Wednesday 22 April 2020

In the Tasmanian footsteps of William Cuffay

William Cuffay
The following blog post was written after a visit to Hobart in March 2020.

Twenty-first century Hobart is a magnet for cruise ships. Tourists have only to step ashore to enjoy the vibrant outdoor market at Salamanca Place, while the historic convict sites and natural wonders of Tasmania attract vast numbers of visitors.

But 170 years ago, when Tasmania was still Van Diemen’s Land, the deep natural harbour that now makes it possible for ocean liners to dock was equally attractive to those operating a rather different type of passenger shipping.

When the London Chartist William Cuffay arrived at Hobart Town in November 1849 after 104 days at sea on the convict ship Adelaide, he would have found himself in a busy and thriving port – one which had built its prosperity on heavy industry and convict labour.

The port at Hobart Town
Founded nearly half a century earlier primarily as a convict colony, the town had grown rapidly and was now home to a population of nearly 50,000 men and women. With plentiful supplies of hardwood timber in its hinterlands and good access to major sea routes, the town had developed a shipbuilding industry that outstripped those of all other Australian ports combined. Impressive new sandstone public buildings already dominated the view, and Hobart Town’s most prosperous citizens had built imposing mansions for their families in the suburbs of Battery Point and New Town.

Parliament House, Hobart, built 1841
For Cuffay, a leading figure in London Chartism and one of the last of Britain’s political prisoners to face transportation, a new life was about to begin. Cuffay had always been an impoverished tailor by trade, and here, on the other side of the world, he would remain one. But he would quickly come to be seen as a significant and respected figure in the local labour movement, and over time would be able to play an active part in the town’s civic life.

In November 1849, however, all that was in the future.

Cuffay had been convicted at the Old Bailey in October 1848 not for his part in the Chartist monster meeting of 10 April, but on charges arising from the so-called Orange Tree Conspiracy that August, a desperate and doomed attempt to organise an armed uprising that led to the arrest of two dozen Chartists and Irish Confederates at the point of police sabres.

Born in Chatham, Kent, in 1788, Cuffay was the son of a former slave. He had long been active in trade unionism, and lost his job after joining a tailors’ union strike in 1834. By 1839, he was already a Chartist, and would serve the Westminster Chartist Association and the wider movement for nearly a decade in various roles – so that by 1848 he was not infrequently named as the leader of the London Chartists by the press; “the Black man and his Party”, as The Times put it .

Following his conviction, Cuffay was sent first to London’s Millbank Penitentiary before being transferred to Wakefield House of Correction. By July 1849, he was heading south again, where he was put on board the Adelaide at Woolwich, one of 300 male prisoners bound for Australia. With an additional complement of 50 soldiers under the command of a Captain Deering, four women and eight children, the ship headed to Portland in Dorset before finally setting sail on 17 August.

The Adelaide
The Adelaide appears to have had a relatively uneventful crossing. Newspaper reports at the time suggest there were just two deaths at sea, although the surgeon’s journal (viewable on Ancestry) kept by Dr Frederick LeGrand puts the number at four.

He recorded: “During this period only 114 patients were put in the sick lists, the number of persons of all denominations on board being 412, there were but few of the cases of a grave nature. The comparatively healthy state of the convicts during the voyage may in a great measure be attributed to the attention in the first instances (previous to the embarkation of the Guard and Convicts) to the purification of the ships holds and keeping the hospital etc dry, clean and well ventilated. Keeping the convicts between breakfast and supper hourly employed and allowing them on deck as much as possible with strict attention to prisoner's cleanliness.”

Dr LeGrand's journal
Just 40 prisoners disembarked at Hobart Town (the remainder staying on board to be landed at Port Jackson, Sydney), by which time Cuffay’s name would already have been widely known locally thanks to press coverage. He had figured prominently in accounts of Chartist activities and trials taken from London newspapers over the previous year, and reports of the Adelaide’s arrival now identified Cuffay “the Chartist ringleader” as being among the newly disembarked convicts.

Unlike many of those convicted of non-political offences, Cuffay was designated a “ticket of leave” man, permitted to work on his own account but expected to attend monthly musters before the magistrates.

First, however, he and the other prisoners would need to be processed through the penal system. The short route along which Cuffay and the others would have been marched can still be easily followed today, uphill from the harbour and along Campbell Street to the convict penitentiary, known as the “tench” – a vast sprawling gaol covering two acres of land, and capable of holding 1,200 prisoners.

