An Australian Parsonage/Chapter XIV
Swan River immigrants begin to see their position—Valuable commercial products of Western Australia—Scanty means of turning them to account—Settlers decide upon asking Home Government for convicts—Suitability of colony as vast jail—Rations—Schemes for improving circumstances of colony—Superior class of prisoners in early convict ships—Long sentences—Government expenditure required in West Australia for many years to come—Frequent allusion to Government—Government men—Proposal scouted for introduction of Government women—Difficulty of procuring female immigrants—Women disheartened on landing—Bigamy—Situation of convicts' wives—Ultra-Protestantism—Child surreptitiously carried out to be christened—Matrimonial disputes—Social inequalities—Small number of respectable women—A convict's wedding—Shifting nature of population—Glazier cannot come—Effect of familiarity with crime—Causes assigned by convicts for being transported—The tax-cart, and other anecdotes—Convict geologist—"Addicted to sharpening of a knife"—Convicts in church—No rule without exception—Religious instruction of convicts on road parties much overlooked formerly—Present position of chaplains—Impossibility under existing circumstances of chaplains' visits being of much benefit to road parties—Books craved for—Warder's disappointment on examining box—Convicts' notions on week-day and Sunday services—Sort of books preferred by convicts—Sitting near the pulpit—Effect on personal comfort produced by convict servants—London pickpocket—Preference for machinery in place of convict labour.
Having now concluded the episode of the Australind settlement, I must turn back to the history of the Swan River immigrants and their brave buffetings with evil fortune. The discovery that not only would all the garden vegetables thrive in Western Australia, but that its climate was also splendidly adapted for producing corn, did not, unluckily, put a period to the disappointments of the colonists. The struggle, at first, had been one of life and death, and when experience proved that starvation was no longer to be dreaded, the minds of individuals naturally reverted to the original purpose with which they had left England—namely, that of making their fortunes.
Now the mistake had been committed of settling the country without duly scanning it beforehand, and time, which revealed its many valuable commercial products, brought also the disheartening conviction that there were scarcely any means of turning them into money. An impracticable desert was found to lie between West Australia and its neighbours on the landward side, and the exploring of the long stretch of seaboard convinced the colonists that in a coast-line of some three thousand miles, King George's Sound, in the extreme south of the settlement, was the only natural harbour of which their territory boasted, that was fit for large vessels. Moreover, though the dimensions of Western Australia comprise geographically one-third of the continent, its available land extends no farther back from the coast than two hundred miles at the utmost, nor is this narrow fringe otherwise than disconnected, and consisting of watered patches here and there, rather than of an uninterrupted line of good country. Behind this circumscribed belt the utmost exertions have as yet failed to discover either fresh-water lakes or rivers.
This want of a background to the colony has been of course very detrimental to its prospects, but in an infinitely less degree than its scanty means of communication with the rest of the world. On this last account the settlers have been driven to look upon wool as their staple article of export because it could be packed and shipped without much trouble, whereas they would long ago have ceased to deplore the "poison," which limits the size of their sheep-runs, could any easy transmission have been found for the innumerable horses which might have been bred upon the same ground which has proved so fatal to their flocks.
If an easy land communication existed between Perth and Adelaide a lively picture might be drawn of the position which Western Australia would assume. Rich in lead, copper, and ironstone, with forests equivalent to unlimited beds of coal, she might be the manufacturing district to the whole of Australia, whilst at the same time its granary and vineyard. Instead of importing salt she might supply it to other countries from her salt lakes, and a colonial Wedgwood would possibly find a better use for kaolin than that of whitening a kitchen chimney. The mulberry-trees would be filled with silkworms, and olive oil, instead of travelling to West Australia from Italy via England, would be produced from the abundant berries which drop from the colonial olive-trees, unregarded at present by any but pigs and children. But articles of commerce which there is no means of carrying to market, are as useless to their owners as the Spanish gold pieces were to Robinson Crusoe upon his desert island; and the colonists, after struggling with their ill-luck for twenty years, devised a plan which they were fain to think would bring a market to their own very doors.
It was plain that, in spite of the "poison," a great deal more mutton could be grown in the colony than was needed for the consumption of its inhabitants, and if an extraneous population could but be introduced which should eat the superfluity, and the Home Government be induced to pay the bill of fare, matters might even yet improve in Swan River. Conditions of this kind limited the choice of persons to convicts, but as these would be accompanied by a train of Government officials and police, the colonists decided upon asking for them, and accordingly petitioned that their country might be converted into a penal settlement. As such, its geographical disadvantages assumed a different character, for the havenless shore and impassable woods which had excluded trade, superseded in great measure the necessity of building prison walls. In fact, viewed simply as a jail, the colony appeared as if Nature had intended it for no other purpose, and this point having been duly recognized in England, the bidden guests soon arrived in such numbers as to give Fremantle a resemblance to the lion's den in the fable, the threshold of which bore traces only of footsteps that had entered, but of none that ever had returned.
