Thursday, February 21, 2008

Prisoner portraits taken at trial and discharge

The carte-de-visite vignettes and negative prints of Tasmanian prisoners taken as police identification photographs, many of which survive as originals, duplicates and copies in public collections bearing numbers from 1 to more than 300, and correctly attributed in the modern era to photographer Thomas J. Nevin in 1977, were registered at the Municipal Police Office, Town Hall and at the Supreme Court, Hobart Town Gaol where Nevin (with brother Constable John Nevin's assistance) was contracted on commission as police photographer from the early 1870s to the early 1880s.


An examination of the criminal history of the individual prisoners whose photographs survive indicates that each photograph was selected, even salvaged by archivists because each man had been committed and sentenced at the Tasmanian Supreme Court for a lengthy term. If sentenced at the Supreme Court in Launceston, he was transferred to the Hobart Gaol where he was bathed, shaved, photographed and isolated for one month in silence after being received, along with those already sentenced in criminal sittings of the Hobart Supreme Court . The Mercury July 8, 1882 described these past practices in detail:

The "Supreme Court men":
The Mercury July 8, 1882

All such men were termed "Supreme Court men". Their photographs survive because an archivist or historian compiled the collection on the basis of the notoreity of the offense years later, ca. 1900, writing the date "1874" and "Taken at Port Arthur" on the versos, when clearly this was not the case. The prisoner's Supreme Court photograph was used again if the offender committed further crimes, often reprinted and attached to warrants. The prisoner's photograph was taken at least once, therefore, on three significant occasions:

(1) if for a Supreme Court conviction, after his transfer from a rural regional lock-up such as Oatlands, or Launceston, to the central city prison in Hobart and prior to transfer to Port Arthur if sent there AFTER trial and incarceration at the central Hobart Gaol;

(2) prior to discharge with a ticket-of-leave, issued at the Hobart Town Hall Municipal Police Office.

(3) immediately prior to execution.

This was the practice in the State of Victoria by 1873, and it was adopted in the State of Tasmania in the same year.

THE VICTORIAN EXAMPLE: Charles Nettleton's vignettes of Ned Kelly

Below are the two photographs taken of Ned Kelly by Charles Nettleton which were pasted to his criminal record between 1873 and 1874. As the caption states, the photograph on the left was taken five months after Kelly was transferred to Pentridge in Melbourne from a country jail, dated to June 1873, and the second was taken a week before his release on 11th March, 1874. The photographs, attached to the prisoner's record, were forwarded to the police for future reference. This was their intended purpose. Note that the Victorian prison photographer Charles Nettleton framed his final copy as an oval vignette for the official record.

From the Public Records Office, Victoria:

This vignette of Kelly was taken prior to his execution:

Series VPRS 515/P0 Central Register of Male Prisoners
Description Edward (Ned) Kelly, age 25: detail from VPRS 515/P0 Central Register of Male Prisoners, prisoner no. 10926 Format photograph: 50 x 60 mm.

This photograph held at the Public Record Office, Victoria, and is now nominated by the Australian Memory of the World Register:

Register no. 19
Year of registration 2006
Name of the documentary heritage The Edward (Ned) Kelly and Related Papers as found in the Public Record Office Victoria
Location Public Record Office Victoria
Full nomination Coming soon
Image caption Ned Kelly aged 15, after being tried in Benalla for horse theft. This copy of the photograph, taken for Kelly's prison record c. 1870, is attached to a brief description of Kelly that was prepared for a noted phrenologist in 1898. PROV, VPRS 8369/P Correspondence, Photographs and History Sheets of Certain Male Criminals

Edward Kelly's Prison Records
VPRS 4966 Consignment P0 Unit 1 Item 1 Document: Police history, circa. 1873

Victorian prisons were quick to use the still-new technology of photography to create records of those who passed through their doors. The prison record featured here carries copies of two photographs of Ned Kelly, both probably taken by Charles Nettleton who worked on contract to Pentridge prison until the early 1880s. The first was taken in June 1873, five months after Kelly's transfer to Pentridge from Beechworth prison, and half-way through his sentence for receiving a stolen horse. The second photograph was taken a week before Kelly's release on 2 February 1874.

Documents like this were created by prisons to be forwarded to the police at the time of the prisoner's release. The police referred to these pages for the person's criminal history. This particular record was forwarded to the Penal and Gaols Branch of the Chief Secretary's Department on 11 March 1874.

In 1880 the record was forwarded to the Prosecution for Kelly's trial, with instructions that the photographs were to be returned to Chief Commissioner Nicolson.

