Saturday, July 16, 2016

A Convicts Narrative - Lawrence Frayne

A Convict's Narrative

Frayne, Lawrence, Memoir on Norfolk Island, Colonial Secretary's Papers, vol. 1, [NSW 1799-1830] MSS681 [CY1084], Mitchell Library, Sydney

[NOTE: For the purpose of this blog post, I have used the spelling of Lawrence with a 'w'. In most convict and other records this was the recorded spelling, although on several records the name was spelled Laurence. 
I have transcribed Lawrence Frayne's memoir exactly as he wrote it and have not corrrected grammatical or punctuation errors. Exerpts from the memoir are accompanied by the page number on which they appear in the document.]

"... Dungeons, Chains and all the accompanying horrors have lost all their terrors ... to see such a vast number of hideous spectres collected together here is indeed appalling. The skeletons that compose them though nominally covered with flesh & blood would be bereft of any tender feeling which flesh and blood convey..." p. 13

My own telling of the convict story of my great great great grand uncle, Lawrence Frayne, is enriched by the poignant narrative which he himself wrote in a 74 page memoir. The narrative is held in the Mitchell Library which is part of the State Library of NSW, in Sydney. The document is so frail now that it is kept locked in a safe and is only available for reading on a microfilm copy.

Lawrence Frayne's Memoir, reveals a spirit so defiant that it refused to be suppressed by a punitive convict system that he regarded as derogatory, inhuman and bereft of any reformative process. [1]

Convict Floggings - Tasmania. Wikipedia ©©
"...I received 150 lashes... I was shipped off [  ] to Norfolk Island with my back lacerated ... with excruciating pain of mind and body..." p.1

Lawrence Frayne's convict life of insurrection was probably similar to that experienced by many spirited young Irish and English lads who were transported to Australia for petty crimes. Many an insubordinate character challenged the penal system in the colony of New South Wales with hostility and contempt. What sets Lawrence Frayne's convict life apart from others is the remarkable testimony he penned while serving a life sentence on Norfolk Island. His secondary sentence began on October 25 1830, during the island's Second Convict Settlement (1825-1855). The poignant words Lawrence Frayne wrote, paint a passionate picture of a young man's outrage towards a convict system that he believed to be demoralizing and dehumanizing. 

Although the memoir is undated, evidence shows that it was written prior to August 1841. This was the date on a letter sent from Sir George Gipps in Sydney to Lord John Russell in London (see below) .[2] that mentions letter the Frayne memoir.  Lawrence Frayne's memoir accompanied a letter sent from Captain Alexander Maconochie, then commandant of the Norfolk Island penal establishment to Governor George Gipps with the intention it be dispatched to British politician Lord Russell, an enthusiastic proponent of penal reform. The memoir acclaims the excellence of Alexander Maconochie's administration of the Norfolk Island penal establishment and his Marks Sytem and it would surely have been Maconochie's hope that it declared the sucess of his ideology. The Frayne memoir was not forwarded to London by Governor Gipps, since he stated in the letter below that the Frayne document did not paint a favourable picture of 'various officers'. Because of this, the diary has remained in Sydney to this day.

Letter from George Gipps to Lord John Russell

There is little doubt that the potential for the writing of Lawrence Frayne's memoir was the implementation of Alexander Maconochie's experimental ideas of penal rehabilitation on Norfolk Island. Education, paper, writing equipment and books were made available for prisoners on Norfolk Island, as part of Alexander Maconochie's enlightened vision with regard for prison reform and prisoners were encouraged to record their Norfolk Island convict experiences. In the following exerpt from Lawrence Frayne's memoir, he was describing treatment he received under Commandant James Morisset.

"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..." p. 3

Frayne, Lawrence Memoir on Norfolk Island, Colonial Secretary's papers, vol 1, [NSW 1799-1830] MSS681 [CY1084], Mitchell Library, Sydney, NSW, P.3

Lawrence Frayne spent fourteen years in penal servitiude on Norfolk Island (1830-1844). In his testimony he wrote disparagingly of the treatment of prisoners on the island under commandants prior to Captain Alexander Maconochie . (Maconochie was on the island from 1840 until 1844). Lawrence Frayne wrote anguished declarations describing what he regarded as the tyrannical regime of Major James Morisset (1829-1834). 

"The moral condition of the prisoners at that time I am writing about, were at its lowest ebb they were not only brutalized but were worse than that, they were demonized. If you wish to make men degenerate so far as to not allow him to retain the spirit and principles which constitute the man & the Christian you demonize him at once in the other word if you endeavour to take out of him that manly confidence that ought to be cherished in every civilized human you then begin the work of demoralization & it will end in the very dreggs of debasement & insensibility to every species of integrity, decency & eradicate every right feeling in the human breast. you make him regardless of himself & fearless to the consequences of doing wrong to others..." p.25

Remains of the Second Settlement Convict
Gaol on Norfolk Island Image Sharn White

Lawrence Frayne described graphically the punishments he was dealt as a convict on Norfolk Island.

