Convict-era Port Arthur: Misery of the deepest dye by David W. Cameron

‘In all, close to 13,000 convicts spent time at Port Arthur during its 47-year history (with around 8 per cent of serving convicts buried there).’

In this book, Mr Cameron provides background to the establishment of Port Arthur, the history of its operation as a penal colony and its closure in 1877. We learn about the differing approaches to the treatment of convicts. about the semaphore system used to convey messages, about the ships built there as well as the coal mines, the convict operated railway and the attempts at escape. In telling the story of Port Arthur, Mr Cameron incorporates the stories of several individuals within the history, including Charles O’Hara Booth (Commandant of Port Arthur from 1833 to 1844); Mark Jeffrey (a convict who was the gravedigger on the Isle of the Dead between 1874 and 1877); and William Thompson (a cobbler transported for life in 1841 who spent a year working in the underground coal mines).

The responsibility for Port Arthur was transferred from the British government to Tasmania in 1870 and the penal settlement closed in 1877.

‘It was on that day, Monday, 17 September 1877, that the seven remaining convicts were transported to Hobart on board the schooner Harriet and the doors to buildings were locked – Port Arthur ceased to exist as a penal settlement.’

These days, Port Arthur is a tourist destination. I visited twice during the 1970s, trying to imagine convict life amongst the peaceful ruins that remain. I walked around the shell of the church and the remnants of the penitentiary, around to the dockyards. I have not been to the Coal Mine site. And I feel a need, now, to include Mr Cameron’s epilogue:

‘The most pathetic and cowardly criminal to arrive at Port Arthur entered the site on Sunday, 28 April 1996 – he killed 35 innocent people, and physically and emotionally wounded another 23 along with the psychological scarring of surviving witnesses.’

This is a comprehensive account of both the events leading to the establishment of the penal settlement of Port Arthur and its operation. I knew some of this history and learned more. This book is an important addition to Tasmania’s complicated colonial history. Recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


Dangerous Women by Hope Adams

‘A knife … is it true? Who’s got a knife?’

On 5 April 1841, the Rajah set sail from Woolwich, England en route for Van Diemen’s Land. She carried 180 female convicts. Kezia Hayter accompanied the women as matron, in charge of the prisoners and their ten children. The journey took fifteen weeks: the Rajah arrived at Hobart on 19 July 1841.  During the journey, a number of the convict women made the Rajah Quilt, which is now held in the National Gallery of Australia.

Around these facts, Ms Adams has woven an historical thriller involving fictional convicts, including one who has stolen the identity of another to survive. In this novel, Kezia Hayter selects eighteen women to work with her on the quilt. The activity draws the women together and tentative friendships form. And then one of them is stabbed. Fatally. Who stabbed her, and why? Some of the women working on the quilt were on deck at the same time as the woman was stabbed, and it seems likely that one of them is guilty. The mood aboard the ship changes as the women become fearful for their safety. Kezia Hayter and the Captain want to find the truth, and an inquiry is launched.

Ms Adams brings the confined quarters of the ship to life: the cramped, uncomfortable conditions, the monotonous food, the seasickness. The chapters alternate between past (in which we learn more about some of the characters and how they came to be aboard the Rajah) and present. And the answer to the murder may come as a surprise.

Ms Adams chose to create fictional characters for the convict characters in her novel because some of the real women on the voyage have living descendants. Some of the others named (including Kezia Hayter) were aboard the Rajah.

‘A patchwork of souls.’

I have seen the Rajah Quilt on display at the National Gallery of Australia (it is not on permanent display because of its fragility). For those interested in more information about the making of the quilt, I can recommend this book: ‘Patchwork prisoners: the Rajah Quilt and the women who made it’ by Trudy Cowley and Dianne Snowden.  This is one of the books included in Ms Adams’s Bibliography.

I enjoyed the novel.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Bedlam at Botany Bay by James Dunk

‘Madness has blurred edges.’

