the hopelessly brutalised convicts on Norfolk Island, Alexander Maconochie
appeared like an angel from heaven. Little did they know that, but for the
failure of an earlier dream, his fate — and theirs - could have been very
Having served at sea with Nelson, fighting in
the West Indies, Maconochie had been sent home on half-pay to live with his
mother in Warriston Crescent, Edinburgh. There he put his knowledge of the
globe to good use, writing a series of pamphlets on opportunities for
colonial expansion which were read in high places. He had great ability in
formulating projects, and in 1823 he took his new wife to live on a farm at
But despite making a name for himself in the
community, building a school for his growing family and suggesting
improvements to the local ferry service, the farm began losing money and he
was forced to move on. Taking his wife and children to London, he joined
some distinguished former Naval colleagues in a geographical society called
the Raleigh Club.
The turning point for Maconochie and the men
who would find in him a hope they thought lost forever came when his friend
Sir John Franklin, the famous explorer, was appointed governor of Van Diemen’s
Land, known today as Tasmania.
In need of a private secretary, he offered
the post to his old comrade and it was gladly accepted. To augment his
income in the Antipodes, Maconochie secured commissions to report back for
various charitable bodies, including the Society for the Improvement of
Supported by the anti-slavery campaigner
William Wilberforce, the society was the leading body for penal reform and
had influence with the British Government. Lord John Russell, the Home
Secretary, set up the Molesworth committee to investigate transportation,
which showed no sign of reforming criminals and was felt to be polluting
Through indirect, unofficial channels,
Maconochie’s reports found their way to Russell’s desk in London. The
picture they painted of the penal colonies on van Diemen’s Land was grim.
MACONOCHIE did not spare the detail in
describing the vicious floggings, the heavy manacles and the line of savage
dogs kept tethered from shore to shore across Eaglehawk Neck to prevent
escape from the hell of Port Arthur.
Nor did Maconochie pull his punches in
describing the regime of Franklin’s predecessor, Sir George Arthur. When
Russell ordered Maconochie’s first report to be made public, there was
uproar among the free citizens of Van Diemen’s Land, who relied on the
repressive regime for cheap labour.
In the end, Franklin was forced to sack his
friend, but Maconochie hung on. What began as yet another project had now
become a personal mission to save the penal community.
In his reports be outlined a better way of
running the colonies and with Russell’s qualified support, strings were
pulled to give him a chance to prove his ideas in practice —as governor of
Norfolk Island. From the moment he landed on the deceptively beautiful
island, the convicts could see he was different. One of them later recalled
Maconochie’s ‘most Christian-like and eloquent speech which drew tears
from the eyes of the most hardened and depraved beings’ as he promised
things would get better.
‘He said that he did not enter that island
with the intention of torturing the unhappy prisoners. On the contrary, he
purposed introducing measures by which alone the industrious and
well-conducted could purchase their freedom.’
The convicts could hardly believe it as he
outlined the new regime, involving two stages of treatment - punishment for
the past, which they must meet with ‘manly penitence’, and training for
the future, which they could embrace ‘with hope’.
Maconochie then defined how his new system
would grant each convict marks according to conduct on a daily basis as
evaluated by the overseers.
‘By this means,’ he said, ‘a record
will be kept of every man’s conduct; he will advance from punishment to
probation, and from probation to entire release, as he behaves himself. His
fate will be in his own hands.’
In the punishment stage of a sentence, a
convict could earn marks and use them to purchase small indulgences such as
tea and tobacco or better clothes.
In the reforming stage, convicts would be
offered the hope of buying their way out of a sentence early - a seven-year
sentence would be made commutable to 6,000 marks, a ten-year one to 7,000,
and 14 years and upwards to 8,000. For the first time, these hardened
criminals were being offered the distant hope of freedom. As one recalled:
‘No sooner did they comprehend the purport of his message from our most
Gracious Queen, that sovereign who had been forgotten by them as having any
dominion over the land in which so much blood had been spilt, than Her
Majesty reigned in their hearts and they all appeared to labour cheerfully
in the one large field of reformation.’
ONLY Maconochie knew how far he was
overstepping the mark with his superiors. He had brought with him 439 new
convicts, who were to form a pioneering agricultural convict community at
Longridge. They were supposed to be kept separate from the hardened,
habitual offenders who had been there for years.
But Maconochie found it impossible to operate
liberal and repressive regimes on the same island, and offered essentially
the same system to all his charges. On learning this, his immediate boss,
Sir George Gipps, the governor of New South Wales, fired off a
strongly-worded letter, ordering Maconochie to conform to the original plan.
