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Exposing the human stories of Port Arthur and the convict system


Tasmania’s convict past has been given a new and very human face following the publication of a rare first-hand account of life in the colonial penal system.

The Career of William Thompson, Convict has been launched at the Allport Museum of the State Library of Tasmania in Hobart by Dr Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, Associate Professor of History at the University of Tasmania.

The event was celebrated by a number of Thompson's desdendants, including his great-great-great-great grandchildren.

William Thompson was a twenty-one year old shoemaker when he was sentenced in 1841 to Life for breaking into commercial premises and stealing. He spent almost eleven years, between 1841 and 1852, in the convict system in Van Diemen’s Land, including some considerable time at the Coal Mines and at Port Arthur.

In July 1900 noted Tasmanian photographer John Watt Beattie wrote down 80 year old Thompson’s reminiscences and took a number of photographs of him back at the scenes of his incarceration.

This narrative covers his life story from the time that he arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in 1841 to his departure from the convict system almost 12 years later. It has been supplemented by a small amount of information on his subsequent life from the Register of Births, Deaths and Marriages, and from some family history.

The manuscript is held in the Heritage Collections at the State Library of Tasmania, and has been edited for publication by the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority’s Julia Clark, through a partnership between PAHSMA and the State Library. Julia provides an Introduction and the book also contains a Foreword by Dr Barry Jones AO, Chair of PAHSMA, and a Preface by Dr Maxwell-Stewart and Tony Marshall, from the Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office.

Launching the publication, Dr Maxwell-Stewart highlighted the significance of Thompson’s account of his experiences.

“Much factual information is known about convicts who were sent to Port Arthur; one of the hallmarks of the convict system in Van Diemans Land was the meticulous bureaucratic record-keeping of the ledger of good and evil, crimes and misdemeanours, judgments and punishments,” he said.

“From these records it is possible to draw statistical overviews of life in the system as a whole, and even thumbnail sketches of individuals within it.”

“Fleshing out these sketches so that they become portraits of real thinking, feeling human beings is more difficult. Fewer than 50 convict narratives have been published and many of these were cheaply printed and widely circulated in the 19th century; they are clearly related to that other 18th and 19th century popular genre, the improving fable, a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress. Thompson’s story is very different.”

“Thompson’s story is unusual in the Tasmanian convict record. This is because in its current form it is simply the raw material from which such fables are created, and this makes it uniquely important and interesting. It is also significant because it paints for us a picture of life ‘behind the scenes’ in the convict period. Thompson takes us into his world of lived experience, where life is much more complex and colourful. It is a welcome antidote to the official record, or the many myths that have grown up around convict experience. “

The Career of William Thompson, Convict is available from the Port Arthur Historic Site’s gift shop (ph 03 6251 2333) and selected bookshops for $34.95. It will be of interest to both an academic and general readership.

The Port Arthur Occasional Papers series
This volume is the second in Port Arthur’s Occasional Papers series, part of PAHSMA’s commitment to sharing the results of its research with the wider community. The first publication in the series was A Harbour Large enough to Admit a Whole Fleet, published in 2004. That volume examines the fascinating maritime history and archaeology of convict Port Arthur and the Tasman Peninsula.

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Exposing the human stories of Port Arthur and the convict system

William Thompson, photographed by John Watt Beattie, circa 1900 (Reproduced courtesy of the Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, State Library of Tasmania)

Exposing the human stories of Port Arthur and the convict system

Three generations of the Jackson family, descended from William Thompson's daughter Jane, admire the display of convict artefacts at the launch: Greg Jackson, his daughter Natalie and his grand-daughters Maddison (11) and Holly (8).

Exposing the human stories of Port Arthur and the convict system

Manuscript editor Julia Clark discusses her work with David Jackson

Exposing the human stories of Port Arthur and the convict system

Julia Clark with some of Thompson's descendants

Exposing the human stories of Port Arthur and the convict system

Associate Professor Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, of History at the University of Tasmania, launches the book