The Horrors of Convict Life, 1856 1
delivered in the
Oddfellows’ Hall, Padiham
AUGUST 31S T , 1856
By Mr John Frost
MR PLACE, OF PADIHAM, IN THE CHAIR
Mr Frost, who was loudly cheered on presenting himself before the audience, spoke as follows:
Mr Chairman and friends, I should have been a very bad judge of human nature had I entered upon a task such as that in which I am now engaged with the expectation of finding it a bed of roses. Every one who attempts to deprive bad men of power must expect to meet with the hostility of those men whom he assails, and we all know perfectly well that the worse use they make of power the more do they desire to retain it. It is now forty years ago since I commenced my political career. In 1816 and 1817 I first became acquainted with the political state of our country, and from that time to the present I have consistently advocated the principles of the Charter, believing from my soul that they are the only sound principles upon which good government can be based, and that unless they can be brought into practical operation we shall never have the House of Commons filled with good men. As our chairman has already stated, we want men in whose honesty and integrity we can place confidence: we do not want men who endeavour to obtain that power with which the law invests them for the purpose of making it subservient to their own peculiar aims. Those of us who are acquainted with the history of the House of Commons know that from the time of Edward the First, when that house was first established, until the present day, it has been, not an institution for the good of the people, not an assembly of delegates endeavouring to obtain for the people that which belongs to them, to procure for them the possession of their rights, but an engine in the hands of great men to take from the people that which they should call their own, and to apply what they have thus acquired for their own benefit, and to the injury of the community. We have a great battle to fight—I do not mean a physical battle, for we must proceed cautiously, yet firmly and boldly. We have to contend with great powers, and we must take our measures accordingly. I have this morning received a letter from V/ales, in which I am informed that the press, almost without exception, are attacking me hip and thigh. Their object, I am told, is to put me down; but they have not put me down yet, and I doubt whether they ever will put me down. (Cheers.) We know that we are in the right, that we are only asking for that which belongs to us, and all we have to do, as men of principle, is to proceed with caution, and success, in my opinion, must in a very short period crown our efforts.
The subject on which I mean to address you on the present occasion is one that was commented upon in the Manchester Guardian on Thursday last. I come before you as a public character, and I believe that if my character were to be strictly examined it would stand the test of inquiry. I wish you, I wish my countrymen generally, to believe that I am actuated by a desire for their good; that I seek for that which belongs to them, and not for anything that I can gain. I have got nothing by agitation, I can assure you; nay, I may say that I have lost a great deal; hut that will not deter me from pursuing the same course I adopted years ago, and which I have adhered to throughout in the belief that that course is the right one. As I have said before, an article upon my proceedings appeared in the Manchester Guardian of Thursday last, and I do not think I could better engage your attention than by reading a portion of that article, and making a few observations thereon, with a view of showing the nature of the charges that have been preferred against me, and that they are not founded on the principles of justice. But before doing this, I would point attention to the fact that not a single charge is made against my character, and that nothing has been said which will have a tendency to lower me in the estimation of any thinking man. I have been accused of ingratitude to the Government, I have been told that I am a shameless man, and other charges of that description have been brought against me; but nothing has been advanced to show that I have ever made use of any power I may have possessed with a view to my own gain, improperly: the accusations that have been levelled at me are of that description that cannot be well disproved or defended, because they are merely based upon individual opinions. The editor of the Manchester Guardian says:
Among the blessings which the conclusion of the Russian war has conferred upon the country must be reckoned the restoration to English and Irish society of a number of individuals who had, at various times, been deported from their native shores for political offences. The term by which we describe the delinquency of these exiles is, indeed, inadequate for the purpose; for, if the crown had confined its favour to abbreviating the doom of simply political offenders, it must have looked in vain for an object appealing to its clemency.
Now, the English and Irish exiles might have returned many years ago if we had gone on our knees and solicited such a favour of the English Government. Mr Smith O’Brien, and the rest of the compatriots, refused indignantly even to acknowledge that they were wrong. They said they had not done wrong in endeavouring to show the country the oppression under which it laboured, and notwithstanding all the intimidation, threats, and even promises that were made by the English Government, not one of the Irish exiles uttered a single sentiment that could be construed into an apology. The Government attempted the same thing with me, but they found me quite as firm as the Irish gentlemen, and if I had continued in Van Diemen’s Land all my days – though I am bound to England by near and very dear ties, having a large family here – and had never been permitted to see my family any more, not a single sentence should ever have escaped my lips that any Chartist in the kingdom would deem dishonourable. (Cheers.) I did not begin the contest with a view of begging and praying for anything they could afford me; I began it from a conviction that I was doing my duty, and I will adhere to the course I have hitherto pursued so long as health and strength are vouchsafed to me. Beg for my return! Why, I would not beg my life at the hands of those men; and surely it can hardly be expected that I would beg for anything that would have the effect of restoring me to England by a sacrifice of principle on my part. Now, this does not seem to have pleased the editor of the Manchester Guardian, who seems to think that if we had been a set of crawling, creeping reptiles, who would have disgraced ourselves and our cause by making apologies to such a set of men as those who constitute the Government of the present day, we should have exhibited a proper spirit. But we did not act upon any such principle; we bore oppression, we suffered every punishment that was inflicted upon us, and we were determined not to do anything that would have the effect of disgracing our cause, The article in the Manchester Guardian goes on to say:
Whatever may have been the rigour of the administration in times past, there can scarcely be now alive a British subject who has been consigned to punishment for hostility to the government of the day, except where that hostility has been expressed in actions which involved open danger to the property and lives of his fellow subjects. Peace, however, is the parent of forgiveness, and there is no one who questions the grace or the policy of the decision which has allowed all ranks and orders of these misguided persons to return, unmolested and pitied, to the country which they quitted with so little honour to themselves.
There is no one, I think, who understands the English Government of the present who will suppose that they were actuated by any motives of clemency in giving us our pardon. It was no such thing; it was a matter of policy on the part of the Government, and nothing more. In 1853 a number of Irish representatives petitioned Lord Palmerston for the return of Smith O’Brien. He told them he would take the matter into consideration. He did so, and just as the session was about to close he gave those gentlemen a denial, promising to take the matter into consideration against the next meeting of Parliament. In 1854 a large meeting of the inhabitants was held in Newport, and a petition was sent up to Government praying for my restoration to my native country. That petition was treated with contumely, and thrown aside as unworthy of notice. In the same year the Irish gentlemen came forward again, and as Lord Palmerston then wanted the votes of the Irish members, it became a question whether the Irish exiles could be pardoned and the Chartists left in Van Diemen’s Land. I was there eight years longer than Smith O’Brien; my companion Jones received his pardon six years, and Williams eighteen months before me. I suppose they were so fond of me out there that they did not wish to lose me; but whatever the motive, they kept me longer than anyone else, and at one time Lord Palmerston actually told some friends of mine in the House of Commons that I was the only obstacle to the return of Smith O’Brien. However, from some motives which I cannot think were other than political motives, they did pardon me, and I am now here in my country for the purpose of showing the good people of England what sort of rulers they have so far as the penal colonies are concerned. So far from my having made use of any apologetic or conciliatory language towards Lord Palmerston or the English Government, I will read you a few extracts from a pamphlet which I published in America, and when you have heard them, it will be a matter of surprise on your part that Lord Palmerston should ever have suffered me to return to England. There could have been no other reason for permitting my return than that the Government wanted the votes of the Irish members, many of whom were determined that if he did allow the Irish gentlemen to come back, and would not extend the same act of justice toward the English Chartists, they would secede and leave him in the lurch, which he would most certainly have been in had they abandoned him. You will agree with me when I read these extracts that no language proceeded from me that might not have proceeded from any honest minded and consistent man.
Every reader of history must be well aware that the aristocracy of the British Isles were, and are, a curse to the world. The power of the lawgiver, in their hands, has been used for purposes destructive of everything which virtuous men would prize.
I do not think you will call that bending to the aristocracy. The pamphlet from which this is taken was, as I have already intimated, originally published in America, copies of it were sent to Lord Palmerston and the other ministers, they all read it before pardoning me, and I do not think that the language it contains is such as would have been likely to induce such a man as Lord Palmerston to permit my return, if he had not been actuated by motives of a political nature.
Wherever freedom attempted to raise its head, whether at home or abroad, there the power of the Parliament was exerted to destroy it. Insatiable and mean in the pursuit of wealth, the aristocracy were like a raging lion, seeking whom it might devour.
