John Watt Beattie’s Museum ca 1916

BEATTIE, John Watt (1859-1930)

Beattie’s Port Arthur Museum
John Watt Beattie located his museum in Hobart but called it the “Port Arthur Museum” where he sold any fragment of any item as historical artefact of Tasmania’s convict and aboriginal past, including reproductions.

John Watt Beattie ca. 1920
Archives Office of Tasmania Ref:30-430c

A visitor to Tasmania in 1916 with the South Australian Commission became so affronted by John Watt Beattie’s commercialism when he “wandered into the Port Arthur Museum” in Hobart, the visitor was moved to write a letter to the Mercury newspaper. His letter was published on 3rd February, 1916:

He wrote:

“There are three rooms literally crammed with exhibits … The question which pressed itself on my mind time and again was, how comes it that these old-time relics which formerly were Government property, are now in private hands? Did the Government sell them or give them away? The same query applies to the small collection in a curiosity shop at Brown’s River. Whatever the answer may be, I hold the opinion that the Government would be amply justified in taking prompt steps to repossess them, even though some duplicates may be in the State Museum. Today the collection is valuable and extremely interesting. A century hence it will be priceless. It would surely be unpardonable to allow it to pass into the hands of some wealthy globe-trotter which is the fate awaiting it, unless action be taken to secure it to the State.”

The Mercury 3rd February 1916, letter to the editor
from Edward Lucas, MLC, Legislative Council, Adelaide.

This visitor on government business in Tasmania could hardly have envisioned that the State itself would never be able to do the collection justice, because Beattie had already violated the integrity of the originals, despite making “some duplicates” and lodging them in the “State Museum“, by which he meant the institution now known as the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. This was one means whereby the TMAG acquired duplicates of T. J. Nevin’s prisoner photographs. Two other sources are likely: estrays from the central police registry at the Hobart Town Hall (next door to the TMAG) where Nevin worked as a full-time civil servant in the years 1876-1880 and which housed the Municipal Police Office, cells in the basement and Office of the Inspector of Police, in addition to the Public Library upstairs. Beattie also sourced a number of prisoner photographs from the Sheriff’s Office at the Hobart Gaol when the old photographers’ room was demolished in 1915. The other source is the “borrowing” of originals and duplicates by staff at the TMAG in Hobart from Beattie’s donated collection at the QVMAG in Launceston for an exhibition held at the Port Arthur prison site in 1983-1984. The TMAG acquired hundreds of stereographs, cartes-de-visite portraits of private clientele, and Hobart Gaol prisoner mugshots taken by Thomas J. Nevin in the 1860s-1870s from these sources.

Beattie’s Port Arthur Museum in Hobart
QVMAG Ref: 1986_P_1223

The rooms in Beattie’s Port Arthur Museum, 51 Murray St. Hobart,  looked like this:

Room 1: the red arrow points to prisoner records with photos by Nevin attached.

Room 2: Death masks at John Watt Beattie’s Port Arthur Museum, Hobart, Tasmania (TMAG Collection)

J. W. Beattie offered for sale a number of original mounted and unmounted 1870s cdvs of “Types of Imperial Convicts” as he styled them in his 1916 Catalogue which looked like this:

The Catalogue for Sale of items from
John Watt Beattie’s Museum, ca. 1916
(photographed from the NLA Microfiche, September 2007)

From the catalogue below in which this advertisement appeared, the tourist and collector could choose from a range of relics, curios, and photographs salvaged from across the State. The curiosity about Tasmania’s convict past in these early years of the 20th century ensured that Beattie’s business flourished. His photographic reproductions, as both cartes-de-visite prints and lantern slides from negatives of prisoner ID photographs taken for the police and prison authorities by the Nevin brothers in the 1870s-1880s was a lucrative niche market. Those extant cartes from his museum which are now in public collections may well be those which he did not manage to sell, or which he donated as Nevin’s duplicates to the TMAG and QVMAG. What needs to be underscored here is that John Watt Beattie was never the original photographer of the Tasmanian prisoners portrayed in the extant “convict portraits” taken by Thomas Nevin and his younger brother Constable John Nevin between 1871 and 1886 at the Hobart Supreme Court, Hobart Gaol and the Port Arthur prison. Beattie arrived in Tasmania in the late 1880s as an amateur photographer, primarily of landscapes, and did not become a commercial photographer with government endorsement until he joined the Anson Bros. in 1892.