I could not help remarking that an amusing sort of self-deception prevailed amongst the West Australians in a habit of expressing themselves as if they had done the mother-country a great favour in receiving the criminals whom they themselves had asked for, and that she could only relieve herself from a heavy burden of gratitude by the expenditure of correspondingly heavy sums of money for the good of her colonial benefactors.
My husband once asked a settler, with some surprise, at the close of a meeting which had been called for the purpose of urging upon Government the necessity of building additional police barracks in our town, what possible reason he could have for thinking that the larger police barracks were required. The settler appeared to think, like Sir Andrew Aguecheek, that he had "reason good enough," and frankly owned that its strength consisted in the fact that Government had lately built new barracks in a town fifty miles off, thus incurring the obligation, so our friend thought, to expend a similar sum of money in the town where he resided.
Inasmuch, however, as to eat is a daily necessity, and each prisoner and each warder whose business it is to look after him represents a person requiring to be fed, the Government building contracts are somewhat less eagerly competed for than the contracts for supplying road parties and convict depots with "rations." This word "ration" is as potential in Western Australia as the "all-mighty dollar" in America, and a stranger has gained no insight into the real internal state of the colony until he becomes aware that the pivot on which society turns is the canvassing for the various Government contracts, and that enemies shake hands, and friends become foes, according to the publication of results.
However much this state of things is to be regretted, it is no more than might have been expected in a colony dependent upon a large Government expenditure, and excluded from all ordinary means of making money, save this one of supplying the necessaries of life upon a large scale to an artificial population. The feeding of other people—whether soldiers, sailors, police, or prisoners—and the cost to be defrayed by Government, seemed to be the one panacea for all colonial disasters. Thus I heard it averred that a military officer had done West Australia a great wrong in representing to the Home Government that five companies of the line formed a larger body of men than were required there; and another set of advisers were incessantly desiring to recommend the virtues of the climate to the notice of physicians, in order that the colony should be resorted to as a gigantic Sanitarium by invalid soldiers from India.
However unlikely it may be that the Home Government regarded the settlers' request for convicts in the light of disinterested benevolence, there can be no doubt that it was made at an extremely convenient moment for English legislators, and that, so far, Western Australia deserves well at their hands. The Cape colonists had just declared that convicts "must not, could not, and should not" be landed in South Africa, and the willingness of the people in Swan River to accept them relieved the Government from a present dilemma, and perhaps staved off for some time longer the question of compulsory education. At all events it appears to have been judged impolitic to let the applicants find out too soon the nature of the boon which they had demanded, for the best-disposed prisoners in the English jails were selected to make up the first shiploads sent to the colony.
As time passed on a much worse class of criminals composed the cargoes, so that to have "come out" in one of the first ships was a point on which a man might deservedly pride himself. Comparisons were indeed so much in favour of the first comers, that even the long term of transportation to which all of them had been condemned was regarded as no disparagement by the settlers, whilst from the men's own point of view, "a long sentence" appeared to confer a certain degree of dignity.
I remember a poor decrepit old Yorkshireman emphasizing, with many shakes of the head, the fact of his sentence having been "Two-and-twenty year, and I've served every one of 'em!" His air and his manner, in pronouncing these words, was that of a man who might have been quitting as honourable a calling as the army or navy, with an extra pension for good conduct. He had been lodged for a time, on account of old age and infirmity, in the asylum at Fremantle, which receives within its walls both sane and insane persons, and when I remonstrated with him on his having quitted it he assigned as a reason for doing so that the exercise yard of the "barmy fellows," as he called the madmen, (meaning, I suppose, that their brains were in an unnatural state of working,) was but a stone's throw from himself and his rational companions, a circumstance of which the inmates of the said yard were accustomed to avail themselves, according to his account, in a literal sense, for the purpose of annoying their neighbours by volleys of pebbles.
One result of petitioning for convicts, which year by year will make itself more heavily felt, is the burden of maintaining so great a number of useless persons as these poor quondam rogues become in their old age. A large pauper population would be bad enough, even if it were composed of no worse elements than the men belonging to the earlier convict ships; but of the later human consignments the best that could be said was, that they were utterly useless as labourers, and that the aggregate was made up of hardened villains. Lender these circumstances one thing is certain, that, for many years to come, a large expenditure of Government money will be required in Western Australia. The colony has been saturated with professors of crime, and if, by the withdrawal of home supplies, the dangerous classes within it should ever want bread, the position of the free settlers would be very terrible.
