Williamstown, Communication hub



Argus, 17 July, 1856


Of the Penal Establishments in Victoria the Hulks form at present the most important part. When Pentridge Stockade shall have been completed to the dimensions and capabilities intended, the number of prisoners kept on board the hulks will be materially diminished. But at present, as we have observed, the hulks may be called the principal of the penal establishments, inasmuch as the largest number of prisoners, and the majority of the “long-sentence” men are here kept or employed. The hulks at present in use are moored at a distance of about half a mile off the Lighthouse, Williamstown.

On the day of our visit to the hulks (Monday last) there were five hundred and sixty convicts on the books. These were located as follows : — In the Lysander, 240 ; in the Sacramento, 706 ; in the Success, 136 ; and in the President, 78 men. A larger number can be received, but, in consequence of the diminution, or rather non-increase, of crime, neither this nor any other of the penal establishments is tasked to its utmost capacity. The Deborah hulk, once used as a prison for refractory seamen, is now altogether “out of commission,” the number of disaffected mariners having dwindled down to some twenty-four. These are kept on board the Lysander, and are, during good behavior, employed as boatmen, and incur duties germane to their regular occupation. As the primary object of the Inspector General’s system is the security of the prisoners, the labor of the latter cannot in all cases be used as a set-off to the expense of maintaining and guarding them. But as the produce of their labor, although secondary, is a very important consideration, the convict, whenever practicable, is made to pay his own expenses. It is generally found that all the prisoners most dread a state of compulsory idleness; and accordingly, while inducements are held out to, and are certainly realised by men who conduct themselves steadily and decently, the majority of the latter so far influence the others that quite consistently with the safe keeping of the prisoners their labor is in a great measure turned to profitable account. The men on board the Lysander, besides the refractory seamen noticed, consist chiefly of prisoners who originally come to this colony free, of vagrants, and of short sentence men. These are separated only into wards, and, except for the insubordinate and lazy, there are no solitary cells. A number of the prisoners in this hulk are employed in picking oakum, in shoemaking, and light employments. The larger number are employed in the quarries and stone works, which we shall notice presently. In the Success and the Sacramento, being penal hulks, the treat- ment of the prisoners is more rigid. They are confined in separate cells, except when at work; and are almost all ironed, some of them very heavily. The weight of the irons used is regulated entirely by the previous known character of the prisoner, and is, of course affected, from 7 lbs. upwards, by his behaviour. Some of them wear irons 50 lbs. in weight, and it is to be regretted that some few even affect pride in the supposed importance attached to their safe custody, as shown in the superior ponderosity of these most inconvenient appendages. Nearly every one of the Success and Sacramento men have been transported for life two or three times ; many of them sentenced to death, some of them more than once; and several of them have been reprieved while upon the gallows. Humanly speaking the reformation or improvement of such beings would appear impossible; but if Mr. Price’s manage-ment of these unpromising customers has not had the much to be desired result of deter- ring all repetitions of offences, it is beyond doubt, that a great number of “old hands” have during the last year left the colony. “It does not pay” the Vandemonian vagrant to spend three years at the hulks; and, the desperate ruffians who in 1852 and 1853 had Melbourne streets at night for hunting grounds, are now chiefly taken or dispersed. The majority of the Success and Sacramento men are employed in the quarries and the stone works at Williamstown. The President is the hulk which contains the most dangerous and desperate offenders. With the exception of a few prisoners, not of the latter class, who are employed in cooking, washing, and cleaning, no labor is done by any of the convicts on the President. It is understood among the prisoners that at this hulk the penal discipline is of the most rigid character, and a “shift” to the President from the other hulks is looked upon with terror. The eighty President prisoners are each confined in a separate cell, of about six feet by four. The heaviest irons are used on many of the prisoners; their rations are on a diminished scale, and their only indulgence is about an hour’s exercise on deck during the day. Here we noticed [Henry] Garratt, who robbed the Bank at Ballaarat, [Francis] Melville, the notorious bushranger, and several murderers, whose capital sentences had been commuted. The sight of the number of this class of men carries with it something of the terrible. As cell after cell, through the entire length of each deck was opened, and each dreadful inmate appeared at the entrance, looking like a caged wild beast, only more repulsive, while we could not but deeply lament that humanity could put on so degraded an aspect, we felt it to be a matter for the heartiest congratulation that in their case the strong arm of the law had overcome and bound down the hand of violence : and that these persons were no longer, for the present at least, a terror to society at large. The only one of these men whose aspect was not most forbidding was Garratt, who contrasted most favourably with others in this respect, but whose previously known daring and determined character render it important to deal more severely with him than would appear to be rendered necessary by his conduct here, which has been by no means troublesome. As it is, however, never well, even if possible to leave a man to live without hope, even in this lowest depth, a prisoner by quiet, patient conduct may have his sentence lessened in duration; and towards the end of his time may have his prison condition ameliorated by being put to work, and to full labour rations; when he will avoid the dreary length of the days, weeks, months, and years passed in a solitary and almost silent cell, almost shut out from the sight of his fellow-man. There are several solitary and entirely silent cells here, where prisoners who have misconducted themselves are confined; while there their diet is reduced to bread and water. And the hulks were scrupulously and beautifully clean. The floors were cleaner than the tables of any but the very cleanest lodging-houses for free men in the town. The air was good and sweet throughout, and, with the exception of some twelve men in hospital, the prisoners appeared in good health; many of them who were at work indeed showing robust health and admirable “condition.” The total cost of each man per day is 3s. 8d., and this includes the total charge for feeding and clothing, (the present contract is for 1s. 1d. for each day’s rations) the salaries of all officers, the maintenance of the vessels, and the plant, tools, and all expenses incident to keeping up the establishment. The principal employment for the prisoners of the hulks arises from the quarries and the stone works. The principal of the quarries is that worked by the prisoners of the Success, ninety-two of these being employed in quarrying and cutting stone. One of the principal work-men, who indeed is the workman from whom the majority of the others have learned the business of stone-cutting, is a prisoner who was convicted, under the name of Simon Russell, of being concerned in the memorable St. Kilda-road bushranging or highway robberies committed on a great number of persons, in the face of day, in 1852, and on which charge two men are now under remand from the City Police Court. This man, Russell, went to England soon after the robbery, and did not return for about a year, was then apprehended, tried, and sentenced. Circumstances have since come to light which almost demonstrate this man’s innocence of this particular charge, although otherwise he is an offender upon whom sympathy would would be wasted. The stone prepared in this and the other quarries in used Government wishes.