In this book, James Dunk writes about madness in the newly established colony of New South Wales.  Who determined who was mad, and how were they treated?  Picture this: a penal settlement, where people have been transported halfway around the world, under strict control, in an utterly foreign world.  Doubtless some of those transported were (already) mad, but the conditions surely increased the likelihood that more would become so?  But, as James Dunk writes:

‘Madness was largely overlooked until it became too disruptive, at which point masters, commandants and magistrates made decisions – summarily, perhaps, or in  consultation with the governor and the colonial secretary, but with little reference to medical opinion.’

The history is uncovered by reference to correspondence between governors and colonial secretaries, by judicial and medical records, and by letters.  There are glimpses of individuals on these pages, lives largely hidden away in most colonial histories.

Attitudes to insanity varied from the enlightened to the cruel.  Many in authority were suspicious of those they thought were feigning insanity.  Yes, Governor Macquarie established the Castle Hill Lunatic Asylum in 1811 (in a building previously used as a granary and a barracks) but it was hardly therapeutic.  An amateur botanist was in charge, it was served by a succession of disgruntled convict doctors.  How did the residents feel as the building disintegrated around them?  It operated until 1826.

The first real asylum opened in 1838, the Tarban Creek Lunatic Asylum at Gladesville on the Parramatta River, opened fifty years after the First Fleet arrived.

‘Insanity has always occupied an awkward place in criminal law, since it complicates the relationship between action and responsibility.’

Reading this book made me think about the history of how society responds to mental illness: how we treat people and try to look after them.  It’s another aspect of our history, another dimension of our society.

I added this book to my reading list after it was short-listed for the NSW Premier’s History Awards in 2020. It was announced as the winner of the Australian History Prize on 4 September 2020.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline

‘Three quite different women, three different stories.’

From Flinders Island in 1840, to London and then to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), this novel follows the life of three exiled women.  We first meet Mathinna, an orphaned Indigenous girl ‘adopted’ by Sir John and Lady Jane Franklin.  We then meet Evangeline, pregnant, convicted of stealing and imprisoned in Newgate.  On board the prison ship Medea transporting her to Van Diemen’s Land, Evangeline meets Hazel, a Scots teenager, who has also been transported for theft.

Three quite different women, three different stories.  Evangeline and Hazel are fictional characters, Mathinna is real. Each has been removed from the world she is familiar with.  How will each of them manage?  And what about Evangeline’s child?

Christina Baker Kline’s depiction of Newgate prison, of life on a prison transport and the female factory in Van Diemen’s Land is consistent with other accounts I have read.  Evangeline and Hazel are both representative (at least in part) of women convicted and transported.  Mathinna’s story (and I have read several different accounts) is a sad reflection on the treatment of Indigenous Tasmanians.  Those who read this novel will, if they are so tempted, find a list of additional books and sources to explore.  I have read a number of these books.

If you enjoy historical fiction set during the nineteenth century and have an interest in Tasmania’s colonial past, you may enjoy this novel.  If you are looking for more information about the history and human impact of transportation, you will find several sources to explore.  And, if you ever have an opportunity to view Thomas Bock’s painting of Mathinna, look into those eyes and see a young woman trapped between two worlds.  A tragedy.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Allison & Busby for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes. 

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Calamity and Conquest by Allan Hawke

‘A chronicle of the convict Joseph Blundell and his consort Susan Osborne’

Blundell’s Cottage, close to Canberra’s Lake Burley-Griffin has an interesting history.  I was fortunate enough, a couple of years ago, to be part of a guided tour through the cottage and to learn some of its history.

Canberra is a relatively small city, and many of us who have worked for the Australian Public Service at some stage in the past forty (or so) years will know of Dr Allan Hawke.  I had the privilege of working with (and learning from) him in the Department of Defence during the first few years of the 1980s.

But it wasn’t until quite recently, reading about the book launch of ‘Calamity and Conquest’ that I learned of the link between Allan Hawke and Blundell’s Cottage.  Intrigued, I bought a copy of this book.

Allan Hawke is a great great grandson of Joseph Blundell and Susan Osborne through the 10th of their 11 children.  The Blundell story, which begins long before Joseph travelled to Australia, has been extensively researched by Allan Hawke and others.  Joseph Blundell was sentenced to death for attacking a gamekeeper while poaching and was transported to NSW (for life) in 1826.  And it appears that Susan Osborne was an alias adopted by Mercy Balcombe in 1842, when she absconded from her husband and fled with Joseph Blundell to the Limestone Plains (now the site of Canberra). Scandalous!

