Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Thomas Nevin’s glass plates of prisoners 1870s

The forty individuals whose police photographs from the 1870s were lined up in this manner and pasted to dark green cardboard were all chosen by convictaria collector John Watt Beattie in 1915 because they were repeat offenders convicted of serious crimes who had been arraigned in Supreme Court sessions in the 1870s and incarcerated at the Hobart Gaol, Campbell St. Beattie chose them because he wanted to sell their images to tourists at his convictaria museum located in Murray St. Hobart, and include them in intercolonial exhibitions. He falsely touted these men as representative of the pre-1853 convict transportation era, hence the labelling on each of these panels, “Types of Imperial Convicts” and "Photographed at Port Arthur", when the reality was far less fascinating. By the 1870s, these men were common criminals or “prisoners”, not "convicts" and they were photographed on sentencing at the Supreme Court Hobart and Hobart Gaol, a judicial process funded and administered by the Colonial government, not the British government.

Forty prints of 1870s Tasmania prisoners in three panels
Original prints of negatives by T. J. Nevin 1870s
offered for sale by J. W. Beattie ca. 1916
QVMAG Collection: Ref : 1983_p_0163-0176

These forty photographs in three frames were listed in Beattie's Port Arthur Museum Catalogue (1916), as item no. 69:

68. Glass Case containing -
  • 1. Skull of the Macquarie Harbour Cannibal, Alex Pearce (Marcus Clarke's "Gabbet.")
  • 2. Two Sketches made of Pearce after execution.
  • 3. The Axe Pearce Carried, and with which the murders were committed.
  • 4. Bolts and Lock Taken from the Cell where Pearce was confined, Old Gaol, Murray street.
  • 5. "Sling Shot" taken from Matthew Brady, the celebrated Tasmanian Bushranger, when captured by John Batman in 1820.
69. Three Frames containing 40 photographs taken at Port Arthur, showing types of Imperial Prisoners there.
The originals of these forty (40) individual prints of Tasmanian prisoners photographed at the Hobart Gaol by the commissioned photographer Thomas J. Nevin in the 1870s, were intended to be pasted to the criminal record sheet of each prisoner. It was customary to photograph a person before conviction and after it, and again on discharge, by order of the Tasmanian Attorney-General from 1872 onwards, and since the men whom Nevin photographed were repeat and habitual offenders, the same glass negative was used again and again. The plates were handled repeatedly to produce duplicates for distribution to regional prisons and police stations, and for the many administrative copies required by the central Municipal Police Office at the Town Hall, the Supreme Court and the Hobart Gaol.

Photographs from the glass negatives were produced in various formats, first as uncut and unmounted prints as in these 40 prints, and again in carte-de-visite format within an oval mount, a practice which persisted in Tasmania through the 1870s, 1880s and into the1890s. The same cdv was sometimes overlayed again in an oblong mount when the glass plate became too damaged for further use. All three photographic formats appear on the criminal record sheets of prisoners bound together as the Hobart Gaol record books dating from the late 1880s onwards, held at the Archives Office Tasmania. Some of the earlier gaol record books of the 1870s have survived, now mysteriously missing the prisoners' photographs. One possible explanation is that convictaria collector John Watt Beattie and his assistant Edward Searle removed the photographs or even destroyed the sheets in the early 1900s while trying to save the photographs, the bulk of which ended up at the QueenVictoria Museum and Art Gallery from their acquisition in 1930 of John Watt Beattie's estate.

The glass plates themselves seem to have been disappeared altogether. They may have been shipped to Sydney, NSW, in March 1915 for an exhibition held at the Royal Hotel, Sydney to be displayed - reprinted and even offered for sale - as Port Arthur relics, alongside relics and documents associated with the convict hulk, Success. This newspaper report of the exhibition clearly states that the exhibitors - and this would have included John Watt Beattie as the Tasmanian contributor - collated original parchment records with duplicates, and also photographed original documents when duplicates were not available. Amongst the one ton of Port Arthur relics were dozens of original 1870s mugshots taken by Nevin, still attached to the prisoner's rap sheet; many more were removed for re-photographing in various formats as Beattie prepared for this exhibition. The association of Marcus Clarke's notes and novel For the Term of His Natural Life (1874) with these photographic records for the exhibitors was de rigeur by 1915.

There is at present at the Royal Hotel, Sydney, an interesting collection of relics of early convict days. It has been brought over here by Mr. Fred McNiel, a member of a very old West Maitland family. Those relics are not exactly heirlooms, though they were handed to the family by a gentleman who had much to do with showing the world the social conditions of Australia 70 or 80 years ago. Mr. McNiel's uncle was Mr. John McNiel, who was associated with the infamous hulk Success when it was turned into a floating exhibition. It will be remembered that on the old convict ship many of the most notorious men who left England for England's good were caged like wild animals in a menagerie, and treated with a greater degree of severity by men who were more inhuman than the creatures they were called upon to guard. After a checkered career in Australia the hulk was taken to London and anchored in the Thames, when many people got their first ideas of Australian history from a visit to it. From there it was taken to America, and sank in New York Harbor.
Mr. John McNiel foresaw what would be the ultimate end of the old craft and its historical relics, so he gathered together all the duplicate copies of documents in the collection, and what were not duplicated he had photographed. He left this secondary collection with his nephew, together with a great mass of material relating to those early days which were the first links in our chain of history.
Included in this collection are innumerable instruments of discipline used in the penal establishment at Port Arthur, Tasmania, now a crumbling mass of ruins. These relics weigh almost a ton. Less awful in their construction than those of medieval ages and the days of the Inquisition, they are nevertheless evidence of the barbarism which existed a hundred years ago. Not the least interesting items in the collection are a number of absolutely, original parchments, age-stained, convict transportation notes, signed by the officers in charge of the ships. They were originally tied with blue tape-a material which is never used now either on legal or Government documents. It is interesting to read these documents and to note the triviality of the offences for which men and women were transported to penal servitude. There is one which tells of a man who got 14 years for poaching a rabbit! There is another which shows that an unfortunate housemaid was sent out for seven years for picking up a sovereign and claiming that finding was keeping. These documents were supplemented by others on the arrival of the ship at Van Diemen's Land....
 ... Marcus Clarke's book, "The Term of His Natural Life," originally appeared in serial form in the "Australian Journal" in 1870. The complete story in a bound volume is in this collection, and readers will find much to interest themselves in it, for it contains a mass of material which does not appear in the book. Some of the notes and many of the chapters do not attempt to conceal the characters of the story. In this connection it is interesting to point to relics of Martin Cash, who served long periods of time in Port Arthur and at Norfolk Island. The adventures of this man without doubt gave the material to Marcus Clarke for the chief character in his story. Cash died in 1877, a highly respected member of a community among which he lived the last years of his life as an orchardist ...etc etc
Source: CONVICT RELICS. (1915, March 13). Preston Leader (Vic. : 1914 - 1918), p. 5. Retrieved August 5, 2015, from