SOME TASMANIAN EXAMPLES: Thomas Nevin at the Hobart Gaol

Thomas Nevin's Supreme Court prisoner photographs:

Geary, James, arraigned and photographed at Supreme Court Hobart 1-3 December 1874

Fisher, George, arraigned and photographed at the Supreme Court Hobart by Nevin, 1-3 December 1874

Geary, Fisher: Supreme Court Hobart 1-3 December 1874

See these articles:

Margaret Greenwood, 1875, photographed at the Darlinghurst Gaol NSW
NSW State Records Archives

NSW State Records Archives Investigator - Series Detail
Series number: 2138
Title: Photographic Description Books [Darlinghurst Gaol]
Start date: by 12 Aug 1871
End date: by 13 Jul 1914
Contents start date:  12 Aug 1871
Contents end date:  13 Jul 1914
Descriptive note:

The taking of prisoner ‘portraits’ was formally authorised to be carried out at Darlinghurst Gaol by a memo from Harold Maclean (Inspector of Prisons) to the Principal Gaoler on 5 August 1871 (1). This document noted:

Authority to introduce Photography
Portraits will be taken of all prisoners convicted at the Superior Courts, except those convicted of trifling misdemeanours and who do not belong to the Criminal Class.

Portraits will also be taken of prisoners summarily convicted where the Police require it, or the Principal Gaoler thinks it desirable to secure a perfect description.

These portraits will be photographed after conviction and fourteen (or more) days prior to discharge, in private clothing where practicable.

Any prisoner refusing or by his or her behaviour putting obstacles in the way of securing a proper likeness will be brought before the Visiting Justice for disobedience and the case reported to the Inspector of Prisons with a view to the stoppage of remission indulgences and gratuities. .

The figures are to be taken ¾ size unless in exceptional cases where there may be reason for taking them in full. The negatives will be numbered to correspond with the Photographic Register, and carefully packed away under lock and key.

Twenty five copies of each portrait are to be printed and furnished to the Inspector General of Police through this Office.

Harold Maclean
Inspector of Prisons
BC 5:8:71

The Principal Gaoler
A slightly earlier general order from the Acting Inspector of Prisons on 27 July 1871 (2) dealt with some of the practical aspects of implementing photography of prisoners:

Prisoners to be photographed
Prisoners convicted at the Superior Courts and being forwarded to serve their Sentences in Darlinghurst Gaol, or to Darlinghurst Gaol en route to Berrima or other prisons, will not be shaved and their private clothing will be sent with them in order that they might be photographed as nearly as practicable in their ordinary appearance.
Harold Maclean
Actg Inspr of Prisons
The Gaolers

The photographing of prisoners appears to have been confined to Darlinghurst Gaol (the principal prison in the Colony) until the mid-1870s, after which it began to be introduced at the major country gaols. On 15 February 1877, a general order was sent to Berrima and Goulburn Gaols advising that when a prisoner who had been photographed was transferred to another gaol, a copy of his photograph, mounted on the usual form, was to be attached to his papers. (3)

In addition to at least one photograph of each prisoner, this series contains the following information: number, prisoners’ name, aliases, date when portrait was taken, native place, year of birth, details of arrival in the colony – ship and year of arrival, trade or occupation, religion, degree of education, height, weight (on committal, on discharge), colour of hair, colour of eyes, marks or special features, number of previous portrait, where and when tried, offence, sentence, remarks, and details of previous convictions (where and when, offence and sentence).

There appears to have been one face-on photograph per individual until about June 1894 when there was both a face-on and a side-on photograph per individual.

While the information recorded varied little over time, there was some variation in the format of the records, particularly in the first eight years (August 1871 to April/May 1879). For this period, the primary and more complete sequence of records was kept in a double-page format, with the descriptive information recorded (with photographs) on the left hand page, and criminal history/previous convictions on the right-hand side. The original intention appears to have been to have two photographs of each prisoner, on arrival and discharge. This seems to have been done only occasionally (mainly in the first few years of the system).

An incomplete sequence of records in a single-page format has also survived as part of this series, covering the period August 1871 to March 1875. This is particularly important, as it includes some records for periods where there are gaps in the surviving primary sequence of records (particularly for the period August 1871 to February 1872, and November 1872 to October 1873).

From April/May 1879 onwards, the single page format became the standard for these records.
For the period July 1904 to July 1914, there is a parallel set of records for Darlinghurst at NRS 1942 (this series also contains records for the other NSW gaols).

Custody History
[11/2205] was an archival estray received from Mr F. Rogers of the Hastings District Historical Society.
1. NRS 1824, 4/6478, p.496, no.71/2676.
2. NRS 1834, 5/1826, p.144, no.71/31.
3. NRS 2179, 5/1823, p.334.
Home location: These records are held at Western Sydney Records Centre

These examples give a clear picture of the purpose which prison photography served in the colonies of NSW, Victoria and Tasmania in the 1870s. They show a generically consistent approach which commercial photographers Charles Nettleton and Thomas J. Nevin (snr) and those in NSW deployed in the 1870s at the request of their respective governments, specifically the use of an oval vignette small enough to be pasted to the criminal record sheet, showing the subject posed in a half body shot with eyelines to left or right of frame. The later photographs, taken after 1880 show the influence of the Bertillon method of posing the prisoner in two separate shots: one full frontal, and one in full profile.

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