Paul Budde's History Archives

The Convicts

In May 1825 Commander Henry Miller relocated the increased population of 75 convicts along with officials and military to the Brisbane River site. While now on the river the site was still called the Moreton Bay Convict Settlement and Penal Colony. As mentioned, he was called back to Sydney by the governor.

In August 1825 he was replaced by Captain Peter Bishop who arrived in the Lalla Rookh with a detachment of troops and 28 convicts, all 2nd offenders while in the colony  Bishop became the second Commandant of the penal colony but he also only stayed a few months in the penal settlement.

He in turn was replaced by the 3rd commandant Captain Patrick Logan who ruled the colony from 1825-1830.

Layout of the convict settlement - 1838

The long row of buildings indicates the convict barracks. Closest to the river is the Commissariat.  Further along the river are the military barracks and the hospital. On the left towards the bottom the windmill. Further out Goal Hill (female prison). Government House all the way to the right. Map Queensland State Archives.

 

In general those send to Moreton Bay were here on minor (secondary) offences – often robberies – for which they received relative short term sentences. Under Logan, the total numbers of convicts for a very short short period peaked around 1,000. However, shortly after his time the whole issue of penal settlements came under discussion. This meant that far fewer convicts arrived, while most short-termers went back to Sydney. From 1832 onward we see the numbers of convicts in the colony more than halved (300-400) and later on that decade halved again. Under Logan the settlement was built for 1000 convicts and 200 military, it never received full capacity anymore. This meant that buildings became less used and started to deteriorate and there were also not enough prisoners to maintain all the farms and gardens.

The first arrivals in the mid 1820s lived in tents and they had the built the initial slab huts that were used for the military and their workshops.  The initial work consisted of basic groundwork such a levelling building sites and clearing land for farming.

Douglas Gordon in the medical Journal of Australia in 1963, comes to an interesting conclusion. The high level of death and illness in the early years (see chapter Hospitals) was a repeat of the situation in Sydney when Governor Phillip arrived there in 1788. While Phillip could be excused for lack of knowledge. The officials who established Moreton Bay should have learned from that experience and should have taken sufficient precautionary measures to prevent a repeat of the Sydney disaster, but they did not and the people in Moreton Bay paid the price for that, many with their lives and many more with permanent disabilities.

In 1835 Quaker Missionary James Backhouse wrote a report on his visit to Moreton Bay to NSW Governor Richard Bourke. In this his stated that all convicts on arrival were put in irons for nine months and unless the convicts had misbehaved there were removed after that time. He described the food that convicts received, which mainly consisted of maize meal that was used for bread and porridge. Apart from the loss of liberty the irons and the food were the major privations.

Misconduct was punished by flogging, solitary confinement, work on the treadmill, compulsory labour on Sundays as well as the above mentioned wearing of irons.

By that time the convict system had several types of convicts: The First and Second Class. Together they were also called  The Old Hands as they were all second offenders.  They Second Class was employed to clear heavily timbered land, quarrying stones, hoeing the farm lands. Most of the Second Class had iron leg cuffs. This was especially exhausting in the summer months.  Within that group there were also differences. Punishments were varied through the weight of the leg irons. While they not only had to work much harder their food rations and the quality of it was less than that of the other prisoners.

Leg irons - Brisbane

Leg irons – Brisbane

 

The First Class was also called the Better Class.  They were employed in the lighter and less laborious operations, this included working in the lumberyards and the outlaying farming and cattle stations. Where appropriate they were also employed as clerks and domestic staff (both men and female) for the households of military the pastor, doctor, etc. Within the Second Class were also the Mechanics. These were convicts with certain trades or skills. Some of them acquired some skills. Wherever possible they were deployed based on their skills. Those who misbehaved could end up in the iron gangs and this was in general a good enough reason to stay out of trouble.

The first commanders Miller and Bishop had complained about the lack of skilled labour. It was not after Commander Logan arrived that more convicts arrived – including those with skills needed in the new settlement. It was only at that time that serious building start to happen. Despite the overall negative legacy that Logan has left behind (see below), he has also been recognised for his excellent building program.

When Andrew Petrie arrived in 1837, he became the (first) Superintendent of Works and he oversaw the work done by the better class prisoners.

