We know that Allen was transported to Van Dieman’s Land in 1850 and arrived in Hobart to a none-too-welcoming reception from the local “Hobartonians”. As I mentioned in the last post, when Allen’s ship arrived, a local agricultural society suggested that “…the indignation of the Hobartonians is great: utter detestation of the government is the general feeling; and an anti convict association is to be formed immediately“(see the last blog).
Mixed Feelings for Convicts
The feeling towards convicts (and the government) was not always so negative. In the early days of settlements, the free-settlers and convicts had a much closer affiliation. In his book, Van Dieman’s Land, James Boyce notes that convicts were as much servants, as prisoners. Convicts made up the majority of “…civil servants, clerks, carpenters, bakers, labourers, teachers and, of course, hunters” (8).
In a letter to Earl Henry Grey in 1848, Lieutenant-Governor Sir William Denison remarked that “…the transportation system as then carried on was not at all incompatible with the prosperity of the colony; … to the presence of the convicts, to the cheap labour thus afforded, Van Diemen’s Land does owe her prosperity, aye, even her existence” (9).
The problem for the colony was two fold. Firstly, not everyone appreciated the cultural shifts that came with close associations between convicts and free settlers. Secondly, the population of convicts increased rapidly from under 5,000 in 1820 to a peak in 1846 of over 30,000 in 1846 (10). Convict numbers almost doubled from 1841 to 1846 due, in part, to a significant increase in the numbers of convicts being transported from Ireland (11). This placed significant pressure on the facilities that had been built to house convicts and the local perspectives on transportation.
A colorful letter from Dr Matthias Gaunt (founder of St Matthias Church on the banks of the Tamar) about the Launceston convict depot, included in a dispatch from Lieutenant-Governor Sir William Denison to Earl Henry Grey in 1848, gives some sense of some of the growing emotion surrounding convicts in Van Dieman’s Land and the conditions that they were subject to. In his letter, he exclaims that:
“For several months past, this place has been overcrowded with inmates to such a degree as to expose them to contamination, and confirm them in habits of incurable depravity…nearly 500 men are found occupying the sleeping apartments of 250…
I have conversed with some of the men who have been so circumstanced. Is it possible for the colonist to become cognizant of these facts and not feel indignant at the thought of the probable injuries that must occur from such sad mismanagement that first corrupts the prisoner by these nightly associations, and then turns them loose on our community.
Since my last communication two more attempts at miscreantism have been made at Launceston, but it is a simple case of cause and effect; the prisoners are first kept crowded together in the most reprehensible nightly association in which they acquire the filthiest habits, and they are then turned out on society to indulge them in the detestable manner already demonstrated.”(12)
By 1850 (when Allen arrived), the population of convicts had fallen to around 23,000. For many locals, the damaged had already been done.
On 1 February 1850, a crowd of between 600 and 700 people met to consider a petition against transportation to the Houses of Parliament in London. At the meeting, a “Mr Gregson” was recorded as saying that “…of the system of transportation as at present carried on, he had a perfect abhorrence. It was frightful in its details; hurtful alike to the prisoner and the free and, if it continued, would plunge Van Dieman’s Land into an abyss, from which she would never rise” (13).
Allen Airey, aged 18, arrived in Hobart on 27 July 1850. We have no idea what he looked like other than the details of his official description. According to these records, Allen had a fresh, but “pockpitted” complexion; a medium head, nose, mouth and chin; brown hair; an oval visage; high forehead; hazel eyes and brown eyebrows (14). He was five foot, six inches (and a quarter), Church of England and could both read and write (15).
He was held in the Blenhiem for processing for 3 days and then, on 30 July 1850, is transferred to the Hobart Penitentiary (16).
By all accounts, the Hobart Penitentiary was a well run establishment at the time, albeit overcrowded. In November of 1850, the barrack’s housed 760 male prisoners (17). Allen was only kept in Hobart for 7 weeks before being transferred to the Launceston Depot on 11 September 1850 (16).
The Hobart Penitentiary was luxury compared to Launceston. A report to both Houses of Parliament in London on the facility in 1846 reasoned that:
This building had originally been erected for a store, and subsequently fitted up for the accommodation of 100 men. At the time the building was visited, it was occupied by 400, the rooms very, consequently, much crowded. Estimates had been made out for the erection of 48 separate apartments, also for mess-rooms. The accommodation for the prisoners consists of four wards, each 34 feet by 20, and a large ward at the mill. The mill is crowded, hot, and close ; the gaoler’s house is the most dilapidated of the building, falling to pieces, and cannot well be repaired. (17).
It is not entirely clear what Allen would have been doing whilst in Launceston, but in 1847, a considerable number of men were employed in road and bridge making at Deloraine, and in clearing land for cultivation in Westbury. It is likely that Allen would have been directed towards similar work when he arrived.
On 7 November 1850, Allen was given his ticket of leave, which meant that whilst he was still a prisoner, he could move about and be hired as a laborer by free settlers.
On all accounts, Allen was a well behaved convict. There is only one entry in his record – that on 12 April 1951, Allen was charged with neglect of duty for failing to report at a Police Office. Allen was sentence to one month in prison with hard labor.
On 5 May 1851, Allen received his ticket of leave once again and committed no further offence until he was certified free on 29 December 1853 at Longford.
On to free life…
So that was Allen’s convict story – whipped and imprisoned at 12, gaoled and sentenced to transportation at 13, transported at 18 to the other side of world to be locked up in a crowded gaol and forced to labor for a new colony, freed at 21 with an opportunity for a new life.
Not a stellar start to your career, but I can tell you that Allen meets up with his brother (who also gets transported to Van Dieman’s Land), has kids and lives as a gardener in West Street, Launceston. There is more tragedy to come in Allen’s life, but from this point on it actually starts to resemble a life – not just a tragic story of 13 year old witness to how crime was not be tolerated in civilised English society.
More on Allen to come….