Norfolk Island’s convict past

The cemetery from the lookout

Norfolk Island’s early European history is entwined with the British penal system and the colonisation of Australia, so part of any visit to the island has to include the convict ruins, and the graveyard. There’s not much to show for the island’s first settlement in 1788. Here’s a short piece about those first colonists. When the colony finally closed down in 1814 all the buildings and livestock were destroyed before the settlers were returned to the Australian mainland. Although convicts were included amongst the first colonists, it was never a penal colony. That came later.

The original settlers who landed in 1788

In 1824 the government in NSW decided to send the worst of its prisoners to Norfolk Island, never to return. The prisoners were put to work quarrying stone and constructing the beautiful Georgian buildings gracing the area around Kingston. The stone was cut on nearby Nepean Island, and more than one man died in the treacherous channel there. The worst job the convicts could have was cutting the finer stone from below the high tide line. It meant they had to work waist-deep in water. The difference in quality is obvious, and the better stone was used for verandas to this day.

On our first introductory tour of Norfolk our driver took us across the bloody bridge. While the true reason for the name isn’t altogether settled, the story’s a good one. Seems the convicts working on the bridge didn’t much like the brutal overseer, so they killed him. To hide the crime, they put the body into the bridgework.  Next day the replacement overseer noticed blood seeping out in the mortar between the stones. The name (of course) has stuck.

John Christian with a headstone

John Christian took us on a tour of the convict ruins. The man is a mine of information, rattling off names, dates, and facts like a machine gun. There’s not much left of the interior of the jail – the stones were used by the new arrivals to construct new buildings. But the outlines are still there. John described the living conditions, with several men crammed into tiny cells. Prisoners worked in chains and flogging was a common punishment. John told us about one fellow who was flogged to death. When he fainted after 100 blows he was placed in a cell for three days then wheeled out for a second round, which killed him.

There are plenty of sources of information about the conditions in the prison. I’ve had a look and I do wonder about some of the stories we heard. Read a more balanced account of the penal system here. But the whole tour is about stories and family history. I’m sure the ghost tour would be well worth attending – maybe next time.

You can see the size of the cells from the ruins

There is no doubt that Norfolk Island prison was a hell on earth, but the prisoners sometimes put up a fight. In 1846 William Westwood, known as Jacky-Jacky, led a revolt, killing four prison officials. This was a man who couldn’t be contained. He escaped in Sydney, was sent to van Diemen’s land (Tasmania) where he escaped more than once, then finally ended up on Norfolk. His story is worth reading. He and several others were hanged for their part in the revolt, and their remains placed in unconsecrated ground. The commandant at the time, a man named Childs, was replaced by John Price, who had a fearsome reputation. Our guide told us about a particularly awful punishment, being confined in the dark cell. The prisoner was lowered into a tiny cell without doors and windows. Then the cell was sealed at the top (although it must have been opened to provide food and water). One man was kept in these conditions for a year and when he was removed, he was insane. All these stories reminded me very much of Auschwitz and even more of the prison on Rottnest Island. We haven’t learnt too much over the centuries.

Of course, some of the stories had happy endings. John told us about a seamstress sentenced to transportation, accused of stealing a scrap of fabric. This woman had a very useful skill and soon started making clothes for the officers’ wives. John said she started dress shops in Sydney and Paramatta, and went back to Blighty a wealthy woman who bought the shop where she had been employed. I couldn’t find the story on the web, but I hope it’s true.

Women in those days were treated like breeding stock. When it was recognised that there were not enough women in Australia, all the women who had incurred the death penalty in England had their sentences commuted to transportation. The Lady Juliana sailed for Port Jackson and arrived in 1790 with more than two hundred women aboard. She carried only women – an interesting point in its own right, and well worth a look at this article. One hundred and twenty of the women were sent to Norfolk. One was just 11 years old, sentenced to death for highway robbery (stealing another child’s clothes). Mary Wade ended up being the mother of twenty-one children. Read her story here.

The cemetery is divided into two halves with the older remains from convict times closer to the sea, marked off by a line of pillars. The rest of the area is still used, and we noticed locals tending family graves. One famous writer is buried here – Colleen McCollough called this island home and her memory is much-loved. Her husband still lives here, and her house is open to the public.

There are quite a few stones marking the graves in the old cemetery, but there are a lot more graves than the stones suggest. Convict graves were usually marked with wooden crosses, which have disappeared over the years. Female convicts, and some who had been executed, were given a headstone. Of course, soldiers and freemen automatically qualified.

When the British finally realised the folly of transporting ‘criminals’ to the colonies, they closed the prison at Norfolk in 1855. When the British left I get the idea the place wasn’t completely abandoned, though, because the people from Pitcairn arrived in 1856, and were confronted with huge four-legged beasts they’d never seen before – cows and horses. [1]

The Commandant

Anyway, enough of this morbid stuff. The enterprising Norfolk Islanders also use their convict past to entertain. Our group attended a “night as a convict”, all of us dressed in glamorous convict clothes. It wasn’t just our group of twenty – there must have been around one hundred seated at bench tables. Our overseers were the (smartly dressed) Commandant, and the red-robed Private Arty Parts. Both men possessed large dongers. The Commandant’s can be seen on the table beside him. It was an absolutely hilarious evening, with some off-colour humour, games and dances, and so forth. We convicts provided the entertainment. One example was a version of pass the parcel. The women were asked to form a circle, and three hats were passed around clockwise. When the music stopped, if you had a hat, you were out. Simple enough. But the Commandant and Private Parts introduced a complication – they added a Very Large rolling pin which was to go counter-clockwise, and which was to be passed with the knees, not the hands. Remember, the hats are also being passed. Nobody was obliged to take part, and naturally some people didn’t. Yes, of course I did. I haven’t laughed so much in a long while, and I’d recommend the evening. Dinner was involved, a simple meal served buffet-style with staff putting the food on the plate for you, just as would have happened in the convict mess halls. I can assure you we ate far better than the real convicts did.

The costumes are provided, but you have to give them back – although you can purchase them for $30. I couldn’t quite imagine where I’d be wearing it again, so I passed. One more point – the Commandant and Private Parts are not professional actors, they’re just members of the community doing their part. Sometimes things don’t work out. The week before, several of the guys scheduled for the roles were sick, so the convicts didn’t get a show. I know they were disappointed, and I would have been, too. But that’s life, I guess.

Next time we’ll get on to the people from Pitcairn.

Quality row – beautifully restored Georgian cottages, some of which are lived in.

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