Not satisfied with public property, such as crown lands, church lands, charity lands, school lands, tithes, &c., &c., they contracted a debt a little short of a thousand millions of pounds, no small part of which they have received, and while thousands, and hundreds of thousands, are in a state of the greatest destitution, these haughty and base descendants of the Normans are wallowing in wealth received from the taxes paid by those who want the common necessaries of life. Suppose for a moment we cast our eyes to France at the commencement of the revolution of 1789.
Now these are matters which I think ought to engage the attention of every well wisher to his country. The only thing we have to do at such times as the present is to show the consequences that resulted from the exercise of the power wielded by the aristocracy. There are thousands of persons who in all probability would not act upon the principles they entertain, with reference to the Charter, if they were not shown the use their rulers make of the power given to them – how they tax the people and how they appropriate the money they have raised by those taxes, the payment of which occasions great distress among the people upon whom they are levied. There are, also, thousands who would be ready to engage in an agitation, having for its object the reduction of taxes, and who at the same time might think very little about the principles of Chartism.
Did any country in the world suffer more than France, at this period, from the operation of laws made by haughty and corrupt men, whose will was subject to no restraint? Were not the leaders of the French Revolution wise and good men, whose object was to raise their country to happiness by removing those customs and laws by which France was oppressed and impoverished? Who prevented a consummation so desirable?
It is well known that there never was a set of wiser men than were assembled at that period in France. Who were they then, what prevented the French legislature from passing laws that would have been for the benefit of the people of France?
The English aristocracy!! They knew well that if a proper form of government were established in France, the example would be followed in England. They went to war with France for the purpose of restoring the tyrants and tyranny. They subsidised the despots of the Continent. They spent the money of the people of England to perpetuate their slavery. They crushed the spirit of liberty in their own country by tyrannical edicts, upheld and enforced by a standing army, and in doing so they contracted a debt, the lamentable, the direful effects of which extend their ramifications to every family in the kingdom. For what purpose is the present war undertaken by the English Government? Lord Palmerston told the inhabitants of Melbourne that the war was against tyranny! Against tyranny undertaken, too, by Lord Palmerston. That man who can look at the conduct of the late Emperor of Russia without horror can possess but little humanity. In the pursuit of his ambition, or the gratification of his passions, he was indeed a merciless man; and one whose name should be held in detestation; but, on my conscience, I believe that he was not a worse man than Lord Palmerston (‘Hear! Hear!’), and I believe, too, that my readers will be of the same opinion before they finish this letter: the difference between these two men was in their power not in the disposition to exercise it! I am of the opinion, that opinion formed by much reading and thinking, that there is no cruelty, which the most ferocious of men could perpetrate, that would not be practised by the aristocracy to uphold and perpetuate their power, among the most prominent of whom is Lord Palmerston.
Now I do not think that this sort of language was likely to induce Lord Palmerston to suffer me to come back to England, unless there were some powerful reasons in favour of my being pardoned. I have read this to show that during the whole of the time I was in Van Diemen’s Land, and during the period I was in America, not one word escaped me tending to show that my disposition and principles were changed, or that I ever condescended to beg or make use of what I should consider improper language, with a view of procuring my pardon. I am called ungrateful; the writer in the Manchester Guardian accuses me of ingratitude because I have not gone home and remained with my family, leaving political matters to other persons. It strikes me, however, that I am only performing my duty in going through the country for the purpose of showing in what manner our countrymen in Van Diemen’s Land are treated, and the state of society in that remote region. Never, in my opinion, in any age or country, has society existed in so depraved a state as I have witnessed in the penal colonies, produced, too, by laws not equalled in severity in any part of the civilised world. They tell me that I am ungrateful to the English Government. I will endeavour, so far as my abilities will permit, to show you the consequences of their rule. I have with me a paper published in America, and in it is a report of a meeting of the British residents in Broadway, held for the purpose of congratulating me on my arrival in that country, and to petition the Queen for my restoration to England. In that is given a short history of the conduct of the English Government to me after the jury had found me guilty, and when I as entirely dependent on the mercy of the Government for my life. I will relate the circumstances.
We were in the condemned cell, awaiting the time fixed for the executions, when one of the three appeared very anxious that we should commit suicide – that we should defeat the object of the Government by taking our own lives. He thought it would be a most disgraceful death, if we were to allow ourselves to be hung, and afterwards to have our heads cut off and our bodies quartered, though the latter part of the sentence probably would not have been carried into effect. The subject was discussed night after night, and at that time, I should tell you, we had very little hope of receiving a remission of the death sentence. We were not aware of the agitation that was taking place out of doors; everything was kept secret from us, and it was when we were thoroughly persuaded that we had no hopes of being suffered to live, that one of my companions introduced the suggestion that we should commit suicide. I was opposed to that suggestion from the commencement. I thought it would be acting a cowardly part indeed for men placed in our situation to take away our own lives, for by so doing I conceived that we should be merely playing the game of the Government; that that would have been doing the very thing they wanted us to do. After a great deal of discussion on the subject, two of us came to the conclusion that we would await the event in preference to doing that which in my opinion would have suited the purposes of the Government, Now, mark the steps they took to induce us to do that which would of course have prevented my being here to address you today. The condemned cell was in one of the towers of the gaol, secured by a strong gate. There was a very small room in which we lived during the day, and when night came we were shut up in the tower. When we were locked up together little did we think that the turnkey was lying within six feet of our beds and listening to every syllable of our conversation. Some time after the period I refer to a young man from Newport was sent to Monmouth gaol for three years for having been concerned in the affairs of 1839. I afterwards met him in America, and found, from what he told me, that while we had been discussing the question of suicide, the turnkey had been listening to all that we had said. From the conversations related to me by that young man, I was convinced that this must have been the case, because there were no other means of acquiring a knowledge of our discussions than listening at the door. No doubt, so soon as the turnkey became acquainted with what had passed between us, he reported what he had heard to the Governor of the Goal, and the Governor in his turn reported to the Police Magistrate, who was in constant communication with Lord Normanby, the then Secretary of State for the Home Department. We were to have been hanged on the Saturday, and on the Thursday previous we received a letter from the Sheriff of Monmouthshire, of which I will read you a copy:
To the High Sheriff of the County of Monmouth. Sir,– I am to signify to you the Queen’s command that the execution of the sentence of death passed on John Frost, Zephaniah Williams, and William Jones, now in the gaol of Monmouth, be respited till Thursday, the 6th of February; but the prisoners are to be distinctly informed that the sentence of the law will then be assuredly carried into effect.
Now that was received on the Thursday evening, two days before we were to be executed. On the Friday evening, our turnkey came into the cell and said,
I have just returned from the post office, and have met Ford, the gaoler, and he is very low – indeed he seems as low as the grave. He has received a letter from the Secretary of State, and that has made him quite low.
Ford came into the condemned cell on the same day and read us a letter he had received containing almost the same language as that I have just read, and containing a direction from the Secretary of State that he should read it to us, in order, I suppose, ‘to make assurance doubly sure’. Well, just as we were going to bed, Ford came into the room and said ‘Frost, I have come here for the purpose of having a little conversation with you.’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘what is it? I shall be glad to hear anything you may have to say.’ ‘What’, he then asked, ‘would you like to have done with your bodies after you are dead?’ Rather a pleasant subject to introduce to men in our situation! (Laughter.) It was a very gloomy evening, and the place in which we were, the condemned cell, was anything but pleasant quarters, I can assure you, without saying anything of the prospect before us. I looked at him! ‘I understood’, was my reply, ‘that the sentence was that our bodies were to be placed at the disposal of our most gracious Majesty. Have you received any orders from her transferring the power which the law gives her to me or to my companions? Because if you have received no authority to that effect, your question amounts to nothing.’ He could not say that he had. received such authority, because if he had said so we should have asked for it at once. He therefore evaded the point as well as he could, but I endeavoured to keep him to it. However, he continued to talk about cutting off our heads and quartering us, and everything that he thought might have a tendency to excite fear on our part. At last I said to him, ‘Mr Ford, what does all this amount to? You know that you have no authority for putting the question you have put to me, and you know perfectly well that were I to direct you or any one else how to dispose of my body, the authorities would prevent my wishes being carried into effect. Besides that, you know perfectly well that we have friends, who would not suffer our dead bodies to remain above ground for want of someone to inter them.’ Now, what was the object of all this on the part of the gaoler? What object had Lord Palmerston, and probably my friend Lord John Russell, in sending a communication of the description I have read, when at the same time it was determined that we should not be hanged? They knew what our conversations were, they knew that the subject of suicide had been discussed in the condemned cell, and they thought that by holding out no hope they would induce us to do that which they themselves were afraid to do. I think this must be perfectly clear to everyone who takes the matter into consideration. Ought I, then, to be grateful to a Government who were capable of committing so base an act as that? Am I to go upon my knees and thank them for saving my life when they did all in their power to induce me and others to take away our own lives? I think that no wise or honest man would say I ought to be grateful for conduct which, had it succeeded in frightening us into the commission of suicide, would have had the effect of disgracing ourselves and of injuring our cause more than anything else that could have happened.