The Petrie sculpture tableau - King George Sq

The Petrie sculpture tableau – King George Sq . The figure on top of the statue is Andrew Petrie, who is mounting his horse to depart upon an inland expedition from Moreton Bay in 1842. He is being handed a drinking bottle by his wife, Mary, while Isabella, their daughter, watches. Their son, Tom Petrie, is depicted playing on the river bank with two of his Aboriginal friends. John Petrie holds his father’s horse, while a convict that Andrew Petrie recently freed, observes.

By that time, the lumberyard at what is now Brisbane Square had workshops where the ‘better’ prisoners made their own clothes, caps, and boots. They produced nails, iron bolts and other building material. They tanned leather and made soap and candles. There were also blacksmiths, carpenters, cabinet makers, coopers, wheelwrights, and barbers. As in any prison system also here there was a roaring illegal trade going on. Those in the lumberyard made whenever possible various things for the soldiers in exchange for favours, tea, tobacco, etc.

The lumberyard was walled with one entrance at Queen Street which was guarded by a sentry. At six o’clock the prisoners were mustered and with a group of six red coats were walked back to the Convict Barracks. They were searched by a convict overseer to make sure they did not smuggle any tea or tobacco back into their compound. The Petrie boys had rather free access throughout the settlement and were able to provide some tea, tobacco, and other goodies to prisoners in the lumberyard or those who were out in the field. Their mother actively stimulated this. Sometimes the crow-minder (see below) did bury some tobacco that was later  retrieved by the iron-gang prisoners. The soldiers would often just look on as long as the overseers were away.

The prisoners received twice a week their rations of tea, sugar, and meat from the cook in the lumberyard. They daily also received corn meal porridge, served in kids (small wooden tubs). There are also several reports indicating that the sugar, what they called black sugar, was not much more than molasses. The tea was very coarse like bits of stick and was known as ‘post and rail’. They also roasted corn and than grind to make coffee, this was known as ‘coal tar’. The poor quality of the food was a constant complaint and malnutrition (together with poor hygiene) was a key reason for the high level of hospitalisation and consequent death.

The iron gangs were mainly deployed in the various farms and gardens (New Farm, Kangaroo Point, along the river in South Bank and around what is now Roma Street. First, they had to walk in chains to these places. Here, they did all the usual farming and the chipping and hilling of the corn. They had to use the hoe; Logan had forbidden to give them a plough. They also had to bring the corn on carts – they had to pull themselves – to the windmill. While the hand carts remained in use, later also a bullock was sometimes used to pull the cart.

Both groups worked on the treadmill. The major difference being that it was a punishment for the iron gang who could have to work for up to 16 hours with irons on. The other prisoners often volunteered, worked much less time, where able to get some extra food and of course had no irons on.

In the case of the iron gang workers, if they did not do their share or misbehaved in any form, they would be given the lash on the spot by the convict overseer. At the Government Gardens (Botanical Gardens) was a lonely pine tree that was used for that purpose. On the Creek street side was a tree-hut for the crow-minder. This was a short-sentenced prisoner (who would not run away) he had to walk along the corn with a clapper to keep the crows and cockatoos away. He also had to keep an eye on the Aboriginals that they did not swam across the river to steal corn. The fact that this happened rather often indicates that he was not always successful in his job. There were also crow-minders at other sites.

An interesting detail that Tom also mentioned both in relation to prisoners in the garden and on the treadmill is that the convicts always took their shirts off not because of the heat, but to keep them reasonably clean as they only were issued with two shirts a year.

Women also worked in the gardens. Females and some male convicts were also deployed in household and maintenance work for the various military staff members and their households.

Tom Petrie mentioned that the Turrbal people called the convicts ‘croppies’. This is interesting as that was originally the name for Irish convicts send to Australia. Croppy was a nickname given to Irish rebels fighting for independence from Britain during the 1798 Rising [1]. They must have picked up that name at the early beginning of the penal settlement and that name stuck to them. The aboriginals called the soldiers ‘diamonds’ because of their red and white uniform.

Statistical information

Visiting botanist Allan Cunningham reported in June 1828 that there were 500 convicts , 73 military and 3 clerks. In 1831, convict numbers peaked at 947. Another 250 military and administrative staff, made the total population in 1831 around 1200. In that year there were 40 convict  women with 43 children incarcerated in the Female Factory. When sentences expired very few new convicts arrived at the settlement and the convict population fell away to 374 in 1835.

In 1836 there were 311 male prisoners, 71 female prisoners, 22 children (0f which 14 are offspring of the female prisoners). On the military side there were 60 soldiers as well as  the Commandant, Superintendent of Public Works, Assistant Colonial Surgeon, Deputy Assistant Commissary General, Agriculture Superintendent, Superintendent of Convicts, Commissariat Storekeeper and the Commandant’s clerk.

