“The boy, whose height measured at four feet, one-and-a-half-inches, looked up at his brother…”
In my debut novel, ‘Port Arthur‘, the main character and protagonist Peter Wilkins is based on a real British convict, transported to Australia during the 1800’s, by the name of Walter Paisley.
My research of Port Arthur and the convict era began when I visited the beautiful site many years ago as a child. We were given playing cards of which were paired with a real life convict. And of course, what had seemed random and coincidental ended up not being so in the end. My chosen card was 3 of hearts – my convict? Walter Paisley. His little story written on the cut-out representative of him made me smile – he seemed like a rascal, for he had cunningly made his way into the solitary confinement cells and told rude stories to entertain the boys inside. I remember lying in my bed later that night, imaging what life would have been like for a convict. What if I was a female convict? And so the writer in me came out, and I began to imagine life as a young convict girl. But what about that boy I read about? What was his story? I remember later reading about him, and in the text, it said that it seemed his life was a ‘failure’. It was when I read that, that I felt extremely sorry for him. I didn’t know who he was, nor how to find out more about him, but surely his life could not have been a failure. I was very optimistic as a child, and like to think that I have and always will believe in the best of people. So it was when I grew older, that despite becoming more intelligent, the thought of and strange ‘compassion’ for this mystery convict remained unchanged. So, I took it upon myself to ‘justify his name’, per say, and discover what his life was really like – if he really did seem like a ‘failure’.
The life of Walter Paisley is taken from particular convict records kept in Tasmanian libraries. With a combination of Assignment Period Conduct Records (taken during the Assignment Period of 1803-1839) and Probation Period Conduct Records (taken during the Probation Period of 1840-1854), we can infer to the life of an individual during their time as a convict.
The first, most common record to find, is his Appropriation Record – which lists his police number (‘968’), name (‘Walter Paisley’) and occupation (‘Boy’) – and his Assignment Period Conduct Record. This includes a summary of his trial, date he was transported, and a record of his misdemeanours and punishments. Because Walter was still going strong in the convict system, his records were copied in ‘Probation Period Conduct Record’ form. From this record, a description of his physical appearance of when he first arrived in Australia can be obtained. A short boy who measured up to 4ft 1.5inch, Walter was the smallest of the first boys transferred to the new boys prison named Point Puer, which opened in January 1834, two months after their arrival on Australian soil. This was a relief, for the unwanted, unskilled boys in ‘The Tench’ (Hobart Prisoners Barracks) were the only convicts remaining after the government took their pick of the best convict adults and adolescents; those who had any type of skill learnt in their home country were highly valued – those who didn’t were rendered useless.
“During the night, he could feel a chilly breeze coming from the gaps in the walls, and could sometimes hear strange shrieking noises from animals outside, sounds he had never heard before in England. He tried not to think of the stories his fellow convicts told him, of monsters lurking in the forests with sharp teeth and appetites only to be satisfied with human flesh…”
In Point Puer, Walter did not stay quiet. His first punishment came a month after they settled – February 1834, Walter was charged with insubordinate conduct towards his Superintendent. His punishment: 7 days in solitary confinement. For children who lived in the bustling streets of England, with cramped houses and multitudes of people, the strange sight of wide open spaces, vegetation and the ocean was nothing but strange, and to many of the younger boys, most likely terrifying. They never would have heard the sounds of shrieking Tasmanian Devils in the bushes calling during the night, and most likely would never have seen a wild snake. Neither would they have had the ability to swim. Being alone in the wilderness would have been a drastic change for them, but they were expected to deal with it – they were the ones who put themselves in that situation in the first place.
7 days in solitary confinement (punishment spent in a dark confined cell for a period of time, on a diet of bread and water), which was designed to inflict psychological pain by isolating an individual away from human contact, did not stop Walter, nor teach him to abstain from exhibiting bad behaviour. He continued to cause trouble – from starting fights, to assaulting fellow prisoners; from shouting obscenities to disobeying rules, Walter displayed a wide range of unlawful acts. He spoke loudly in the solitary cells, bad mouthed his authority, went fishing on ‘The Rocks’, stole a chicken and even damaged government property. It seemed like there was nothing Walter hadn’t done. It was suggested that Walter learnt carpentry skills during his time at Point Puer, but some studies have suggested that only the well-behaved boys were given the privilege of learning a trade; after all, there had to be someone doing the harder, gruellingly tougher work. Walter’s extensive conduct record therefore, could suggest that he was not allowed this privilege, and instead worked in the labour gangs with the other more badly behaved boys. There is nothing to suggest either possibility, for his conduct records do not specify one or the other, and there are no records so far which state which boy was assigned to which job.
Despite Walter’s constant defiance to authority, he was released on the 28th of February five years after his arrival. Due to the prison records only recording his time as a convict, we are unable to tell much of his life after his release. Although, by looking at why he was back in court on breaking and entering charges, we can infer to the life he lived during the 6 months he was free. From the court transcript of Walter’s case, as well as newspaper articles in ‘The Colonial Times’ and the ‘Hobart Town Courier & Van Diemen’s Land Gazette’, we know that he worked for the man whose house he broke into. And because he worked on the esquire’s sloop, we can assume that he lived there as well. Though unfortunately, he had broken into the house of Mr Michael Lackey Esq. of Macquarie Street, the same man whose sloop he worked on, and was caught before he stole anything. The motivation behind this, we cannot really know; his defence testimony in court verses the testimony of Mr Lackey can give some idea of why he did such a thing, though we can never be completely sure as to which side of the story is correct; anyone would believe the word of an esquire over the word of an ex-convict. For this punishment, he was sentenced to 10 years transportation to Port Arthur.