Now I come to another matter. When they had got us into the convicts’ hulk they nearly starved us. I really believe that in the ten or twelve days I was in the hulk I was reduced 20 lb or 30 lb in weight. They gave us no food but bread and water, or at least none that I could partake of save bread and water. After a little time, when we had complained of the treatment we had received, they gave us better food, and by that time my stomach had become so weak it would scarcely retain anything. When the period for my removal arrived, I was weaker than I had ever been in my life. They put us on board a barge. The weather was very cold, as cold as it generally is in the month of February, and we were clad only in our prison dress – a little jacket and a little thin waistcoat. In order, I suppose, to show some commiseration, they threw a piece of old tarpaulin over my shoulders, to prevent me from perishing of cold. When we got on board the transport ship, I was put into the hospital. During the evening I was lying down, rather low – indeed more dispirited than I had been during any period of my incarceration. I had forgotten myself for a few minutes in a very uneasy kind of sleep, when I was awakened by hearing some one say, ‘This, sir, is John Frost.’ I looked up, and then found the hospital full of military officers. An old gentleman came up to me and said, ‘I have not come here, Mr Frost, for the purpose of reproaching you; I have come here to give you a little advice. I am the Governor of Portsmouth, and I think you will do well to take my advice.’ ‘Well, sir,’ I replied, ‘I am ready to listen to you.’ ‘If’, he continued, ‘there should be the slightest commotion in this ship during the time she is on her voyage hence to Van Diemen’s Land, the officer in command of the troops has strict orders to act with the greatest promptitude.’ ‘Would it not have been better’, said I, ‘that our lives should have been taken according to law, than that they should be taken on our passage to Van Diemen’s Land? And do you mean that that promptitude will be evinced if I or any of us have nothing to do with any commotion?’ ‘I have nothing further to say to you, sir,’ was the reply.
When we had got within a few days’ sail of the Cape of Good Hope, a letter was brought to me by a prisoner. In that letter I was asked whether I and my companions would engage in an attempt to take the ship from the authorities, and the writer assured us that if we would engage in such an attempt, and were successful, he would ensure that we should he obeyed. Now that letter put me into an embarrassing position. If the surgeon superintendent had been aware that I had received a letter of that sort, and had not disclosed it to him, he would have called it treason, or misprision of treason. But I did not like to betray the man who had written thus, supposing him to be honest in his intentions; I therefore showed the letter to one of my friends and he seemed inclined, I thought, to make the attempt suggested. I then said, ‘Let us examine the matter fairly; we have made one mistake, do not let us make another. Suppose we make the attempt and fail; our death will not be a very honourable one, for if we should not be killed at once, but taken prisoners, we are sure to be hung. There is no one to save us here; no agitation to keep the matter alive and frighten the Government out of their intentions. In the next place, suppose we should succeed, what are we to do with the 212 prisoners on board? In two hours they would be masters of the ship, and if we attempted to prevent their doing that which they would he sure to do first thing, procure drink, they would throw us overboard. For my part I shall have nothing to do with it.’ I then put the letter into the fire and said nothing more about it. Now comes the question, was that letter the act of the prisoner or was it the act of the Government, or of the Government authorities on board the ship, for the purpose of entrapping me and my companions into something which would give them the opportunity of taking away our lives? That prisoner would not have obtained writing paper without the knowledge of someone in authority on that vessel, and as for finding the opportunity of writing a letter unobserved in a convict ship, that was quite out of the question. When we got to Van Diemen’s Land, the doctor, as he was about leaving the ship, said to me, ‘Frost, I am happy to bear testimony to your good conduct since you have been under my authority, and let me tell you,’ and as he said this, he looked straight at me and put his finger to his nose, ‘you have said nothing, you have done nothing since you have been in this ship with which I have not been made acquainted.’ If that were so, he must have been acquainted with that letter, and must have known that it was a trap to take away our lives. Here then is another act of the Government, for which I think I have no reason to be grateful. Just look at these two things. The Government have possession of three persons who are convicted of a certain offence, and endeavour to induce them to take away their own lives. Failing in this, an attempt is made on board the convict ship to induce us to get up a mutiny, whereas they would have been well prepared to repel every movement of ours, if we had been foolish enough to fall into their trap, and the result would have been that we should have been hung. Now, I think it would be impossible for anyone bearing the name of a man to act a more disgraceful part than the Government have acted; and yet the editor of the Manchester Guardian tells me that I ought to go on my knees to the Government, and thank them for suffering me to come back to my own country.
When we arrived at Van Diemen’s Land, we were sent down to Port Arthur, a penal settlement, for the purpose of being placed in certain situations. I was put into the office of the commandant, Captain Booth, to fill the situation of police clerk. My companion Williams was sent to the coal mines, and Jones was sent to the boys’ establishment at Point Puer. I certainly do think that the wise men made a great mistake in putting me into the commandant’s office. I had not been there many days before I was completely horror struck by the cruelties committed by the Government authorities, and the sad consequences that resulted from a convict code not equalled in severity in any part of the civilised world. A short time after I had got into the office, I asked the commandant if he would permit me to write a letter to Mrs Frost. ‘Certainly,’ he said, ‘by all means, but you must be aware that no letter can be sent from Port Arthur, or any other place on Tasman’s Peninsula, without it has been first submitted to me.’ ‘I will do nothing contrary to your regulations,’ answered I. ‘I am here, and will make the best of my situation. I will give you no trouble and shall feel very glad if you will think so.’ I then wrote the letter. That letter was put into the hands of Captain Booth; he read it and told me that he saw nothing objectionable in it. The letter was sent home and, though no act of mine, was published in England. There was something in it that was displeasing to Lord John Russell and orders came back to remove me from the commandant’s office. The commandant came to me one day after he had come from Hobart Town and said, ‘I have orders to remove you from the office.’ ‘For what?’ I asked. ‘Have I conducted myself in a manner that is displeasing to you?’ ‘No,’ said Captain Booth, ‘you have given satisfaction.’ ‘And where are you going to put me?’ inquired I. ‘Why, I must put you in the gangs.’ ‘In the gangs, for what? Do you mean to put me in the gangs without trying me?’ The gangs, you should know, are awkward places to be put into; for when there, you have to associate with men who are not the most pleasing characters, and whose manners, habits, disposition and language are such as to form the worst part of transportation. They have a space of about eighteen inches to lie down in, twenty or thirty lying in a hut. Taking me out of the office and putting me into the gangs without having committed any offence, shows that the motives of justice in reference to myself were anything but the right ones. I was turned out of the office and put into the gangs, and that was an act which I think every rational man will say was most unjust and cruel. I had submitted the letter to the commandant, he read it, and approved of it, and if there had been anything in it that was wrong, I think it was his duty to have pointed it out to me, so that I might have altered it, or have written another letter. But nothing of that sort was done. I was kept in the gangs for two or three years, and subject to the very hardest kinds of labour that any man could endure. But all this did me no harm, it only raised my spirit, and I think that I was actually a stronger man after working in the quarries and carrying logs than I had been before. The exercise only added to my health, increased my strength, and increased my desire to try whether I could not be of some service to my fellow countrymen, if ever I should be permitted to revisit England.