The stats for 1838 are: 207 male prisoners, 77 females, total of a 284.

Close to 90% of all convicts were below the age of 40, with the majority of them in the 20-24 range. Only 6% were female. On average there was one soldier for every 6-8 convicts.

In 1839, transportation to Moreton Bay had totally ceased. There were less than 100 convicts at that time. The Superintendent  of Convicts William Whyte left the colony and the Commandant included this job in his work. The vacant house – next to the convict barracks –  became the post office.

By that time 2200 convicts had passed through the convict settlement. In all 220 convicts died in the penal settlement (10%), a comparative high number of deaths within the British penal system, especially when taking into account that the majority of prisoners was under the age of 40.

In November 1839 NSW Governor Richard Bourke  mentioned in his report to Britain that the maize grown at Moreton Bay was valued by him at £1046, and the cost per convict head per annum at £13.

With the closure of the penal colony those with higher offenses were send to Norfolk Island the rest to Sydney. Fifty ‘ordinary prisoners of the Crown’ were send to Brisbane to facilitate the change to a free settlement. In the early 1850s ex-convict and their families still counted for around 20% of the total population.

Harshest penal colony in Australia

Logan was at occasions criticised by his superiors of ordering punishment of up to 500 lashes.  However, being these leaders all being military men their view was based on discipline and punishment, so they let the local commanders basically alone.  This also applied to Governor Thomas Brisbane. Ironically, the Scottish clan name Brisbane is derived from the anglo-french ‘brise bane’ meaning ‘break bone’ or ‘bonebreaker’. All of this continued in a period where social sciences started to move politicians more towards a prison regime based on rehabilitation.

Between February and October in 1828, 11,000 lashes were inflicted on 200 convicts.  Each lash with the dreaded ‘cat o”nine’ left swollen marks all over the back of the victim. According to the records from the convict settlement, the Book of Trial, 128 men received 50 or more lashes. In comparison the average in the rest of NSW was 41 lashes. One of them – a 23 year old convict who received 200 lashes died  a few days later in the hospital. He certainly was not the only one. At occasions lashed were continued after the victim lost consciousness. These records also mention one convict who received 300 lashes (he apparently survived this). Records from between 1835 and 1842 indicate that 70% of the prisoners received at least once a flogging, in comparison in the rest of NSW that average was 25%. What these records don’t list are the floggings that were handed out in the field, there were several trees were prisoners were tied too when being flogged for problems caused while outside the barracks. In Logan’s time the flogger was known as “Old Bumble” and was a nasty piece of work and hated by the prisoners. Obvious the flogger didn’t live in the barracks as the others would gladly kill him. In Petrie’s time the flogger was Gillian and lived in a hut at the Commander’s Garden (he also tended this garden- what a contrast).

Moreton Bay  had become notorious for the harshness of its punishment regime – especial under the regime of Logan. However, his successors, James Clunie (1830-1835) surpassed him in brutality and his successor Foster Fyans (1835-1837) nicknamed ‘Flogger’ Fyans’ was not much better. They were all military men and they all had served in colonies with large number of slaves and were used to issue harsh punishment without much respect for human life. Logan in particular was hated by the convicts forcing them to work by hand from sunrise to sunset. The convicts had to sleep on board on the floor and were not provided with bedding. At its peak between 1830 and 1832 the barracks were overcrowd and rapidly became filthy. Without access to clean water dysentery and other deceases followed.

Another example of the harsh treatments was the fact that Logan had ordered that draft animals were not allowed within the penal settlement. The carts were build so they could be pulled by prisoners. When the Female Factory was moved to Eagle Farm a bullock was used for transport between the two sites. For the same purpose the doctor was now allowed to have a horse and buggy

Death was often the only escape from this regime of terror and several convicts committed crimes in the hope they would be hanged for that. Hangings could not be authorised by the Commandant. Those who committed  serious crimes such as murder would have to go to court in Sydney. It could be that the judge than ordered the hanging in Moreton Bay. There are only a few known cases that this happened. Runaways Charles Fagan and John Bullbridge, who consequently committed a house robbery in Port Macquarie were hanged in 1830, in front of the convict barracks. In the sentencing it was also stated that this this should be an example for other prisoners, contemplating their escape.

