"Criminals incapable of reform?" Re-assessing the population of Cockatoo Island Prison (Sydney), 1839-69

Lead Research Organisation: University of Liverpool
Department Name: Sch of Sociology and Social Policy

Abstract

Significant attention has been paid to the more than 160,000 British and Irish convicts who were transported Australia as colonists between 1787 and 1868. Much less has been said about those punished within the criminal justice system that arose in the wake of New South Wales' transition from 'penal' to 'free' colony (Finnane, 1997: x-xi). Cockatoo Island prison opened in 1839, a year before convict transportation to New South Wales ceased, and was intended to punish the most recidivist and violent of the transported convicts. This archetype has prevailed in historical discourses, and they have been described as 'criminal lunatics... [and] criminals incapable of reform' (Parker, 1977: 61); 'the most desperate and abandoned characters' (O'Carrigan, 1994: 64); and people of 'doubtful character' (NSW Government Architect's Office, 2009: 29). Yet, this was far from the truth. My analysis of 1666 prisoners arriving between 1839-52 show they were overwhelming non-violent offenders, tried for minor property crimes at lower courts. They were also far more diverse population than commonly recognised, including Indigenous Australian, Chinese and black convicts alongside majority British and Irish men (Harman, 2012).

This project will make publicly availably extremely detailed records relating to Cockatoo Island's prisoners to show people firsthand exactly who made up the inmate population. The digital version of the original registers will include information on convicts' criminal record, but also their job, whether they were married or had children, and even what they looked like. It will also be a name-searchable database so family historians can search for their ancestors, who may have been incarcerated on the island. As it stands, they will be able find information online about ancestors who were transported as long as they remained in the 'convict system', but they may seem to disappear as soon as they are awarded their ticket-of-leave and become 'free'. However, many former convicts, and free immigrants, to New South Wales were convicted locally, and these records can give us information about their lives within the colony.

The type of data included in these registers will also allow researchers to investigate questions including:
(1) were convicts more likely to offend again than free immigrants?
(2) Were the children of convicts more likely to offend than others?
(3) Did the influx of mostly Chinese migrants during the gold rush actually lead to a crime-wave, as reported in the press?
(4) Were laws introduced between 1830 and 1853, actually effective at prosecuting bushrangers (highwaymen)?
(5) Was the criminal-judicial system in Australia more rehabilitative, despite developing out of a harsher convict transportation system?

Alongside the dataset, the website will include 'life-biographies' of individual convicts to show you how this dataset can be used to piece together a life-story. It also to warns against understanding a real-life person only through the records of their conviction. There many of fascinating stories to tell, including those 'John Perry' ('Black Perry') the prizewinning boxer; the love story of the 'Two Fredericks'; and Tan, the Chinese gold-digger who resisted his incarceration. In addition, there will be teaching resources for secondary school children and undergraduate university students who want to engage directly with historical materials, without having to leave their classroom.

Overall, this website invites anyone with an interest in the history of crime and punishment, and any visitors to the UNESCO world heritage site 'Cockatoo Island', to try searching for a name in the database or read about a featured convict's life story. It asks them, though, to think about how and why these people's lives intersected with the state, leading to their incarceration, and how history has erased much of their lives outside of it.

Publications

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Description This research project created a new dataset of 2,853 prisoners incarcerated on Cockatoo Island Prison (Sydney) between 1847-69. Mass digitisation of Australia's convict records has been driven by genealogists' demand. Far fewer resources exist for family historians researching criminal ancestors in the post-transportation era. This project, therefore, developed a significant new resource for both family and academic historians investigating prisoners' lives during New South Wales' transition from 'penal' to 'free' colony'.

Significant new knowledge was generated to challenge historical narratives describing Cockatoo Island prisoners as ''the most desperate and abandoned characters' (O'Carrigan, 1994: 64) or 'people of doubtful character' (NSW Government Architect's Office, 2009). Analysis of my new dataset showed that the majority of prisoners (54%) were tried for property crimes without violence (primarily larceny) and less than 10% of prisoners were tried for violent crimes. Despite Cockatoo Island Prison's reputation for incarcerating famous bushrangers (highway robbers) (Karskens, 2010: 304), less than 3% had been convicted of highway robbery. Though 15% of prisoners were tried for livestock theft, just 1% involved firearms or threat of violence against people. It seems then that rural poverty, due to changes in squatting laws in the 1850s, drove this rise in rural crime.

Despite Cockatoo Island prisoners' reputation as holding 'criminals incapable of reform' (Parker, 1977:61), only 5% returned to Cockatoo Island under a second conviction and just 4% returned to the island after breaking the regulations of their ticket-of-leave. Almost a third of the prisoners were released to 'freedom' in rural districts with a ticket of leave or conditional pardon.

This project developed significant new knowledge about Cockatoo Island's relationship to the convict-transportation system, which dominates current heritage narratives. Analysis of my new dataset shows 42% of the prison population were former-convicts who had earned their freedom by servitude in Australia. But slightly more (44%) were free men, who were either born in the colony or emigrated there freely. The dataset has opened up important research questions about recidivism of convicts traced across multiple institutions and inter-generational offending of convict's descendants, which can be pursued through further record-linkage with existing digital connections.