I now wish you to listen with a little attention to the state of society in Van Diemen’s Land and the consequences resulting from a convict code, which Sir William Molesworth has stated ‘is not equalled in severity in any part of the civilised world’. Nothing can be more detestable than for a lawgiver possessing power over men to make actions, innocent in themselves, offences, and to punish the persons ‘offending’, with merciless severity. One of the greatest crimes that a man can commit in Van Diemen’s Land is to walk through a settlement with his hands in his pockets. There is a crime! A man puts his hands into his pockets, such an act is against the regulations, he is brought up, tried, convicted and flogged. I knew a young man, a very decent well-behaved young man, who was standing at the door of his hut one day, when an old drunken vagabond of an overseer came by. In those places they always choose the worst men they can find to fill the Government situations. Humanity is a quality that would exclude any one from power in Van Diemen’s Land, for in the penal colonies humanity is the greatest offence that an officer could be guilty of. The overseer spoke to the young man in a most authoritative and impudent manner. The young man looked at him and said nothing. ‘Take your hand out of your pocket,’ said the overseer, and went off to the superintendent. That young man was put into the cells; three days afterwards he was tried by the commandant and sentenced to receive thirty-six lashes. I saw him flogged; and what effect had that punishment upon him? It made him one of the worst men in the station. He became an entirely different man, and from that time was continually receiving punishment, occasioned solely by the degrading manner in which he had been treated. Would any man who reasoned upon the subject suppose that those persons who were possessed of authority were subject to no restrictions in its exercise? When men possess power, are they justified in making use of it as they please? I think not. And this is one of the evils of which I complain. We say that the power of the lawgiver ought to be limited, and that he ought to be responsible for its exercise. This would be the case if the people had the power of choosing the men who make the laws. Lawgivers should be responsible for the exercise of their power; and why should it not be so They ought to be responsible in their persons and in their property if they abuse the power entrusted to them. What are the effects likely to follow and which have followed, such conduct as I have already drawn your attention to? Let me read to you an instance given in the pamphlet from which I have already quoted, and thus show you how the laws enforced in the penal settlements are contrary to the principles of justice and of human nature, and what effects are produced by their severity.
‘While I was police clerk at Port Arthur [I was police clerk for twelve months, and during that period the books passed through my hands] two sawyers were brought to the office and charged by the superintendent with breaking a saw. They pleaded guilty to the charge of breaking, but denied that it was done wilfully. The commandant, always disposed to reverse the maxim, which it is said should prevail in all courts of justice, that innocence should be presumed till guilt be proved, pronounced them guilty, and sentenced them to receive six and thirty lashes each. Now let me describe a Port Arthur flogging’
I am speaking in reference to human beings, your own countrymen, and it is not impossible that some of those with whom I have been acquainted may be relatives or friends of persons who are now present. I know that a large number of persons, especially boys, were transported from Manchester while I was in Van Diemens’ Land, and some of them were treated in a manner the mere description of which would be sufficient to shock human nature. To proceed, however, with my description:
‘The flogger at this time was one of the most powerful men on the settlement, and one who, like his master, felt a gratification in inflicting and witnessing human misery. There were many prisoners who would bear any punishment rather than complain; I am certain that they would have died at the triangle rather than utter a groan. It was a contest between the parties: the flogger using every means in his power to break the spirit of those who suffered, and the sufferers determined to sustain the punishment unflinchingly; the authorities looking on. It may be supposed what the sufferings must have been when the operator was influenced by such feelings. The knout was made of the hardest whipcord, of an unusual size. The cord was put into salt water till it was saturated; it was then put into the sun to dry; by this process it became like wire, the eighty-one knots cutting the flesh as if a saw had been used.’
And this punishment was also inflicted on men for the offence of putting their hands in their pockets!
‘It maybe judged what sort of a state the back must have been in after a flogging by such a man and with such an instrument. When taken from the triangles the chest would be quite black.’
The back, I should remark, would be in such a state that no one could ever see anything like it who had not lived in the penal colonies. Twenty-five lashes at Port Arthur, inflicted, as I have said before, for trifling offences, produced more suffering than three hundred would have produced as they are inflicted in the army.
‘Yet the commandant would often witness this punishment with as much indifference as if he were looking at some philosophical experiment. The next day the superintendent came into the hut to me and said, “Frost, you remember the sawyers yesterday?” “Yes, sir.” “I will now show you the sort of men we have for masters. When I came to Port Arthur as superintendent, I gave every man that I could task-work; among these were the sawyers. I gave them a fair day’s work, and if they finished the quantity within time, they might employ their spare time for their own advantage. I gave each a small piece of land, to cultivate for himself. Many of them would work late and early, and would often finish their work by middle day Friday; they would then work in their gardens, or go fishing; and as fish abound in the bays, they would catch enough for the whole settlement; and as we had, at that time, scarcely anything but salt meat and very little vegetables, we found the fish very acceptable. The men, with the view of pleasing me, would often do more than their allotted task, and the work would be much better done than it is at present, and very rarely was a saw broken. The men were in much better health, better behaved, better tempered, and many of them were very industrious men. There was scarcely any flogging, very little punishment of any sort and the feeling between the officers and prisoners was of a kindly nature.”’
During the time I was in the office at Port Arthur, it used to be my duty to read the regulations to the prisoners. One day I was engaged in reading the regulations to about thirty or forty persons standing before me in the dock when I noticed a very tall powerful looking man, who was built like a Hercules. Just as the prisoners were leaving the dock, he said something to the commandant, complaining of the treatment he had been under. He had been transported, I learnt, for some offence against military discipline. The commandant paid no attention to the man’s complaint, and a few days afterwards the same man was brought up charged with having assaulted his overseer. The overseers are always the worst men to deal with, and he was charged with assaulting one of them. The man told the commandant that it was impossible for any one living, who had any spirit, to bear insults such as he had received from the overseer before he struck him; but this did not avail, he was sentenced to receive one hundred lashes – one hundred Port Arthur lashes, and fifty of them in the breech. When he heard the latter part of the sentence, he said, ‘I hope not, sir. If I am to be flogged, let me be flogged like a man, and not like a boy. I have been a soldier, sir, and you have been a soldier; treat me like a man.’ ‘By heavens,’ said the commandant, ‘you shall be flogged according to your sentence.’ He was so flogged, and in a very short time he was brought up again. Never did I see a man who felt more acutely the agony of his situation. He was, as I have said, a powerful man. When he was tried a second time, it was for not having treated the commandant respectfully, and all that he had said was what I have just narrated. For this he was sentenced to fourteen days solitary confinement on bread and water, his offence having been no more than a remonstrance on the cruelty of his former sentence. And what effect did all this punishment have upon him? After he had served the fourteen days on bread and water – a very small quantity of bread – he was taken out of his cell and put before the door, heavily ironed, with a large chain about his waist, fastened to another chain running along the causeway. In that position he worked for some time. One day I heard a cry of ‘Murder! he has killed a. man.’ I ran to the door, and there saw the man who had been so cruelly treated, standing with two or three others, and a man lying on the ground before him nearly dead. It seemed that he had determined to abscond, and had made a confident of another person who was working with him. This person had, he believed, betrayed him to the authorities, and in a moment of irritation he struck the other a blow on the head. The wounded man was taken to the hospital and in two or three days died. The offender was brought up and examined. I took down an account of the examination before the magistrates. The prisoner was as firm a man, probably, as ever I saw in my life. He said but little during the examination, and was committed to Hobart Town for trial, where he was found guilty, sentenced to be hanged, and he was hanged. Now here were two lives lost, both of which might have been spared by anything like humane treatment. But the overseers in Port Arthur are the very worst men that can be found, and unless a man is a stock or stone, it is almost impossible for him to remain in the gangs without offending some one of the overseers, and getting mercilessly punished.
I now come to a subject to which I will crave your serious attention, for it is very important that we should consider the effects produced by the administration of bad laws by bad men. It is said by philosophers, and I believe the saying is a true one, that injustice and cruelty destroy the reflecting faculties and leave no thought or wish but for the immediate gratification of the sensual. In such cases no moral feelings can restrain men from the commission of the very worst acts that can be committed, and these results I have witnessed in Port Arthur to an extent probably not equalled in the world. I would avoid these subjects if I could, but I am anxious that the people of England should know what is the real state of society in that part of the world, with a view that a change should be brought about for the better, Within this year 1200 men have been sent from England to the penal colonies of Australia, and I will venture to say that one half; if not more, have already been destroyed, if the commission of the worst crimes that man can perpetrate be destruction. The state of society in Van Diemen’s Land when I left there was not equalled even in the worst days of the Canaanites. I say again that I would avoid these subjects if I could, but I do believe that the duty I owe to my countrymen requires that the matter upon which I am about to speak should be fairly brought before them, and in such a way that it cannot be misunderstood.
Sir William Molesworth stated to the House of Commons, no one contradicting him, ‘that the convict code was not equalled in severity in any part of the civilised world; and that the depravity in the penal colony was unequalled’.
Having requested females to withdraw, Mr Frost proceeded: Some years ago a report upon the then condition of Norfolk Island was made by the officers there, in which the resident Chaplain made use of this language:
‘Blasphemy, rage, mutual hatred, and the unrestrained indulgence of unnatural lust are the things with which a short residence in the prison-wards of Norfolk Island must necessarily familiarise the convict. What solemn feelings must arise in the breast of every thoughtful man in reading the 19th chapter of Genesis; and how must these be intensely increased by the continual discoveries which are made, proving the truth of the historical part of the Bible.’