There’s a wealth of information here, of interest both to members of the extended Blundell family as well as to those of us interested more broadly in Australian colonial history. Allan Hawke succeeds in finding hints (at least) of the people behind the official records.  We may never know why some of them made the particular choices they made but the impact of some of those choices has clearly shaped this nation. 

I enjoyed reading this book, of seeing into the history of a family, of their shifting place in society, of the consequence of choice and of opportunity.  Family stories are important: it’s how we personalise the past.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


Marine Officer: Convict Wife The Johnstons of Annandale by Alan Roberts


‘Johnston played an important part in creating a viable colony out of pitiable beginnings.’

After reading ‘Esther’ by Jessica North earlier this year, I decided that I wanted to know more about her.  This book, about Esther and George Johnston, which grew out of a larger study of the history of the Sydney suburb of Annandale, provided me with quite a lot of additional information.  While I had known that George Johnston had a role in the deposition of Governor William Bligh in 1808, I knew nothing about his role as an entrepreneur.   And I was intrigued by Ms North’s book to learn more about Esther and the role that both Johnstons played in the early colony of New South Wales.

‘Johnston is not celebrated like Macarthur and the Rev.  Samuel Marsden in the foundation of the Australian wool industry but he played a significant part in it.’

Esther Abrams was a convict transported to Australia on the First Fleet for stealing 21 yards of silk lace. She was accompanied by her baby daughter Rosanna George Johnston was a lieutenant, part of the marine detachment sent on the First Fleet, to perform garrison duty.  He later transferred to the New South Wales Corps.

In this book Dr Roberts writes of George Johnston’s military service and of his achievements as an entrepreneur.  Esther, first his mistress and then (much later) his wife, played a large role in managing the Johnston’s pastoral empire.  The Johnstons had three sons: George Junior, Robert and David, who each played a part in the life of the colony, and four daughters (Julia, Maria, Isabella and Blanche).  George Junior and David were members of an exploration party that found good land in the Illawarra District in 1816.  Robert played a part in exploration east after the crossing of the Blue Mountains.

I found this book fascinating for the insight it provides into the early days of the colony of New South Wales.

Dr Roberts writes of George Johnston:  ‘He was overshadowed by Macarthur; but so were almost all of his generation.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


Solomon’s Noose by Steve Harris

‘This is the story of Solomon Blay, a unique man in a unique time in a unique place: Van Diemen’s Land.’

Solomon Blay (20 January 1816 – 20 August 1897) was Her Majesty’s hangman in Van Diemen’s Land between 1840 and 1891.  Solomon Blay was born in Oxford where, after convictions for theft, he was convicted of counterfeiting and was sentenced to fourteen years transportation to Van Diemen’s Land.  He turned 21 years of age during the voyage. Solomon Blay was 24 years old when he applied for the position as ‘a sheriff’s operator’ and on 3 August 1840, he was approved ‘to be employed as Hangman at Hobart Town’.  During his career, Solomon Blay hanged some 200 men and women.  He died on 20 August 1897, aged 81, and was buried in a pauper’s grave at Cornelian Bay.

Mr Harris has researched Solomon Blay’s life.  He paints a vivid picture of the poverty in which Blay grew up which makes some of his choices more understandable.  Why did Blay apply to become the hangman?  Simply to survive and to improve his lot in life. But being the hangman had its own difficulties.  He frequently had to walk to his jobs because no coachman would carry him.  While this book contains information about some of the hangings Solomon Blay conducted, it is the convict-related history which held my attention.  Through Mr Harris’s depiction of Solomon Blay’s life, I gained a different perspective of convict life (and death) in my home state of Tasmania.

If you are interested in Tasmania’s penal and colonial history, I recommend this book.

Today, there is a silhouette sculpture of Solomon Blay in a paddock to the side of the Midland (Heritage) Highway in Tasmania, just south of Oatlands.  This depicts the path Solomon Blay would have walked from Oatlands to Hobart for hangings.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Making of Martin Sparrow by Peter Cochrane

‘Colonies are built on dreams, but some dreams threaten ruin.’