It was a critical moment. If Maconochie went
back on his promises to the convicts, he would lose all credibility and hope
of reform. Like Nelson, he chose to put a telescope to his blind eye and
ignore the warning signals. He had held out the young Queen Victoria as a
symbol of hope - as a gesture of good faith, the whole island would now
celebrate her birthday. When the guards and overseers found out what he
proposed, they thought he was mad. For one day only, every convict was to be
given his freedom. As the sun rose over Norfolk Island on May 25, 1840,
festive pennants fluttered on flagpoles near the landing pier to welcome a
Old lags and new, convicts alike got out of
bed and were astonished to find their prison gates open. They could wander
as they pleased throughout the Island, swim in the sea, play games on the
grass, as long as they showed by ‘returning to their quarters at the sound
of the bugle that they might be trusted with safety’.
FOR men who had received 100 lashes tied on a
triangle for the crime of wandering a few yards from their barracks, such
freedom was unbelievable, but they knew Maconochie had put his trust in them
and they would not let him down.
Among them were men who had once been so
desperate to escape that they had ‘seized boats under a fire of musketry’,
yet on Queen Victoria’s birthday those same boats lay untouched. The day
began with a ration of fresh pork being issued to each prisoner, to be
cooked on barbecue fires during the morning. Throughout the morning
Maconochie wandered among his prisoners, taking his family with him,
chatting affably with vicious criminals.
At midday, the convicts sat down to an
open-air lunch on tables set up on an open patch of ground alongside the
prisoners’ barracks. Maconochie and his officers sat down with them.
Maconochie then gave each man half a tumbler of a mixture of rum and
lemonade. ‘It scarcely smelt of spirits, and went, as was intended, to the
hearts, not the heads, of those who drank it.’ They drank to the health of
their young sovereign. As one later remembered: ‘The cry "Long Life
to Queen Victoria" was echoed from one end of the island to the other
in the most deafening cheers, three times three.’
This toast was followed by the national
anthem, played by convict musicians on instruments Maconochie had brought
from Sydney. As it was played, prisoners uncovered their heads with ‘as
great a share of decorum observed as could have distinguished a free
Then a 21-gun royal salute was fired,
answered by musketry from the military garrison. Maconochie delivered a
speech ‘calculated to nourish our feelings of attachment to our beloved
Queen’, and after this national games between the Irish, Scots and English
took place, with prizes for the winners.
THE highlight of the afternoon’s
entertainment was a theatre performance. The old hands were taking the
leading parts and had spent two weeks preparing costumes, scenery and music
in their spare time.
As the evening drew on, fireworks - paid for,
like the rum, by Maconochie himself — were let off beside the prison
compounds. At 8pm, the bugle was sounded and the prisoners returned to their
barracks to answer muster. Not a single man was absent.
For Maconochie, it was a total vindication of
his ideas. The most bestial of men could respond to simple human kindness;
His ideas worked, and he was going to show the world that even hardened
criminals were capable of reforming their lives. Little did he know how
powerful the forces of repression would be in undermining his efforts.
ONE of the biggest early challenges faced by
Alexander Maconochie on Norfolk Island was Charles Anderson. A workhouse
orphan, Anderson had been sent to sea at the age of nine and gone on to join
the Royal Navy.
At the Battle of Navarino in 1827 he was
wounded in the head and afterwards, whenever angered or drunk, he picked
fights. His track record of violence soon led to transportation and, at 18,
he was one of the most difficult prisoners in New South Wales.
In one year he received 1,200 lashes, yet
still he absconded. Eventually he was chained to a rock overlooking Sydney
Harbour where he slept in a hollow with a wooden lid locked over him at
He was fed by pushing his food towards him
with a pole. Regarded as a wild beast, he became one of the sights of Sydney
Harbour and visitors would pass by in boats and throw bits of bread to him.
By the time he was sent to Norfolk Island he
was only 24, but looked at least 40. Maconochie was warned he was vicious
and best left alone. Instead, the humanitarian Scot hit on the inspired idea
of putting Anderson in charge of a herd of unruly bullocks.
Left alone together, the wild man and the
wild cattle tamed each other. Anderson knew from his own experiences that
high and strong tempers would not bend to the lash, so he coaxed the beasts
into good behaviour by treating them kindly.
Maconochie was so impressed that he put
Anderson in charge of the signal station, where he kept the garden so well
tended and his own dress so neat that when Sir George Gipps, governor of New
South Wales, visited the island he could scarcely recognise the monster who
was once chained to a rock in the harbour.