Port Arthur Museum (Beattie ca 1916) ,
Catalogue, Room 1.
John Watt Beattie’s Port Arthur Museum, Hobart.
Catalogue dated ca. 1916

SOURCE: National Library of Australia
Author: Port Arthur Museum (Tas.)
Title: Catalogue of exhibits [microform]
Edition: [2nd ed.]
Publisher: [Hobart? : The Museum?, 1916?]
Printer: (Hobart : Critic Print)
Description: 15 p. ; 21 cm.
Notes: Cover title.
Reproduction: Microfiche. Canberra : National Library of Australia, 2004.
Call Number: mc N 2225 JAFp HIST 3072

TRANSCRIPT: Catalogue of Exhibits

1. Frame Containing Relics of Rev. R. Knopwood (20 exhibits),
2. Harmonium, bought at Sir Wm. Denison’s sale.
3. Oil Painting of Old St. David’s Church, Hobart, 1825.
4. Oil Painting of Macquarie Street, Hobart, 1825.
5. Frame of Needlework Figure Picture, from Rev. R. Knopwood.
6. Water Colour Picture, “Hobart from River,” 1828.
7. Water Colour Picture, “Sandy Bay, Hobart,” 1849.
8. Music Stand made by Convict for Rev. R. Knopwood.
9. The Organ used at the Church, Port Arthur.
10. Chair from Capt. Jas. Kelly’s Residence (bought at Governor Arthur’s sale, 1836).
11. Coloured Picture, Hobart from Kangaroo Point, 1856.
12. Ship’s Figure Head, from a China Trader, broken up at Hobart.
13. Crayon Portrait of J. E. Bicheno, Colonial Secretary, under Governor Franklin.
14. Engraving of Hobart in 1822.
15. Engraving of Road to Richmond, by French artist.
16. The Port Arthur Church from the Avenue.
17. The Ground Plan, Port Arthur Church, 1835.
18. Longitudinal Elevation, Port Arthur Church, 1835.
19. Portrait of Bishop Nixon, First Anglican Bishop of Tasmania
20. Portrait of Bishop Wilson, First R.C. Bishop of Tasmania.
21. Brass Ornament from Port Arthur Church.
22. Picture of The Pulpit, Port Arthur Church.
23. Picture of the Tasmanian Rural Police, 1870.
24. Pottery Made at Port Arthur (40 exhibits).
25. Musical Clock brought to Australia is the very early times.
26. Key Stone Head, carved by a Convict. 1830.
27. Picture Frames, made at Port Arthur (7 exhibits).
28. Wood Moulds for Picture Frames, carved by a Convict (7 exhibits).
29. Bedstead from Doctor’s Quarters, Port Arthur
30. Desk Top from Charge Room, Old Gaol, Hobart.
31. Despatch Box from Colonial Office, carved by Convict in Tasmania
32. Box from Port Arthur, the property of Captain Booth, the Commandant.
33. Wooden Bowl from the Hospital, Port Arthur
34. Chair from “Exile Cottage” Port Arthur, used by Mr. Smith O’Brien while confined at Port Arthur (3 exhibits).
35. Carved Ebony Desk, the property of Comptroller-General
36. Writing Desk, made at Port Arthur.
37. Tea Caddy, bought at Sir Eardley Wilmot’s Sale

etc etc etc

Port Arthur Museum Catalogue (Beattie, ca 1916)

  1. Glass Case containing –
  2. Skull of the Macquarie Harbour Cannibal, Alex Pearce (Marcus Clarke’s “Gabbet.”)
  3. Two Sketches made of Pearce after execution.
  4. The Axe Pearce Carried, and with which the murders were committed.
  5. Bolts and Lock Taken from the Cell where Pearce was confined, Old Gaol, Murray street.
  6. “Sling Shot” taken from Matthew Brady, the celebrated Tasmanian Bushranger, when captured by John Batman in 1820.

