Convict constables in Tasmania

As in NSW, suitable men were hard to find and most of Arthur’s police were convicts under sentence.[1] A committee of senior public servants appointed in 1829 to enquire into the cost of the police concluded that convict police were ‘influenced by the two most powerful motives of fear of punishment and hope of reward’ in gaining their liberation.[2] Their appointment destroyed ‘the feeling of Convict fraternity’ in committing and concealing crime and created a feeling of ‘common distrust and suspicion of treachery.’ But this should not be taken to suggest that policemen were always appointed from convicts who had spent some time in the colony and gained some knowledge of their colleagues’ characters. A number were appointed directly from the convict ships. The surgeon superintendent recorded everything that occurred on the ship, especially the behaviour of convicts, to add to the previous details about their crimes and character.[3] On the arrival of a ship, government departments requiring men applied first to Arthur and later to the assignment board that he established in 1832. At least some men, who were thought to have gained a good knowledge of their companions, were selected from each ship to be policemen.

In 1831, Josiah Spode[4] admitted that the system of appointing convicts as constables ‘immediately on arrival’ on convict ships, begun when he was assistant police magistrate in 1828, had defects.[5] He had great difficulty persuading assigned convict servants to volunteer for police work and their masters would not recommend them without getting ‘efficient farming servants’ in return. The shortage of recruits also stemmed from the increased demand for convict labour by new settlers and the reduced number of ‘useful’ convicts sent to VDL since 1828. On reflection, Spode thought that the system of appointments direct from convict ships was ‘anything but a good one.’ Originally, he intended to appoint as policemen convicts with ‘extremely good character either from home or by the recommendation of the Surgeon Superintendent.’ But he estimated that five-sixths of the convicts with the desired character were either artisans needed for public works or physically incapable of performing police work. Consequently, policing was in the hands of ‘a set of unworthy fellows which counteracts in a great degree the excellent Police arrangements laid down.’ Despite the defects, Arthur’s evidence to the Molesworth parliamentary committee on transportation indicated that the practice of appointing policemen directly from the convict ships continued until his departure.[6]

Hobart Town, Van Diemen’s Land, 1811-1837, by RG Reeve.
National Library of Australia

Arthur defended the appointment of convicts. He claimed that the police were ‘always the best convicts; men who are sent out with the best characters, active and intelligent.’[7] But he conceded that many thought to be ‘good characters’ had shown themselves ‘very bad ones’ and that, when faced with pressure to fill vacancies, he appointed ‘characters who ought on no other account to have been admitted.’ Generally, he felt the convict constable system was ‘a good one’ because, with a chance of getting a ticket of leave or emancipation, ‘they have all very strong inducement to give information’ and ‘to do their duty in a very watchful and careful manner.’ He admitted that there had been some false charges, but ‘I would not say to such an extent as might be supposed from such a class of persons.’ Of course, not all false charges were exposed in court, but Arthur here indicates that he expected a certain number of false charges in return for a high level of surveillance.

For convicts, police work held certain attractions. Although not ‘very well paid,’ they obtained ‘a great deal of freedom’ and ‘a great deal of authority.’[8] However, far too many abused their power. Colonists in the major towns regularly complained that convict constables (‘the offal of British depravity’) could not be trusted with legal powers to ride ‘rough-shod over the liberties and rights of free British subjects’ and justified their complaints by reference to English practice.[9] One colonist pointed out that the office of constable was an old and honourable one and a constable should perform his duties honestly ‘without malice, hatred, affection, or partiality’ and ‘with utility to the public, whose sworn servant he is.’[10] Convict constables, however, did not serve the public; they served the convict system while lining their own pockets. Another colonist asserted that in England criminals were not accepted as ‘competent witnesses’ and argued that it was therefore wrong to rely on convict constables in VDL.[11] Their appointment, thundered the True Colonist, destroyed

…the bonds of society by removing the distinction between crime and virtue’ and ‘elevating the convicted criminal above the unoffending citizen.[12]

In other words, to send a thief to catch a thief might be a sensible practice in some cases, but the thieves had to be more carefully selected and closely supervised than they were in VDL.[13] This criticism was true up to a point, but it ignored the number of dismissals of convict policemen showing that Arthur’s control of the police was strict, as well as demonstrating ‘the unreliable nature of many of the personnel of that service.’[14]

41 per cent of convicts, whose appointments as policemen between 1828 and 1836 can be verified in the Hobart Town Gazette, were dismissed, compared to 25 per cent of free settlers appointed policemen. Table 2 shows that between 1828 and 1831 about 40 per cent of dismissed convict policemen were removed for drink-related offences and another 34 per cent for misconduct of various kinds. After Forster, who had served in the military in Ireland, was appointed chief police magistrate in 1832, a more rigid discipline was introduced and policemen were expected to adhere more closely to orders and the law. Between 1832 and 1835, about 40 per cent of convict policemen and 40 per cent of free policemen were dismissed for breaches of duty. Drink-related offences ended in the dismissal of 23.7 per cent of convict policemen and 43.4 per cent of free policemen. Arthur was more likely to dismiss policemen for behaviour that weakened convict discipline and control than actions that infringed the liberties of colonists.

[1] Ibid, King, Hazel, ‘Some Aspects of Police Administration in New South Wales, 1825-1851’, p. 221.

[2] AOT CSO 1/60 1258, report by committee of public servants, 15t October 1829.

[3] Ibid, Report from the Select Committee on Transportation, Vol. 2, pp. 282, 300-301; Hobart Town Gazette, 21 November 1829, pp. 270-271.

[4] Green, F.C., ‘Spode, Josiah (1790-1858)’, ADB, Vol. 2, p. 466.

[5] AOT CSO 1/252/6040, Spode to Burnett, 21 February 1831.

[6] Ibid, Report from the Select Committee on Transportation, Vol. 2, pp. 300-301.

[7] Ibid, Report from the Select Committee on Transportation, Vol. 2, pp. 302-303.

[8] Ibid, Report from the Select Committee on Transportation, Vol. 3, p. 127.

[9] Cornwall Chronicle, 29 August 1835, 2 January 1836.

[10] Letter by ‘Z’, Tasmanian, 12 October 1832.

[11] Tasmanian, 16 November 1832, letter by ‘Justice’; it was true that in England incompetent witnesses included those ‘whose crimes had rendered them infamous’ and those ‘who were interested in the event of the suit.’ See Jervis, John, Archbold’s Summary of the Law Relating to Pleading and Evidence in Criminal Cases, 10th ed., (Sweet and Stevens), 1846, p. 143. This situation changed with the English Evidence Act 1843, section 1

[12] True Colonist, 11 September 1835.

[13] True Colonist, 13 January 1835.

[14] Ibid, Forsyth, W.D., Governor Arthur’s Convict System: Van Diemen’s Land, 1824-36, p. 156.

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