There is no fact in history sustained by stronger evidence than the destruction of the Cities of the Plain and the causes which produced that destruction. When I was coming from Hobart Town to the United States, we went first to Callao. About fifteen years ago a great part of that district was destroyed by an earthquake, and the spot on which it formerly stood is now a beautiful and extensive bay. It is a common thing in fine weather, when the ships are sailing by, for those on board to see the tops of the houses which formerly were a part of Callao, and discoveries have been made within the last twenty years proving to demonstration the truth of the 19th chapter of Genesis. While engaged in Van Diemen’s Land in looking over my memoranda and manuscripts relating to the conduct of the authorities and the moral state of the prisoners, while considering how I could most effectually make known to my countrymen the condition of the prisoners, I was lent an English newspaper called the Guardian. This paper contained, to me, the most interesting and important information I ever had met with. I insert what I copied from the paper.
DISCOVERY OF THE SITE OF THE CITIES
OF THE PLAIN BY M DE SAULCY,
MEMBER OF THE FRENCH INSTITUTE.
‘M De Saulcy’s arguments seem to us demonstrative, and if so, the discovery is one of the most striking within the whole range of biblical antiquity. The disinterment of Nineveh is, as a matter of feeling, a small matter compared with the discovery of Sodom and Gomorrah. We do not remember to have read anything of a more thrilling interest than this portion of M De Saulcy’s volumes. There is something so strangely awful in the idea of these living monuments of divine vengeance yet remaining, after thirty-six centuries, with the actual marks of the instrument of their overthrow still visible on their blasted ruins.’
I was at Port Arthur and on other stations on Tasman’s Peninsula for three years and half; and during this time I was a most anxious observer of the conduct of the authorities, and of the effect of their regulations on the morals of the prisoners. I was in the daily habit of conversing with prisoners, men of almost all grades of society, transported for different offences. Among these were men of family, some of rare talents and great acquirements. I was made acquainted with the early history of many of them, and I saw with deep regret how thoroughly depraved many of these highly gifted men, under the influence of circumstances, had become. Some of the most talented men I had ever known in my life I met with in Port Arthur, and they were some of the most depraved I had ever seen. People talk of education. The best educated men I ever met in the penal colonies were the roost degraded and debased. If you educate a man, if you add to his knowledge without, at the same time, improving his natural dispositions you do injury rather than good, and nothing can more strikingly exemplify this fact than the state of the colonies in Van Diemen’s Land.
‘There are crimes of a certain nature which so thoroughly debase the human character that it is beyond repentance. In many cases, after a long career of vice, the heart is softened, and the repentance is sincere and lasting. But the crime of Gomorrah is of that nature, and so appalling in its consequences, it brings the heart to such a state that it is dead to every renovating influence. It hardens the heart to such a degree that the only relief it finds is in inflicting torments on others. Not ten men could be found in the Cities of the Plain uncontaminated by this crime. It is evident that the inhabitants could not be purified, therefore they were destroyed; and the account is handed to the world in sacred writ; and there lie the remains of what was once the most beautiful spot on the globe, as a warning; yes, as a warning to governments and to nations. I am now about to describe scenes, the description of which will, in all probability, excite different and powerful feelings.’
You must recollect that in what I have just read I was writing to the people of America, and some time or another I shall have much to say on the state of that country in this particular.
‘I would avoid this were it possible with the performance of the duty which I owe to God and my country. There is no other mode of remedying the monstrous evils, and of bringing the perpetrators to justice, but by a description of the offences themselves, and of the lamentable consequences which flow from them. Few things would give me greater pain than, unnecessarily, to put upon paper a sentence calculated to exite the anger of an American mother. Is there an American mother who would condemn me, were her sons subject to a system, the effect of which I am about to describe? I believe not. There are English mothers, and these not a few, whose sons are at this moment in situations infinitely worse than death. I will go farther and say that to my knowledge there were, and probably are, sons of American mothers in similar situations, and subject to the like consequences. Where could I go except to America to make these things known?’ There is no fact in history sustained by stronger evidence than that of the destruction of the Cities of the Plain, and of the cause which produced it. Has the English nation nothing to fear? Does not the same all-powerful Being exist? Has He not the same hatred of the crime as He had in the days of Abraham? Can I ask the people of England questions of greater importance? Before any one condemn me, let him ask himself this question is the writer doing anything displeasing to the Almighty? Were he, at this moment, to be placed before the tribunal of God, and this charge made, would he be condemned? I will rest my case on the answer to this question. I had not been in the office of Port Arthur many days, when a man was brought there, charged with this offence, committed under horrible circumstances.
Mr Frost here detailed the circumstances.
This first excited my suspicions. There was at that time a young man with whom I was in constant intercourse, who well knew Port Arthur. From him I received information as to the great extent of this crime. He pointed out to me men who were in the practice of committing it; and he convinced me, too, of the total indifference with which it was regarded by the authorities. ‘There is a young man in the carrying gang,’ said he, ‘just arrived from Hobart Town; the men are after him from all quarters. You will have him in the office soon; the traps [constables] are looking out.’ On the 9th September 1840, about five weeks after I was placed in the office, this young man and another were brought to the office and charged with this offence. Let me claim your attention to this statement, for by it you will perceive the truth of what I now assert, that the authorities of Van Diemen’s Land were indifferent to the commission of this great offence. I will prove to your satisfaction that the feeling of the English Government was of a similar kind, and I will prove to you, in some future letters, that in the estimation of the English and colonial authorities smoking was deemed a greater offence than that of Gomorrah, and punished with greater severity. It will be recollected that I was present at this trial, and that my description was taken from the record book at Port Arthur. When a prisoner was brought to the office and placed in the dock, the witness stood forward to give his testimony; he informed the commandant of the nature of the offence; the commandant after he had heard the statement, directed the police clerk what name to give to it. The witness, on this occasion, was a very well-informed man, one who had seen much of life. ‘Well, what have you to say against these men?’ said the commandant. ‘Myself and my fellow constables were in the bush, watching the carrying gang. We had heard that abominable practices had been carried on by some of them. We saw these men in the act of committing an unnatural crime.’ ‘What name shall I give it?’ said the clerk. ‘Gross misconduct,’ said the commandant. It was entered on the book as gross misconduct. The constable was sworn: ‘My companion and myself were in the bush, watching the carrying gang. We saw the two prisoners in the act–’ ‘Stop!’ said the commandant; ‘you witnessed a disgusting scene?’ ‘We’, said the constable, ‘witnessed a disgusting scene.’ The prisoners were sentenced to twelve months’ hard labour in chains.
From 1840 to 1845 about half a dozen were tried for this offence before the Supreme Court, found guilty and sentenced to be hanged; not one was, I understand, executed. In 1845 two men were tried for this offence, committed under the most horrible circumstances; they were found guilty and executed.
The power of a magistrate does not extend to try men for felony; but he did try them; he did assume the power, and he gave these men a less punishment than if they had been charged with. ‘having tobacco in possession’. Instead of committing these two men to Hobart Town, to be tried by the Supreme Court, he gave the offence another name, in order to bring it under his jurisdiction, and, by doing so, ‘he smothered the thing’. Again, look at his conduct to the witness! He stopped him, put words into his mouth, in order to prevent the real crime from appearing! Why was this course pursued? The commandant knew that the authorities at home, and in the colony, ‘wanted to conceal the state of society among the prisoners’; and he was aware that if he had committed these men to be tried by the Supreme Court, ‘he would not have pleased his masters’!
Let us now lay before America, and Great Britain and Ireland, the state of society among the convicts, ‘never forgetting’ that the cause was, and is, a code ‘not equalled in severity in any part of the civilised world’. During the administration of Sir Eardley Wilmot, it was commonly reported in Hobart Town that a great number of prisoners who had just arrived from the Peninsula were in a wretchedly diseased state. A Dr Lilley, the leading Presbyterian minister of Hobart Town, went to the Governor to inquire as to the truth of the matter. You shall hear the result in the doctor’s own words. In a few days, after the interview with the Governor, a meeting of the Presbytery was held. On addressing the meeting, the doctor uttered this language: ‘Sir Eardley Wilmot permitted me to see the report of the medical men from the mines. This account was of the most revolting nature. There were eighty cases of disease consequent on this horrible crime,’ In the year 1854, just before I left Van Diemen’s Land, I was talking to Dr Lilley; the subject was the state of the prisoners. I asked him if he recollected what appeared in the newspapers as to the interview between him and the Governor. ‘Perfectly well,’ said the doctor; ‘it was quite correct. Why do not you, who have seen so much, publish an account of the state of the prisoners?’ My answer was, ‘The proper time has not arrived.’
