To Van Dieman’s Land

Elphinstone provisioned at Deptford in the Thames and sailed on 24 March 1842 for Chatham and the Downs. She had been built at Bristol in 1825 and was classified as AE1, being too old or insufficiently maintained to retain the top A1 classification. She was well equipped and displaced 425 tons. The convict transports were not purpose built but chartered by the Admiralty and commanded by normal merchant service officers and crew but the convicts were in the charge of a naval surgeon on half pay, on this cruise W.H.B.Jones MD. Under the command of Captain Thomas Franklin the Elphinstone was about to make her third voyage to Tasmania.

On March 29 193 boy convicts and seven adult prisoners embarked and were assigned berths. Whilst heavy gales lashed the area 30 more boys arrived over the next two days. With the weather abating the vessel sailed for Hobart Town on April 10. Dr. Jones took his duties very seriously and cared for the social as well as the medical needs of his charges. Jones was alert to likelihood intimidation of the weak by the strong and kept a close eye out for signs 'of gambling and stealing of food. “Dr William Jones, was a fair but strict man who made it clear to crew and officers what was required of them on the voyage. He told them that under no account were they to strike any of the boys. However, knowing that many of the boys were previous offenders and already experienced in crime he made it clear what they could expect:

“I have to make a return to the Lieutenant Governor on our arrival at Van Diemen’s Land of the good and the bad boys so you know what you are all to expect, severe punishment awaits you that behave ill during the voyage and I shall be most rigid in any punishments on board likewise, Bread and Water, solitary confinement is my mode and the cat of Nine Tails.” (Brooke & Brandon, 'Bound for Botany Bay: British Convict Voyages to Australia'.)

Routine on board the
Elphinstone was much the same as on the hulk. Rising at sunrise and bathed by having salt water thrown over them on deck. At six volunteers scrubbed the decks and stowed the hammocks. Breakfast at eight was followed by the holy stoning of the prison deck. James and other boy prisoners assembled for a morning session of schooling. Before lunch all were served a ration of lime juice to prevent scurvy and on Sunday the doctor closely examined everyone including 'gums, roots of hair, feet and legs'. Two days were set aside each week for laundering prison clothing and haircuts each fortnight were mandatory. It is likely that during the voyage James enjoyed the best health care of his life. Jones had little sickness to deal with but one boy of fifteen died despite prolonged care; all but one of the embarkees arrived in good health. Boys attended school again in the afternoon before supper at four o'clock. Before sunset prisoners were allowed to sing, dance, exercise or play games until being locked in the prison deck at sunset. Jones visited the prison deck each night at eight o'clock to check that 'each boy was in his correct berth and they did not want for water during the tropics. But the sea air did not encourage James to conform for Dr. Jones reported his conduct as ‘bad’.

The vessel made good time and reached the Derwent in 109 days. On the voyage the prisoners were subject to strict routine, The coast is very bold. We are 6 miles off and with the glass can clearly see vegetation clothing them to the very summit. On the highest ridge is a little snow. I could quite distinguish in some places the bare, naked tree stems of trees, with only scanty foliage at the tops, most probably the eucalyptus. It is a novel sensation to look upon greenhouse plants as the clothing of the country. The land on both sides of the Bay (Storm) is high and undulating and covered with wood, fine bold scenery. Mount Wellington is conspicuous with a few patches of snow upon it. The bright green patches of cultivation on either side enlivened the scene, the hills having in their wild state having a very dull and dingy aspect. The hills appear to be generally grassy, thinly scattered over with gum trees and she-oak. The scenery on each side increased in beauty, in the height of the hills and the outline until we arrived at Hobart Town which is beautifully situated on the Derwent, where it widens into a noble sheet of water ..which would doubtless hold all the shipping of Europe.The first sight of the town itself disappointed me exceedingly, as it had the appearance of a few scattered houses among fields and scarcely half a dozen vessels to be seen.Mackie, 1852

Elphinstone picked up the pilot on 27 July and dropped anchor in Sullivan's Cove the next morning. On August 1 at Old Wharf the Colonial Surgeon and Superintendent of Convicts boarded the ship and took full particulars of all prisoners. During this process John Morris requested that he henceforth be known as James Harrison, the system accepted his new name and assigned the number 6071. The adult convicts and seventeen boys left the ship in Hobart whilst James and 204 others left Hobart Town on August 8 for Tasman Peninsular. Two days later the Elphinstone arrived at the Port Arthur and handed responsibility its cargo to the commandant Charles O'Hara Booth.

