Gravesites Of Tasmania



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Life and conditions at Campbell Street Goal

This is an article found by George Tims (for which we thank him) in the CRITIC newspaper published on Friday 18th October 1916 telling of the experiences of MAT HIGGINS, warder and armed guard in H.M.Gaol, Hobart.  It is a fascinating insight into Campbell Street, the conditions, prisoners, Mat’s philosophy and what he envisaged in the future.  None of the article has been changed. 

“In the 1877 the penal settlement at Port Arthur was broken up, and the prisoners confined there were removed to the Hobart gaol.  The residents of Hobart and suburbs were greatly alarmed at such removal and thought that should any of those desperate men escape, they would be murdered in their beds.  But nothing of the kind occurred.  The exact number that came to Hobart I don’t remember, but there was a great many.  I think the word ‘desperate’ should be omitted when referring to those prisoners, as there were only about ten men that gave any trouble to the gaol officials, and this was only of a frivolous nature.  I was appointed as warder to Hobart Gaol late on in the same year (1877), and had anything serious occurred there at the time I would certainly have known about it.  Mr. Ringrose Atkins was the Superintendent at that time.  He was a just and level-headed man, strict, but not severe, and treated the prisoners and the gaol officials fairly.  Some of the prisoners remarked that had they been treated as well in the past they would have been better men. 

I noticed while in the bathroom one day a man with old stripes on his back, and I asked him what caused them.  He said they were done on Norfolk Island and that he was flogged for having a small amount of tobacco in his possession.  The majority of those prisoners were quite harmless, and if one only gave them a kind word, they were pleased.  Most of them were transported from England, Ireland and Scotland for very trifling offences such as shooting a hare or a rabbit on some rich man’s land, or a row at a fair, or a brawl in a public house,  for which  at the present day a light penalty is inflicted.  For those offences they were sent out to one of the penal settlements in Australia.  It is a mistake to be too severe on prisoners, as it only makes men more hardened and more difficult to reform afterwards.  I don’t believe any man could be reformed by cruelty, and very often an act of leniency has a good effect on them.

The prisoners who were removed from Port Arthur did not like the change, as they had more freedom there, and those of industrious habits often saved money that was allowed them for growing vegetables.  In the first place, young men doing long sentences are very discontented on seeing persons passing daily on pleasure, and in the second place it is not pleasant for people in Hobart to meet gangs of prisoners in the street, with perhaps a near relative amongst them, as it does not follow that if one in the family is bad that the whole family are bad also.  A gaol should be some distance from a city, with at least 100 acres attached to it.  The prisoners could then earn enough to keep themselves by growing produce, for which a small percentage could be given to them, to be put away until they were discharged.  This would be the means of helping them to go to where they were not known, as people here don’t like to employ a man who has just done a sentence. Therefore, the prisoner, not having money or friends, falls into his old habits, and soon gets another sentence.  I will give two cases to prove it.  A man named Ryan, a Port Arthur prisoner, was discharged after completing a sentence of six years.  He got hard up, and four days after his discharge he walked into a tobacconists shop in Elizabeth Street, and without any cause, assaulted an old man, for which he received six months imprisonment.  He simply did this to get back, not having any money to pay for board and lodging.  Another man named Barkley, about the same time was discharged from the Hobart Gaol, and he broke a large window in one of the shops in town, and waited until he was given in charge to the police.  I said to him, “You did not stop away long, Bob.” He replied, “I had no money to pay for a bed, and I would sooner be here than sleeping on the Domain.”

Of late years this has been altered by a few kind persons who help discharged prisoners until they get employment.  But I think if they earned it themselves while in gaol, prisoners would be more independent.  In my opinion the gaol should be removed, as it is an eyesore to the city, and a new one built where there would be a proper classification of prisoners, as this cannot be done in the present abode of evil-doers.  The site is a good one, and would bring a very fine price if cut into blocks, and when suitable buildings were erected thereon, it would improve the city immensely.  The material could be utilised in building a new gaol, which would pay for itself in ten years.