The frequent reference in West Australia to the word "Government," and the manner in which it was alluded to, might have led one to suppose that it was an imaginary creature whose character varied with that of each person who spoke of it, and with the peculiar views which he or she took of things in general. Thus I have known it quoted by children to sanction their having pelted a turkey to death, on the plea that "Mother says as how it is Government ground, and we may do as we like."
Or again, it was represented as possessed with especial spite and malice towards one individual convict, who would express his inward belief that "Government had a down upon him." Or as a landlord to whom no sort of consideration was due; thus I remember a warder's wife telling me what trouble she had taken in their last "quarters" to keep the boards white by scrubbing them with sand, but who broke off in her recital as if ashamed of the pleasure that she had felt in her cleanliness, and sighed out "the more fool I, for wasting such pains upon a Government floor."
"Government men" is also the self-chosen style and title of the convicts, and the only definition of their estate which they accept from the outer world without resentment. Happily for the future of Western Australia, it contains no such persons as "Government women" though the question was once mooted by some of the settlers as to whether a small number of female convicts should not be admitted. The proposal, however, met with so much disapprobation in the colony that it was at once withdrawn, and the opposite course was adopted of begging the Emigration Commissioners to send out respectable women unacquainted with the interior of jail or penitentiary, ho might act as domestic servants, and reclaim the convicts by becoming their wives.
The authorities might have answered, "I can call spirits from the vasty deep," but call as they would, respectable single women, however poor they might be, entirely declined to come out to Swan River to become the wives of even "reformed" criminals, and it has been found impossible to obtain a sufficient number of young women, even of such a class as the greater part of our fellow-passengers on board ship, to supply wives to one-half of the single convicts now at liberty. Hence arises the deplorable inequality between the numbers of the single men and single women shown by the census of 1870; an inequality however, which seems likely to have one good result, since from the comparatively small number of convicts who have been able to marry and bring up families, and the rapid diminution of the older men by death, it seems probable that the convict element of the colony will not make so large a mark upon the future population as might naturally be expected, but will gradually die out, now that the yearly supply is stopped.
Few as the emigrant girls were we often wished that their numbers had been even less, so many were the histories that we knew concerning them of wretched disappointment and moral deterioration. The strong demand for single women has induced those individuals to whom the task has been entrusted of meeting it to regard the case too much from one point of view only, and decent girls being found unwilling to emigrate to a penal colony, the fact that it is one has sometimes been concealed from them until after they have sailed, whilst in the meantime they have generally received a description of its merits altogether fabulous.
The wages of women servants (charwomen excepted, who receive the disproportionately large sum of three shillings a day) are not higher than in England, and the work is much harder and rougher than at home on account of the hot summers and the absence of home conveniences. It is true that the trouble of blackleading and polishing grates and fire-irons is obviated by the custom of burning wood upon the open hearths, but of other compensations to a girl for the quitting of friends, home, and country, there are none to enumerate, and in all other respects the change is for the worse.
The female immigrants are disheartened, immediately after landing, by finding convicts for fellow-servants, and the additional discovery that the prospects of marriage offer nothing better than a selection from the same class, causes those girls who have friends already settled in Sydney or Melbourne, resolutely to save money in order that they may join them there. The larger trading vessels thus annually carry away a little stream of women from the colony, but they are the fortunate few—the greater number remain, and become convicts' wives, or perhaps nominal wives, for it has been computed that out of a hundred convicts' marriages in Swan River forty of them only are legal, the rest being simply acts of bigamy on the part of the men. This is not, however, for want of swearing to the contrary, for, the solemn vows of the religious service itself not being thought sufficient by the colonial legislators, the reading of it is preceded by secular oaths, which the clergyman is obliged to administer, to the effect that no lawful hindrances exist to the union. This preamble, which gives an additional opportunity of perjury, is considered to supersede the necessity of banns, which are not legally required in the colony, and any marriage may take place at five minutes' notice, except in the Church of England.
A person of our acquaintance once received a letter from an unknown female correspondent in England, asking for news of her husband, who was, she said, a ticket-of-leave holder in the service of the person to whom she addressed herself. The writer proceeded to say that, in consequence of having heard nothing of her husband for a year past, she had thought it best to apply to his master for tidings of him, and concluded her letter with sending him affectionate messages from "his six sons and only daughter." I never heard whether an answer was returned to the letter; but we were told that the subject of its inquiries "turned all colours" when it was laid before him, as indeed he well might, for, having always passed himself off as a single man, he had prevailed on an Irish immigrant girl to marry him three months before.