Martin Sparrow, a convict expiree, is already deep in debt, dithering and drifting through life when the flood on the Hawkesbury River hits his farm in March 1806. Will he rebuild, with all the hard work that will entail? He’s heard of a paradise on the far side of the mountains, a place where men are truly free. To get there, Martin Sparrow needs to pay a toll. Choices always have consequences: who else will be caught up in Sparrow’s choice?

There are more than forty Dramatis Personae listed at the beginning of the novel, all neatly organised by category or place for those of us who can easily lose track of such important details. The story itself unfolds over five parts, with much of the first part setting the scene for what is to follow. And by the end of the first part, I was so engrossed in the story I could hardly put it down.

‘History’s naught but gossip well told.’

The main characters include the constables Alister Mackie (the chief constable on the river), Thaddeus Cuff and Dan Sprodd, Griffin Pinney (a game hunter), George Catley (a botanist), Beatrice Faa (a transportee who had been captured by sealers), and Caleb and Moowut’tin (two of the First People).

In 1806, the area around the Hawkesbury River is still frontier territory. Those who live there, pushing away the First People, are soldiers, convicts on assignment, expirees, whores and struggling famers. There are also opportunists, sly groggers and plenty of dangerous creatures.
The scene is set for an epic story, one in which the environment (alien as it is to the Europeans) is also a character. And Martin Sparrow? What does his choice mean for him, what impact does it have?

In a conversation near the end of the novel, Alister Mackie and Thaddeus Cuff have this to say:

‘If it’s Sparrow for company it’s a poor bargain.’

‘Not as poor as you might think. Affection for a fellow creature can fix a man, make him resolute, worthwhile.’

‘Sparrow is a midge, a wretch beyond salvation.’

‘Sparrow was a rudderless heart, that’s all.’

Yes, it is the making of Martin Sparrow.

I really enjoyed this novel, the way in which Mr Cochrane used an historic event (the Hawkesbury River flood of March 1806) as a starting point for this story. I finished the novel wondering what might have happened next.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Abandoned Women by Lucy Frost

‘Abandoned women, the Scottish convicts were called by an eminent twentieth century Australian historian—worse than the English, even worse than the Irish.’

In this book, Lucy Frost follows the lives of women convicted of crime in Scotland who were subsequently transported to Van Diemen’s Land on the Atwick in 1838. Of the 151 women transported on this ship, 78 were Scottish. Where did those women come from? What were their crimes? What do we know about them after they reached Van Diemen’s Land?

‘Proud though the Scots were of retaining their own independent legal system after the Acts of Union joined the kingdoms of Scotland and England, the sentences to transportation pronounced by their supreme criminal court, the High Court of Justiciary, were implemented by the English.’

In the 1830s, when this account starts, Scotland was industrializing. Many people from rural areas moved to Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow in search of work. But work was difficult to find, especially for the unskilled. Life in cities is particularly difficult for the poor. Many of the women who appear within the pages of this book were transported for stealing. Single or married, with or without children, the women sought food and shelter by whatever means available to them.
But once they reached Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), the women’s lives varied considerably. While some of the women disappeared completely from public records, the lives of others are well documented. Some of the women died soon after their arrival in Van Diemen’s Land. Some of the women served their time and then became part of the free community. Others resisted authority, or refused to conform to colonial ideas of femininity, and spent years moving between assignment and being sent back to the Female Factory as punishment. Some of the women turned to alcohol, which caused other problems for them.

‘But for many of the Scottish convicts, the fracture caused by transportation offered an opportunity to break with a thieving way of life pointed invariably towards incarceration.’

Elizabeth Williamson was one of the women who made the most of her opportunities. Within three years of arriving in Van Diemen’s Land, she was granted her ticket of leave. This enabled her to work for wages. She married twice, and twenty-three years after arriving in Van Diemen’s Land as a convict, she left the colony and sailed back to London. A wealthy widow. By contrast, Ann Martin from Edinburgh was brought before the authorities ten times within fifteen months of her arrival. Ann Martin’s record would eventually include twenty-two charges.