I will now relate a few incidents which occurred while I was in the gaol.  The duty at this time was from 6 a.m. to 12 noon and from 6 p.m. to 12 midnight the same day.  The following week from 12 noon to 6 p.m., and from midnight till 6 a.m .  One night I was on duty in a large dormitory and looked in.  Having been out during the afternoon, I felt very tired.  I was then training two amateurs when off duty, and was running with them.  This caused a sleepy feeling, which I could not shake off.  A seat was placed in the centre of this dormitory, to rest on, and occasionally I sat down.  At about 11.30 p.m., I fell asleep. I shortly felt two hands placed on my shoulders, and I experienced a sudden shake.  I awoke with a start, but the person that shook me had vanished.  I stood up, bewildered, and immediately after the night officer appeared.  I was therefore saved by the unknown, a Port Arthur prisoner.  I am quite sure it was one of them, as they were all Port Arthur men that slept there that night.  However, he never spoke about it afterwards.  About 50 prisoners slept in that dormitory.

At another time, shortly after, it was pay day.  I went into the room where I slept, to change my clothes before going out on leave, and in doing so I accidentally left the months pay, which was in one pound bank notes, on the top of the fold, and left the building.  About an hour later after I left, I entered a shop to purchase some articles, and I had no money to pay for them.  I hurried back to the gaol, but found the money was gone.  I was quite sure I left it there.  I did not speak about the loss to anyone, but went on duty at 6 p.m. on the following day. I was about to report the matter to the Superintendent, when a prisoner met me on the stairs, as I was going to the yard.  He said to me, “You look upset about something.  Is there anything the matter?”  I said, “Not much; why do you ask?’’  He said, “Haven’t you lost something?”  I said, “My months pay was taken off the bed in my room yesterday.”  He laughed and said, “I entered the room after you left, and found the notes on the bed.  It was lucky I did so, as if someone else went in there you would never have seen the money again.”  I went upstairs with him, and he handed me back the whole amount just as I left it.  This was another of the Port Arthur prisoners.  His name was George Marsh, a cook for the warders at that time.

A great number of prisoners were at that time employed breaking stone in a large shed between Park and Campbell Streets, and it has since been pulled down.  The trams now run over the place where the shed was once situated, and it was not a healthy place to spend six hours at a time, owing to the large amount of dust raised by the hammers in breaking the stones.  Some of the worst Port Arthur prisoners worked there.  One evening when the roll was called before they were marched back to the gaol, one of them could not be found, and it was thought that he slipped out by the back gate, when the wagon entered with stone from the quarry.  About three hours afterwards a great noise was heard in the stone shed by some civilians passing by, and this was reported at the gaol, and a warder was sent to investigate.  As he opened the door the prisoner ran past him, and off up Campbell Street, and ran into the arms of Constable Doody, who held him, and escorted him back to the gaol.  It appears he was covered over in one of the heaps of stones in the shed all the time, and how he was not suffocated was a mystery.  But I think air holes must have been left in the heap of stone, and so it was cleverly done, more especially being only twenty yards from where the overseer and a warder were on duty.

Two other incidents occurred at this time, one of which nearly cost me my life, as I had a very narrow escape.  The first one was at the stone cells, where the refractory prisoners were confined for misconduct.  One morning very early I was on duty at those cells; it was not clear daylight, and the lights were still burning, but only quite dimly.  I unlocked one door, and aroused the prisoner, who was alright.  I then opened the second door, and as I put my inside I quickly observed the prisoner with his hands raised over his head.  Instinct warned me that he was about to attack me.  I lost no time, but immediately rushed at him with a bound, and put my hands against his chest.  However, he brought a leaden urinal down with a crash behind my back.  It just missed me, and one can guess what a narrow escape I had, as one side of the vessel was battered in.  I forced him on his back, took the battered vessel outside the cell and locked him in.  He was not charged with the offence, as it was then thought he was of unsound mind.  He had no ill feeling against me, as I never interfered with him in any way, and he did not know that morning who would open the cell.  However, he never gave any more trouble at the gaol, and the following year he was discharged, and was about Hobart for several years under another name and was always well behaved.