However, although no such discovery as that of a prior wife may await the convict's bride, there is seldom much comfort in store for her. It is not by any means that such men always prove unkind husbands, but the associations that such marriages bring with them cannot fail to entail misery upon decent women. Let anyone suppose herself surrounded with acquaintances whose every-day language it is of itself a real calamity to hear, and whose countenances partake more or less of a likeness to such vagrants as one would dislike to meet alone in a narrow lane, and some sort of notion may then be had of the visiting list of a convict in Western Australia. In other society marriage gives a man the opportunity of dropping undesirable acquaintanceships, but there seems no possibility of ever being rid of those which have been formed in jail; they have a tenacity which better friendships sometimes lack.
One of the heaviest parts of a convict's punishment, offering also the severest hindrance to his reformation, is that he has it not in his power to shake himself so entirely free from old companions as that they shall never enter his doors; he cannot, if he would, in a penal settlement stand altogether aloof from the class with which crime has identified him, and the meeting of former associates ends too often in the hatching of new offences. Then comes reconviction, and the wife must shift for herself whilst the husband spends a fresh term in jail. If she is a Roman Catholic the opportunity of the husband's absence, for a fixed and definite period, is perhaps utilized for sending the child or children to a school of her own faith, at the probable cost to herself of a beating when the head of the family is liberated, for, as if there were not already sufficient seeds of discord in a body of men made up of waifs from pretty nearly all nations, the "odium theologicum" helps to fill up the measure.
The professions of ultra-Protestantism that we used to meet with amongst the convicts frequently reminded me of the experience of Lord George Gordon's servant, in 'Barnaby Rudge,' that "Protestants were very fond of spoons, when airy doors were left open," and to those persons who regard the name of Protestant as expressing a religion in itself, it must be a matter of surprise that so many of these pretended devotees come to be transported. On the other hand, a great proportion of the immigrant women who marry the Protestants are Roman Catholics; a circumstance which forms a constant standing ground for bickerings, giving any disagreements the peculiar bitterness of all quarrels that have religion for a pretext.
On returning from a walk, one winter's day, we found that in our absence a native had come running to our house with a slip of paper, on which was written a request that the clergyman should lose no time in hastening to the cottage of a man named M'DougaIl to baptize a dying child. My husband went to M'Dougall's as quickly as he could after receiving the message, and, finding that the poor baby was already dead, remained some time, endeavouring to comfort the parents, both of whom, he supposed, were sadly grieved that it had been deprived of baptism.
Next morning before daylight we were aroused by a loud knocking at our door, where stood M'Dougall in a terrible state of anger and determination. He had discovered, since the previous evening, that his child had not died unbaptized; but that a few days before its death, when his back was tamed, the nurse, with his wife's connivance, had whisked it off to the priest, and now that he had found it out he was resolved on repairing the evil as far as yet lay in his power. Let who might have christened the child it should at least have the advantage of being buried amongst Protestants, and, as his own business took him betimes into the bush, he had come at this early hour to make sure of appointing the funeral. It was throwing words away to tell M'Dougall that the baptism which his child had received was valid. Although he insisted on his having been brought up a Presbyterian, religion had plainly nothing to do with the matter, but the being made a fool of had a great deal; the promised funeral seemed alone to placate him, and, the certificate of baptism having been obtained from the priest, the poor baby was duly buried.
Two years afterwards my husband was again sent for by M'Dougall's wife to baptize another child, which was also dead on his arrival: this time he offered no consolation feeling sure that the mother had acted alike on both occasions, and that she had purposely delayed her request for his attendance until within a few moments of the infant's death.
Another Roman Catholic woman once came to our house to beg that we would remonstrate with her Protestant husband on his ill-treatment of her; the priest also, as we afterwards found by comparing notes with him, having been waited upon by the man to bespeak a reproof for the wife, on account of her misconduct towards himself; though it was not often that the conflicting parties adopted such moderate measures. I recommended the woman to fill her mouth with water when her husband was angry, that she might prevent herself from giving him provocation by spiteful answers, but, unfortunately, my prescription wanted the charm of novelty: "the Sisters," at Perth, she said, had already advised the same.
Where, however, the name of religion was not dragged in as a reason for matrimonial disputes, there were two other causes which produced an unfailing supply. These were the drunkenness of the men, and the wounded pride of the women caused by the unavoidable consciousness that the tabooed position of the convict was reflected upon his wife. Under these deplorable circumstances the only phase of married life which seemed compatible with any degree of happiness was that of persons engaged in cultivating a piece of land remote from neighbours, where the necessity for working hard, and the difficulty of obtaining drink, might help to keep both parties in their right senses. Very little actual money is made by these small farmers; but the pigs and fowls, which they rear at slight cost, supply them with a better table than falls to the lot of day-labourers at home, while the loneliness of the situation causes that colonial line of separation between bond and free to be forgotten, which, inevitable though it be, resembles the distinctions in America between white and coloured people.
