Agency and Complaints

To listen see Podcast: Episode 2: Agency & Complaints

From the avoidance of pauper institutions, to the complaints about the conditions within them, to breaking the rules and causing disruption, pauper-emancipists demonstrated their agency. Despite spending much of their lives within institutions, or perhaps because of it, they knew how to push back against the system. This instalment is about that conflict. We will also take a look at one of those complainants, Francis Frayerman, who frequently discharged himself as he pleased and returned when he needed.

Historians, John Hargraves and Alan Piper, have done substantial work on pauper-emancipists. They found that many refused to enter charitable institutions. For example, William Wheeler refused because he had had enough of the government. Consequently, many paupers survived on the outside through begging or petty theft. Many wanted to avoid the stigma of poverty and penal association as well as the bad food, bad conditions and bad treatment. While some sought to avoid entry to these places, others had little choice but still expressed their agency by escaping, absconding, and breaking the rules. In short, many used the institutions to suit their own needs.

One way pauper-emancipists attempted to use these institutions to their own ends was by attempting to control which institutions they ended up in. For example, in the 1850s in northern Tasmania, male invalids seeking aid would usually be sent to Cornwall Hospital. However, due to limited space it was decided that they be sent to Impression Bay Probation System, and post-1857, to Port Arthur. Both institutions had strong penal associations. Many pauper-emancipists did not make the journey, others returned after arrival, and others disappeared before removal. Often, they then reappeared later seeking temporary re-admittance to Cornwall Hospital. However, resisting the move left them open to the Vagrancy Act or starvation.

If pauper-emancipists became subject to the Vagrancy Act then they could be transported to any institution against their will. The same was true for females, who were sent to Cascades Female Factory or the Launceston Female House of Correction. Removing the poor, disabled and old to these penal stations mirrored the practice of internal secondary transportation used for those found guilty of further crimes in the colony. Piper argued that, for all intents and purposes, these individuals were found guilty of the crime of poverty and old age. It was not always possible for pauper-emancipists to control their fate and, indeed, restrictions tightened overtime.

In the 1860s leaving an institution when they pleased was relatively easy because institutional officers had no right to keep them. Being able to leave and readmit themselves was an important freedom. This practice did not go unnoticed and more rigid regulations were introduced. Superintendents wanted to prevent invalids seeking admission in colder months, and subsequently seeking discharge in the summer months for seasonal work. As Piper (2009) argued, the pauper-emancipists aim was to avoid further institutionalisation. Francis Frayerman, who we will discuss shortly, is an example of this. In the early 1870s Francis entered the pauper system, and he made his way around a number of establishments. He entered and left Brickfields, Port Arthur, New Town Pauper Establishment and Cascades. He entered and left and re-entered each institution repeatedly (on at least 13 such occasions).

Despite paupers trying to take control of their lives, there were obstacles. From the late-1870s there was an increasing tendency to send refractory invalids to gaol. For example, in 1882, ten inmates of the Launceston Invalid Depot were sentenced to the Launceston Gaol for regulation breaches. However, such harsh measures did not prevent frequent rule breaking. Indeed, it was common for inmates to leave, get drunk and then return. Another example was the refusal to empty their chamber pots (often in response to the stopping of tobacco rations) such minor offences usually resulted in internal punishments. While at New Town Pauper Establishment in 1882, Francis was given forty-eight hours confinement for being idle and disorderly (a common form of Rule breaking).

As well as rule breaking, inmates complained about the conditions and treatment. Both Piper and Hargraves point out that when inmates complained, which was relatively rare, the complainant was discredited. As with all institutional records, we must consider what records were kept and why. Nevertheless, some complaints were reinforced by advocates such as clergymen and doctors. Indeed, Phillip Smith supported the right of the inmates to question the administration writing; ‘a pauper establishment is not a jail and should be conducted as to challenge public scrutiny and prevent and even invite complaint from the paupers themselves’ (cited in Hargrave 1993, 81-2).

Male pauper-emancipists were not the only ones to complain. Harriet White wrote to the Chief Secretary on behalf of Mary Taylor, who she claimed was cruelly beaten which caused her death. She added that the men and women mixed at night, there was alcohol smuggled in, and favouritism. Harriet absconded for the fifth time because, in her words, the place was ‘no better than a brothel’ (cited in Pearce & Doyle 2002, 75-6). All charges were refuted and it was argued that Mary Taylor died of heart disease. Francis Frayerman was another complainant. He complained about the urine tubes in the dormitory, the cold, the filthy state of the smoking rooms, and improper licence given to wardsmen. In return, he was described as an opium eater who absconded regularly to supply his addiction. Pearce and Doyle (2002) argued that those in authority sought to undermine individual complainants as troublesome and deviant.

Case Study of Francis Frayerman (aka Fayerman)

Francis was born in ≈1811, near Norwich, to a big family of seven brothers and sisters. Before his transportation sentence at Norwich City Quarter Sessions for stealing clothes in 1843, he had at least one previous offence. He had been imprisoned for stealing a decanter for six weeks. Before his transport Francis was held on the Fortitude hulk. At this time he was single and was described as having a bad character with respectable connections. It is noted that he was twenty-nine and as previously being in the 24th Regiment. He is also said to have been employed as a solicitor’s clerk and could read and write. On the voyage over on the Gilmore in 1843, the surgeon superintendent described him as useful and very good, he was 5’6”, he was protestant, and he was described as 32 (there is a discrepancy in age).

Two years after arrival in Tasmania, he was found drunk and given ten days solitary confinement. Then in 1846, he committed larceny and was given six weeks’ imprisonment with hard labour. Nevertheless, he did earn his ticket-of-leave in 1848, and a Certificate-of-Freedom followed in 1850. However, he was given a twenty-year secondary transportation sentence in 1852. Francis had uttered a forged cheque with intent to defraud. His trade was given as a clerk and a school master at different points. He was now aged forty-three and a widower. While under this secondary transportation sentence he absconded in 1857 and was given seven days’ solitary confinement. A few months later he underwent more solitary confinement for drunkenness. Francis was convicted of forging another cheque in 1858. This time it was ordered he be kept at Port Arthur for ten years. It was not until 1867 that he reappeared in the records; he appeared in the Police Gazettes for an unknown offence and was given fifteen months at Port Arthur. Then, for no given reason, it states in his Conduct Record; “To serve fifteen months’ probation for a free pardon by order of the governor 27.3.67.”, and he was indeed given a free pardon in 1868.

As discussed earlier, Francis appeared in pauper system in the early-1970s and revolved through the institutions until he finally died of ‘senilis’ in 1884 at the New Town Pauper Establishment. At this point he was described as aged seventy-six, and as a former tutor.

The complaints of paupers in these institutions did not always fall on deaf ears. For example, in the early 1890s the inmates of Launceston Invalid Depot protested against the quality of salt beef. This resulted in the medical officer inspecting the meat, which was found unfit for human consumption. Piper (2003, 268) points out that individual complaints were rare but the prospect of mass protest ‘maintain[ed] the status quo on some occasions’. It was indeed policing by consent. Nevertheless, there was (un)official censorship of invalid correspondence. While penal regulations allowed the review of prisoner mail, no such thing existed for pauper invalids, but it still happened in order to minimise complaints.

Most paupers had a long experience of institutional residency and consequently sought to curtail their stays where ever possible. When they were in residence, they found their own ways of expressing themselves, sometimes through working together, to achieve their own ends.

Further Reading

Hargrave, J. (1993) ‘A Pauper Establishment is Not a Jail: Old Crawlers in Tasmania 1856-1895’ (MA: University of Tasmania).

Pearce, K. & Doyle, S. (2002) New Town: A Social History report prepared for HCC.

Piper, A. (2010) ‘“Mind-Forged Manacles”: The Mechanics of Control inside late-nineteenth century Tasmanian Charitable Institutions’, Journal of Social History (IV) pp.1046-1063.

Piper, A. (2009) ‘A Love of Liberty: The Manipulation of the Colonial Tasmanian Institutional System by Invalids’, Journal of Australian Colonial History, 11 pp.73-100

Piper, A. (2003) Beyond the Convict System: The Aged Poor and Institutionalisation in Colonial Tasmania, (PhD Thesis, University of Tasmania)

Published by Dr Emma D Watkins

Emma, a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Birmingham, was awarded a fully funded PhD at University of Liverpool. This led to the monograph: Life Courses of Young Convicts Transported to Van Diemen's Land. Emma is an historical criminologist who uses digital technologies with historical documentation and criminological methodologies.

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