Two Turrbal Aboriginals (whose prosecution could be done without the court) were hanged on the wind mill for the murder of Assistant Surveyor Granville Stapylton.

I haven’t come across any other official executions. A significant number of convicts will have directly or indirectly died because of access flogging combined with insufficient food, exhaustion and excessive heat conditions. However, they were not recorded as such. Most of the time they were simply listed as died in hospital.

It is therefor no wonder that many convicts tried to abscond. Moreton Bay was an open prison, with the Australian Bush as its wall.  There were over the period  a staggering 700 recorded absconders (of which 98 were never captured). It is remarkably that escapes were made with those heavy  chains around their legs. Most of them returned back to the settlement because there was no way they could survive in the bush. Some received shelter from the Aboriginals, others were killed by them. As rewards were given to Aboriginals who capture absconded convicts they became actively involved in capturing them.   Amazingly some escapees made it all the way to Sydney, where they often were captured and send back to Moreton Bay. Some never showed up anywhere and were assumed to have been perished in the bush. While few made it the large number of escapes was an administrative nuisance  and created significant extra work for the military.

Logan was equally hated by the Aboriginals. Just before his planned return to Sydney, Logan went out on one his many exploration trips this time to an area known as Somerset. When he didn’t return Dr Cowper lead a party of soldiers to search for him. His bludgeoned body was find by Cowper and he concluded that Logan was murdered by Aboriginals. It has been suggested that this could perhaps have happened when he forcefully tried to enter their lands. Looking the way Logan was buried in a shallow grave, face down, rumours in the settlement had it that soldiers and/or convicts had murdered him.

The song Moreton Bay Song may have been composed soon after Logan’s death on 18 October 1830.

 

The end of the penal system

Running penal colonies had become a financial burden to the British Government. There were also increasingly more voices in the British Parliament who advocated for stopping the transportation system as it didn’t really deter criminals. Britain was also worried about rebellions, such as the one in the American colonies that led to Britain losing these colonies.

Furthermore the Australian colonies the free settlers lobbied for an end to the system. As early as 1832 there were  plans to abandon the Moreton Bay penal colony. During 1839 and 1840 Britain wanted to reduce the overall transportation and instead increase the number of prison hulks on the Thames. In November 1839 NSW Governor Richard Bourke  supported the British move to  end of transportation. In that year the decision was also made to close down Moreton Bay and to reduce the number of prisoners to 300 – all short-term sentence men.

With indwelling numbers of prisoners the commanders following Logan have left little impressions behind them . They were:

  • James Oliphant Clunie, 1830-1835. As a military man he of course showed the same level of discipline, however in contrary to Logan he was mild-mannered and consequently the violence among the military and the convicts decreased.
  • Foster Fyans, 1835-1837. He was a Commandant by accident. He wanted to retire to the civil service, however, it took 2 years before that happened and in between he was the ruler in Brisbane. He was a solitary and rather eccentric man  and there was a return to a harsher regime. He wrought chairs  for his Sydney patrons and friends.
  • Sydney John Cotton, 1837-1839. According to Tom Petrie, he was considered the best commander by the prisoners.
  • George Gravatt, May-July 1839. In 1840 Mount Gravatt was named after him by surveyor Robert Dixon.
  • Owen Gorman, 1839 -1842.

Convicts who stayed in Brisbane

The 2nd offenders all went back to Sydney. Instead the colony received a group of 55 prisoners of the Crown to assist in establishing the free settlement. Twenty two were assigned to the surveyors – see below – three were employed at the hospital, one to the pilot crew at Amity Point, four as boat crew for the settlement, the rest were assigned were needed.

NSW Governor George Gipps declared by Proclamation on 11 February 1842, that Moreton Bay was now officially open for free settlement. He visited the free settlement a month later on March 24th. He criticised the width of the planned roads, especially Queen Street and famously declared that “this was a waste of such a lot of land for a street in a place that will be nothing else but a paltry village“. After Gipps left, Surveyor Warner ignored the order and thanks to him we the width of Queen Street as it is now.

While food production had been a problem at the start of the colony when it started to close down in 1839 it had 900 cattle and 4500 sheep at its various stations.

While there were only a rather few prisoners at the start of the free settlement several of them stayed on in Brisbane after they received their ticket of leave. But there also  seem to be a few prisoners left from the original prison system. Andrew Petrie reported that he did have several of these ex-convicts working for him. Sadly he also reported that several of them had gone insane or where in the edge of it. In Tom’s words: ‘they had been knocked silly in Logan’s time’. The names Crancky Tom and Deaf Mickey speak for themselves, another one Daley succumbed to alcohol.