Point Puer contained around 600 boys who are taught the means of earning an honest livelihood. When first received they are instructed in the use of spade, hoe and grubbing axe. They clear, break up, fence and cultivate their own land, and produce cabbages, potatoes, turnips and other vegetables. After a term of good conduct the option of trade is conceded as a boon, five or six forms of handicraft are submitted for election... Before dinner the boys are taught the habit of cleanliness by being obliged to wash. A short space is also allocated for play and every afternoon half the boys attend school.An Excursion to Pt. Arthur in 1842, Tas. Jour. 1892 p. 10 -11

Boys cut timber in pits, built boats and barrels or made clothes or shoes. Blacksmithing, carpentry, turning, bookbinding, baking and stone masonry were all taught tradesmen, known as mechanics, who had served their sentences. James spent just over two years in this prison for boys where he attended school and was taught carpentry. Although he did not take up carpentry he paid enough attention to the lessons to learn to read and write. His instructor reported that he had poor co-ordination and could not learn his living at a trade. Nevertheless he stayed out of trouble for the first seventeen months of his time at Point Puer and his behaviour was termed 'fair'.
Workshops at Pt Puer


Adult Life

Perhaps it was his failure at carpentry or some other event but in autumn 1844 he began to rebel. Officially he was then sixteen, he may actually have been two years younger, but was big enough to be henceforth treated as a man. On March 18 1844 he received 25 stripes on the breeches for disobeying orders, the first of a series of over eighty offences for which he was punished over the next fourteen years. On July 1 he was found absent without leave and received another 30 stripes and the very next day was insolent and spent a week in solitary confinement. The day following his release he assaulted another boy and bore another 50 stripes; charged with misconduct on August 23 he spent two weeks in solitary. At this time the commandant determined that he was a 'very bad boy' and ordered his transfer to the coal mines at Plunkett Point on the north western shore of the Peninsular. He had spent two years three months and two days at Point Puer.

The coal mines operated from 1834 to 1848 and were looked on by those sent there as the most severe form of punishment a convict could suffer in the colony. The mines had very thin seams of coal and up to 600 convicts laboured up to supply fuel for the fire-places of Port Arthur and Hobart. From 11 November 1844 to 6 February 1845 James Harrison toiled in the mines a salutary lesson on which to complete the first third year in Tasmania. It was a nasty and brutal place. He spent the last thirty days there were spent in solitary for insubordination. Leaving Plunkett Point on the packet Swan River, at the end of January must have been a relief.

From the beginning of the new year he was eligible to join the normal adult convict life of manual labour at probation stations around the colony. The Prisoner's Barracks was the nominal base for this system and served as a transit station for the convicts moving through the various probation stations of this antipodean 'Gulag Archipelago'. First he went to Brown's River (now the outer Hobart suburb of Kingston). This was officially a hiring station but James joined a group of about 70 men building roads. The Station had twenty-one accommodation buildings and two mess rooms. However after a couple of weeks for a month, he began a journey through the midlands, north and eastern regions of the island. The probation station at Lovely Banks was his home for three months in autumn and early winter. The site is situated in farming country 65 km. north of Hobart on the main highway to Launceston. The old road still winds its way through the gentle hills and the Lovely Banks property still displays its convict built structures. The bridges culverts and cuttings of the old road were constructed by convict labour. The journey to the new Station involved a boat trip and then a two day walk carrying their provisions. Unlike the new buildings they had left on arrival they found old stone buildings with no heating to combat the chill winters. James completed the first stage in the probation system here on June 7 1845 but insolence to the Assistant Superintendent immediately saw the probation extended by two more months. Travelling magistrates visited the stations and heard charges laid by the supervisors.

After three months on the Midlands Highway the gang moved on and the Station was closed. James was now sent to the east coast road at Rocky Hills, a probation station 3 miles from Kelvedon. Its virtue to the system was isolation. The journey to the east coast probably involved moving south through the present towns of Colebrook and along the old road through Buckland to meet the sea. They may have completed the journey by road or by sea. When Charles La Trobe visited the station at the end of 1846 he found it disorderly and badly managed. The prisoners ‘were noisy in the extreme, badly clothed, their hair long and half of them barefooted’. He dismissed the officers on the spot. Road building and the isolated Rocky Hills Station in winter provided few opportunities for pleasure but James was twice found absent without leave the first earned a three month extension of his sentence and the second three months hard labour in chains.

This sentence was served on Maria Island at the Long Point Station with over 300 other prisoners. It was considered to be a 'pleasant and well run establishment', but when Gov. LaTrobe visited it two years later he found the buildings to be 'of a very inferior description.' Here James 'celebrated' his 18th birthday yoked together in a gang with the shackles around his ankles joined by chains. The Station at Long Point was devoted to agriculture caring for 2300 sheep and tending 317 acres of wheat, barley and vegetables. Nine hundred men were imprisoned there and unlike the well run station at Darlington, La Trobe also judged Long Point as badly managed. The buildings were badly built and poorly shingled but of all the convict work places Maria Island offered the best climate in the Spring of 1845.