"...every species of cruelty, new and heavier Cats were procured purposely for my punishment & the flagelator threatened to be flogged himself if he did not give it to me more severe. he replied he did his utmost best & really could do no more. all this excruciating torture I suffered I never uttered a murner and it was almost impossible to bear...the Supt who witnessed the punishment Swore when I was taken down that I was a Bricklayer meaning that I was like an Iron man past all feeling of the punishment." p.16

"But my punishment & manner of its infliction was not half the suffering I bore afterwards. I was put in a cell chained down no one with me nor was I allowed any water nor Got any. I was under the necessity of making my water in my hand & put it upon my back to Keep my shirt [ ] from the sore.." p.17

"no heart can perceive nor pen can write or tongue can tell the poignant grief and the Anguish that I have suffered both mental and otherwise..." p. 17

When interpreting the significance of Lawrence Frayne's memoir and his descriptive accounts of the severe punishments he asserted were ordered by Commandants including James Morisset on Norfolk Island, his words must be contemplated within the context of the colonial penal era and the essential components of the existing punitive philosophy.  It is also relevant to evaluate the significance of the Lawrence Frayne memoir alongside recorded evidence including the writings of Alexander Maconochie on the subject of penal reform. 

Lawrence Frayne's memoir depicts a desolate account of the second settlement convict establishment on Norfolk Island. There can be little doubt that as a penal establishment, the islolated location of Norfolk Island was intended to become a bleak destination for secondary offenders. NSW Governor, Sir Thomas Brisbane, wrote of Norfolk Island prior to the re opening of the penal settlement in 1825, 

"I could wish it to be understood that the felon who is sent there is forever excluded from all hope of return... my object was to hold out that Settlement as a place of the extremist pinishment short of Death [3]

With regard to Lawrence Frayne's insistence that Alexander Maconochie's system was godlike, [4] records show that the number of floggings on Norfolk Island decreased after Maconochie arrived on the island. To his own detriment, Maconochie's Marks system gained him a public reputation for excessive leniency as a commandant.  Newspapers of the day boasted unfavourable reports of the 'absurd... insane system of government  pursued by Captain Maconochie, at Norfolk Island.'  

While it would be expedient to investigate whether news articles  exaggerated the indulgence afforded to prisoners by Alexander Maconochie, it must also be conceded that Lawrence Frayne had much to gain by writing favourably of Maconochie's new system of penal reform.  

As a great great grand niece researching the life of Lawrence Frayne, I do not doubt that he was punished severely for his refusal to conform within the convict system. Colonial records documenting punishment dealt to him show this to be accurate. [5] I do acknowledge, however, that the Norfolk Island Commandants whose administrations earned them tyranical reputations, were very likely to have been strict disciplinarians, working within the draconian punitive penal system emblematic of nineteenth century British penal establishments. When you take an oppressive  penal system, which is singularly lacking in a doctrine of reform but is reliant upon the ideology of severe punishment and you place it on an isolated place such as Norfolk Island, the wild untamed nature of the place is very much likely to influence the bleak nature of the penal events that occurred there.

Lawrence Frayne's impassioned anecdotes about the years he spent on Norfolk Island as a convict reveal much about what he perceived to be the injustices of the penal system of which he was a part. The theories of that establishment counseled severe physical punishment rather than a consciousness of reforming the character and behavior of men and women who had commited crimes. Lawrence Frayne's memoir is  heavily weighted in favour of the merits of rehabilitation of prisoners. There can be little doubt that Lawrence Frayne was encouraged in the direction of his attitude, by not only his own experiences, but by the arrival on Norfolk Island of Captain Alexander Maconochie in 1840. When Maconochie introduced his system of Marks or rewards for good behavior, along with education, a library, musical instruments, religious instruction and other benefits designed to encourage and prepare prisoners to proceed towards a productive re-entry into society, Lawrence Frayne's convict existence must surely have been reshaped. 

Lawrence Frayne's determination not to be demoralized emmanates from the pages of his memoir along with his Catholic faith, which shines through his words as the one thing that inhibited him from taking his own miserable life. 

"I was heartsick of my own existence.... I had not arrived at  that climax of human depravitiy to take away my own life with my own hands, which I know were given to me to procure food and nourishment for my body and make that life a comfort not a burden with the production of the earth and this I also knew was the Gift of God. In all my misery I always had these thoughts more or less Come a cross my mind that a Self murderer  could obtain Salvation I would not have seen a 10th part of the misery I received." p. 5

It is not an onerous undertaking to understand why Lawrence Frayne wrote encouragingly of Alexander Maconochie's revolutionary concepts regarding penal reform and rehabilitation and his command of Norfolk Island between 1840 and 1844.

"Captain Maconochie 's Godlike System has made a full and purifying change. he has wisely and humanely [consulted] the prisoners advantage [  ] in finding out the best of these human minds but he has carefully laid down a System of opportunity for teaching and fully organising the same be it [ fairly true] and his training will produce a final change in those who shall come under ot which will be fully seen in their after life." p.5

Lawrence Frayne wrote the following of the existing penal system in his memoir:

"It has long been a fatal error in the policy of Public Officers particularly those placed over prisoners & those who have devised the regulations for their guidance to blindly consider the interests of the Govt under which they acted as distinct from that of the people..." p.5

Lawrence Frayne's memoir resonates with indignation regarding the violation of men, something he alleges occurs as a result of severe punitive treatment. His anger reverberates against his fervent pleas for a just and reformative penal system constructed to qualify prisoners for integration into society. 