69. Three Frames containing 40 photographs taken at Port Arthur, showing types of Imperial Prisoners there.
etc etc etc

Forty prints of 1870s Tasmania prisoners in three panels
Original prints of negatives by T. J. Nevin 1870s
Reprints by J. W. Beattie ca. 1915
QVMAG Collection: Ref : 1983_p_0163-0176

The originals of these forty (40) individual prints of Tasmanian prisoners photographed at the Hobart Gaol by the commissioned photographer Thomas J. Nevin in the 1870s, were intended to be pasted to the criminal record sheet of each prisoner. It was customary to photograph a person before conviction and after it, and again on discharge, by order of the Tasmanian Attorney-General from 1872 onwards, and since the men whom Nevin photographed were repeat and habitual offenders, the same glass negative was used again and again. The plates were handled repeatedly to produce duplicates for distribution to regional prisons and police stations, and for the many administrative copies required by the central Municipal Police Office at the Town Hall, the Supreme Court and the Hobart Gaol.

Photographs from the glass negatives were produced in various formats, first as uncut and unmounted prints as in these 40 prints, and again in carte-de-visite format within an oval mount, a practice which persisted in Tasmania through the 1870s, 1880s and into the1890s. The same cdv was sometimes overlayed again in an oblong mount when the glass plate became too damaged for further use. All three photographic formats appear on the criminal record sheets of prisoners bound together as the Hobart Gaol record books dating from the late 1880s onwards, held at the Archives Office Tasmania. Some of the earlier gaol record books of the 1870s have survived, now mysteriously missing the prisoners’ photographs. One possible explanation is that convictaria collector John Watt Beattie and his assistant Edward Searle removed the photographs or even destroyed the sheets in the early 1900s while trying to save the photographs, the bulk of which ended up at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, acquired through a donation from John Watt Beattie’s estate. The Mercury reported the QVMAG exhibition opening on 19 December 1928:


A further section of the Port Arthur collection of relics of early Tasmanian days which was purchased by the Launceston City Council recently from Mr. J. W. Beattie, of Hobart, and which is housed at the Victoria Museum, Launceston, was opened yesterday by the Mayor (Mr. R. M. Osborne). Among those present were Sir John Hewett and Mrs. St. John Atkinson, who arrived in Launceston by the Nairana yesterday as a delegation representing the St. John Ambulance Association.
The Mayor welcomed the visitors, and said that there was nothing more interesting than the history of the fore-fathers of Tasmania, who had settled in and developed the State. Valuable as the collection was, with the passing of time it would be increasingly so. He said that few persons realised the smallness of the staff with which the museum was conducted, and paid a tribute to the work of Mr. H. H. Scott, the curator.
The rooms were then declared “open.” Keen interest in the collection was shown by Sir John Hewett and Mrs. Atkinson, to whom Mr. Scott explained the history of many of the exhibits which, in the new section, comprised chiefly the handwork of convicts, and the personal belongings of Sir John and Lady Franklin, in addition to other objects of early historical Interest.