December 16 of 1839, a few weeks after his arrival, he was charged with insolence and was sent straight to the ‘chain gang’. Life in a hard labour gang or in Walter’s case, the ‘chain gang’, was extremely tough. Shackles weighed a few kilos, and hard labour work such as breaking rocks or being in a timber gang collecting wood wouldn’t have been easy having heavy shackles chained to your ankles. During his time in the chain gang, Walter is charged for idleness. Later on, he is released from the chain gang, but is charged for idleness once more. But as we read on, suddenly we see no scribbles of Walter’s misdemeanours for the next six months. It seems as if this young man, who we see as a child continuously causing trouble through a whole range of things, suddenly decided he wanted to behave. But suddenly, the six months of good behaviour ends with Walter stealing a carrot. Why? Who knows… It seems the imagination is best left to explain something so strange.
“He did not want to think of his past; that of which was spent with almost 170 days in solitary confinement, and gaining almost 136 lashings upon his back and breech…”
Walter then began his trouble-making again; idleness and refusing to work being amongst the causes of his constant demotion to work in chains for the hard labour gangs. His final years of prison life ended in 1847, but not before he was sent to the invalid station at Impression Bay in 1846. (‘Invalids’ were convicts who were too sick or too old to work at full capacity.) It was here where his refusal to work lead him to the solitary cells for 10 days. And then, there is nothing. No more entires are found after this in his Assignment Record. However, we see a Government Notice in the ‘Hobart Town Courier’, which states that on the 5th of March, 1847, an individual by the name of Walter Paisley 969, transported to Hobart Town on the Isabella, is granted a conditional pardon.
“Walter Paisley… quick witted and somewhat of a clown, with a keen sense of humour…”
Walter Paisley no longer had a prison conduct book to keep track of his behaviour. However, it does not stop other documents involving Walter from showing us what kind of life he lived. In census documents, we learn that after he is released, he resides in a home who is owned by an individual named ‘Mr Fisher’. We learn through various newspaper articles that he is known as being a shoemaker and boat builder, and whose playful personality could not hide the fact that he was an entertainer and ‘clown’. We also see a donation of cuttlefish made by a Mr Paisley to the Gentleman’s Society. We then read newspaper articles about him, years after his death, of entertaining stories which show his humour and wittiness. We read of his many wives who he sadly loses through death. One story tells of his refusal to sleep after his discovery of his newly wedded wife’s appearance in court for the alleged murder of her previous husband.
“He was often seen walking up and down the road at midnight, afraid to go home until he thought his wife had gone to sleep…”
We hear about Walter being a friend of a highly esteemed boat building family when we come across the Wilsons’ from Cygnet. Newspaper articles of Walter’s generous wedding gift to the newly married Mrs Wilson, is most well-known.
Could it be that Walter worked for them, and gave it to both Mr & Mrs Wilson?
Could it be that despite Mr Wilson being an expert boat builder, he admired Walter’s talent so much that he requested for Walter to build a boat for his wife on behalf of himself?
There could be many translations of this story all depending on the type of wording used; whether Walter gave it to Mrs Wilson, or the both individuals. Though one thing is for certain – for Walter Paisley, we know is a definite – to have built a boat, another definite – for newly weds. For Walter to have given a dinghy has a wedding gift; a gift for the beautiful thing of marriage… It does seem quite interesting. Does it also seem interesting, that Walter continued to seek after marriage himself? That after a wife passed, he continued to look for another love? There are census records which show that he was married three times during his life (despite there being discrepancies between the years of birth recorded for Walter across all marriage certificates, causing confusion in his own age of each marriage, and therefore confusing the year in which he was born). It is these questions that I as not only a researcher ask, but as a writer. My writer’s imagination cannot help but think that the extraordinary change we see in a ‘once-rebellious-turned-highly-esteemed’ Walter Paisley, can only be explained by extraordinary events. Of course, the events which take place in my novel are highly fictitious, though it does excite the mind to conjure up such possibilities.
In my research of Mr Paisley, one thing I have learnt is that no matter where you come from, your mistakes in the past, nor who you are as a person, with the correct mindset and a positive outlook on life, even a person who is in the lowest class of society can fight to create a new life for themselves. Even a defiant and hard-headed criminal such as Walter Paisley, a convict who endured around 170 days in solitary confinement and about 136 lashes, found the inner strength to decide to change his ways to benefit not the people to tried to change him, but himself. Walter’s radical change resulted in a life I think he was finally happy with. His life is a strong testament to show that even after his passing, those who knew him or knew of him continued to speak of the wonderful memories of his entertaining, witty and humour self, no one remembering that he once lived life as a troublesome convict. It seems that in the end, what seemed to be a young boy who set his own life up for failure, ended up fighting against all odds, to become a man who ended up defying even the fate that many believed for him.