The project is also significant in diversifying convict history by highlighting the stories of people of colour and LGBT+ prisoners on Cockatoo Island. Considering most family historians will visit the site to trace their own (predominantly white) ancestors, I wanted to showcase how discrimination, according to race and sexuality, shaped convicts' experiences in custody. Though the numbers are small - with just 21 Indigenous Australians, 37 Chinese prisoners and 12 African-Caribbean and Indian sailors ¬- it is important to actively decolonise and diversify digital crime history projects aimed at the general public.
Exploitation Route This main outcome of the award database of 2,853 prisoners on Cockatoo Island Prison 1847-69. It is useful for family historians tracing criminal ancestors because it includes biographical information, details of prisoners' conviction(s) in Australia, occupational data and biometric information. This enables family historians to positively identify and trace the movements of individuals in and out of custody.

The dataset is available for download from my website along with a research guide for further research. Family historians have used the database and contacted me for further information. The website attracts over five hundred views per month with an international range of visitors.

Historical criminologists and historians have also accessed the database from Australian National University, University of Tasmania, University of Oxford and University of Liverpool etc. It is a useful resource to analyse the recidivism of transportees, inter-generational offending and how social status (race, class, formerly-convicted) affected sentencing outcomes. Academics will be able to access the dataset through UK Data Service Re-Share (currently under review) and I have been invited to add it to the Australian Criminal Justice History Data Repository.
Sectors Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL https://cockatooconvicts.wordpress.com/
 
Description The main output of this project was a database of more than 2800 prisoners incarcerated on Cockatoo Island Prison (Sydney) in the 19th century. It was made available online as part of a website (Cockatoo's Convicts) in January 2020. It was aimed and promoted to family historians, featuring a guide for further research and showcasing selected 'Convict Lives'. I have been contacted by family historians through the website who have used the database to search for criminal ancestors and were looking for further information. Academic colleagues, including from the Australia's National Centre of Biography, have also praised the resource as a useful tool for future research. Since launch, the website has been viewed by visitors from the UK, Australia, USA, Canada, Ireland, South Africa, Germany and others.
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

 
Title Prisoners on Cockatoo Island (Sydney), 1847-1869 
Description This is a new dataset of 2,853 inmates incarcerated at Cockatoo Island prison in Sydney (Australia) between 1847-1869.It is a useful tool for family historians tracing the lives of their criminal ancestors, historical criminologists and historians researching nineteenth-century Australia. It offers insights into the colonial criminal justice system during New South Wales' transitioned from penal colony to 'free' colony from 1840. The variables include prisoners' names and aliases, ship of arrival, place of origin, 'condition upon arrival' (convict, free immigrant or colonial born), details of their colonial conviction(s) (trial place, court, offences), date(s) admitted to Cockatoo Island, and when and how they were discharged from Cockatoo Island. The dataset has not been anonymised since this would impede it's from operating as a genealogical research tool. This does not present ethical issues, as all prisoners were incarcerated over 150 years ago, exceeding the 100 year closure period on sensitive material that most archives adhere too. In any case, information about these prisoners convicts is also publicly available in archives or in existing digital sources. Data collection involved photographing a Cockatoo Island's surviving prison registers kept at the State Archives of New South Wales (call numbers: 4/4540, 4/6501, 4/6509, 6571, 4/6572, 4/6573, 4/6574, 4/6575, X819). I photographed and transcribed these records in tabular form, with minor standardization of spelling and abbreviations. Where multiple records existed for one person, I combined the information from two separate archival records into one line of the dataset. Where I could not verify that two people with the same name were the same person, I listed them separately. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Notable impacts from the development of this research database, include: - Received more than 500 views in month after launch. - Contacted by family historians researching criminal ancestors incarcerated on the island. They had accessed the database and website to further their own genealogical research. - Academic colleagues from Australia National Centre of Biography (Australian National University), University of Tasmania, University of Oxford, University of Liverpool and others contacted me voluntarily describing the database as 'fantastic' and 'great', and signalling their intention to use it for their own future research. 
URL https://cockatooconvicts.wordpress.com/database/
 
Description Guest blogpost (History Workshop Online) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I wrote an article for History Workshop Online, which is a 'digital magazine' that published 'accessible and engaging articles...for historians and the public' that reflect on 'present day issues'. My piece 'Is Digital Crime History Too White?: Representation in Australian Archives' engaged with contemporary debates around representation and 'decolonising' movements but applied to digital crime history projects. I argued that the mass-digitisation of historical material (aimed at white family historians) exacerbated the misrepresentation and exclusion of people of colour from public history online. I described how I had tackled these issues in my own ESRC research project. My tweet promoting the blog received over 6,000 impressions and 69 engagements, fostering online discussion with colleagues and members of the general public in the UK and Australia.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL http://www.historyworkshop.org.uk/is-digital-crime-history-too-white-representation-in-australian-ar...
 
Description Website ('Cockatoo Convicts') 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I created a Wordpress website 'Cockatoo Convicts' (https://cockatooconvicts.wordpress.com/) which included biographies of prisoners incarcerated on the island ('Convict Lives'), a short history of the prison, and an online database of 2,853 prisoners. The website received 532 views from 319 visitors from the UK, Ireland, Australia, Canada, USA, South Africa, Germany and Eastern Europe. The inclusion of convict biographies was intended to appeal to the general public as stories of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstnaces. It was also designed to offset ethical issues around large-scale quantitative analysis which can render personal experiences invisible, particularly of ethnic minorities. I showcased a diverse array 'Convict Lives', to offset the dominance of British and Irish men in the dataset as a whole, with blogposts about LGBT+ prisoners, convicted African-American and Indian sailors, Indigenous Australian prisoners and Chinese prisoners. After launching the dataset, I was contacted by family historians who had used the database and wanted for further information about their own criminal ancestors.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://cockatooconvicts.wordpress.com/