There were in Van Diemen’s Land men from all, or nearly all, countries, subject to the same brutal treatment, and too often followed by the same effects. It requires a person to pass through the different gradations of punishment, such as was administered in the penal colonies, to be sensible to what a state men may fall under the influence of circumstances. This state of things shows, too, clearly, what men possessed of power are capable of when subject to no restraint – when far removed from public observation and censure. This state of society, in a greater or lesser degree, has existed in the penal colonies for more than half a century and as the depravity increased, the penal code increased in severity. May it not be said that the Almighty is slow to anger? The state of society described by Sir William Molesworth existed previously to 1840. The number of prisoners subject to the code of Norfolk Island and Port Arthur was small, compared to the number of prisoners within the colony. In 1840 a new system was introduced by Lord John Russell, called the Probation System, which increased the punishments and the depravity in a tenfold degree. Every prisoner to Van Diemen’s Land was sent to a probation party for one, two, three, and sometimes four years before he was assigned to a master, and in these places subject to a code similar to that of Norfolk Island and Port Arthur. What were the effects of this new system? This system, the work of a reformed Ministry and a reformed Parliament? Each probation station became a Gomorrah, full of crime, misery and disease! Yes, and this state was well known to the Ministry and the Parliament, yet thousands were yearly sent to these places, principally young men and boys, to a fate worse than death. Just about this time I saw an extract from an English paper; I insert a copy. ‘The Duke of Richmond gave notice that if there were no remedy for the fearful evils existing in the colony of Van Diemen’s Land, as to the state of the convicts, he would move for a committee of inquiry, for in no country calling itself Christian was there a worse state of depravity.’ There was not a member of Parliament who was not well aware of this fearful state, and yet not one man could he found to properly expose it, and to trace the evil to its cause, that cause being irresponsible power in the hands of vicious men.
In addition to the fearful state which I have partly described, there was another evil well known to the authorities. It was almost impossible for a good-looking youth to be sent to any of these places without falling a victim to the hellish system, for if other means failed he would be forced. A youth was sent to the coal mines, in which were so many diseased men. He resisted all attempts on his person. One day in the mines six men laid hold of him, threw him down, and four held him while two violated his person. Attempts were made to hush up the matter; he would hear nothing of the sort. The six men were apprehended, committed to Hobart Town, tried by the Supreme Court and found guilty. Two of them were executed; I saw them hanged. The other four were sent to Norfolk Island, there to carry on the same practices.
Were I to stop here, I think I have made out a case which must excite the indignation of every honest man, to whatever nation he may belong; but this forms a very small part of the charges which might be brought and satisfactorily proved against the aristocracy. Under the government of Colonel Arthur an establishment was formed on Tasman’s Peninsula, called Point Puer, to which boys of a certain age were sent from Great Britain and Ireland to be taught trades, to be reformed, to be made useful members of society. Here were scenes which threw Norfolk Island and Port Arthur into the shade! Scarcely a boy ever left that place, among the many, many thousands who were sent there, who did not fall a wretched victim to the system. Here, too, the authorities placed me in a situation to see the system naked, for the records of the trials at Point Puer passed through my hands. I was one day talking to a very intelligent man, who had been at Point Puer for a considerable time; he had acted as an overseer, and saw much of the iniquity of the place; the subject was the moral state of the boys. ‘Something happened one evening at the Point,’ said he, ‘which distressed me more than I can describe; I shall never forget it. There was an exceedingly nice lad at the Point; he had been well brought up. The big boys made many attempts to reduce him to the same state as the rest; they had, however, failed. One night, just before the boys were locked up, several big boys got hold of him and took him to some distance from the station; we heard his cries, and they went to our hearts. “Help, help, murder, murder, mercy, mercy, oh God, oh God!”’ ‘What did you do?’ said I. ‘What did you do?’ ‘Nothing, we could do nothing; if we had attempted anything, the big boys would have killed us. They succeeded. He is now grown to be a fine young man; I meet him often in Hobart Town, but never do I see him without thinking of that night. The authorities in the colonies knew these things as well as we did. Many a time have we urged on Captain Booth the necessity of a different arrangement, particularly as to the mode in which the boys sleep. What we said amounted to nothing. The big boys and the little ones slept in the same room, and I need not tell you what followed. But’, said he, ‘it would be unfair to throw all the blame on Captain Booth. A plan was sent to the Home Government, by which much might have been avoided; the answer was, “the Home Government disapproved of the alteration”.’
For three years and a half I was on Tasman’s Peninsula; for twelve months I was in the office, and during this period I was a most attentive observer of all that took place, of the effects of prison discipline upon the morals of those who were subject to it. It appeared as though the authorities were determined that I should see the thing in its most hideous aspect, for after I had been in the police office twelve months, and had acquired all the knowledge necessary to lay the state of things before my countrymen, they sent me from place to place throughout the whole Island, and almost everywhere I went I found the same practices prevailing, the same cruelties and the same moral degradation. I do not think that any other place in the world ever produced so much misery as has arisen from the prison discipline of Van Diemen’s Land. What is to be done to cure this evil? Will the people of England submit to such things? We talk of taxation, and very properly so, we talk of the conduct of the authorities on various matters, we hold their conduct in contempt, and we scorn the actions of men who really deserve our scorn; but what are all these things compared with the terrible state of society which I have just described? What can be the cause of this I cannot conceive, unless it arises from the same thing that has brought you here this evening – the fact that the men in the House of Commons have no feeling for the people. I do believe that if the authorities were convinced that every man sent as a prisoner from England would be reduced to the state I have just described, it would not occasion on their part one moment’s regret. For many years I have been a very attentive reader of the Bible; during the time I was in Van Diemen’s Land, I was a very assiduous student of that work, and the result of my investigations has been a thorough belief of its contents. We hear and read of things that have taken place thousands of years ago, we have works handed down to us from the times of the Greeks and the Romans, the works of Homer, Demosthenes, Cicero, and no man who is acquainted with the nature of testimony can doubt the statements relative to the origin of those works; yet there is nothing in the testimony confirmatory of many of those old writers that can carry with it half the weight of that which has been discovered in corroboration of the state of society among the Canaanites as described in the Old Testament. The subject upon which I have been addressing you is with me an all-engrossing one; I Can scarcely talk about anything else but the horrible state of society in Van Diemen’s Land, and the terrible consequences resulting from the severity of the punishments inflicted on the prisoners. Are we, I ask, to submit to this? Is it a matter of indifference to us that our countrymen should be sent out, sometimes for the most trivial offences, to places where they are treated worse than brutes, and where such moral degradation as I have described arises from such treatment?
The course that I mean to pursue is this: On coining to London, I called upon Mr Duncombe, and put into his hand the pamphlet from which I have been reading to you. I described to him many things that are not mentioned in the pamphlet, and he was perfectly horror struck. I mean, when Parliament meets, to be up in London. I mean to prepare petitions. I will take care that those petitions contain such evidence as will satisfy every reflecting man as to their truth. I will put these into the hands of Mr Duncombe, and I have no doubt that he will do his duty as on other occasions. We shall then see what the wise men will do. Some time ago, after I had put the pamphlet into the hands of Mr Duncombe, he handed one to a gentleman who has taken an active part on the transportation question. He sent down to me for twenty-five or fifty copies, stating that he wanted to place them in the hands of a committee of the House of Lords, and a committee of the House of Commons in order that they might see the state of society in Van Diemen’s Land and, if possible, do something to alter the present system. But the committee of the Lords, notwithstanding the pamphlet placed in their hands, have recommended that transportation shall be again resorted to at some place distant from the Australian colonies, and no doubt with the same discipline and the same effects resulting from their policy. If a man, a father, a husband, can hear and believe the truth of these statements without having his best feelings excited, he scarcely deserves the name of a man. I hope they will make a proper impression upon you, and that in your different circles and localities you will talk the matter over; and should you be in need of a stimulant to induce an endeavour to obtain a real reform in the House of Commons, I believe you will find it in what I have stated to you. No man can consider these matters attentively without being anxious for a change in the present system. If there be any truth in revelation, and I dare say that most of those around me believe there is, the system, unless changed, is certain to produce the same results that were brought about thousands of years ago in the most beautiful cities in the world.
