicted with a portion of a rope on a table, . . . which caused one man to lie in bed three days. . .

20th Dec. - Speculating in our minds on new year's day.

22nd Dec. - Books changed in all probability for the last time, . . . mending clothing ... 9 gallons of wine and 21 gills, 18 lbs., 12 oz. of lime juice, 18 lbs., 12 oz. of sugar are used daily in this ship, double allowance of flour for not having other ingredients, sugar instead of plums, the women have been allowed to pilfer plums which makes us run short.

23rd.Dec. - Schoolmaster commenced preparations for his long talked of Lecture on the manners and customs of the Aborigines of Australia, he caused a line to be stretched across the main deck, on which he suspended several paintings taken from the Saturday Magazine great attention was paid him . . .

24th Dec. - Dr. announced his intention of serving double wine on Christmas day ... a good deal of pilfering going on . . pudding hard, not unlike gutta percha ... we had them boiled at night to be warmed for breakfast. 7 p.m. Christmas eve. miserable weather, wet, between decks such a din as I cannot describe, singing in all directions, and smoking undescribable until midnight.

25th Dec. - Christmas day on the Indian Ocean, 6 a.m. The usual salutation of this morning is " the compts. of the season and many happy returns of the day." "The same to you" is the reply, she is going to Swan river "in a canter." L—B—shot the cat . . . service below . . . Christmas dinner cold pudding and sugar, the Dr. gave us double allowance of wine in the hatchway, the capt. also present, the Dr. wished us a merry Christmas, which was answered by a hearty cheer by all the men, etc., the wine has a very exhiliarating effect on nearly all of us . . .

26th Dec. - Dr. ordered all hands to shave off whiskers, and cautioned us as to cleaning the ship as he expects the prison authorities on board

27th Dec. - Brown got his nose skinned. Darkey was flogged with rope's end for dropping knife from the rigging, nearly killing a woman.

28th Dec. - Dr.'s inspection on deck, service below, some on topmast looking for Australia.

29th Dec. - Getting anchor over the bows ... a testimonial read before signed to be presented to Dr. for his kindness, attention and humanity through this wonderful voyage since we left England.

30th Dec. - Schoolmaster finished his Australian Lecture . . Lecture on the quarter deck to soldiers and their families on the manners and customs of the aborigines.

31st Dec. - 5 a.m. prison gate opened by officer, told us we should probably land to day .... all eyes anxiously strained over the bows of the ship looking for land . . . the testimonial signed I think by all hands, those that would not sign it ought to have 3 dozen . . . Captain went on the forecastle with an opera glass, he allowed 2 or 3 to look through, and then told them to give 3 English cheers; nearly all were beside ourselves, having seen no vessel for above six weeks, and not dropping anchor once since we started . . . double allowance of wine . . . sick in hospital crawled on deck, pilot came on board 3 p.m. At 8 the pilot left us at Portland, and at the same hour, this 31st Dec., a pilot came on board again, making 84 days to a hour from time of weighing anchor. 5 p.m. Hurrah the anchor is down.

A hearty cheer, 6 p.m., the Dr. sent for by all hands to receive the written testimonial that had been signed by every man but 1; he received it graciously and made a short and manly address, for which he was saluted with 3 cheers. 8, in bed, midnight, a cannon fired on ship, singing loud enough to wake almost the dead.

The address to the surgeon, signed by two hundred and ninety-nine men, is a florid piece of penmanship, and the names at foot display every sort of handwriting that can well be produced; the variety and peculiarities of the specimens are in themselves a study of no mean importance, and would afford to any person learned in the matter a fine opportunity for testing the truth of the theory that connects caligraphy with mental development. In this list there are men from every social grade, members of learned professions as well as artisans, and a few divines were mingled with the profane host, whose sentiments were embodied in the following testimonial:-