The second and last narrow escape I had was at the stone quarry, in Park Street.  A very cantankerous prisoner named Barkley was one morning breaking stones in the quarry.  He was also using a heavy short-handled shovel.  I was in charge of the quarry gang, as armed guard, and carried a revolver.  There were also two other armed guards; they carried rifles, and both were stationed on high ground overlooking the prisoners, at each end.  There was also another warder with me.  He complained that the prisoner Barkley had threatened to strike another prisoner with the shovel, and had also threatened the warder that if he went near he would knock out his brains.  Barkley was a very powerful man, about 14 stone weight, short, but very muscular, but not very active on his feet.  I went up to him, and thought to pacify him, but failed.  He also threatened me with the shovel.  He was standing in front of his heap of stones, holding the shovel in both hands, and all the prisoners were looking, expecting to see someone knocked down by him.  To leave him then before all those prisoners would not do, I thought he was much stronger than I was, I only being 11 st. 7lb.  But I was more active than he was, and in good condition.  I therefore made up my mind to try and take the shovel from him, and then send him back to the gaol. Luck favoured me.  I made a spring for the shovel, and he aimed a blow at me, but I avoided it.  The force of the blow overbalanced him, and I forced him over, and he fell on to the heap of stones and the shovel fell out of his hands, and I quickly secured him and took him back to the gaol without any further trouble.  The Superintendent was there, and knowing what a strong man he was, said he did not think any one man could take Barkley.  I informed him that luck favoured me, or else I could not have done so either.  The prisoner was tried before the visiting justice, and got 14 days solitary confinement.  He was sent back to me afterwards, and he finished his sentence without getting into any further trouble.

In the year 1876, three of the Port Arthur prisoners, named Bright, Mullins and Walmsley , made their escape from the Hobart Gaol, and went into the Glenorchy district, and paid a visit to the residence of Martin Cash, an old bushranger.  He was absent at the time, so they helped themselves to provisions and clothing and then made off towards new Norfolk.  On finding the prisoners had gone in that direction, some of the Territorial Police were sent there to assist in their capture.  The prisoners committed several robberies in that district, but did not molest in any other way the residents there.  The three prisoners were eventually cleverly captured by the New Norfolk police.  The inspector police at Hobart sent official instructions to the authorities at New Norfolk to send the prisoners at once back to the Hobart gaol.  This they refused to do, on the ground that the prisoners, having committed several robberies at New Norfolk, should be tried for the offences.  A second order was sent to New Norfolk to send the prisoners back , and was signed by the sheriff of H.M gaol at Hobart and this was obeyed at once, and the prisoners were back and dealt with here.  One of the prisoners, Billy Bright, although small, was a very determined man, that gun, pistol, or bayonet could not frighten. In the early days of Port Arthur he once attacked an armed sentry, and escaped.  The prisoners gave very little trouble afterwards.

 I called at the Hobart Gaol about three weeks ago to make some inquiries and although what I wanted to know happened 20 years back, the Deputy Superintendent and chief clerk found out for me in less than five minutes.  I naturally looked about where I had done duty nearly 40 years previously.  Every place was perfectly clean and in good order, and the prisoners and warders were performing their different duties in a quiet and silent manner.” 

Bib ID



Journal/Newspaper ,  Microform

Uniform Title

Critic (Hobart, Tas.)


Hobart : State Library of Tasmania.


microfilm reels. 


Microreproduction. Originally published weekly: Hobart : Ernest Henry Newman. 

Life Dates

5th Aug. 1905-Sept. 1924 

Later Title

Land (Hobart, Tas.) 


Australian newspapers-Tasmania-Hobart

Other Authors

State Library of Tasmania




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