Source: Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 – 1954), Wednesday 19 December 1928, page 7

Intercolonial exhibitions on the “Success” 1900s
The glass plates themselves seem to have been disappeared altogether. They may have been shipped to Sydney, NSW, in March 1915 for an exhibition held at the Royal Hotel, Sydney to be displayed – reprinted and even offered for sale – as Port Arthur relics, alongside relics and documents associated with the fake convict hulk, Success. This newspaper report of the exhibition clearly states that the exhibitors – and this would have included John Watt Beattie as the Tasmanian contributor – collated original parchment records with duplicates, and also photographed original documents when duplicates were not available. Amongst the one ton of Port Arthur relics were dozens of original 1870s mugshots taken by T. J. Nevin, still attached to the prisoner’s rap sheet; many more were removed for re-photographing in various formats as Beattie prepared for this exhibition. Each mugshot chosen for display from prisoners with Supreme Court sentences was transcribed verso with the factually incorrect claim, “Taken at Port Arthur 1874“.   The association of Marcus Clarke’s notes and novel, For the Term of His Natural Life, published in 1874 with these photographic records was marketing de rigeur by 1915.


There is at present at the Royal Hotel, Sydney, an interesting collection of relics of early convict days. It has been brought over here by Mr. Fred McNiel, a member of a very old West Maitland family. Those relics are not exactly heirlooms, though they were handed to the family by a gentleman who had much to do with showing the world the social conditions of Australia 70 or 80 years ago. Mr. McNiel’s uncle was Mr. John McNiel, who was associated with the infamous hulk Success when it was turned into a floating exhibition. It will be remembered that on the old convict ship many of the most notorious men who left England for England’s good were caged like wild animals in a menagerie, and treated with a greater degree of severity by men who were more inhuman than the creatures they were called upon to guard. After a checkered career in Australia the hulk was taken to London and anchored in the Thames, when many people got their first ideas of Australian history from a visit to it. From there it was taken to America, and sank in New York Harbor.
Mr. John McNiel foresaw what would be the ultimate end of the old craft and its historical relics, so he gathered together all the duplicate copies of documents in the collection, and what were not duplicated he had photographed, He left this secondary collection with his nephew, together with a great mass of material relating to those early days which were the first links in our chain of history.
Included in this collection are innumerable instruments of discipline used in the penal establishment at Port Arthur, Tasmania, now a crumbling mass of ruins. These relics weigh almost a ton. Less awful in their construction than those of mediaeval ages and the days of the Inquisition, they are nevertheless evidence of the barbarism which existed a hundred years ago. Not the least interesting items in the collection are a number of absolutely, original parchments, age-stained, convict transportation notes, signed by the officers in charge of the ships. They were originally tied with blue tape-a material which is never used now either on legal or Government documents. It is interesting to read these documents and to note the triviality of the offences for which men and women were transported to penal servitude. There is one which tells of a man who got 14 years for poaching a rabbit! There is another which shows that an unfortunate housemaid was sent out for seven years for picking up a sovereign and claiming that finding was keeping. These documents were supplemented by others on the arrival of the ship at Van Diemen’s Land….
… Marcus Clarke’s book, “The Term of His Natural Life,” originally appeared in serial form in the “Australian Journal” in 1870. The complete story in a bound volume is in this collection, and readers will find much to interest themselves in it, for it contains a mass of material which does not appear in the book. Some of the notes and many of the chapters do not attempt to conceal the characters of the story. In this connection it is interesting to point to relices of Martin Cash, who served long periods of time in Port Arthur and at Norfolk Island. The adventures of this man without doubt gave the material to Marcus Clarke for the chief character in his story. Cash died in 1877, a highly respected member of a community among which he lived the last years of his life as an orchardist …etc etc

Source: CONVICT RELICS. (1915, March 13). Preston Leader (Vic. : 1914 – 1918), p. 5. Retrieved August 5, 2015, from

The prison hulk Success at Hobart 1900
Photo: John Watt Beattie 
NLA Ref: nla.obj-140386032-1 

Heads of the People Exhibition
National Portrait Gallery (Australia) 2000
These three frames of 40 photographs in total were included in the exhibition Heads of the People, held at the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, June to October, 2000, with a doubly erroneous attribution. Beattie’s name appears as the source, giving the impression that these are indeed his photographs, and that they were re-created by him “after” an earlier source, Adolarious Humphrey Boyd, the accountant and Commandant at the Port Arthur site from 1871-1873.

