Sunday, July 11, 2010


Punishments for convicts assigned to landowners in the Limestone Plains (present day Canberra) district were often swift and severe for the most trivial reasons but most importantly for the loss of stock which seems to have been perceived as, and often was, a deliberate act of sabotage.

The Lanyon Estate (post here) when controlled by James Wright in the 1830's was primarily operated by the use of free government convict labour. Wright established a rural community of over 60 people at the very limits of government control. His convicts cleared the land, planted crops, tended flocks and herds, built stone buildings, ground grain and generally maintained the daily operations of the estate.

James Wright

With so many convicts under his control Wright found it necessary to maintain strict expectations of behavior and was ever-ready to see his convicts flogged (info) in order to punish for the smallest offence and maintain a steady grip on that control. Wright apparently always "followed the book" when dealing with his convicts and the process of punishing a convict from Lanyon was as follows:

"Lanyon convicts walked to Queanbeyan for flogging, a distance of around 15 miles (24 kms). Evidence was given by Wright and his convict overseers, the convict told his side of the story and the Magistrate passed the sentence".

The convicts were nearly always found guilty which is not surprising as the Magistrates were known to be Wright's friends and fellow local landowners. The sentence at these "trials" seems always to have been flogging! The sentence was carried out immediately after the conviction. The prisoner being taken and tied to a tree, flogged, and then the 15 mile walk, back bleeding, back to Lanyon.

State Library of New South wales (here)

On the convicts return from the ordeal Wright always demanded to see the scourged backs of the men to ascertain whether they had been flogged sufficiently for his satisfaction. Although a common practice in the district and colony in general the "viewing" was highly resented by the convicts and became the subject of a government enquiry where Governor Gipps (1791-1847)(bio) thought the process was "highly disgusting and improper".

Landowners and Magistrates of the day were so concerned about convicts not being properly flogged that they paid particular attention to ensure that the flogging implements were rigorously controlled. The Goulburn Magistrate, Macalister, was so concerned about the matter that he wrote to the Colonial Secretary in 1838 about the ineffectiveness of the government issue lash.

Cat O' nine tails - British Government
Wikimedia Commons (here)

"They are made exceedingly careless... The cord may be sufficiently heavy, but of too soft a twist; although it bruises, bleeding but seldom is caused; consequently the offender escapes that acute pain and smarting to the extent so desirable should be experienced under the lash. I would suggest the scourging cord be of a much harder twist".

It should be noted that Wright and other convict "owners" were known to think of Macalister as being too soft on convicts! They maintained that the floggings were not being done "properly". Flogging in fact seems to have had little effect on the men's behaviors and often escalated the problems. Some convicts, to escape the "lash" took to the bush to become bushrangers. At one stage in 1839 - eight convicts were on the run from Lanyon (post here).

One convict, Phillip Lee who was transported to New South Wales for life for burglary at the age of 17, had several run-ins with Wright and the Magistrate's lash. It is a sad record.

14 December 1838
Wright - Yesterday morning I had reason to check this man and with great insolence of manner he told me he had behaved well but would not do so any longer. I might take him to court and do what I please with him. Another servant tried to strike me. I called on the prisoner to assist me which he would not do but kept aloof some four or five yards distant. The prisoner has nothing to say in his defence and says he is sorry for what has happened. GUILTY - disorderly conduct - 25 lashes.

25 January 1839
Wright - The prisoner is extremely idle and shams sick to avoid work. I have had him examined by Dr. Hayley who said he was quite capable of performing his work the same as any other servant on the establishment. Late Monday morning the prisoner did not come to work with the other men. I went and obliged him to come. I afterwards found he was not at work and I went quietly to his hut and found him joking with the shepherd and smoking his pipe. On being questioned why he was not at work he replied he was just coming. GUILTY - disobedience - 50 lashes.

29 January 1839
Wright - On the 25th instant he was tried before this Bench and sentenced to punishment. On his return to Lanyon I desired to see his back. He refused saying he'd see me damned before he'd show it to me nor should I get any good of him. He was also exceedingly insolent and abusive in his manner and language.
GUILTY - disobedience - 25 lashes - Insolence - 75 lashes

In just on four days Phillip Lee received 150 lashes. The end result of this battle of wills was that despite his punishments Lee could not be tamed by Wright and soon after, as a last resort, was returned to the Government. He died in Parramatta hospital in 1840 aged just 30.

Convict ticket of Leave

Convicts were generally subject to floggings until sufficient time of their sentence had elapsed and they were granted a formal "ticket of leave". This ticket could be described as a form of parole. The tickets once granted were carefully guarded by the convict who had to, upon request, provide it to the authorities. Many Lanyon convicts upon receiving their ticket of leave remained and continued working on stations in the area and others took up their own selections of land

Wright actually lost Lanyon because of the combination of a number of factors:- a general economic depression, the loss of free convict labour with the end of the assignment system, drought, personal debt and probably his own mismanagement. Wright couldn't have been completely hated however as six men from Lanyon went with him, four being ex convicts, with only one, a Thomas Warner, appearing to have been flogged before. A new era was to begin at "Cuppacumbalong" (post here).


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