Just how much of Lawrence Frayne's intellection arose from his own convict experience, or if indeed some or all was born out of Alexander Maconochie's influence, one cannot say for certain, but his narrative of convict life on Norfolk Island undoubtably produced an impassioned plea for penal reform.

"...there would soon be a Commission of Inquiry into the Conduct of such officers as have administered the affairs of this place ( Norfolk Island), Moreton Bay & Port Macquarie and then they would clearly see what has been the cause of the increase of crime in these places & also the true cause of demoralization amongst us." p.57

Convict flogging Tasmania, Image Wikipedia ©©

Alexander Maconochie detailed his concepts for penal reform and the benefits of rehabilitating prisoners in his own literature. His strong ideas flow from the words in writings, such as his book entitled, Secondary Punishment: the Mark System, published in 1848 in London.

"By all these means together the system thus seeks to raise the character, and not merely obtain labour, or compel obedience." [6]

Norfolk Island Gaol. Image Sharn White © 
Maconochie alleged in his written ideologies that prisoners rebel against punishment which is severe and which lacks elements of reform. Although he was instructed to limit his Marks System to convicts sent straight from England, Lawrence Frayne and other 'old hands' [7] were included in his new penal system on Norfolk Island. 

Lawrence Frayne's memoir echoes Alexander Maconochie's ideas of reformative regimen. and goes further to praise the commandant's ideas. The following is an exerpt from Maconochie's writings.

"Men revel in the idea of thus at once revenging themsleves on an enemy, and shaking themselves of an intolerable enemy.... the only rational and adequate check on such atrocities is the introduction of a system which shall multiply the inducements  to prisoners to submit to their punishment,- give them an interest in doing so,-and, humanizing both our own feeling and theirs in our dealings with them, narrow the scope on either side for overbearing command and inordinate resentment." [8]

Frayne's own words penned on Norfolk Island praise the commandant's ideas:

"...Experience yet Bitter and dear bought experience has long taught me not only how to check crime but... how we ourselves ought to be treated. In the first instance give prisoners an interest in their labour and you will stimulate them to habits of industry, and keep down much in fact almost all mischief, such as fruitless felony and that will keep up cordial feelings between Governed and Governing forever. Captain Maconochie's System judiciously provides for this ..." p.7

Lawrence Frayne's convict records show that he rebelled repeatedly against the system to which he had been transported from Ireland. Although impassioned words must be read within the context of the convict system of which he was a part, his commanding argument against the degradation of human beings cannot be ignored. Much of the content of Lawrence Frayne's journal is supported by historical evidence. How much he exaggerated the events he wrote about so passionately and eloquently I cannot say, however, his words communicate an impassioned petition for human rights. 

"Hell itself has not torture more exquisite nor more fiend like than those which you inflict on us for nothing a t all. we do not value our lives..." P.70

"I knew myself to the lowest grade of Civilized life, a man for life no hopes of ever breathing the sweet air of freedom and man's unrelenting man, to be made the base intrument to torture his fellows." P.4

I have visited Norfolk a number of times. I find it impossible to walk amongst the ruins of the British colonial convict era without witnessing the dark layer of the island's convict history which juxtaposes the island's astounding and picturesque exquisiteness. Lawrence Frayne's memoir is for me a reminder that people, regardless of circumstances, should be afforded a fundamental right to dignity and value as human beings. 

Convict ruins on Norfolk Island Image Sharn White ©


1. Lawrence Frayne, Memoir on Norfolk Island, p. 13
2. Letter from George Gipps to Lord John Russell, 28 August 1841,
3. Hazzard, M, 1984, P. 109, 111
4. Lawrence Frayne, Memoir on Norfolk Island, p.5
5. State Records NSW, Copies of letters sent by the Superintendant [Phoenix] 
6.  Alexander Maconochie, The Mark System, p.3
7. Old hands was a term for secondary offenders
8.  Alexander Maconochie, The Mark System, p.4


Frayne, Lawrence, Memoir on Norfolk Island, Colonial Secretary's Papers, vol.1, [NSW 1799-1830] MSS681 [CY1084], Mitchell Library, Sydney

Hazzard, M 1984, Punishment short of Death: A History of the Penal Settlement at Norfolk Island, Melbourne, Hyland House

Moore, J. (2011) Alexander Maconochies Mark System. Prison Service Journal, 198. pp. 38-46. ISSN 0300-3558

Maconochie, Alexander, The Mark System, John Ollivier, Pall Mall, 1848

National Library of Australia ,Trove, article accessed 10/7/16

State Records NSW, Copies of letters sent by the Superintendant [Phoenix] NRS Series 2021 11/2/1828-4/10/1836, Item [4/6275] Reel 822

1 comment:

  1. This is fascinating and powerful stuff. Although from a different age and time, I wonder if it reaches those trying to improve harsh regimes today and the reformers in the US who are still battling the retributive strain in that country.