Category Archives: Colonial History

Remember this is a voice from the tomb

James Wilson was one of the last convicts transported to Australia. His words below are from a smuggled letter sent in 1874 to John Devoy, a Fenian leader, in America. James Wilson’s desperate appeal led the American Fenians to organise the 1876 Catalpa rescue — the liberation of six Fenian convicts from Fremantle gaol.


Now, dear friend, remember this is a voice from the tomb…we have been nearly nine years in this living tomb…it is impossible for mind or body to withstand the continual strain…one or the other must give away.
— James Wilson


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The last convicts transported to Australia

Very best wishes for the New Year.

Today, is the anniversary of a significant date in Australian history.

One-hundred and fifty years ago convicts stopped being transported to Australia. The last convicts arrived at Fremantle, Western Australia on 10 January 1868, on the ship Hougoumont.

According to Richard Reid in Sinners, Saints & Settlers, 62 of these last convicts were Irishmen who would not have accepted their criminal status. They were Fenians, part of the revolutionary 19th century movement to establish an Irish Republic, through physical force if necessary. Forty-five of the men were political prisoners, tried for treasonous acts or taking part in attempted uprisings in 1867. The remaining men were military Fenians —  soldiers in the British army court-martialed for mutinous conduct.

You can find interesting articles about the Hougoumont and the end of convict transportation in Troves Digitised Newspapers. One article, that caught my interest was the Perth newspaper, the Inquirer and Commercial News, listing on 15 January 1867 of the Fenian convicts and the sentences they received. See below for this or you can find it here.


list of convicts

2nd list of convicts

The sentence hanged, drawn & quartered must have been underlined in the original newspaper. It is a bit disturbing knowing this sentence was actually given to convicts. Agree or disagree? 

Vale Emeritus Professor Ken Inglis AO

On 1 December, 2017, the same day the Prime Minister’s Australian history award was announced, Australia lost one of its leading historians — Professor Ken Inglis.

Ken’s classic book The Australian Colonists featured in 1856, Winning the Eight Hour Day. Covering the social history of Australia from 1788 to 1870, this is a great book to read if you want to understand how people lived in colonial Australia.

What I didn’t know until reading the many tributes to Ken’s life was that The Australian Colonists was a starting point for a deeper story Ken wanted to understand and document. This story was the remembrance of the First World War and how it shaped the lives of Australians. In 1998 his thinking on this culminated in another classic of Australian history Sacred places : war memorials in the Australian landscape.

Ken’s work first came to prominence with the publication in 1961 of The Stuart case, the story of a 1950’s murder trial that divided Australia. Rupert Max Stuart, a young Aboriginal man, was found guilty of the murder of a nine-year-old white girl based on what seemed a fabricated written confession.

There were other books as well. He also played a major role in developing the innovative Australians, a historical library a multi-volume, multi-contributor history of Australia to commemorate the 1988 bicentenary of Australia.

Of course a life well-lived is much more than the books left behind. Graeme Davison, another significant Australian historian, in recognising the contribution of Ken Inglis commented:

Influence is not to be found in the sum of scholarly contributions — or not in those alone — but in his influence upon others, and the unfailing generosity of spirit and acuity of mind that he has imparted to our professional and national life.


sacred places

Holiday history find, the whale-cure for rheumatism

The school holidays ended yesterday. We spent a week of the holidays on the far south coast of New South Wales. The highlight was whale watching in Eden. What a joy! Cruising beautiful Twofold Bay, on a calm and sunny morning, seeing; birds, seals, dolphins and whales.

We also enjoyed looking around the Eden Killer Whale Museum. For about one hundred years Eden was a whaling port. The industry started in Twofold Bay in 1828 and ended in 1930 with the closure of the Davidson whaling station. The Museum does an excellent job of telling visitors about the area’s interesting history.

One thing that especially intrigued me was the story of how people would sit in a whale carcass as a remedy for rheumatism. This seems to be one of those past practices you read about, but you can’t imagine. On my return from holidays I felt compelled to find out more.

Somewhat surprisingly I found a number of references to the whale-cure for rheumatism in Troves Digitised Newspapers. Below are extracts of two of the more descriptive accounts. The first was published in The Menzies Miner, a paper from the West Australian Coolgardie Goldfields, on Saturday 26 June 1897. This one is a patient’s, slightly, comical story of taking the whale-cure.

The second account, from the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate was published 30 December 1895. This article explains the whale-cure and also gives a good overview of how the whaling at Eden worked.

Is it a coincidence that both newspapers’ readership were miners? Or does it reflect that cures for rheumatism were of particular interest to people whose bodies ached from days of  hard labour.

Do you find the whale-cure hard to believe? Have you come across a past practice that you find hard to believe?

Whale cure

Article from the Menzies Miner, 1897


The Whale Cure_1

Article from the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, 1895

August 2017, Roundup, Convicts and love tokens and the Great Strike of 1917


Thomas Alsop, Joan Beaumont, Ken Inglis, Thomas Keneally, Timothy Millett,
Babette Smith, Jack Thompson


Jervis Bay and Randwick, New South Wales


1788: first convicts transported to Australia; 1835: The Hive sank off the New South Wales coast; 1917: the Great Strike; 2008: Timothy Millett sells his convict love token collection to the National Museum of Australia


National Museum of Australia (NMA)


National Museum of Australia’s Convict love tokens
Trading History
Who do you think you are


The Australian Colonists
Australians: Origins to Eureka
The Luck of the Irish
Broken Nation


The rose soon drupes & dies. The brier fades away. But my fond heart for you I love shall never go astray. —Thomas Alsop [had words engraved on 1833 love token]

May the rose of England never bud. The thistle of Scotland never grow. The harp of Ireland never play. Till I poor convict gain my liberty. —Anonymous

When this, you see remember me, and, bare, me in, your mind let, all, the, world say, what they, will speak of me, as, you find — Anonymous

Are convicts Australian royalty?

History and serendipity covered the story of how Timothy Millett’s  collection of convict love tokens were bought by the National Museum of Australia. Prior to the sale, Timothy had tried to research the history of convicts named on the tokens. This had been difficult because people were reluctant to acknowledge their convict ancestors.

It would be interesting to know if this reluctance related to previous generations or contemporary families or both. Likewise was this restricted to British families or Australians as well.

From the start of European settlement convict identity was a concern for the Australian colonial community. As Ken Inglis explains in the  The Australian Colonists:

Respectable people worried about the future of a community composed so largely of men and women who belonged to it because they had been caught stealing. The convicts’ morals, it was feared, accompanied them to freedom and comfort, and infected other members of the civil and military population…How a man happened to have come to New South Wales was the most delicate of topics in colonial conversation. The word ‘convict’ came to be forbidden from general discourse.

At some point, though, this changed for Australians. When actor Jack Thompson discovered, on Who do you think you are, he had convict ancestry, he joyously announced he was descended from Australian royalty. You can also get bumper stickers along similar lines — Descended From Australian Royalty and Proud of It.

Hopefully, this more favoured view of convict forbears will lead to more of the convict love tokens at the National Museum of Australia being matched to the convicts who gave them to their loves ones.

When do you think Australians moved from shame of their convict relatives to celebration of convict ancestry?