By the 1850s it was estimated that 20% of the population of Brisbane were ex-convicts and their families.

In May 1842 Andrew Petrie, Stuart Russel and Captain Joliffe went in the settlement’s whale boat  on an exploration north along the coast. They were the first white people to ‘discover’ the Mary River. On this trip they also picked up two absconded convicts David Bracewell and James Davis, after Andrew Petrie assured him that it was safe to him to return.

James became a respectable storekeeper. James had lived for 13 years with the aboriginals, spoke their language and new a lot about their customs, here he received the name of Dumbaroi.  He had a son by his aboriginal wife, with whom he stayed in contact. However, he refused to talk about this, even Andrew Petrie could not pursue him to tell his stories. Nevertheless, he was regular asked by the government and the merchants to assist with translations with Aboriginal people. He was married twice and in 1889 was murdered by his 2nd wife.

David Bracewell was sent to the penal settlement at Moreton Bay in 1827. He was a repeat absconder and stayed in between for several years with Aboriginal people. In 1839 he absconded again. After he returned to Brisbane in 1842 he was given work at Wolston near Goodna, on a property owned by the humane Stephen Simpson, crown lands commissioner, but while felling timber on 28 March 1844 he was crushed by a tree.

Matthew and Stuart Thomas were among the ‘ordinary’ prisoners who arrive in 1839. Matthew received his Ticket of Leave in 1846 and three years later he had a publican’s licence and was running St Patrick’s Tavern in Queen Street. Business was booming and he bought more land in town. On Queen Street on the eastern side, three blocks away from Albert Street he built the Donnybrook Hotel (later known as North Brisbane Hotel). Behind the hotel was a bridge over the creek over which supplies were brought into the premise, including a daily load of barrels with ‘fresh’ water from the reservoir that stood where now the Supreme Court stands. In the cottage he had build behind his hotel he opened a school ran by his daughters Mary and Margret 18 and 16 respectively at that time. The school had 22 students. Matthew bought more land this time at Kangaroo Point and a boat for river trade. His brother Stuart also stayed in Brisbane, but died at Matthew’s place in 1857. Stewart died in 1873, but left a large family behind that spread through Brisbane.

In 1848 ex-convict Joseph Willis was mentioned, when his daughter Hannah married in the church that was converted from the former convict carpenters shop.

We also know the name of one female prisoner who stayed in Brisbane. Her name is Hannah Rigby she was married to George Page, with whom she had two sons. George was transported to Moreton Bay in 1826 and Hannah, after she had stolen 30 yards of ribbon followed him in 1830. In September 1832 a third child (James known as Jimmy) was born however, his father was James Hexton the boat pilot at Amity Point on Stradbroke Island (he was a free man who had served at the British Nany). In February 1837, she was transported back to Sydney, where she (most likely deliberately) stole two hat and was send back to Moreton Bay in October that year, where she was reunited with her son, who during her absence had stayed with his father. During the wind down period of the  penal settlement in 184o she was one of 5 convict women who was assigned as servants. She became a servant at Doctor Ballow, who recommended her for a certificate of freedom.  James Hexton died in a boat accident in April 1851 and Hannah died of a stroke in October 1853. She was buried at the cemetery at St John’s Church, there were now the Treasury Hotel stands.

Another notable female convict is Marie Langley at the age of 34 she was transported to Moreton Bay in 1840 after she received a 10 year sentence for counterfeiting r six pence coins. She received her Ticket of Leave in 1845 and a few months later in December that year she married ex convict Henry Skinner, he arrived in Moreton Bay in 1839 and received his Ticket of Leave in 1842. This is the only known marriage of a Ticket of Leave woman in Queensland. They build up a successful business in cattle and real estate in Brisbane, Milton and Enoggera. Henry died in 1851 and Marie in 1878, she is buried in Toowong Cemetery, however her headstone is no longer there.

 

The building of Brisbane

Convict History of Brisbane TOC

1 The name “Croppy” used in Ireland in the 1790s was a reference to the closely cropped hair associated with the anti-powdered wig (and therefore, anti-aristocratic) French revolutionaries of the period. Men with their hair cropped were automatically suspected of sympathies with the pro-French underground organisation the Society of United Irishmen, and were often seized by the British administration and its allies for interrogation