For me, one of the saddest aspects of this account concerns the children of these women. Some were left behind in Scotland and were unlikely to ever see their mothers again. Other children travelled to Van Diemen’s Land with their mothers. Some of the children were abandoned by their mothers in the colony’s orphan schools.

I found the accounts of these women very interesting, especially the accounts of those such as Margaret Alexander (Boothman) who had made the transition from convict in 1838 to be a respected member of the community when she died in 1912, aged 93. If you are interested in Tasmania’s 19th century colonial history during the transportation era, then I recommend this book.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


Bridget Crack by Rachel Leary

This novel moved me on a number of different levels.  First, there’s the portrayal of life in colonial Van Diemen’s land (now Tasmania) when it was still a penal colony and when so much of the island had not been explored.  Secondly, there’s the beauty and the harshness of the landscape itself.  An unforgiving place for those not prepared.  Thirdly, Ms Leary creates what (for me) is a three-dimensional interaction between people and place:  I can see the characters, experience the setting, feel the environment.

Bridget Crack by Rachel Leary

‘Bridget stood on the boggy patch of ground looking up at the road.’

Van Diemen’s Land, 1826.  Bridget Crack is a convict, transported for seven years for being in possession of counterfeit coins.  Initially happy to reach dry land, Bridget does not settle to what is expected of her as an indentured domestic servant.  Her first position, in the home of a British Army officer, is relatively comfortable but Bridget does not realise this.  She is reassigned to another position and, warned about the master, behaves in a way which has her returned to the gaol.  This time, Bridget’s hair is cut off as a punishment.  When Bridget appears before the police magistrate, he orders that she be sent to the Interior.

‘She didn’t care: didn’t give a damn what they did to her.  They could go to hell.’

Bridget is sent, miles from Hobart Town, to a hard life labouring for a cruel master.  She decides to run away, to find the township of Jericho.    But Bridget becomes lost.

‘At dawn she unfolded herself from the hole, stood shaky as a foal.  The sky was a soft mewing grey, the air fat and ripe with the stink of life—the sharp perfume of plants, the heady sweetness of soil.’

She is saved from certain death by Matt Sheedy and his band of men.   These men are bushrangers, desperate men, on the run from the law, with nothing but their lives to lose.  They had tried to escape the colony by sea, and still hope to.  In the meantime, they’ll take whatever they need from those they encounter along the way.  Bridget’s presence creates tensions, but how can she escape when she doesn’t know where she is?  The country is alien to her, full of danger.  It doesn’t take long for the authorities to realise that Bridget is with the Sheedy gang, which leads to her inclusion on a proclamation by His Excellency Colonel George Arthur, Lieutenant Governor of the Island of Van Diemen’s Land and its Dependencies:

‘ … AND I DO HEREBY FURTHER PROCLAIM THAT any person who may apprehend Bridget Crack (5 ft.  3 in. light brown hair, green eyes, 21 years of age, arrived per Faith, native place Suffolk, absconded from Black Marsh, October 7, 1826) having absented herself from her usual place of residence and lately suspected to be in the company of the before named Offenders, will immediately receive from the Government the sum of Fifty Guineas, or (at their election) Fifty Acres of Land, free from all restrictions.  And if the Offender shall be apprehended by prisoners, such prisoners shall receive a Free Pardon.’

Ms Leary has written an absorbing, atmospheric novel in which the landscape becomes central to Bridget’s story.   There is no romance in this tale, just danger, difficulty, hardship and hunger.  There can be no happy ending here, no escape for Bridget or her companions.  Will it be the law, or the geography of the island which triumphs?

‘Above her the top of the escarpment was visible in the pitch-black—the rock in the night blacker than the sky.  The river was running fast, chatty as a drunk priest.’

If you enjoy historical fiction set in 19th century colonial Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), if you enjoy beautifully written novels exploring the interactions between those who are desperate and the harsh environment surrounding them, I recommend this novel.  It’s not an easy world to explore, but Ms Leary brings both characters and the environment to life: I could see the tea-coloured river, hear the Devils screeching, feel Bridget’s hunger and the leeches.

This is Ms Leary’s first novel: I hope there will be others.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW 2017