A large quantity will be employed in the formation of a pier which is in progress and will extend round from the lighthouse to the old jetty, and thus form a dock. The materials to form the tide-gate are all ready for the hand of the mason; the foundations are in; this work will soon be completed. The superstructure of the tide-gate will be very neat and handsome; and the whole of the masonry of the pier is of the first class. One of the most important works here is the new battery. This, as well as the pier, has been constructed entirely by convict labour, and to the orders of Captain [Charles] Pasley, the Commissioner of Public Works. In the formation of the battery nearly two acres has been reclaimed from the sea, and have been filled up with rubble. The site for the battery was suggested by the late Sir Charles Hotham — no mean authority on such a topic.

The battery will mount nine long 32-pounders. The stone prepared for the embrasures again attest the excellence of the work done here; as also do a large quantity of stone wrought for portions of the intended new Geelong Gaol. The battery will have a magazine in the centre; and this, as well as all other portions of the work, is advanced nearly to completion. The Sacramento prisoners are also occupied in quarrying, stone cutting, and carting rubble by hand-carts on a temporary rail-way, formed also by convict labor. The majority of the Lysander men are similarly employed. No free labor whatever is used for any purpose, but to keep guard over the prisoners. About seventy-eight warders, under four superintendents and four chief warders, perform this duty. The shore guard is furnished from these. The quarters of these officers are, of course, on board the respective hulks. Under a well directed system, their very irksome office is rendered comparatively cosy and cheerful ; but great caution, firmness, and forbearance are necessary for the safe and lawful keeping of such desperate characters as are here confined. Some of the latter take a pride in being troublesome, and insubordinate, and complaining. As we proceeded round, under the guidance of the Inspector-General, we noticed several traces of this spirit. One young man who was “in solitary” for insubordination, admitted that he had “shouted out” contrary to rule, and probably for “flashness,” as it is termed ; another, a very desperate ruffian, had violently assaulted the medical officer, because he had not improved his dietary allowance. Against each prisoner’s cell is placed a written account of him and of his conduct while there; and in almost every case those who were “in solitary” had committed themselves from ten to twenty times.