To the Surgeon Superintendant
Sir, - We the undersigned prisoners on board the, beg you to accept our heartfelt thanks for the treatment we have received during the three months we have been under your charge. Regarding ourselves as suffering excessive or even entirely unmerited sentences, and consequently disposed to look for the very utmost of our recognized rights, we yet cannot but acknowledge that your treatment of us throughout has been both just and liberal; while the confidence you have placed in us, the opportunity you have afforded us for air and exercise, the considerate manner in which you have received such representations, as we have had occasion to make, the kind and patient attention you have bestowed on us in sickness, the promptitude and thoughtfulness with which you have met the difficulties naturally incident to the situation, and, not least of all, the kind, frank, and manly tone you have observed in your personal intercourse with us, will cause us always to remember you with feelings of respect and affection.

The circumstances of our position make it impossible to offer you any other token of our feelings towards you than this bare expression of thanks ; but we regret this the less, from knowing the lasting satisfaction you will have in the fact that you have carried to their destination so large a body of men in a state of health and contentment without parallel, in such a voyage: and that you have alleviated, as far as at all possible, the regrets and discomforts of men suffering such heavy affliction. We hope you may be long spared to the enjoyment of a useful and happy life, and that in such sorrows as may await you, you may meet with that sympathy which you have so feelingly and .actively manifested towards us.

This address was not the only literary effort made on board by educated powers. A sermon was written, and presented to the religious instructor by one of the men, who had himself preached the gospel to attentive audiences. The production is a mere curiosity of " thieves' lingo." It is headed, "A proposed style of lecture to be delivered to the prisoners in the language to which they are addicted and accustomed." It would be by no means edifying to transcribe the whole of this specimen composition; a little of it will be quite enough to show the sort of thing that constitutes the comic in the criminal world:—

My friends, - Altho' I get (as you would say) my " sugar " for "spilling yarns " to you, I find it" stunning" hard " graff" to have to "patter" to you in "lingo " to which hardly one of you " tumbles." I shall, therefore, on this occasion, patter to you in your favourite and common slang. I beg of you all (from the "long sinner," to the chap that has only got "seven-pennorth," and the " new act cove " that has only got " 4 stretch ") to leave off " piping " that " new chums " gilt edged Bible and to listen to what the "Splawger " is saying to you. . . . You have all seen life and ought to be " up and down and fly" to " every move on the board." There are amongst you " Guns," " Flimps," "Cracksmen," " Magsmen," "Maunders,"" Fogle-lumbers," "General-dippers," "Tog-bouncers," "Counter crawlers," and " Area sneaks." Some are here for " thimbles," some for " skins," some for "busts," and some "putting the mug" on "Bloaks" to grab their " fawneys and dummies." These characters are all solemnly warned against some very strangesounding proceedings, threatened with various odd descriptions of punishment, in case of transgression, culminating in being "topped." Sage, but incomprehensible, advice is given for the regulation of conduct " in quod," and the discourse ends with the exhortation: "when you get your license keep clear of 'flash cribs,' 'old fences,' 'leary lads,' 'fine moles, 'penny gaffs,' and 'boozing kens.' Be good chaps, stick to ' graft,' go to church, take care of the ' old ooman' and the 'kids,' and go 'on a square racket.'" We are not aware that these suggestions were acted on, on board; if they were, no peculiar effects were apparent.

A few characters, that had been desperate in their respective depots, continued troublesome through the whole voyage, and were delivered over to the governor of the colonial establishment with a warning that he did not disregard. Two of them, however, contrived to elude even his remarkable vigilance, and made a daring attempt to escape, soon after they landed at Fremautle
.

FREMANTLE PRISON
Fremantle Prison


NOTES AND LINKS

1). John Gregg, a carpenter, wrote a journal for the voyage which is held in the Australian National Library in Canberra. Extract from State Library of Western Australia

2). List of Convicts on board the York from Convict Records

3). Arthur Wellesley Waterloo Babington M.R.C.S.E., Deputy Inspector-General of Hospitals and Fleets died on 12 April 1877 at Bedford aged 59. - The Lancet.

4). Fremantle Prison - Convict Database