BUT by 1843, when Gipps arrived, the forces
arrayed against Alexander Maconochie’s brave experiment were too powerful
to resist. While Gipps was amazed at what the Scotsman had achieved in three
years, the new Tory government in London was determined to pull the plug on
this dangerously liberal state of affairs. Maconochie was to be recalled.
Informers had sent tales of his alleged
improprieties and the escalating costs of his reforms back to Britain. His
successes were overlooked, his failures magnified and Lord Stanley, the new
Secretary of State for the Colonies, did not like what he heard. The
convicts on Norfolk Island no longer grovelled before their gaolers, but had
been encouraged by Maconochie to abandon all ‘slavish marks of respect’.
When accused of a crime, instead of summary punishment, they were entitled
to a trial — with other convicts acting as jurors. And when confined to
one of Maconochie’s new cells, where the Bible was read aloud in a room
above, the convicts were allowed to choose whether or not to hear the word
of God by opening or shutting a trapdoor in the ceiling. Despite Maconochie’s
humanising influence, he had been unable to reduce the widespread
homosexuality among convicts. Victorian society regarded sodomy as the
ultimate sin, yet when Maconochie pleaded for women convicts, or even
convicts’ wives to be allowed on the island, he was slapped down at once.
Did he not realise what had happened on
Norfolk Island the last time female prisoners were taken there? The soldiers
had allowed the women to be ‘sold’ for rum to the highest bidder.
On Thursday nights, the women were summoned
to the soldiers’ barracks and forced to dance naked with numbers painted
on their backs, with large tots of rum for those who danced the most
Such licentious behaviour had contributed to
the colony being shut down for ten years, until a more disciplined system
The last thing Stanley wanted was a ‘meddling
Scotchman’ tipping everything into the mire. Even in Maconochie’s
private life, he was held up as an object of scandal. He and his wife’s
liberal approach to bringing up their children was held responsible when
their eldest daughter Mary Ann went off the rails at 19.
SHE was caught in a passionate liaison with
the assistant surgeon on the island, a gifted musician who gave her violin
lessons. Her parents stopped the affair, but worse was to come.
A young, handsome convict, transported for
forgery, was trusted to become the wayward Mary Ann’s replacement music
tutor. When she fell for him, her parents again found out and the tutor was
gaoled. To avoid further scandal, Mary Ann was sent to Cheltenham to live
with an aunt. But the cruellest blow was the execution of a group of
convicts who tried to escape in the government brig that called at Kingston.
Twelve convicts sent to unload the ship seized the sentries’ guns and took
charge of the vessel. The struggle to regain it left five convicts and a
soldier dead before the remainder were taken prisoner.
Although Maconochie knew he could not save
them from the noose, he decided to help them face their fate with dignity.
He kept them together in the same cell. He allowed other convicts to buy
them tea and sugar and supplied them with fresh meat himself.
Every Sunday afternoon, Maconochie read the
divine service himself in their room. After one service, a doomed man
‘I never before was happy; I begin now, for
the first time in my life, to hope. I am an ignorant man; but I thank God I
begin to see things in their right light now.’
‘I have been unhappily placed from my
childhood. I do not mention this to excuse my errors; yet if I had years
since received the kindness I have done here, it might have been otherwise.’
As Norfolk Island was not now authorised for
trials for capital offences, the prisoners were sent to Sydney. Four were
sentenced to hang, two had their death sentences commuted to transportation
for life and the seventh was acquitted because he had not taken part in the
escape attempt. On execution day, a local newspaper reported on the men’s
last moments on the scaffold: ‘After shaking hands with their executioner,
the four joined their hands in a convulsive clasp and, with the prayer of
repentance on their lips, the fatal bolt was drawn and they were launched
BY now Maconochie’s own fate was sealed,
and he returned to Britain with his family. But he refused to remain silent,
writing pamphlet after pamphlet expounding his new system of penal reform.
Among those he impressed was Charles Dickens,
the great novelist famed for his social conscience, who decided to use
Maconochie’s system at a refuge for fallen women which he supported.
Norfolk Island went back to the old, brutal,
repressive regime, but Maconochie’s ideas were implemented at a prison in
Ireland and for two years he did his best as governor of a prison in
Birmingham, until the actions of his subversive, sadistic deputy undermined
his good work.
Maconochie’s last words on the subject were
delivered at the age of 70 to a House of Lords select committee, and would
ring down the centuries: ‘My experience leads me to say that there is no
man utterly incorrigible. Treat him as a man, not as a dog. You cannot
recover a man except by doing justice to the manly qualities which he may
have - and giving him an interest in developing them.’
Maconochie’s Experiment, by John Clay, is
published by John Murray, price £17.99.