The habit of immoderate drinking which prevailed in the colonial towns was not by any means confined to the men, nor even to those women, only, who were chafed by social inequalities. We had lived but one fortnight in our Australian parsonage before learning how rare it was to find a woman, amongst our poorer neighbours, of whom it could be said that she was habitually sober. An old resident whom I asked to recommend me a washerwoman, replied that she knew of none better than her own, "who sometimes came too drunk to do her work."
The notion that all were equally intemperate was incorrect, but the number of respectable poor women was very small, and, as time passed on, was diminished rather than increased. It was evident to us, after living some time in the colony, that a much greater amount of vice was becoming apparent on the surface than had been the case when we landed, not that we had grown more observant, but that the quick relays of convict ships were fast gorging the place with offenders. Female deterioration was in proportion, and those who, under the invisible restraints of home, might have remained innocent and useful, became such as women only can become whom fate has cast adrift upon a penal settlement.
My husband once performed a marriage where the person who stood proxy for the bride's father, and gave her away, was one who had been transported for cutting his own wife's head off; and the news which reached us, three weeks afterwards, of the bridegroom having been arrested on suspicion of murder, seemed a fitting sequel to such ill-omened nuptials. The newly-married wife came in great distress to acquaint us of the fact, and, under pretence of asking our advice, to beg money for providing her husband with a lawyer. She carried in her arms a baby of a fortnight old, whose wide open eyes might have been supposed, by a fanciful observer, to exhibit astonishment at the sort of society that it had stepped into on the threshold of life.
With the exception of the pensioners' families the population that surrounded us was a very shifting one. The smaller sort of tenements were continually changing their inhabitants, and I remember one house that was occupied by five different families in as many years, besides sometimes standing empty. Ticket-of-leave holders, as a rule, never seemed stationary for any length of time. They migrated hither and thither, seeking for work or exchanging masters, and often disappeared for a period, having, as they movingly expressed it, "got into trouble." "Getting into trouble" involved a return to the "Establishment"—a word so naturalized in the colony as denoting the Government prison, that a warder's child once asked me in the Sunday school whether "John Howard had not been a great man for going about to see Establishments?"
Most of the convicts had learned, or more properly speaking had half learned, some handicraft or trade in the jail which they followed when they came out; but their customers were always liable to suffer inconvenience from an unexpected suspension of the business. A broken window has, perhaps, made us uncomfortable, and the glazier has been sent for to come and mend it. The fact of my messenger returning with, "Please, ma'am, the glazier can't come, for he has got two months," would be sufficient intimation that we must patch up our window, and wait for our tradesman's enlargement.
One of our released acquaintances commenced the business of carrier between Barladong and Perth, and for some little time executed our commissions with praiseworthy zeal and punctuality. On one especial occasion I had entrusted him with the task of procuring me a clothes-basket, which was a luxury unattainable in any store at Barladong. He did not return as usual; a week passed, and the basket was brought to me by a stranger, with the tidings that our carrier was a détenu. He had been as exact as usual in executing his customers' commissions, but had, somehow or other, failed to get clear of Perth without forfeiting his liberty.
Such incidents were sometimes laughable, but they had also a very grave side, for the inevitable effect of this state of things was a general lowering of the standard of morals throughout the colony. Crime was such an every-day affair that its constant recurrence was looked on as a matter of course, and of no great importance unless the delinquent had transgressed the rights of property. Moral character was therefore but little considered, and, provided that a woman had not been caught thieving, she was styled "respectable," and judged worthy of being entrusted with employments for which in England her manner of life would have rendered her totally ineligible. We seemed to have come out of pure fresh air into a close and contaminated atmosphere, while those whom we found living in it seemed unconscious of the taint, and to think us unreasonable for making any objections.