Although the contributors of these 40 images, Warwick Reeder and Tim Bonyhady, were fully aware that the A. H. Boyd attribution was merely idle speculation on the part of researcher Chris Long, originating as a rumour spread by Boyd’s descendants and without substance, and to this day, without proof of any kind, his deference to Chris Long at that time (Reeder, MA thesis ANU 1995; Long, TMAG 1995) ensured that A. H. Boyd joined the revered ranks of 19th century “artist photographers”, to be credited as the reputed photographer of convicts, and clearly that is a false premise based in deception.

Neither J. W. Beattie, who was a photographer nor A. H. Boyd who was not, was the original photographer who stood there in front of these men who were all photographed in the 1870s. Their photographs came into existence at the behest of the Attorney-General W.R Giblin, Thomas J. Nevin’s family solicitor, as well as the Inspector of Police Richard Propsting at the Hobart Town Hall, and the Superintendents at the Hobart Gaol, John Swan, Thos. Reidy and Ringrose Atkins. Prisoners were photographed not because they had once been “Imperial Convicts” per se back before 1853, but because they became known as “Supreme Court Men” (The Mercury, 8 July 1882), active criminals with convictions in the Supreme Court who re-offended on a regular basis. They were photographed again on discharge with various conditions. They had become the responsibility of the Colonial Government by 1871, not the Imperial Government. Beattie selected their photographs on the basis of their notoriety with an eye to the tourist trade. He used Supreme Court convictions records in the first instance but the person who transcribed the wording “Taken at Port Arthur 1874” onto so many of the extant cartes originally taken by Nevin, merely used a generic date for all the versos, and Port Arthur as the generic prison, neither date or place according with the facts of each prisoner’s date of conviction or place of incarceration at the time of the sitting for his photograph.

These photographs, one of which was pasted to the criminal’s record (a blue form) were kept in a bound Hobart Gaol Records books, with duplicates circulated to police stations on the prisoner’s discharge. More duplicates from Nevin’s original negative taken at a a single sitting with the prisoner were kept in the Photo Books as a supplement to the police gazettes, called Tasmania Reports of Crime Information for Police. It was Beattie who salvaged these records from the Sheriff’s Office at the Hobart Gaol in the 1900s, saw their commercial potential and reprised over 300, reprinting an unknown quantity. In doing so, he divorced the original photographs from their contemporaneous references to the prisoner’s criminal record sheet and references to other registers used by police, displaying them in his museum with the verso transcription “Taken at Port Arthur” to enhance their historic appeal to tourists visiting his museum and the Port Arthur prison site where the first film of Marcus Clarke’s 1874 novel, For The Term of His Natural Life was in production in 1908, and the second full-length feature in 1927.

Some of his acquisitions remained intact as complete records bearing the prisoner’s carte, many were loose duplicates of cartes or became loose once he had removed them from the paper criminal sheet, and some were Nevin’s glass negatives. A.H. Boyd had nothing to do with these photographs. He was not a photographer, he had no reputation in his lifetime as a photographer, nor subsequently, no works by A.H. Boyd are extant today, and no official documents exist which associate him with a personal mandate to photograph prisoners.

HEADS of the PEOPLE Exhibition NPG 2000

Wrong attributions: Heads of the People exhibition, National Portrait Gallery,
Canberra, June-September 2000. Titles and attributions by the NPG curators.

Only these 40 photographs of “Imperial convicts” appear in the 1916 catalogue for Beattie’s Port Arthur museum, although more can be seen in the top photograph lining the walls. Those on the walls were still intact, pasted to prisoner record sheets. The collection was acquired by the Launceston Council ca. 1927, donated to the QVMAG and exhibited in 1934 at the Mechanics Institute; this set of 40 resurfaced as a doco-artefact at the NPG in Canberra, 2000. They were re-photographed at the QVMAG in 1985 as uncut black and white prints from Nevin’s original sepia negatives. They are now online at the QVMAG (2010).