After six months on Maria Island James was taken by ship north to Falmouth. From here probably had to walk up over Elephant Pass and along the road to the Fingal Hiring Depot. He was now in second class probation and able to work on the large farms in the area. Whereas lowest class of probationers were lodged in separate cells, Class 2 convicts slept together in groups of about 10. However this new status did not seem to induce more responsibility. He was admonished in April 1846 for being absent from his duties but a month later was in more serious trouble. The Magistrate found him guilty of petty theft (less than £5) and took away his pass for a year and gave him 21 days solitary confinement. When that was served he was banished from the relative comfort of Fingal to a more strictly managed environment.

James went back to Tasman Peninsular this time to the market garden and timber centre known as the Cascades (at 4 on map).

This station was well managed and consisted of good buildings of stone and brick and some remain in the township of Koonya on the northern shore of the Peninsular. When James arrived he joined four hundred other prisoners at the Station. Twenty huts formed a hollow square and each was home to 20 men. There are several contemporary descriptions of convict life at the Cascades at this time. The convict author Mortlock also arrived there in March 1846 and describes the station and convict life in Chapter IX of Experiences of a Convict. It seems that James was assigned to the railway. The Quaker Frederick Mackie visited in 1852 and records his carriage in 'a humble railway vehicle' on a tramway with wooden rails 'pushed forward by four convicts'. Working on the tramway was considered an indulgence.

Most convicts were engaged in timber getting the men forming a complex chain that began with felling the trees, and rough cutting the logs at the site using sawpits. Thirty pairs of prisoners one 'top dog' one 'bottom dog' pulled the cross cut saw in each pit. Then the rough cut logs were manhandled along winding tracks and tramroads to a secondary staging area (bullocks and horses were not used until the 1860s). the timber was eventually carried to the jetty for transport to Hobart. A centipede of men carried beams 40 feet long and a foot square up to three mile.

James spent about nine months at the Cascades Station and his usual cheeky self brought a steady stream of punishments. However these were probably fairly average for a young man not ready to conform. His first offence at the new Station in September 1846 earned 2 months in a chain gang for leaving ‘the hand carts'. Four days later he was flogged for the first time - 36 lashes for being found in possession of a pipe. Found playing cards in the mess room in December earned seven days solitary. Three months later he was again in trouble for having a pipe and abusing the guards when discovered which led to another 'seven days' and 36 lashes.

In mid winter 1847 James had a change from the Peninsular when another short boat rip took him across Storm Bay and down the Channel to Lymington on the western shore of Port Cygnet at the mouth of the Huon River. Lymington had been opened in 1845 and consequently had new buildings of a good standard. The ‘separate apartments’ for third class convicts were built of wood and allowed for conversation between the cells. James must have liked this place for he was advanced to the 2nd. Class in September. Nevertheless having spent five years of his teens as a convict the clash of youthful temperament and a rigid system produced continuing rebellion; this was triggered by his transfer to Southport.

Southport was the southern most probation station built right on the shore a few miles north of the whaling settlement of Recherche Bay. When Governor Dennison visited the station in April 1848 he wrote of

‘inspecting 130 of the greatest scoundrels in the world; young villains from sixteen to twenty-five years of age, and of the most incorrigible habits; they are sent down here to be as far as possible from the settled parts of the island. Eighty of these are in separate cells, but they are most difficult to manage; and I was obliged to hold out threats of enforcing the most severe system of separate confinement; and, in three or four instances, to carry out my threats” (Varieties of Vice Regal Life p 90.)

James had now graduated to a new level of rebellion and the nine months spent at this place was a stormy period. It began on the ship carrying him the 20 miles across the mouth of the Huon Estuary from Cygnet on 1 October. A charge of insubordination meant he spent the first month in the solitary cells which La Trobe found to be ‘not well ventilated, but secure, the side walls carried forward to prevent communication’; not a very sociable welcome for a new arrival. Another conviction for the same offence in December resulted in his sentence of transportation being extended by 18 months to eight and a half years. James did not like Southport and in summer he took the first opportunity to escape. Freedom was short lived, he attempted to steal a small sum of money and was caught and sentenced to 18 months hard labour in chains.

He petitioned for separate treatment in January 1848 - the new solitary and silent confinement in the 'model prison' opened at Port Arthur, but this was refused. His liking for tobacco resulted in a further three months in chains in March. In April he attempted to escape for the second time and all he got for his trouble was another month in chains and thirty stripes. Absent without leave a month later left his back bearing another thirty. His stay at Southport ended on November 25 1848 when he absconded for the third time and was sent back to the Cascades.

Now officially twenty-one and still doing hard labour in chains he awaited another opportunity to escape. This arose in early April and his period of freedom was long enough to be gazetted and a ten shilling reward offered for his capture. This escapade cost him another thirty days solitary and produced no repentance. On July 14 he was again absent without leave and six months hard labour was added to his current sentence. Working in the forests he was blamed for letting a railway cart escape for which he received two months separate treatment.