Saturday, March 23, 2013

Memoirs of a Convict.

"my shoulders were actively in a state of decomposition..."

The above words are an excerpt from the narrative written by my great great great grand uncle, Lawrence Frayne, as part of his memoir written on Norfolk Island, c 1830. This stirring account of his treatment on Norfolk Island is held in the Mitchell Library, in Sydney. Robert Hughes, in his 1987 book, The Fatal Shore,  cites Lawrence Frayne's autobiography and the oppressive punishment he received at the hands of Commandant James Morisset. It is one of nine autobiographies which have survived and which were written by prisoners who were sentenced to serve time at the secondary penal settlement of Norfolk Island. It is the only graphic account of Morisset's strict regime of punishment implemented whilst he was Commandant on Norfolk Island. In its second settlement (1825-1855), Norfolk Island earned a reputation as a  harsh environment where (male only) convicts who re-offended were sent. It was known as a place of despair, especially under the strict command of this Commandant.
James Morisset gained a reputation, whether deserved or not, as a tyrant. In more recent years,  historians have questioned the character of Major Morisset and currently debate whether or not he deserved the notoriety he has been afforded as a tyrannical penal administrator. 

James Morisset
There was no doubt in the mind of my 3rd great grand uncle, Lawrence Frayne as to the unforgiving disposition of the commandant from whom he received the severest of punishments.

"I plainly told the Commandant in the court that he was a tyrant. he replied that no man had ever said that about him before. I said they knew the consequences all too well to tell him so... But I tell you in stark naked blunt English that you are as great a tyrant as Nero ever was... New and heavier cuts were procured purposely for my punishment."

In 1830,  Morisset ordered Lawrence Frayne to receive 300 lashes, probably for participating in one of the numerous mutinies which occurred on Norfolk Island during the administration of James Morisset.  By his own admission, Lawrence had a hasty temper, and he never became resolved to a convict's life, after arriving on the shores of Port Jackson  in 1826, as a 17 year old 'pantry boy' sentenced to transportation for 7 years for the theft of a piece of rope. 

Lawrence Frayne made repeated attempts to abscond between 1826 and 1846. For his escapes he was sent from assignment south of Sydney, to the harsh secondary penal settlements of first, Moreton Bay and then  Norfolk Island, the latter, from whence it would be impossible for him to take flight. 

Penal Settlement on Norfolk Island

After the first 'hundred', as lashes were referred to,  Lawrence Frayne was placed in a cell until his back was healed sufficiently for him to receive the second hundred lashes. It is the initial flogging of one hundred lashes to which he referred when he wrote,

" My shoulders were actively in a state of decomposition, the stench of which I could not bear myself, how offensive then must I appear to my companions in misery. In this state I was sent to carry salt beef on my back with the salt brine as well as pressure stinging my mutilated and mortified flesh up to Longridge. I really longed for instant death..."

More from the Memoir of a Convict written by Lawrence Frayne in my next post....

  •  Frayne, Lawrence Memoir on Norfolk Island, Colonial Secretary's Papers, vol 1, [NSW 1799-1830] MSS681 [CY1084], Mitchell Library, Sydney.
  • Causer Tim, Norfolk Island's Suicide Lotteries, myth and reality, menzies centre for Australian Studies, King's College London.
  • Hughes, Robert, The Fatal Shore, A History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1787-1868, Random House London, 1987.


  1. As always, an interesting story, well written. Thank you, Sharn.

  2. Hi,
    Hugely interesting narrative above and I would love to read more.
    I have discovered that my 3x Great Grandfather John Skipper was sent directly to Norfolk Island along with 600 others to coincide with the arrival of Captan Machonochie the Penal Reformist in 1840. My G G G Grandfather was sentanced to 7 years in York for the theft of 12 Pigeons.
    It would appear that though unlucky to go to Norfolk Island he was lucky that his time there was, in relation to the Twice Convicted Criminals who did not benifit from Machonochies Penal Reforms.
    He received his Ticket of Leave in 1844 and was shipped back to Tasmania where he recived his Freedom on the 8th of April 1846, 7 years to the day since his sentance began back in York, England.
    He appears in the 1849 Tasmanian Muster as Free.
    I believe he died in Tasmania in 1885 age 89yrs though i am yet to confirm this for sure.
    I am the direct decendent from his son John Skipper who along with his daughter were left in the UK to fend for themselves as their mother was already dead, they were teenagers when he left.
    Hope to hear anything else you may have as your account is fascinating.
    Tim Porter