What are we asking for now as Chartists? A change in the mode of electing members of the House of Commons; and is not the present mode sufficient to induce any man to take a part in bringing about a reformation? In the year 1847 I was Mayor of Newport. An election took place, two wealthy men were candidates, and I will venture to say that more than £20,000 was spent in bribing the different electors. The present state of the elective franchise in England is one, I think, that cries aloud for a change. Just think for one moment of the sum of £20,000 being spent in an election for a small borough contaning probably 26,000 inhabitants, and all this to induce men to come forward and vote for candidates whom they believed in their consciences were unfit for the position they sought. But there was one man at that election whose name ought to be held by his countrymen in veneration. He was a working man. The contest was very close, and he was applied to by the blues – they were the Tories – for his vote. The person who applied to him took £200 out of his pocket and laid it upon the table. ‘There,’ said he, ‘I will give you that £200 if you will vote for us.’ ‘No,’ said the man. But his wife was standing by him at the time. I have generally found that there is most dependence to be placed on the woman, but in this case the wife said, ‘Take the money. Just think of the consequences that would result to your family from that £200. You know how poor you are, and what good that will do you.’ The husband looked at the money and said, ‘I know that it would do me a great deal of good at present, but it would ultimately be a curse to me. It is the wages of sin and, as such, I will not take a farthing of it.’ (Applause.) Now, that man is one in a thousand. I saw him in America, where he died about six months ago. You will scarcely be able to find another man in his situation in life, perfectly sensible of the advantages that would result from the possession of such a sum of money, but who would nevertheless put it aside, despite the persuasion of his wife, and refuse to take it.
A few words more, and I have done. When you go home to your families, you will probably talk these matters over, but will it end in talk Will you not endeavour to reform the system that is productive of such a state of society as I have described? I trust you will, I hope you will, as men, as Christians, as fathers, do all in your power to change a system which is a curse to the world, and I pray God that he will impress on your hearts the necessity of exertion on the part of each and all of you to realise so desirable a result. (Cheers.)
The Chairman having announced that Mr Frost’s lectures would be published, Mr Frost said:
I do not think a more effectual method of helping forward the object we have in view could be adopted than to place the truth before the people of this country, and I am therefore very glad to hear that it is intended to lay before the community some of the scenes that have been described today. Sometimes a powerful impression may be made by talking, but when you have a book before you, when you read it and go over it again and again, the impression is much more likely to be permanent and lasting. It may not be uninteresting to you to hear something of my companions in misfortune – Williams and Jones. They are both in Van Diemen’s Land. Williams is engaged in seeking for coal mines, and Jones keeps an hotel in Hobart Town. Williams has every prospect of making a good fortune, but I do not think Jones has been quite so lucky. Some time ago Williams found coal in Hobart Town. As soon as he had begun to seek for coal, the wise men out there came to the pit where he was at work and did all in their power to induce him to give up the attempt. They said there was no coal there; but Williams is not the sort of man to be easily dissuaded from such an attempt as he was then making, and he at length succeeded in obtaining coal. If he had remained there I think he might have done better than engaging in a larger undertaking. However, he sold his moiety of the discovery for £800, and with that capital is now engaged in seeking for coal at a place near Launceston. If he finds it he will soon make his fortune.
I remember one day, while I was in the office at Port Arthur, a signal-man came to me and said, ‘I have bad news, Frost; very bad news.’ ‘What is the matter?’ asked I. ‘Williams has bolted.’ ‘What,’ I exclaimed, ‘Zephaniah Williams?’ ‘Yes,’ was the answer. This intelligence gave me a great deal trouble, for I well knew the consequences of bolting in Van Diemen’s Land. No one who has not been there can have seen such miserable things as the convicts would risk their lives in for the purpose of escaping. In the course of a few hours news came from the commandant that it was Zephaniah Williams who had bolted; I had had some doubt at first whether it could be him. He and three others, it was stated, had a canoe made, then left the mines, and got to the opposite shore on Forrest’s Peninsula. It was their intention to have gone on board some ships that were lying at a distance – American whalers. It is no very uncommon thing for convicts at Van Diemen’s Land to escape to the whalers, and some of them have borne sufferings which you might suppose human nature incapable of enduring in their attempts to get away. Two young men were once brought to Port Arthur. They had been for several days on board a whaler, concealed in an oil cask. The authorities searched the ship all over, and at last they made use of bayonets, one of which, being thrust through the cask, struck one of the poor fellows on the head. This made him sing out, and his place of concealment being thus discovered, he and his companion were seized. They were taken to Hobart Town, before the Governor, and I will now relate a fact to convince you that all the convicts in Van Diemen’s Land are not so bad as they are generally supposed to be; indeed, I believe that by very far the greater part of those men, if properly treated, might eventually become very useful members of society. But the mode in which they are treated drives them to desperation, and their very worst passions then become excited. Sir John Franklin, the Governor, said to those two men, ‘You have been on board a certain ship, and you have been found in that ship; now, if you will come forward and give evidence against the captain of that ship, so that he may be convicted, he shall be fined in a penalty of £500, and you shall receive a moiety of that penalty, in addition to which one of you shall have a ticket of leave, and the other a conditional pardon.’ This was one of the greatest temptations that could have been held out to men so circumstanced, particularly the offer of the ticket of leave and the conditional pardon; and yet those two men refused the offer: they would not come forward and betray the man who had treated them kindly.
This shows that there are some men out there who are not entirely lost to virtue, and I do believe that the opinions entertained of the convicts generally are not just. Some of the worst men are to be found out there; but they are not all bad men; for I am thoroughly persuaded that if all the innocent men who are sent out to Van Diemen’s Land were placed together, they would form a goodly number. One time an old superintendent of a probation station said to me, ‘I was talking today with one of the swell mob, and he told me that he committed an act at one time in England which weighed heavily on his mind at that moment. “In fact,” said he, “there is not a day passes over me that I do not feel the consequences of the great sin I have committed. I was a pickpocket, I do not mean to disguise the fact, and was well known to the police. One day I was in a crowd, and picked a gentleman’s pocket of a pocketbook; but he missed the book almost immediately and the gave the alarm. Some of the police, who were at a distance, saw me and were making towards me. I knew perfectly well that they were aware I belonged to the swell mob, so I slipped the pocket-book into the pocket of a person standing before me. When the policemen came up and were going to lay hold of me, I pointed to the other man, who was searched, and the book found in his pocket. I went before the magistrates and gave evidence that I saw the man take the pocket-book out of the gentleman’s pocket. The man was tried, convicted on my evidence; he is now in Van Diemen’s Land, and has been here for the last two years. Some time after that I was lagged for committing an offence of a similar kind, and here I am; but not a day passes over my head that does not bring me great grief to think that I should have been the means of sending to this place an innocent man who was guilty of no offence at all.”’
I can assure you that there is no small number of innocent persons sent out there. I knew a young woman in Hobart Town, at whose house I lived for some years; she was then married. A more virtuous woman I believe never left England. She had lived in London years before, and was about to be married to a young man who was foreman in a cooper’s shop. Apartments had been taken and the young woman and her relations had gone to the apartments preparatory to the marriage, which was to have taken place in two or three days. Her intended husband purchased some knives of one of the men in his employ; but he did not know that they had been stolen from a gentleman’s house, whither some of the coopers had been sent to do some work. The foreman gave the parcel to the landlady of the house where he and his intended wife were to live. It was a brown paper parcel, and that was put into one of the rooms. The young woman never opened it, nor did she know what the contents were. One of the persons who had stolen the knives gave information to the police as to the party who had bought the knives. A policeman went to the house where the young woman was and said, ‘I have come to search this house.’ ‘Well,’ said she, ‘my house is open to you.’ ‘What is this?’ said the constable. He laid hold of the parcel, opened it, and found it to contain the very kives of which he was in search. The young woman was tried, convicted and sentenced to seven years’ transportation, she knowing no more of the circumstances than I did, who was in England at the time;
These facts will be sufficient to convince you that there are many in Van Diemen’s Land who ought not to be there. What are we to think when we find that persons who are charged with offences of which they have never been guilty are sent out there and treated in the manner I have already described? I know a man there who was what is termed a ‘cracksman’. During the time I was there I was very anxious to converse with these men, and to obtain as much information as I could relative to their former mode of life, and how they had become the degraded characters that many of them were. The young man I have just alluded to was formerly one of the first ‘cracksmen’ in London. The word ‘cracksman’ means housebreaker. He told me of circumstances that convinced me of the innocence of a person who had been transported to Van Diemen’s Land for a robbery that had been committed in the city. ‘I’, said the cracksman, ‘was suspected, and a policeman in plain clothes was sent to apprehend me. I was in the habit of frequenting a certain house, and the waiter came to me one night and told me that a person wanted to speak to me. I went to the door and found a well-dressed man. He asked me if my name were ——— ——— and I told him it was. He then put his hand into his pocket and said, “I have a warrant for your apprehension.” “Oh!” said I, “well, I’ll come.” As we were going along in a lonely street, I took out a life preserver which I always carried with me, and struck the policeman as hard a blow as I could strike. He fell, apparently dead. He was ill for a long time and his life was despaired of. Another person of similar description to myself was apprehended and tried for the offence. The policeman swore to him, and he was transported. A few months afterwards as I was going along Regent’s Park, I met the policeman with a handkerchief round his head. A superintendent was with him. Our eyes met; I was satisfied he recognised me and I made off.’