Nothing, however, which we observed throughout the establishment struck us so forcibly as the extraordinary control and influence which the Inspector-General appeared to exercise over all classes of prisoners. Many of them had been under his eye for the best (or the worst) part of twenty years, and those appeared to look upon him as a sort of natural guardian. His visit appeared to give great satisfaction to all ; and we learned that somehow, almost as soon as he arrived, one and all of the prisoners were aware of his presence; the ” big’un” is here ; or, “John” is coming round; being the forms of expression, as we were informed, which are generally used to signify the coming of Mr. [John Giles] Price. Many of them had small favors to ask, and a very great number wanted to say something. One wanted to be allowed to write to his wife, another to his brother; one (a youth) wished to be taught a trade (shoemaking); several wanted to have their irons changed for lighter ones; several others wanted “a shift,” that is, to be removed to Pentridge or Collingwood, or from a penal hulk to the Lysander, or to be put to work. One man who had recently experienced the solitary system complained that he had been kept unduly long in the nearly dark cabin appropriated to each last comer for “solitary;” one man complained that his “hominy” was nearly cold when it was served to him; and another thought the doctor was mistaken in not ordering him, being subject to dysentery, a larger quantity of meat. The majority of these requests were postponed, but some of them, after consideration, were granted. The Inspector-General appears to carry in his head a complete biography of all the criminals in Australia, including not only a history of their doings, but an accurate estimate of what they might, could, or would do if they had the chance. It occurred to us that if Mr. Price could be persuaded to transfer his knowledge of that phase of humanity seen in convict life to paper, we are convinced that a work might be produced which would really and thoroughly enlighten the people of the mother country upon the actual working of their transportation system, and on which topic at present a very great amount of very profound and much mistaken ignorance prevails.

We have mentioned that the majority of the working convicts appeared to be in strong health and perfect condition. They rise at half-past six in the morning, breakfast before going to work, and from 7.45 a.m., with the exception of an hour (twelve to one allowed for dinner, they are at labor until four o’clock in the afternoon, — this early hour for “knocking off” work being adopted from the necessity of returning them to the hulks and mustering them by daylight. The full rations served to each man is as follows : breakfast, about 1 lb. and 14 ozs. of hominy and ½oz. sugar ; dinner, 1 lb. meal, 1 lb. bread, and 1 lb. potatoes; supper tin same as at breakfast. In the penal hulks, the prisoners who do no work receive half the allowance of meat and potatoes per day: the other meals are the same as the full labor rations. The prisoners state that their rations have been much better in quality under the present contractor than they were previously.

All complaints of misconduct against prisoners are investigated by Lieutenant Pasco, the visiting magistrate of the hulks, who alone orders the punishments inflicted. Corporeal punishment is never resorted to: the only correctives in use being low diet, silence, and such additional security as heavier irons may afford.

An impression was prevalent in some quarters until recently that escape from the penal establishments were very common. Such a thing has been unknown for some time. Two or three attempts have been made, but were unsuccessful, and the contrivers are now in the heaviest iron and in the closest confinement undergoing the penalty of their misconduct. It appears to us that under the present management escape is rendered all but impossible, and that the safe custody of these dangerous offenders is no longer difficult or doubtful; the hulks being in fact, as well as in name rendered a “terror to evil-doors.”


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