As to the causes assigned by the convicts and their friends for their banishment they were many and curious, but their chief interest centred in the fact that trial by jury seemed to have answered no other end, generally speaking, than that of getting the wrong man punished. One convict, according to his wife's statement, had been "sent out" only through keeping a cart and letting it out to hire. Certain parties chartered it, assigning no object in doing so, and drove off the same night to the house of a neighbouring gentleman. Most unfortunately, when returned to its owner the cart was found to contain the whole of the gentleman's plate. Here was a plain case, one would have thought, of a cart being misled and induced to aid in a burglary, but where was the justice of condemning a man to ten years' transportation in consequence of the aberrations of his vehicle! A second man had borrowed money from a bank, intending, he said, to rectify his disordered balance in three days' time, when he would again be in funds. Unfortunately the cashier was not present when the loan was effected, and he harshly called it a robbery. A third, a soldier, had struck his officer without the slightest provocation, and considered himself most severely used by "getting ten years," inasmuch as he was an innocent victim to the misdeeds of Bacchus. "Why, I was bastely drunk," seemed to him an ample excuse for his crime. A fourth had sacrificed himself to fraternal affection; his brother's appetite could only be tempted by hare and pheasant, and, no poulterer's shop being at hand, he had used his own ingenuity to supply the deficiency. A fifth, on whom I suppose a Recorder had passed sentence, regarded it as an extenuating circumstance that he had not been condemned "by a regular judge." In fact we could arrive at no other conclusion than that we must have left all the rogues at home, since we found none but honest men in Western Australia.
There was, however, one convict who departed from the general rule of pleading Not Guilty, and professed to have committed forgery on purpose to be sent to Western Australia. Having become a prisoner in the " Establishment" he signified to his jailers that, if the Government would accept him as a cicerone, he would indicate a distant spot on the coast where gold was to be had for the picking up. When asked how he came to know of such a place, he said that he had been a sailor on board a Dutch vessel which had touched on the shore, and that he had seen the gold lying on the beach. Prevented only, it is to be supposed, by a conscientious regard to the duties which he owed to his Dutch skipper, he did not abscond from his work to pocket the treasure at once; on the contrary with great self-denial he returned quietly to Europe, and having made his way to Liverpool meditated anxiously as to the best means of getting back to his El Dorado. After much thought no scheme presented itself which promised to afford pleasanter society, or to involve so little personal expense, as a berth in a convict ship; he therefore committed a forgery, and in this way luckily booked his passage at once.
I do not know whether anybody thought of asking him what course he had intended to pursue in case a stupid jury had found him innocent, but, anyhow, the inventor of this farrago of falsehood was taken on board a vessel, and carried to that part of the coast which he had named as the promised land. He was then landed under guard, and requested to point out the exact spot where he had seen the gold, which he did with great precision. His intentions to escape now became so apparent, that he was tied to a tree whilst the rest of the party dug and searched. On their finding no gold he bethought him, of a sudden, that he must have made a mistake, and "prospected" copper instead; had he said brass, it would have been more to the purpose, but that would have been too much like telling the truth; it is needless to add that beneath this geologist's auspices was found neither copper nor gold.
Nevertheless, a convict's autobiography was not always entirely untrue, though his manner of relating it might be absurd. We met with one man who commenced the history of his misfortunes by saying that "he had been always much addicted to the sharpening of a knife," and that, having been engaged in this favourite pursuit and in a quarrel with his wife at the same time, she had called in the police, and had sworn that he had tried to cut her throat. In consequence of this asseveration on her part, and of the belief accorded to her assertions, he had been condemned to transportation for a lengthened period.
That this love of improving his cutlery could be the sole cause of the condition that he was then in appeared to us very improbable, but we had afterwards reason to think that there might be some grains of truth in the tale. In compliance with his request that his wife should be told how anxious he was to treat her kindly, if she would consent to join him with their child, and of his hopes that they might "turn over a new leaf" and live happily together, we wrote to our own friends upon the subject, and through their means the woman's whereabouts was discovered, but the tidings were discouraging; the woman showed no disposition to return to her husband; her character was very bad, and, to quote the account sent to us, "the general impression amongst her neighbours was that her misconduct had excited him to commit the crime for which he had been punished." It was sad to give the poor man no better news, but possibly the "new leaf" which such a woman would have turned over in Western Australia would have been an infinitely worse page than any that had preceded it.
On Sundays the inmates of the convict depôt were marched once a day to church, where, sitting on the benches especially appropriated to their use, and wearing their best suit of white arrow-marked jackets, they offered a painful spectacle, looking like Crown serfs, or a modem type of persons "put to open penance" before the congregation. When seen apart from his fellows a convict's face bears often no peculiarly evil characteristics, but when many such are ranged together the countenances have I know not what of indescribable and oppressive, suggesting perhaps most forcibly the idea that their owners have run away from a criminal lunatic asylum; an impression strengthened by the fact that the forehead is almost invariably low and retreating, even amongst the more intelligent of the men.
