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LETTER from a CONVICT to the GOVERNOR of TASMANIA, 1858

The entire raises more questions than answers, for aspects of the letter are in doubt, particularly the name of the convict, but the story is worth reporting. The vendor describes it as follows: "1858 (16th Nov) entire from Port Arthur to Newtown, Hobart from the convict John Lester to the Governor of Tasmania appealing for a reduction of his sentence, franked with (the imperforate blue) 6d tied by barred numeral '61' at Hobart, a fine strike of the rare 'PRISONER'S LETTER (crown) PORT ARTHUR', additional handstamp 'C.G.O./ 1 DEC 1/ 1868 (actually1858)/ RECEIVED'. A desirable exhibition item (AU) $8500". Other information is clearly visible "The Honble. ?J Burgess MLC, Newtown by Hobart," signed by an illegible 'Civil Commandant'. The C.G.O. handstamp is for the Comptroller-General's Office (Figure 1).

As much of the manuscript was illegible, I could not attribute the letter to the convict named. It was addressed to a M ember of the Legislative Council, and the price realised was AUD 10,500. The Burgess M.L.C could have been one of two, but only Francis Burgess (born 1793) lived at the time of the letter. Francis and family, arrived in V.D.L. in 1843, and Francis, a former chief police magistrate in V.D.L., won the seat of Richmond in the first fully elected Legislative Council in Tasmania in October 1856, and resigned in April 1859. He died in Richmond, Tasmania on 24 February 1864. He had fought in the Napoleonic Wars of 1813-15. I surmise that the prisoner wrote to him appealing for a reduction of sentence, to be passed on to the Governor.  A picture of Francis Burgess MLC is seen in Figure 2.

Sir Henry Edward Fox Young (1808–1870) was the first person called Governor of V. D. L., from 1855 until 1861, thus he was the Governor at the time of the letter in 1858. The Constitution Act was awaiting royal assent, and the Legislative Council might wisely have postponed meeting until news of this had been received. It, however, met in July and one of its acts was to form a committee to inquire into the working of the convict department. Dr Hampton, the Comptroller-general of convicts, was summoned to appear as a witness and refused to attend. The council decided he was guilty of contempt and arrested him. Hampton served a writ of habeas corpus upon the sergeant-at-arms and the opinion of the law officers of the crown was against the legality of the Council's proceedings.

Young then attended at the House and prorogued the Council until 20 October. The London Times severely commented upon Young's conduct, but he was commended by the British government. The Tasmanian Supreme Court ruled against the Council, and when it was taken to the Privy Council, this decision was confirmed. The new Constitution was soon successfully instituted and Young welcomed the change in his position, feeling that he was now above the battle and freed from much trying responsibility. He traveled through the island, showed much interest in its development, and capably carried out the work of his office. He left Tasmania on 10 December 1861 for Melbourne, traveled to England and lived in retirement at London until his death on 18 September 1870. He had been knighted in 1847 and had married in 1848 the eldest daughter of Charles Marryat, and she survived him.

Port Arthur was named after Van Diemen's Land Lieutenant governor George Arthur. The settlement started as a timber station in 1830, but it is best known for being a penal colony. From 1833, until 1850s, it was a destination for the hardest of convicted British criminals, those who were secondary offenders, having re-offended after their arrival in Australia. Rebellious personalities from other convict stations were also sent there. Prisoners were hooded and made to stay silent, for this was supposed to allow time for the prisoner to reflect upon his actions. Port Arthur had some of the strictest security measures of the Australian penal system. It was secured naturally by shark-infested waters on three sides and the 30m wide peninsula of Eaglehawk Neck that connected it to the mainland was crossed by fences and guarded by prison guards and dogs (Figures 3 & 4).

Port Arthur was also the destination for juvenile convicts, receiving many boys, some as young as nine, arrested for stealing toys. Like the adult population, the boys were used in hard labour such as stone cutting and construction. Attendance at the weekly Sunday service was compulsory for the prisoners, and critics noted that this seemed to have negligible impact on their reformation. The Island of the Dead was the destination for all who died inside the prison camps. Of the 1646 graves recorded to exist there, only 180, those of prison staff and military personnel, are marked by gravestones. The prison closed in 1877.

The problem area in this cover relates to the spelling of the convict's name which was given by the vendor as John Lester. Unfortunately I do not have access to the contents of the letter, and even if I had, the writing was difficult to read.. Margaret Harman, Tasmanian Heritage Library, considered that John Lister who arrived in VDL on 19 December 1842 on the Triton from London was the prime suspect, but a convict, shown as "John Lester, Jerusalem, a fitter up of carding engines" is my choice. He was listed in a website listing convicts in 1847 acquainted with the manufacture of woollen cloths. John Lester, for some infraction may have been transferred to Port Arthur by 1858, for he may have been excluded from parole in 1847, even though he could have been of value as a repairer of machines used in the woollen trade. A letter from E. Nairn, Comptroller-general's office (of prisoners), 8th March 1847 is somewhat supportive of this assumption of mine (Figure 5).

Either convict Lester/Lister provided a very expensive postal history cover, and an interesting story of the penal settlement has been briefly described.


 
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