Anthony Trollope’s Port Arthur interviewee 1872

THOMAS J. NEVIN at Port Arthur 1872

Anthony Trollope, English novelist, ca. 1875 / photographers Elliott & Fry, 55 Baker St, London | P1/1803.State Library of NSW Ref: 900754

Thomas J. Nevin – T.J. Nevin – took many hundreds of identification photographs of prisoners at the Hobart Gaol and courts, including the court and prison at Port Arthur 60 kms from Hobart, and at the Municipal Police Office Hobart Town Hall between 1872 and 1886. The 300 or so items to survive in public collections are estrays from this larger corpus. Several original prisoner photographs survive as cartes-de-visite pasted to prison records (QVMAG, PCHS), and some survive as uncut sepia prints from Nevin’s 1870s glass negatives (TMAG and QVMAG) which were displayed at Beattie’s “Port Arthur Museum” in Hobart  by John Watt Beattie and Edward Searle who also reprinted a handful again as vignetted cartes ca. 1900s-1920s for sale as tourist tokens of Tasmania’s convict “stain”.

Albums and loose copies of these mugshots are held at the National Library of Australia, Canberra; the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Launceston; the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart; the State Library, NSW, and originals and duplicates such as this one of Killeen at the Archives Office of Tasmania, Hobart.

The National Library of Australia’s catalogue has a standard entry for all of these convicts’ cdv’s (a batch edit), despite discrepancies and anomalies pertaining to Nevin’s actual date of photographing the convict, the photograph’s accession history by the NLA (1964, 1985, 1995), and the photographer attribution, correctly assigned in the modern era (1920s, 1976, 1977 etc) to government contractor, commercial photographer T. J. Nevin from primary historical evidence.

Many of the convicts, including those with a history of transportation prior to 1853 whose distinctive photographs have survived as visual documents from their later criminal careers, were repeat offenders who served short terms and were arrested again and again. When they were arrested, a booking photograph was taken at the Hobart Gaol on being received if their sentence was to extend beyond three months. And when they were discharged, a further mugshot was taken by Nevin for prison records and the Habitual Criminals Register held at the Hobart Municipal Police Office, Hobart Town Hall.

Of all the convicts pictured in the NLA collection, this one – prisoner Denis Dogherty – achieved international fame through the travel writings of British author Anthony Trollope.

Convict Denis Dogherty
Photo by T.J. Nevin taken at Port Arthur 1874
NLA Collection nla.pic-vn3096343

Denis Dogherty was interviewed by Anthony Trollope while on a visit to Port Arthur in the first week of February 1872. The trip was reported in The Mercury, 2 February 1872.

The Mercury 2 February 1872


VISIT TO PORT ARTHUR.- Mr. Trollope and the Hon. Howard Spensly, Esq., Solicitor-General of Victoria, accompanied the Hon. the Premier, J.M. Wilson, Esq., and the Hon. the Attorney-General, W.R. Giblin, Esq., embarked in the Government schooner late last night, some time after Mr. Trollope had concluded his lecture on “Modern Fiction, as a recreation for young people,” and left for Port Arthur. Their visit to the Peninsula will be a very hurried one, and will afford them only scant opportunity of inspecting the penal establishment, it being the intention of Messrs. Trollope and Spensly to leave Hobart Town for the North, en route for Victoria in a few days …

Anthony Trollope was accompanied by the Tasmanian Premier, the Hon. J.M. Wilson, and two lawyers: the Victorian Solicitor-General Howard Spensly and the Tasmanian Attorney-General W.R. Giblin. Also in the party at the request of W.R. Giblin was photographer Thomas J. Nevin. Giblin had acted as Nevin’s family solicitor since the dissolution of the firm Nevin & Smith in 1868. The Victorian Solicitor-General’s interest in prison security at Port Arthur extended to suggesting the photographing of prisoners by commercial photographers. In South Australia and Victoria, commercial photographers such as Frazer Crawford and Charles Nettleton respectively were engaged part-time on contract in prisons.

Shortly before Trollope’s visit, a group of prisoners including Dogherty had absconded. The notice “Absconded” appeared in the police gazette on November 3rd, 1871, with a full physical description. The same issue carried the notice of Dogherty’s subsequent arrest:


Denis Dogherty, George Fisher and John O’Brien absconded, notice of 2 November 1871. All three men were arrested the following day:

Source:Tasmania Reports of Crime Information for Police
1865-1885, J. Barnard, Govt Printer
Absconders Dogherty, Fisher and O’Brien were arrested 3 November 1871.

These three absconders underscored the need for photographic documentation of prisoners. Attorney-General Giblin engaged Thomas J. Nevin for the task within weeks of this trip to Port Arthur. The task extended to working at the Hobart Gaol where all prisoners were first incarcerated, and to the Town Hall Police Office for prisoners on discharge. Dogherty was among those prisoners photographed by Nevin in 1873, and photographed again by Nevin at the Hobart Gaol on being transferred on or before 30th January 1876. George Fisher was discharged with a TOL on 15th April 1874, and arraigned in December 1874. See this article for Fisher’s  police record. Fisher’s release photograph is one of Nevin’s better prisoner portraits evincing his commercial studio technique probably because Fisher was photographed in the more civilising atmosphere on release from the Police Office at the time of his TOL, rather than at the Hobart Gaol on his arrest.

Prisoner George Fisher
Photo by T.J. Nevin, 15 April 1874
NLA Collection

Prisoner John O’Brien
Photo by T.J. Nevin 1874
Original held at the QVMAG
Copy held at the Archives Office Tasmania

Anthony Trollope later wrote in his publication Australia and New Zealand (1872) that Denis Dogherty was tall, heavily tattooed, with a large cleft chin and one small gray eye:

“In appearance he was a large man and still powerful, well to look at in spite of his eye, lost as he told us through the miseries of prison life. But he said that he was broken at last.”