To road parties that are stationed beyond easy walking distance from a church Sunday is distinguished from week days only by a cessation from work, unless a chaplain rides out purposely to give the men a religious service. Even in the exemption from stone breaking on the Sunday the axiom holds good of there being no rule without an exception. We once pulled up our horse on a journey to ask for a draught of water at the camp of a road party beyond our own district, and, whilst supplying our want, the warder informed us that amongst his prisoners was a Jew, to whom, in consequence of his refusal to work on Saturdays, he had been instructed to apportion a full day's labour every Sunday. The pain to the warder of desecrating the Christian day of rest was probably none the less from the fact of his being a Scotchman; in his own words, the marking out of the Sunday task "made the blood run chill in his veins."
At the time of our first acquaintance with Western Australia, the question of how the convicts in the road parties and country depôts should be furnished with religious instruction, did not appear to have come under the consideration of the Home Government. The two chief prisons at Fremantle and Perth were indeed supplied with chaplains specially appointed, whose entire duties lay within the prison walls, and as long as the men remained in either of these two jails all was as it should be—the chaplains possessed their legitimate position and authority, and the men were properly cared for, moreover the means existed of obtaining a salutary influence by private intercourse with each individual prisoner.
But when the prisoners were sent away from Fremantle to the depots or road parties in the interior, the case was altered. No chaplains were officially employed solely as jail chaplains to the depôts or road parties, although the men were just as much under prison discipline and restraint as their brethren in the "Establishment," and it is usually thought advisable that a clergyman employed in the care of prisoners still in confinement should be able to devote his attention to them exclusively, and should have no other employment. The strict attention to rule and method, the constant reference to prison regulations, the endless number of printed forms to be filled up daily, all of which things are matters of necessity in a prison, seem out of place and burthensome to a clergyman employed in the charge of an ordinary country parish.
When the depôts were first established in various country towns, and road parties were sent out to work in the country districts, often at distances of twenty and thirty miles from the nearest church, the question as to the religious superintendence of the convicts seems, at first, to have escaped notice. The country chaplains had been accustomed to regard their flocks as being composed of three classes—the first of which consisted of the free settlers, the second of those convicts who had received their ticket-of-leave and become to a considerable extent free men, and the third comprising those who had served the full time of their sentence and become expirees.
The original ground of the appointment of chaplains in the country districts was the dread felt by the settlers lest a large population of such manumitted prisoners should grow up around them, unwatched, untaught, and uncared for; and it was chiefly from the hope that a resident clergyman might influence these liberated men, and strive to improve them, that parsonages and churches were built throughout the colony. The chaplains, naturally, looked upon the settlers and "freed men" as forming their true parishioners, and regarded the convicts still under prison restraint, who were sent to the depôts in their district, as a distinct and separate class, who were governed by rules and forms of which they knew nothing, and who ought to have special chaplains to take charge of them as long as they were under prison rule.
To learn that three or four large road parties had been sent into his district gave a chaplain, in the earlier years of transportation, much of the same sort of feeling with which his English brother would regard the quartering of a body of soldiers in his parish for a lengthened stay. The chaplains were willing to do all that lay in their power for these unfortunate men, such as lending them books, visiting them when ill, giving them a service on the Sunday when it was possible to pass near a road party on the way to one of their own churches, and so forth: but the generality of the country chaplains considered that their chief duties were towards the families of the settlers, and of the ticket-of-leave class, and that anything they could do for the unreleased convicts was of secondary importance in comparison.
It is a pity that when the subject first began to acquire importance by the rapid increase in the number of road parties, and of the number of patients in the depôt hospitals, the Home Government did not ask all the chaplains whether they would be willing, officially, to undertake the duties of visiting the road parties and depôts if they were paid a small increase to their stipends, and were granted an allowance to enable them to keep a horse. Very few chaplains would have refused, probably not even one, and much unpleasant feeling and dissatisfaction would have been avoided.
Matters are now completely altered—the country chaplains are now as thoroughly prison chaplains as their brother at the Fremantle prison, except indeed in point of income. They are now obliged to devote by far the greater part of their time to periodical visits to all the road parties in their district, of some twenty miles by thirty, perhaps, in extent. The forms which they are obliged to fill up are endless, and the good which they can hope to do to the men is infinitesimal, since they can scarcely ever see a man alone, or even make an attempt to win his confidence.
The only way in which a convict can be induced to talk freely and honestly to his pastor is to see him alone in a room at the parsonage if possible, (not at the prison,) then to enter into conversation with him about indifferent matters until he has lost his prison tone of voice and manners, (which are as different as possible to his natural ones,) and, when at last he begins to speak like a man and not like a machine, it may be possible to do something with him. But neither at a depôt nor in the camp of a road party can the chaplain see any of the men alone without considerable difficulty and parade, since at neither place is any special provision for that object thought necessary. If a prisoner should express a wish to speak to the clergyman alone he must name that desire to the warder, and the interview will take place either in the warder's quarters or in the clerk's office if at the depôt, or in the men's sleeping hut if in the bush.All these long rides, all this filling up of forms is a mere matter of outside regularity and respectability, and it is impossible for the chaplain to learn anything of the men's individual character thereby. The chaplain rides up, the warder summons the men—"Attention, get your books for service"—the short service is over, and the chaplain says to his congregation, of perhaps ten Protestants out of the sixteen men who may compose the party, "Well, men, any wish to express, any question to ask?" " No, sir, except you could lend us some books."
