Free Settler or Felon

The Evidence of George Shaw Rutherford


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The Evidence of George Shaw Rutherford


IN ENGLAND IN 1831 A SELECT COMMITTEE was appointed to inquire into the best mode of giving efficiency to Secondary Punishments of prisoners and to make a report on their Observations.

George' Shaw Rutherford was a well experienced Surgeon-Superintendent and was called on to give evidence. He had been employed as Surgeon-Superintendent on the following convict ships to Australia -

Prince of Orange in 1821; Lord Melville in 1829; Shipley in 1822; Royal Admiral in 1830; Marquis of Hastings in 1826; Commodore Hayes in 1823 (VDL); Eliza in 1827; and later China (to Norfolk Island) in 1846

Dr. George Rutherford, called in and Examined. -

1041. Have you lately been in New South Wales?

I have.

1042. In what situation were you there ?

As surgeon superintendent of convict ship

1043. Have you made several voyages to New South Wales in the same capacity ?


1044. Is your experience confined to the treatment of convicts on board ship on their passage out?

A good deal so; I am also a good deal acquainted with New South Wales itself.

1045. What appears to you to be the general impression in the minds of the convicts who come on board as to their situation in New South Wales ?

There is a great degree of apprehension, in the first place, of the voyage, and afterwards of what they have to expect on their arrival in New South Wales. They seem generally to be quite ignorant of what sort of treatment they are to receive.

1046. Do you mean they are apprehensive of the treatment they are to receive?


1047. Is that the case with the London thieves, or is it confined to the convicts from the country ?

It is the case with the convicts generally.

1048. Then they do not look forward to it as a land of promise?

Some of them do so express themselves, but very few; in general they have an apprehension of what they are to suffer.

1049. Does that depress their spirits so as to affect their health ?

Generally it does.

1050. Are they well rationed on board the ship ?

Yes, they are.

1051. Have they the same rations that land troops receive on board ship?

There is a regulated allowance; two thirds their rations.

1052. Do you find when on board ship their conduct is reckless and careless, and that they are apt to resort to the stories of their past life, and encourage each other in crime ?

There is a great deal of that amongst them.

1053. So that during the voyage, instead of becoming better, they become worse than before ?

 I should not say they became worse in general.

1054. Is their health, generally speaking, good on board ship?

Yes; I only lost five prisoners in seven voyages, and there were 1,209 landed in health out of 1,214 embarked.

1055. Are they placed under much restraint on board?

My own manner of treating them is to allow a third of them to be on deck at a time for their health.

1056. Are they allowed to amuse themselves on deck, or are they watched?

 I require them to take exercise on deck.

1057. Have they free intercourse with each other ?


1058. Are they ironed?

They are ironed at first; they are not now in the habit of sending them on board in double irons.

1059. Are they ironed when taking exercise on board?

No, unless they conduct themselves so ill as to require it.

1060. Are they allowed spirits on board ?


1061. That does not form part of the ration ?


1062. What beverage have they ?


1063. Are they allowed no spirits towards the end of the voyage, when the water becomes worse in quality ?

Government puts two gallons of wine on board in proportion to each man, and it is left to the surgeon superintendent to issue it to them as he thinks advisable.

1064. Towards the end of the voyage water becomes bad, does not it?

I never found it so.

1065. Do the ships water at the Cape

I never touched but once going out at Rio.

1066. On landing you find them generally in good health, or the reverse?

I generally had them in good health. I seldom had occasion to send a man to the hospital.

1067. Does anything occur to you by which the discipline on board of ships can be improved?

No; I have never been able to improve upon it myself; I have followed up the same course of proceeding in the last three or four voyages.

1068. I suppose the voyage itself is considered a punishment, is it not?

It is.

1069. Are you not aware there is a considerable facility for escape from the colony ?

I should say not.

1070. In the ship in which you came home, did not a convict contrive to secrete himself and return?

He did; it was the first time that occurred in any ship I returned in.

1071. And of course you and the master of the ship examined it as strictly as possible before she sailed ?

Yes; constables are sent on board to search the day the ship sails.

1072. In private ships, where the master is not so anxious to prevent that taking place, is it not almost impossible for the police to guard against some convicts being concealed ?

I conceive in general the search is very strict.

1073. What became of the man who effected his escape in the ship you returned in ?

I do not know.

1074. He effected his escape from the ship in the river, did not he ?

Yes; he escaped in the river.

1075. With the connivance of the crew ?

Yes; it is fair to presume so.

1076. From your experience of New South Wales, do you think the convicts become reconciled to their new situations there ?

They have a great dread of being obliged to remain in Government gangs in the employ of Government; their great desire is to be assigned to settlers.

1077. Then by way of increasing the severity of the punishments would it not be advisable to make them always undergo the ordeal of a certain length of service in the government gangs ?

The settlers sometimes have a reluctance to receive men who have been long in the government gangs.

1078. Have you had much experience of convicts who have returned to England after the period of their transportations have expired ?

Only those who have come home in the convict-ships.

1079. Do they express much joy at their return ?

Very much.

1080. Do you consider the labour of the convicts in New South Wales more severe than that of the agricultural labourers in England ?

Decidedly so.

1081. Have you in the course of your voyages known a case of mutiny among the convicts?

They were disposed to be mutinous in the last voyage.

1082. What was the cause of that?

Some men had been sent on board from Bermuda, who had conducted themselves so ill that they could not keep them there.

1083. Do you mean men who had been transported to Bermuda, and were sent from there to New South Wales?


1084. Is there any hope of change for the better in their characters on board ship ?

I think there may be sometimes.

1085. Have you ever known a change for the worse after they have left the ship ?

I have known persons go from the ship with a good character, who conducted themselves badly after.

1086. Is that because they are old experienced thieves?


1087. In case of misconduct, what is the punishment you inflict on board ship ?

Putting them on bread and water very often, or putting them in double irons if they had been in single irons or in handcuffs, and the last alternative is flogging

1088. Do you allow them butchers meat on the voyage ?

It constitutes a portion of the ration.

1089. Everyday?


1090. Do you think that is necessary for their health?

I think the ration is better calculated to keep them in health now than it was formerly.

1091. Do you think meat is absolutely necessary for their health ?

I think it is absolutely necessary they should have some portion of meat during their voyage.

. Is it necessary they should have meat every day to keep them in good health?

I think they might be in good health and have banyan days.

1093. Would twice a week be sufficient ?

I think it would.

1094. Do you think the price of provisioning them would be reduced by that ?

I do not think it would.

1095. Do the convicts perform any kind of labour on board ?

Some of them do; those who are tailors, carpenters, or joiners.

1096. What number go out in a ship generally ?

From 180 to 200

1097. Government contracts with individuals to send them out ?

Yes, for their carriage out.

1098. But not for provisions?

No; government puts provisions on board.

1099. Have you ever been on board a female convict-ship ?


Minutes of Evidence before the Select Committee



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