Prisoner Charles BROWN aka Wm FORSTER: The Bulletin, May 16, 1978

CONVICTISM in the 1970s

The Bulletin 1978
The article below appeared in The Bulletin, a weekly Australian magazine on May 16, 1978. The journalist’s name was not recorded. It was published a year after the initial exhibition of Tasmanian convict portraits taken by professional photographer Thomas J. Nevin in the 1870s, held at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in 1977.

The Bulletin article titled “Thirty years of brutal punishment” detailed the criminal career of a convict called “William Forster“, and included an image of a Tasmanian prisoner or “convict” which was sourced from either the Archives Office of Tasmania or the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery where copies of the photograph are held bearing the number “41” on the mount. The problem with this Bulletin article is the mismatch between the Tasmanian Archives convict conduct record which documents the criminal career of a transported offender called William Forster who was 47 years old by 1874, and the photograph of a much younger man in his early twenties called Charles Brown which was taken by T. J. Nevin in 1874. The writer of the article suspected as much but without the knowledge at the time that the younger man used the older man’s name as an alias, the article went to press.

Whoever wrote “William Forster” on the verso of this photograph, and likewise the names of prisoners on the versos of 300 similar mugshots in cdv format from 1870s had not consulted the weekly police gazette notices, the only contemporary records of the era to document a prisoner’s aliases unless mentioned in the press. Several more mugshots from the 1870s now extant in national collections have similarly been misidentified as a result of this oversight – see for example this history of prisoner Elijah Elton aka John Jones.

The Bulletin, May 16, 1978
Copy courtesy the National Library of Australia:
NEVIN, T.J. Australian Photographer Files, Record ID: 3821234


“Thirty years of brutal punishment

ALTHOUGH William Forster, pictured here, had arrived in Australia in the
mid-1840s. he was still a convict 30 years later when an amateur
photographer, T. J. Nevin. took his flashlight and pan to Port Arthur to
take portraits of the remaining prisoners. Forster, number 41 on the
list, was one of the few who can be traced. By 1874, the records of most
of those photographed had been lost or the convicts were insane or so
distrustful that they gave Nevin the wrong names when asked. Forster
looked surprisingly youthful
, although he was then 47 and his record
lists endless punishments.

Forster, convict No 12774. was transported to Australia for 10 years at
the age of 17 for stealing a writing desk. He was a farm laborer from
Yorkshire and arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in 1844. He could read and
write and was a Protestant.

Detailed records were taken of Forster on his arrival; they note that he
was dark haired. with an oval face and dark eyes. Records kept in large
leather-bound books at the settlement at Port Arthur include elaborate
descriptions of the shape of the head (“medium”), size of nose
(“medium”), even width of chin (“medium”). These were kept to identify
an escapee.

When asked, Forster “stated this offence,” which meant that he confessed
to the crime for which he had been transported. He had earlier served
two months for another minor offence. The surgeon noted that he was “not
orderly” on the voyage from England.

Five months after arriving at Port Arthur he escaped but was caught. For
that he was put in heavy chains. The record then lists his offences and
punishment: solitary for disobedience in refusing to take his slops: 24
lashes for having a silk handkerchief improperly; solitary for
misconduct in being found dancing; solitary for insubordination; labor
in chains for threatening a prisoner; solitary for disobedience, These
offences run on for years, written in the ornate longhand of the
convicts employed as clerks.

After 1840, flogging was abolished officially – though it still went on
– and the rebellious were usually put into solitary confinement. Forster
would spend almost all day alone in a small stone cell just long enough
to lie down in. on a starvation diet, in absolute silence. Outside the
cell he would have to pull down a beak-like mask so that any passing
prisoner could not see his face. The conditions were enough to drive men
insane, and they did: at Port Arthur the commandant had to build a
lunatic asylum next to the prison section used for solitary

Forster became more and more rebellious. He got 14 days solitary for
disobedience; seven days solitary for being insolent to the religious
instructor; three months solitary for exchanging his boots with another
prisoner without permission; and another period in chains for breaking a
window in the chapel.

He escaped in 1849 and was caught robbing a house, presumably for food.
The punishment was to work underground in a coal mine but he escaped
again and was given a life sentence (with the original term to be served

In 1850 he arrived at the dreaded settlement on Norfolk Island. There he
was punished successively for using profane language; giving a false
name to a constable; obscene language; and having a turkey in his
possession. He got away again, in November, 1856. and was sentenced to
his second life term for burglary while on the run. Eighteen years later
he was still serving these sentences as a convict at Port Arthur.

Those convicts whose photographs remain were all serving long terms:
one, who gave his name as George Willis (though this cannot be found in
the official records) was by his own account transported in 1836 – 38
years earlier.

From the magazine, The Bulletin. May 16, 1978

The Archives Office photocopy

Paper photocopy of Nevin’s photograph of prisoner Charles Brown aka William Forster, held at Archives Office Tasmania
Numbered “41: on recto, applied in the 1970s -1980s at the QVMAG as number “41” in a list of 300 similar cdv mugshots when the collection was reviewed for exhibitions.

The Archives Office of Tasmania holds this record, online in 2005

Correction: this is a photograph of a prisoner called Charles Brown whose alias was “William Forster”.
Archives Office of Tasmania (webshot) 2005
Caption: “William Forster convict transported per Equestrian.
Photograph taken at Port Arthur by Thomas Nevin.”
Ref: PH30/1/3246

The QVMAG copy
Below is a black and white copy created ca. 1983-85 at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery of their original sepia print from Thomas Nevin’s 1870’s mugshot taken of the prisoner the QVMAG’s original archivist believed was named William Forster. It was numbered recto “41” from the verso number in orthographic style of an earlier period at some time during 1983-84 when fifty of more of these mugshots were removed from the QVMAG’s collection of 300 in Launceston and exhibited at the Port Arthur prison heritage site, south of Hobart. Those fifty or so mugshots were returned to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery where they remain today, instead of being returned to the QVMAG. This mugshot which the QVMAG supposed represented the 47 yr old prisoner called William Forster, oddly enough, was numbered but not removed to Port Arthur in the 1980s. Thomas J. Nevin produced at least four duplicates from his glass negative at the original sitting with each prisoner. The duplicate held at the National Library of Australia, which does not bear any numbering on recto but appeared to the NLA cataloguist as the number “47” on verso – a misreading of the handwriting – was one such duplicate from the 1870s. It found its way to the NLA, Canberra, through the donation by Dr Neil Gunson of government estrays in the 1960s.

Correction: this is a photograph of a prisoner called Charles Brown whose alias was “William Forster”.
Verso inscription: 41 William Forster per Equestrian 1, 1/5/44
Photographer: T. J. Nevin, 1874
Black and white copy produced in 1985 at the QVMAG
Ref: QVM 1985: P94

The Bulletin journalist had no doubt about the name of the photographer, although s/he assumed T. J. Nevin was an amateur, not a professional, working with a “flashlight and pan” at Port Arthur. S/he assumed too that Nevin recorded the convict’s name as he was being photographed – “they gave Nevin the wrong names when asked ” – and that “those convicts whose photographs remain were all serving long terms“. The unstated inference is that Nevin then wrote the convict’s name on the verso of the prisoner’s cdv, but that is very unlikely in the first instance, since the prisoner’s original identification mugshot was pasted to his criminal record (gaol rap sheet). The numbering on all of these extant cdvs of Tasmanian prisoners photographed in the 1870s was the work of 20th century archivists, whether by John Watt Beattie in the early 1900s at his “Port Arthur Museum” in Hobart, or by curators of exhibitions at the QVMAG and PAHS in the years 1928-1930, 1976-1977, and 1983-1984.

The more salient comment by the Bulletin writer centres on the possibility of prisoners offering aliases. In this case, it is unlikely that misidentification was caused by the prisoner. It appears that this prisoner’s photograph was mistakenly identified as a photograph of a middle-aged “convict” called William Forster by archivists in the 20th century while conducting research for descendants, or for print publications, or for travelling exhibitions. This photograph in all likelihood represents a 22yr old locally born offender called Charles Brown who was photographed at the Hobart Municipal Police Office by T. J. Nevin in January 1874, rather than a 47 year old transported convict called William Forster.

The National Library of Australia copy
Two sepia prints, and two black and white copies of the single capture by Thomas Nevin of his one and only sitting with Charles Brown (aka William Forster) are held in three different locations: at the Archives Office of Tasmania, Hobart; at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Launceston, and at the National Library of Australia, Canberra. The National Library of Australia copy carries the inscribed number “41” on verso but not recto. The Bulletin article of May 1978 is held in the NLA’s Australian Photographers’ files in Thomas J. Nevin’s name, an indication that the writer of the Bulletin article may have also consulted the NLA’s photograph of the prisoner along with the NLA’s correct attribution to Thomas J. Nevin as the photographer of their collection. The sources of the NLA’s collection of “convict portraits Port Arthur” – 84 cdvs in total – were Dr Neil Gunson in the 1960s, and the curator of the QVMAG exhibition in 1977,  Mr John McPhee in the 1980s.

Correction: this is a photograph of a prisoner called Charles Brown whose alias was “William Forster”.
National Library of Australia catalogue (incorrect information)
Ref: nla.pic-vn4269869 PIC P1029/13 LOC Album 935
William Forster, per Equestrian 1, taken at Port Arthur, 1874 [picture]
1 photograph on carte-de-visite mount : albumen ; 9.4 x 5.6 cm. on mount 10.5 x 6.3 cm.
Gunson Collection file 203/7/54.
Part of collection: Convict portraits, Port Arthur, 1874.
Title from inscription on reverse.
Inscription: title and “47“–In ink on reverse.

The assumption that convictarian and photographer John Watt Beattie, who was commissioned by the colonial government to promote Tasmania’s penal heritage to intercolonial visitors, had salvaged these prisoner mugshots from police records and even reprinted several for display and sale at his “Port Arthur Museum” located in Murray St. Hobart to encourage tourism to the ruins of the Port Arthur prison in the early 1900s, is probably correct. The numbers could then reflect an attempt at archiving the 1870s original photographs, which he probably removed from the gaol records (criminal rap sheets). However, given the assurance with which the journalist of the Bulletin article proceeds to match up a convict’s record in the name of William Forster with this photograph, despite his own reservations in the face of glaring contradictions in the convict shipping registers of the age of the transportee compared with the youthfulness of the man pictured, the unknown journalist obviously had no other recourse than to trust his informants at the NLA, the QVMAG and the Archives Office of Tasmania.

William Forster or Charles Brown?
The Archives Office of Tasmania has more than one William Forster on its database of Tasmanian convicts, and each man would have been too old to be the subject of this photo:

80374 Forster William Purcell William [alias] 25 May 1851 Alibi
24495 Forster William 16 Aug 1823 Commodore Hayes 26 Apr 1823 England
24399 Forster William 02 May 1844 Equestrian (1) 28 Jan 1844 London

According to the journalist, this convict whom he calls William Forster was transported in 1844 on board the ship Equestrian 1 as a 17 year old, so by the time Thomas Nevin photographed him in 1874, which the journalist supposed was at Port Arthur, this William Forster would have been a 47 year old man. But that is not what we see in this image: this prisoner is barely in his twenties.

None of these convicts’ records, therefore, match the prisoner photographed by T. J. Nevin at the Hobart Gaol in January 1874. This young offender was Charles Brown, born in Tasmania, his alias was “William Forster” and he was 22 years old when he was photographed. He is unusual for the fact that he surrendered himself to the police at the Hobart Gaol on January 9th, 1874. These are the police records from the weekly gazettes for Charles Brown alias William Forster:

Police Records

William Forster suspected of stealing boots and skins at Evandale, Tasmania, prisoner discharged, notice published on 23 June 1871.

Charles Brown, using the alias William Forster, labourer aged 21 yrs, was convicted of larceny and sentenced to two months on 16th December 1871. No ship was recorded because he was born in Tasmania (ca. 1850), and not a transportee prior to cessation in 1853.

Warrant for Charles Brown (aka Wm Forster), aged 22 yrs, native of Tasmania – i.e. locally born – was issued on 25th July 1873, published 1st August 1873.

The same Charles Brown (aka Wm Forster), aged 22 yrs, absconded on the 24th November 1873 from the House of Correction at Hobart whilst undergoing a sentence of eight weeks’ hard labour passed on him at the Police Office Hobart Town. Described as 5 feet 2 and half inches tall, fresh complexion, light brown hair, whiskers shaved, grey eyes, wide mouth, native place Hobart Town, a quarryman, cross and D.C. within heart on right arm, crucifix on upper part of left arm. The notice was published on 28th November 1873.

Charles Brown (aka Wm Forster) “surrendered himself at the Gaol, Hobart Town“, 9th January 1874, where government contractor Thomas J. Nevin photographed him in the ensuing week. These records were sourced from the weekly police gazettes called Tasmania Reports of Crime for Police 1871-1875 J. Barnard, Gov’t Printer.

Information from this record (below, sourced from the Archives Office Tasmania) of the transported convict called William Forster per Equestrian (1) is the document used by the writer of the Bulletin article. The sheer mess of dozens of entries and lengthy comments made this convict’s record an attractive contender for a 1970s national audience ready to reclaim convict ancestry; the more notorious the convict, the greater the appeal, or so it seemed.

Forster, William
Record Type: Convicts
Departure date: 28 Jan 1844
Departure port: London
Ship: Equestrian (1)
Place of origin: Harrogate, Yorkshire
Origin location: Latitude and Longitude
Voyage number:232 Index number: 24399
Record ID: NAME_INDEXES:1393103
Archives Office Tasmania

RELATED POSTS main weblog