The phrase “Taken at Port Arthur” is Beattie’s wording here in the 1916 catalogue, and it is also the wording of the inscription on the verso of dozens of surviving cartes of Tasmanian prisoners: the date “1874” which appears together with the wording on many of the extant cartes, however, is missing from the catalogue, which is unusual as other items are meticulously dated. This small detail of the missing date may prove to be significant: if not recorded by Beattie here for his display, when was it written on the verso of so many cartes? After 1916, it seems. Several cartes by Nevin in the QVMAG, NLA and Mitchell Library NSW collections lack the reference to Port Arthur on the verso (e.g. Nutt, Smith, Mullins, Ogden etc) probably because these were acquired by private collectors before 1907 (eg. Davis Scott Mitchell, SLNSW Mitchell Collection). After 1916, Beattie and others in the business of tourism such as William Radcliffe at his museum called “The Old Curiosity Shop” at Brown’s River in the 1930s ensured these prisoner photographs were hyped as photographs of the original “convicts” transported to Port Arthur in the grim days before transportation ceased in 1853. The ordinary facts of the prisoner’s criminal career in the 1870s would not have sparked the same fascination. In other words, the date “1874” is a generalised date written decades later on the verso of the Tasmanian prisoners’ photographs known now as “Convict Portraits, Port Arthur, 1874” (the title devised by the NLA cataloguist from inscriptions on the versos of most of their collection of 84 mugshots).

Verso of a cdv by Nevin of prisoner John Fitzpatrick
NLA Collection (carte inserted for display here).

The Port Arthur Label
With the intense promotion of Tasmania’s penal heritage in the early 1900s, due largely to the release of the first of two films based on Marcus Clarke’s 1874 novel, For The Term of His Natural Life (1908, 22 minutes), many Tasmanian prisoner ID photographs taken by Thomas J. Nevin on government contract to police and prison authorities in the 1870s were salvaged by John Watt Beattie and Edward Searle for display in Beattie’s convictaria museum in the 1910s, called The Port Arthur Museum, although it was located in Hobart and not at Port Arthur.

Three prisoner photographs which were removed from the blue record sheets used by the Hobart Gaol were pasted into one of Edward Searle’s family albums, devised as a memento of his work with Beattie 1911-1915. Searle captioned the images as “Types of Convicts – Official Prison Photographs from Port Arthur” such as this one of convict William Lee per the Neptune,taken on a prisoner discharge from the Brickfields Depot, Hobart, October 1873. He was regularly discharged thereafter as a pauper in 1874 and 1875.

The album leaf is labelled with the wording – Official Prison photographs from Port Arthur– which both Beattie and Searle used to hype the commercial value they saw in promoting the penal heritage of both their museum objects and the State’s history. Just as they used the name of Port Arthur for the Hobart Museum, they used photographs such as this one of William Lee with the label “Port Arthur”. It had become a brand name, much as it is in today’s aggressive promotion of the Port Arthur Historic Site as Tasmania’s premier tourist destination. The very ordinary facts of Lee’s life as a prisoner and pauper in a city welfare depot would not have the same appeal without the caption, the brand name. The unspoken appeal to the tourist imagination, through their contemporary fascinations with character typologies, phrenology and eugenics, and the Tasmanian “convict stain”, was to suggest that despite such humble beginnings, a transported felon could do well in the colonies, but a pauper’s end-of-life story, if revealed, offered nothing.

Three unmounted prisoner mugshots of William Meagher, Charles Rosetta and William Lee,
Tasmanian convicts originally photographed by Thomas J. Nevin in the 1870s for gaol records
From Tasmanian Views, