AGY-1650 | Superintendent of Convicts, later Principal Superintendent of Convicts

NSW State Archives Collection
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The early Governors faced the challenge of inadequate provision for the superintendence of the convict population. (1) Governor Phillip wrote on 16 May 1788 "Here are only convicts to attend convicts, and who in general fear to exert any authority, and very little labour is drawn from them in a country which requires the greatest exertions". (2) While the British Government did send out a number of Superintendents, most of these were ineffective. (3)

In June 1790 Nicholas Divine was appointed Superintendent of Convicts. (4) After holding this position for 18 years he was dismissed in 1808 for misconduct and neglect. (5) He was replaced by Isaac Nicols in January 1810 who served four years before resigning in 1814. (6)

William Hutchinson was appointed Superintendent of Convicts on 9 April 1814. (7) His General Orders and Instructions were as follows:

"1. All male and female convicts arriving in the colony are to be considered to be under the Superintendents immediate charge until they are regularly assigned to settlers or other persons, or placed as labourers in Government gangs. The Superintendent is to record the names of all the male and female convicts arriving in the colony in a monthly general muster book, specifying their age, description, sentence, where convicted, by what ship they arrived in the colony, and to whom they where assigned. Also to be recorded in the general muster book were deaths, desertions, or other casualties that may have taken place amongst the male and female convicts.

"2. The Superintendent is to have immediate charge of all the Government gangs including the gaol gangs. As well as all the working cattle wagons, carts, timber carriages, and boats belonging to the Government. Regular lists and inventories of these are to be entered into the general muster book. The superintendent is also expected to keep a weekly return book of the general Government gangs specifically relating to the work they are employed in. Both the weekly return book and the general muster book once completed are to be delivered to the Acting Engineer and Inspector of Public Works who in turn will give it to the Governor.

"3. The Superintendent is expected to visit the different Government gangs, inspect their work and see that they are all present. Any absentees of neglect of work is to be reported to the Acting Engineer.

"4. The Superintendent is responsible for the monthly muster of all working cattle at Lane Cove as well as the weekly inspection and muster of the Government gangs. Any absentees or neglect of work is to be reported to the Acting Engineer.

"5. The Superintendent is at all times to afford every assistance to the Acting Engineer in regulating the Government gangs, keeping them closely employed and preventing them from committing depredation's of Government materials, tools and other property. The Superintendent is consider himself under the immediate order and control of the Acting Engineer and Inspector of Public Works, and to obey orders and directions.

"6. The Superintendent is to attend the muster of Government gangs and Ticket of Leave men every Sunday morning for church. The Superintendent is to see that all overseers of gangs are present, and that themselves and the men of their gangs are sober, clean and properly dressed. Reporting all absentees and persons who are intoxicated, dirty or improperly dressed to the Acting Engineer." (8)

In 1818 Governor Macquarie issued a Government and General Order stating that applications for a government servant are to be made to the Superintendent of Convicts and not the Governor, as had been the case. (9)

William Hutchinson was removed from office after an unfavourable report from the Commissioner of Inquiry, John Thomas Bigge, and replaced by Frederick Augustus Hely. (10) Hely was instructed that " it is probable that the Governor will receive instruction from England, or even in their absence, may deem it advisable to remodel your department at a future period. At present it is better that you take upon yourself the exact routine of duty which has been followed by Hutchinson". (11)

When Governor Darling arrived in the colony he found this state of affairs most unsatisfactory, "the Department of the Civil Engineer --- had become a grand engine of the Government, and had engrossed the duties of all the other departments". (12) He found that the Acting Engineer had become responsible for almost all aspects of convict management, and that the Principal Superintendent of Convicts was considered a subordinate officer in the Engineers Department . Darling appointed a committee to advise him on how the Department should be broken up. (13)

The Committee recommended "that the superintendence of convicts, in Government employ, throughout the Colony, with the exception of those confined in gaols and watch houses, so far as regards the regulating of their conduct, victualling, clothing, lodging, accommodation in barracks, or otherwise, should be under the special charge of the Superintendent of Convicts". (14) A Government and General Order was issued on 5 January 1826 implementing these recommendations.

Governor Darling raised the status of the office of the Principal Superintendent of Convicts by transferring to it in February 1828 "all matters relating to the conduct and management of the convicts" (15), including the preparation of Tickets of Leave and Certificates of Freedom, applications to marry, and all correspondence respecting the sentences, disposal and management of convicts. (16)

John Ryan Brenan was temporarily appointed by Governor Bourke as Principal Superintendent of Convicts early in 1836 when Frederick Hely fell ill. Frederick Hely died in September 1836. Brenan's appointment was not confirmed by Lord Glenelg, Secretary of State, and Brenan was replaced in September 1837 by Captain John L McLean. McLean was appointed by the Secretary of State. McLean remained Principal Superintendent of Convicts until the convict establishment was abolished. (17)

In August 1855 the Executive Council reported that a despatch from the Secretary of State (14 April 1855) had advised that the convict administration would be transferred to the Colony. A Committee had been established consisting of the Auditor General, The Principal Superintendent of Convicts, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Price, The Medical Adviser to the Government and the Colonial Storekeeper. The committee had considered (a) arrangements for the custody, maintenance and supervision of convicts including those who were physically or mentally ill and of the agreement to be reached with the British government regarding reimbursement of costs. (b) administration of the system of granting tickets of leave including calculating the cost and receiving reimbursement from Britain (c) administration of the convict establishments viz the Establishment ‘in which Lunatics and Invalids are confined’ at Parramatta (jointly conducted by the Imperial and Colonial Governments) and that at Cockatoo Island which the colonial government had run, and for which the Imperial Government had reimbursed the cost of convict maintenance.

The Executive Council determined that from 1 January 1856 the establishments be conducted by the Colonial Government and that the costs be divided between the governments at the end of each year. If future self-supporting establishments were later formed the Imperial Government would benefit by the reduction in its portion of the costs.

The Committee recommended that the system of granting tickets of leave continue (although attention should be given to streamlining the system). The work would be transferred to the Inspector General of Police to whom two clerks would be allocated for this purpose. The portion of the expenses to be borne by the Imperial government was calculated according to the number of British Convicts in the system. The new administrative arrangements took effect from 1 January 1856. (18)

(1) Guide to Convict Records in the Archives Office of New South Wales. 2nd ed. Sydney: The Archives Authority of New South Wales, 1981, p.21.
(2) H.R.A. 1.1.35.
(3) H.R.A. 1.1.587, 589.
(4) H.R.A. 1.7.632; .
(5) NRS 897, [2/8332] p.1.
(6) H.R.A.1.8.143; Arthur McMartin, 'Nichols, Isaac (1770-1819)', Australian Dictionary of Biography. Vol.2 1788-1850, I-Z. Melbourne University Press, 1967, p.283.
(7) SR [SZ758] pp.478-9; Paul Edwin Le Roy, 'Hutchinson, William (1772-1846)', Australian Dictionary of Biography. Vol. 1 1788-1850, A-H. Melbourne University Press, 1966, pp.574-575.
(8) SR [4/1730] pp.291-300.
(9) SR [4/1740] pp.48-50.
(10) H.R.A. 1.11.574; A.F. Pike, ''Hely, Frederick Augustus (1794-1836)', Australian Dictionary of Biography. Vol.1 1788-1850, A-H. Melbourne University Press, 1966, pp.529-530.
(11) SR [4/3510] pp.88-90.
(12) H.R.A. 1.12.148-149.
(13) Guide to Convict Records, 2nd ed., p.19.
(14) SR [4/1790] p.12.
(15) H.R.A. 1.13.564.
(16) Guide to Convict Records, 2nd ed., p.21.
(17) 'Brenan, John Ryan (1798?-1868), Australian Dictionary of Biography. Vol.1 1788-1850, A-H. Melbourne University Press, 1966, p.149.
(18) NRS 4232, [4/1532] pp.281-288.

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