Thursday, July 10, 2014

Hobart Convict Gaol: A family connection

James: From Chartist to Supervisor of the Treadmill

Remainder of the gaol still stands
I recently took the opportunity to visit my brother - Keeper of the Family History - south of Hobart, spending a few inspiring days with him and his lovely wife.

We had to make the 40 km plus trip into Hobart and given that I have had little to do with much of the south of the state, was excited that we were going to visit the Old Convict Gaol where our Great, great grandfather had been the supervisor of the treadmill.

It seems quite strange to me that, having been heavily involved as an organiser with the Chartist Movement in England - an act similar to today's terrorism that was punished by long prison terms or transportation to Australia - he was able to secure a position as Supervisor of the Treadmill in Hobart and then Launceston.

Hobart Convict Gaol Layout

Hobart Convict Gaol Layout - click to enlarge
The Penitentiary Chapel and Criminal Courts are situated on a Hobart site occupied for penal uses from 1821 to 1983.

The complex, containing one of the most beautiful church towers in Australia, is of national importance.

By the late 1820s increasing numbers of convicts were placing stress on Hobart's convict accommodation, and a penitentiary, 'The Tench', was built (1827 /28) in Campbell Street - remains of which still stand today, along with some of the cottages across the road.

Peniteniary Chapel: Hobart

Peniteniary Chapel can be found at the Corner of Brisbane and Campbell Streets

Overcrowding also affected Hobart's only Anglican church, St David's, and Lt-Governor Arthur directed the Colonial Architect, John Lee Archer, to design a second place of worship.

Archer designed a building to serve both convicts and free citizens, with 36 solitary confinement cells underneath as an adjunct to the penitentiary.

His design was cruciform, without a sanctuary, but with a nave, while the east and west transepts had floors tiered or sloped towards a central pulpit, visible to all three wings.

This clever arrangement allowed the free citizens to use the nave for worship, hidden from 'the uncouth gaze' of the (640) prisoners in the wings.

A prisoner looks at convict behaviour in Church

It is from the 'educated writings' of Linus W. Miller, a twenty-two year old American lawyer who was transported to Van Diemen’s Land as a state prisoner from Canada after becoming involved in the 1838 Canadian rebellion that we can gain a first hand insight into daily life of the convicts.

The following is just a small part of his description of convict attendance at Divine Service in the Penitentiary Chapel.

‘On looking about me, I could not discover more than twelve, among twelve hundred prisoners [sic] , who appeared to be taking any notice of the service. Some were spinning yarns, some playing at pitch and toss, some gambling with cards; several were crawling about under the benches, selling candy, tobacco, &c., and one fellow carried a bottle of rum, which he was serving out in small quantities to those who had an English sixpence to give for a small wine-glass full. Disputes occasionally arose which ended in a blow or kick; but in these cases the constables, who were present to maintain order, generally felt called upon to interfere. If any resistance was offered to their authority the culprit was seized by the arms and collar, dragged out of the church and thrust into the cells beneath.'

The Treadmill

The treadmill or 'everlasting staircase' was a penal appliance introduced in 1818 by the British engineer Sir William Cubitt (1785/61) as a means of usefully employing convicts.

The device was a wide hollow cylinder, usually composed of wooden steps built around a cylindrical iron frame.

My brother informs me that 'The Launceston Treadmill'  [where James also worked]  could accommodate up to eighteen men, who trod up and down on the spot, grinding wheat for the Government store. 

On the machine, the prisoners had to keep moving.  Every sixty seconds, a bell would signal the prisoner at the end of the line break. When the bell rang again, he would rejoin the line at the other end for a further eighteen-minute’s treading.'

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