Now this request for books is a universal one, and it is hard to be sometimes obliged to refuse; but what can a chaplain or a head warder do when he has no books to lend? On one occasion a warder of our acquaintance was congratulating himself on having obtained a box of new books for his men, and was about to open his prize with eagerness. When he examined his treasures he found six 'Mavor's Spelling,' four geography books, six copy-books, eight volumes of tracts, and two amusing tales for children.
After the party has asked the chaplain any little favours, such as to get them a slate or a pencil, or a sheet of paper, the chaplain tells the warder to dismiss; the warder says, "Attention, put back your books, break off;" the men yawn, and dawdle slowly back to their work, looking as dull and stolid as if they were about to expire of utter laziness. This is at a service on the weekday. It is curious to see the same party of men if the chaplain can manage to give them a service on the Sunday. They seem really to enjoy it, especially the hymn or two which they join in singing. They consider it right and proper to have a service on that day, and they attend to what is said then in an orderly manner; but to be compelled to come away from their road making on a week-day in order to hear the chaplain read is what they hate, they seem to look upon it as a device to cheat them into being good, and are sulky and indignant accordingly.
Prayer, again, at morning and evening they do not seem to dislike when it is read by the warder, but at any other time of the day they object to the introduction of any religions service. For the loan of an amusing book or two the convict constable will always be glad to undertake a walk of ten or twelve miles, and the warder of the party is equally glad to give him leave of absence for such a purpose.
Railway publications, Waverley novels and newspapers are devoured by the convicts, but they will not read religious books unless the pill is so well gilded by secular incident that it is swallowed for the sake of the tale; and, sad though it may sound, it is nevertheless true, that a surer symptom there cannot be of a man being worse than his fellows than his asking a clergyman for any book of which the subject is solely religious.
A ticket-of-leave man came once to our house to beg that he might be allowed a seat in church near the pulpit, on the plea of his being deaf, adding, "though if I only hear the text I can always tell what the sermon will be." Sermons, one would imagine, must have been superfluous to so well-informed a person, and, judging from his position as a convicted felon, it would appear that they had been useless also.
As to the effect which is produced by convict servants upon the personal comfort of masters and mistresses, it appeared to me that the trials undergone by heads of households from this cause in Western Australia often far exceeded the crosses and annoyances which were wont, as I have heard, in former days to beset West Indian owners of domestic slaves. There is no need to enlarge upon the risk which the settlers' children run of contamination from their fathers' labourers; and an anecdote that we heard from a neighbour, in whose family there had lately occurred a change of servants, reminded us very much of the teaching imparted at the academy of the estimable Mr. Fagin.
Our informant said that her boys had come racing into the house, in great glee, to tell her of the wonderful tricks that "the new man" had been showing them; how he had abstracted a native's tobacco-pipe from the tight string round his bare arm where a native always sticks his pipe, "without his ever feeling him do it"; and how he had stolen a quantity of grapes from another man, "talking to him all the while he took them." The boys thought "the new man" was as good as a conjuror, and the curiosity of their parents being excited by the report of so much talent they made inquiries as to the cause of their servant's transportation, which, by the way, it is not usual to do in hiring a convict, and learned, as my readers will probably have already anticipated, that he had been a London pickpocket.With whatever regret the colonists might look forward to the time when contracts for "rations" would be amongst the things of the past, there is no doubt that towards the end of the transportation period the majority of them were heartily sick of the convicts. Some of the settlers candidly owned the mistake which they had committed in supposing that the colony could be benefited by the inmates of English jails, whilst others bitterly complained that Government had broken faith in discontinuing to send picked men only, such as had been brought out in the first ships; forgetting apparently that a better use might possibly be found for offenders who were not incorrigible than transporting them. An impression also seemed to be gradually gaining ground in the colony that the owners of farms could do their own work with the help of machinery more satisfactorily than with the assistance of town-bred thieves; and a friend of ours, in whose house for many years past nine ticket-of-leave men had daily sat down to dinner, had reduced the number of his retainers to two only before we returned to England, and had bought a sort of mechanical Briareus which, guided by one of his sons, was cutting his wheat-fields, when we paid him our farewell visit, in place of the seven servitors dismissed.