Snippets re convict Doherty [sic] from Trollope’s Australia and New Zealand pp 148-151.

When seated for his pose – probably with a headrest – we can assume that in the course of steadying himself and waiting for Thomas Nevin to prepare the equipment, Dogherty told the photographer of his miseries and rebellions, and probably drew attention to the lost eye: the old “my best side” routine. Which eye is it – the left or the right? The police gazette noted that he had lost sight of his right eye. The cdv printed from the negative would be the mirror image of the glass negative, in which case, Dogherty’s original pose was reversed for the positive print carte, and his left eye would have been closer to the photographer and the camera than his right. This cdv, however, hides his most recognisable feature, and that is because it has been reprinted by a copyist such as Beattie for sale to tourists. The original carte printed by Nevin from his negative would have shown the image flipped to accentuate Dogherty’s eye for police records:

Mirror image of Dogherty’s pose

Dogherty’s selfhood was no doubt inflated by such attentions from a famous writer. It cannot be assumed that he was inhibited, intimidated, violated and cowered by the presence of the camera and the police photographer, as the postmodern Foucauldians would have it (e.g. Helen Ennis, Mirror with a Memory, Catalogue for the NLA Exhibition 2000). When a prisoner such as Fisher was photographed on discharge, he was facing freedom. Why would he cower?

On the contrary, we need to pay closer attention to what Peter Doyle calls “the hot zone of exchanged looks” – the moment where the subject – here, the 1870s convict – displays his role as cohabitor of the space shared with the police photographer.

Admittedly, little exhibitionism was possible in an era when perfect stillness was required by the sitter, when headstands were the norm in private studio portrait practice, and recording the image on the plate required exposure to light. But there are nuances aplenty, vast differences in facial expressions and posture, as well as in small details of dress,of the arrangement of the coat and scarf, and in the grooming of hair and whiskers. The booking photograph, taken on arrest, often depicted the offender in civilian clothing; and in the case of absconders, their clothing varied according to the class of their assignment to an employer.

Prisoners were relocated from the Port Arthur prison site to other prison and asylum sites in Hobart in a steady stream from 1871 onwards. The transfer of paupers (but not criminals) to asylums in Hobart was undersigned by A. H. Boyd in the police gazettes, but his name disappears abruptly from any association with criminal police and procedures from February 1873. Boyd was not a photographer, nor involved in any way with the photographing of prisoners for the Tasmanian Police by the time the transfer began en masse in January 1873. Of the 109 prisoners listed there in 1871, sixty had already returned to Hobart by July 1873. From May 1874 prisoners were transferred in large numbers from Port Arthur to the Hobart Gaol, for two reasons:

(a) Parliament was urged to close Port Arthur because of serious corruption during A.H. Boyd’s incumbency (Mercury reports 18-30 July 1873). Prisoner numbers were being artificially inflated to ensure the continuance of the site and the well-heeled existence of its Commandant A.H. Boyd.

(b) young males were being sent from Hobart and the regions to be incarcerated there with hardened criminals. Leonard Hand was such a case. This practice ceased at the compassionate urgence of A. H. Boyd’s replacement, Surgeon-Commandant Dr John Coverdale from the time of his incumbency in January 1874. Identification photographs were taken when reconvicted, on arrest, arraignment and discharge.

Charles Downes (listed as Dawnes in the NLA records) is one example of a convict who was photographed on a further conviction of rape in the Supreme Court on February 13th, 1872, while in custody. His sentence – execution – was stayed with a reprieve in 1875. He later died in custody in 1879. See this article on his inquest.

All these inmates had been exposed to the worst the system could dish out over their life-time; a photograph would have been a sign to them of “graduation” when discharged. In some cases, they were “freed” soon after (eg. Michael Murphy). In another instance, of a man hanged for murder, James Sutherland, a final photograph was taken seven days before his death.

History, however, has kept these men in their place. Whether through the reproduction of their image for the tourist trade by John Watt Beattie and Searle in the 1910s, or by their resurrection as ethnographic artefact on the walls of the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in 1977. But the encounter is nonetheless partially on their terms, and we feel compelled to scan the image for the performative sign of individuality.

As the curator’s press release for the 1977 QVMAG exhibition stated:

“Despite their original use, these photographs possess a quality far beyond that of records. Just once rascally, occasionally noble, always pathetic, these photographs are among the most moving and powerful images of the human condition.”

Curator of Fine Art, John McPhee, 9th March, 1977.

Edwin Barnard claims to be the author of a recent publication sponsored by the National Library of Australia titled Exiled: The Port Arthur Convict Photographs (Edwin Barnard, NLA 2010). Yet Barnard’s primary source of information about Dogherty was from a page copied from Geoff Lennox (1994), held in Thomas J. Nevin’s Photographer File at the National Library of Australia:

[Nevin, T. J. : photography related ephemera material collected by the National Library of Australia]
Bib ID 3821234
Dogherty’s photograph attributed to T. J. Nevin
Held at the NLA in Nevin’s file
Photo taken at the National Library of Australia, 6 Feb 2015
Photos copyright KLW NFC 2015 ARR

Tasmania Reports of Crime Information for Police 1860s-1880s. J. Barnard, Government Printer

Peter Doyle’s recent article online: “Public eye, private eye: Sydney police mug shots, 1912-1930” Journal of Media Arts Culture Vol 2, No. 3 December 2005

City of Shadows by Peter Doyle (Historic Houses Trust of NSW 2005)

Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore 1986. pp591ff

Anthony Trollope Australia and New Zealand Melbourne, 1874 (London: 1872)