Beer and Fighting: Some Aspects of Male Convict Leisure in Van Diemen's Land

By Hindmarsh, Bruce | Journal of Australian Studies, December 1999 | Go to article overview

Beer and Fighting: Some Aspects of Male Convict Leisure in Van Diemen's Land


Hindmarsh, Bruce, Journal of Australian Studies


On the evening of 5 June 1830 field police constables Richard Herring and James Edwards apprehended John Stewart, an assigned servant to the Van Diemen's Land Establishment, in the house of James King. Herring described the scene:

   A few minutes after Stewart entered the house I went up to the door, and
   looked through the crack of the door for a few [minutes], I distinctly saw
   John Stewart sitting at the end of a Table on a chair -- I heard Stewart
   ask for a Bottle, King's wife asked if he was going to drink it there, or
   take it away -- Stewart said he would only drink one Glass by G_d... she
   placed ... the Bottle on the table -- Stewart poured the Glass full from
   the Bottle and drank it -- he then poured out a second.(1)

Before Stewart could drink the second glass the constables entered and arrested him. Absence without leave from work and tippling on King's premises, meant that Stewart received four months in the Launceston Chain Gang.(2) James King, an emancipist, was subsequently tried for supplying Stewart with rum but was found not guilty, despite the evidence of the two constables. The trial record suggests that this verdict was secured on the rather questionable objection that the two policemen were partial in the case, as they expected to receive a proportion of the fine if King was found guilty as a supplier.(3) There can, however, be little question of King's guilt. On 23 July 1828, William Thomas, assigned servant to Joseph Archer, was apprehended drinking at King's hut; on 6 October 1828, William Avery and John Douglas, also prisoner servants to Archer, absented themselves from Archer's premises and were caught drinking spirits at King's. Each received twenty five stripes.(4)

The case of James King's sly grog shop reveals something of a significant, yet largely unregarded area of convict history; convict recreation. Alan Atkinson has argued that convict socialisation and the growth of convict solidarity were essential in promoting convict resistance.(5) Joy Damousi has further suggested that the activities of socialisation themselves were an important form of resistance within an environment that sought to control the convict individual.(6) Advancing from these arguments, this discussion considers the social activities of assigned convict rural labourers in Van Diemen's Land. Magistrates' bench books are littered with references to the recreational activities of convicts. Such glimpses of convict life can be re-assembled to reveal some important aspects of convict recreation and culture. Non-work time was claimed by assigned male and female servants who asserted the right to spend this time in a variety of recreations.(7) Shared recreational activity not only tested the limits of masters' authority but contributed towards the recognition of a convict identity.

During the 1820s convicts lost official recognition of their right to earn money for labour undertaken outside prescribed working hours. In response to an inquiry about the propriety of settlers paying convict servants in money for work carried out beyond the usual hours of employ, John Burnett, colonial secretary noted; `I should think the settlers were entitled to the labours of their servants at all reasonable hours'. Lieutenant-Governor Arthur annotated the same letter, `The Convicts are bound to work for their masters from morning until Evening -- allowing a reasonable time for dinner & breakfast'.(8) Such vague definitions meant that time spent at work was frequently contested. In practice, masters referred to the hours stipulated for convicts employed in the public works, or a traditional working day, as dawn to dusk.(9) Rural work was not amenable to linear models of time and work discipline. Surviving colonial rural journals rarely describe events in the context of clock time. Rural work was task oriented and altered with the seasons.(10) The journal of James Cubbitson Sutherland, a settler in north-eastern Van Diemen's Land in the 1820s, describes clearly the incompatibility of rural work and standardised work discipline. …

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