Title [Coulston & Co., Toose Optician, Royal Hotel, Dymocks Book Arcade, George Street, Sydney, ca. 1885-1895] / H. King
Creator King, Henry, 1855-1923
Call Number SPF / 187
Digital Order No. a089187
State Library of NSW.

The Glass Negative
One example of excessive damage to the original glass plate is evident in this print taken from the negative of Nevin's only sitting with prisoner Peter Killeen in the week preceding the 20th January, 1875, when Killeen was discharged from the Hobart Gaol. He was given a life sentence for assault and robbery in 1856, and when discharged in 1875 with a ticket-of-leave, he was 64 yrs old. He subsequently re-offended, was sentenced to a further 6 weeks and discharged again on 29 September 1875. Peter Killeen offended again within six months of discharge. He was given a sentence of seven (7) years for larceny at the Supreme Court Hobart on 8th March, 1876, sent to the Port Arthur prison, arriving there on 6th April, 1876, and transferred back to the Hobart Gaol on 17th April, 1877. Peter Killeen died from senile decay, aged 76 yrs, as a Prisoner of the Crown at the Hobart Gaol on 27th June, 1889. See originals of these records here.

The only image, whether extant as duplicates of the carte-de-visite or negative prints surviving from Peter Killeen's criminal sentences is the one taken by Thomas Nevin at his single sitting with the prisoner in January 1875. The scratched condition of the glass plate by the time of Killeen's death in 1889 at the Hobart Gaol is evidence of repeated use, the print showing even more wear and tear than the other 39 prints used by Beattie for the line-up of 40 on his three panels created in 1915.

Original print from the negative taken by T. J. Nevin 1870s
Offered for sale by J. W. Beattie ca. 1916
QVMAG Collection: Ref : 1983_p_0163-0176

When amateur photo-historian Chris Long, on a visit to the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in 1985, re-photographed Nevin's original of Killeen, along with dozens more as black and white prints for reasons best known to himself since they serve no purpose (using a Canon EOS-1D Mark II), he eliminated most of the scratches and tears, but otherwise retained the numbering of the original. The mirror image on right shows the number "321", not "221" which has been transcribed onto the recto and verso of the NLA copy, and the verso of the QVMAG copy. Whatever the significance of the numbering or whenever it was scratched onto the plate/print, the fact remains that these prints and cdv's were handled extensively during the prisoner's lifetime career of crime up until he took his final breath aged 76 at the Hobart Gaol in 1889, when they were numbered for use in the daily administration of police and prison files. They were again handled extensively a few decades later as their use was elevated from vernacular police mugshot to tourist souvenir in the early 20th century, acquiring in the process a catalogue number on the cdv and the wording on the cdv versos, "Taken at Port Arthur 1874" to entice interstate visitors to the old prison site on the Tasman Peninsula.

B & W print of T. J. Nevin's negative, 1875, of Peter Killeen, original and mirror with "321" visible.
Reproduced at the QVMAG in the 1990s
QVMAG Ref: 1985_P_0174

The carte-de-visite
The final print produced by Thomas Nevin from his negative for prison and central police registry records was in the format of a carte-de-visite in an oval mount, typical of his commercial studio practice of the 1870s. This cdv duplicate of Killeen is held at the National Library of Australia. It was donated from government estrays as part of the Gunson collection in 1964, already bearing the number "221". Another carte-de-visite of the one and only photograph taken by Thomas Nevin in 1875 of Peter Killeen is numbered "180" and held at the QVMAG, acquired through Beattie's estate on his death in 1930. More mugshots of Killeen may appear with further delving into private collections and public archives because of his many convictions

NLA Catalogue
Peter Killern [sic], per M.A. Watson, taken at Port Arthur, 1874
Part of collection: Convict portraits, Port Arthur, 1874.
Gunson Collection file 203/7/54.
Title from inscription on reverse.
Inscription: title and "221"--In ink on reverse.

Another duplicate from Nevin's original is held at the Queen Victoria Museum ad Art Gallery, bearing the number "180" on recto, but "221" on verso.

Beattie and Searle's three panels 1915
We have not identified these prisoners by name in this post, but included on this site are their names, their police records and their mugshots held in public collections.

Forty prints of Tasmania prisoners from negatives by T. J. Nevin 1870s
Offered for by J. W. Beattie ca. 1916
QVMAG Collection: Ref : 1983_p_0163-0176

Photos courtesy of the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery 2015.
Copyright © KLW NFC 2015 ARR

On board the "City of Hobart" 31st January 1872