But to return to my companion Williams; after he had absconded, he was apprehended, or rather he gave himself up at a place called Richmond. He was brought back to Port Arthur and tried. Two persons who absconded with him proved that he did not go voluntarily, but that they forced him to accompany them, and yet, notwithstanding this, the commandant sentenced him to two years’ hard labour in chains, a punishment which he expiated before the door of the office, breaking stones from a stone heap under the eye of a very watchful overseer. But the worst of it was that he was put into what are called the ‘cells’. These cells are about seven feet long by four feet in width. They are quite dark, and the occupant is not allowed even a knife to eat his food with. They throw in to him in the dark, as they would a dog, a little food, and there is nothing but an old rug for him to lie upon. If he is wet he obliged to remain in his wet clothes till the following morning, and I believe the treatment that Williams received on those occasions weakened his constitution very materially. Before that time he was a hearty man, but when I left Port Arthur he was not so hearty as I am now.
A shocking circumstance occurred in connection with two men, Hill and M’Kay, who bolted with him. Hill was a fine young man. He had been a constable in Hobart Town and became attached to a young woman. He petitioned to be allowed to marry her; but the petition was refused. He became desperate, committed some offence, and was sent to Port Arthur. When Hill and his companion had got upon the main island, M’Kay, who had received a great injury from a sawyer working some distance from where he then was, fell in with his enemy, and murdered him. Hill was not present at the time. They afterwards broke into a gentleman’s house, and a large reward was offered for their apprehension. After the murder, the two went to the hut of some sawyers, with whom they had some rum. When they went away they promised to return next day, but in the interim the sawyers had seen the placards offering £100 for their apprehension, and a free pardon to anyone giving the information, if he were a prisoner. They therefore seized the fugitives on their return to the hut, and those men were eventually hanged.
Mr Frost went on to remark that in his belief nine out of ten of the offences committed by convicts were created by the severity of the laws and the cruelty of those who administered them. There was no place in which justice was less understood or less practised than in the penal colonies. The authorities had no notion of justice; they did not consider the difference between innocence and guilt, but were as ready to punish an innocent man as a guilty one. There was a magistrate whom he knew, who was a most corrupt fellow. The only way to gain a point with him was by a bribe, for he was always ready to receive presents of any description. It was no uncommon thing for anyone having an assigned servant who had done anything that displeased his master, to send him to the police magistrate with a present and a letter. In the letter the servant’s offence was set forth, and the magistrate, without trying the man, would order him to be flogged and sent home. On one occasion, however, a police magistrate made a trifling mistake. A servant was sent with a letter and a present, but as he suspected something wrong, he persuaded another man to be the messenger. The result was that the wrong man was flogged, and the injured person, who happened to be a freeman, took proceedings against the magistrate that were only compromised by the payment of a very large sum of money.
On another occasion a shepherd, who was an assigned servant, was driving some sheep, when he was met by a man of some distinction, moreover a military man – and in his (Mr Frost’s) opinion they were the worst men to whom power could be given. They brought into the civil service the same spirit which actuated the military service, and any departure from what they considered the respect due to the officers was in their opinion a high crime. The convict shepherd was subsequently taken up on a charge of having passed a magistrate without touching his hat. He was tried by the very magistrate to whom he had failed in respect, and that functionary at once assumed the somewhat singular position of accuser, witness, and judge combined! The result was that the shepherd received thirty-six lashes, and when liberated after his flogging he discovered that he had lost a portion of the sheep he had previously been tending. On reporting what had occurred to his master, the latter, instead of pitying the man for the treatment he had received, caused him to receive another 36 lashes for having lost the sheep! On another occasion a ticket-of-leave convict dunned a magistrate for money owing to him. The method of payment resorted to was unique. The magistrate had the man closely watched, and after a time the poor fellow was brought up on a charge of breaking some one of the government regulations, convicted, and sent to Port Arthur for two years. Whatever property that man possessed would all have been taken too, by the crown or by that magistrate, and he dare say kept by him, for when persons of that description got hold of property they generally stuck to it and did not like to let it go.
The mode of administering justice in Van Diemen’s Land, independent of the cruelty he had spoken of, was the strangest he had ever known. All his (Mr Frost’s) hearers had read of Sir John Franklin. He knew Sir John well and could affirm that a more brutal man probably never existed, nor one less fitted for the situation in which he was placed. A constable who lived some distance from Hobart Town had a wife who, besides being a woman of some education, was possessed of great personal attractions. A police magistrate residing in the same district attempted, though unsuccessfully, to seduce this woman, but she repelled him with indignation and scorn. The husband, when informed of this outrage, wrote a letter to Sir John Franklin, who was at that time the Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, but as the letter was, and very naturally so, somewhat strongly worded, Sir John was thrown into a violent passion – not at learning the conduct of the magistrate, but because of the language made use of by the constable in describing his wrongs. Sir John Franklin was enraged to find that the constable had spoken in disrespectful terms of his superior officer, and in the end, although he dismissed the magistrate, he dismissed the constable also.
Only yesterday the statue of a great man, or of a so-called great man, was fixed in a conspicuous part of Manchester – the statue of the late Duke of Wellington. Probably, said Mr Frost, there never lived in this world a more unjust man than the Duke of Wellington. He acted upon a principle which it will be sufficient for me to lay before you in order to convince you that he deserved the character I have given him. Never, in the whole course of his life, from the very moment he possessed power as a military man, did he nor would he listen to the complaint of an inferior officer against a superior. I have no doubt that those who are acquainted with the conduct of the Duke of Wellington will admit this statement to be true. Never did any man in the world discover a want of justice, morality and right feeling more than he who could conduct himself in this way, and yet that man is held up to the veneration of mankind, and thousands were yesterday assembled to witness the inauguration of a statue to perpetuate his memory. Is there any prospect of a sound political change in this country while men are thus ever ready to worship whatever is possessed of power I can see no difference between the putting up of that statue in Manchester and the conduct of the Babylonians in worshipping the golden image. While men are ready to act in this manner, while they continue to submit to those who are possessed of power, regardless of the way in which that power is exercised, it is useless for us to talk of the Charter.
In the case I have mentioned, Sir John Franklin found fault with the constable because he had spoken in disrespectful terms of his superior officer. A gentleman who happened to hold a high official appointment in the colony, and who was with Sir John at the time said, ‘But consider the matter a moment before you decide. What would have been your situation if any one had attempted to take liberties with your wife? Would you not have felt and acted as this man has done under similar circumstances?’ ‘Oh!’ answered Sir John; ‘but that is no justification. He should have spoken in respectful terms of his superior officer; that is what I blame him for not having done.’ ‘But’, rejoined the other, ‘how is a man to be respectful towards a man who has attempted to commit the greatest outrage that can be perpetrated against a married man?’ But Sir John did not see the matter in that light and he said, ‘Well, I will discharge them both.’ When that constable afterwards applied to be restored to his appointment and set forth how badly he had been used, Sir John Franklin said to him, ‘I think I have acted with the greatest justice; I have discharged you for speaking of your superior officer in disrespectful terms, and dismissed the magistrate for ill-treating your wife.’ That was the Governor of Van Diemen’s Land! His conduct from the beginning to the end was of a similar kind.
Mr Frost then went on to argue for the necessity of a change in the government, and having gone at some length into the doctrines of Chartism, he resumed his seat amid loud applause.
1 John Frost, The Horrors of Convict Life, Sullivan’s Cove, Publisher, Hobart 1973. Two Lectures, Delivered in the Oddfellows’ Hall, Padiham, Aug 31st, 1856, By Mr John Frost, Mr Place, of Padiham, in The Chair. Emphasis added.