The Tench: Campbell Street Penitentiary, Hobart
A few years earlier, Linus W Miller, an American law student transported for this part in opposing British rule in Canada, described the experience for new arrivals:

“At half past four o’clock in the morning the bell rang for ‘turn out,’ and there was a terrible rattling of nuisance tubs, kids, pannikins &c, until the breakfast hour was over. We were, 238 in number, penned up in one corner of the yard, and two constables placed over us to see that we had no communication with the old hands, who came out in small squads to look at us; many, no doubt, expecting to recognise old friends, companions in crime, whom they had left behind. Several recognitions of this nature took place during the morning.”
(Miller, Linus W, Notes of an Exile to Van Diemen’s Land, Fredonia, New York 1848)

Convict trousers
The penitentiary had a surprisingly long life, surviving as a prison and eventually as a courthouse until the early 1980s. Today it is a tourist attraction, offering guided visits that take in the courtroom, cells, chapel and gallows. Among the surviving artefacts from Cuffay’s era is a pair of corduroy and moleskin convict trousers dated to 1850, believed to have been made in the prison workshop. Cuffay would, presumably, have appraised garments like this with a critical professional eye.

As a ticket of leave convict, Cuffay would not have stayed long in the penitentiary before being sent out into the town to find work and a place to live.

He did not go far. Later records have him living at 42 Patrick Street – just 10 minutes walk away. He also appears to have found work. And in next to no time he was already politically active once again: the Colonial Times (28 February 1851) reporting him to be in the chair at a trade union meeting called to demand an end to the use of convict labour in construction work on the docks.

By this time, too, he must have had word from his friends and family in England. On his arrest, Cuffay had asked his Chartist comrades to help support his wife Mary Ann, and the movement duly rose to the challenge as best it could in hard times with appeals for financial support. The Westminster Chartists also sent Cuffay a book of Byron’s poems – which, since the inscription from his former comrades is dated October 1849, after the Adelaide left England, must surely have been sent out to him in Tasmania. Eventually, funded in part by the government and in part by the Medway poor law guardians, Mary Ann Cuffay was reunited with her husband, arriving in Hobart in April 1853.

After eight years in the colony, Cuffay received a free pardon in 1857, the effect of which was to restore all his civil rights – not that his previous convict status appears to have greatly hindered him.

Theatre Royal, Hobart: scene of many a Cuffay speech
Throughout the 1850s and 1860s, Cuffay continued his political activities. In particular, he was a vocal opponent of the Master and Servant Act governing the relationship between employers and workers, and campaigned to stop convicts being sent from England. His speeches were infused throughout with the spirit of Chartism and the demand for political rights. Though small in stature and softly spoken, Cuffay appears to have been easily able to command the attention of a crowd in the theatres where political meetings often took place, with newspaper reports frequently recording laughter and applause at his interventions.

In June 1869, Cuffay made his last recorded foray into the politics of Hobart Town, supporting an ally’s nomination for election as alderman. That same year, Mary Ann died.

Cuffay was admitted to the workhouse hospital, Brickfields Invalid Depot, in October 1869. He died there, aged 82, on 29 July 1870. Remarkably for a man who died penniless after a long career as a political outsider, Cuffay’s obituary in the Mercury newspaper was headlined “Death of a celebrity”.

The obituary concludes: “For most of the time he was at the Brickfields establishment, Cuffey [sic] was an occupant of the sick ward. The superintendent states that he was a quiet man, and an inveterate reader. His remains were interred in the Trinity burying-ground, and by special desire his grave has been marked, in case friendly sympathisers should hereafter desire to place a memorial stone on the spot.”

Cuffay never did quite get his memorial stone. At least, not one that directly names him. But long after the burial ground closed shortly after Cuffay’s death, a memorial was raised and dedicated “to the memory of over 5,000 free settlers and bond convicts buried in these grounds between 1831 & 1872”. It stands today on the edge of the school grounds that now occupy the site.

Memorial to the memory of 5000 free settlers and bond convicts at the old Trinity Burying Bround, Hobart

Further reading
"William Cuffay in Australia" by Mark Gregor, in Tasmanian Historical Research Association papers and proceedings 58(1), April 2011.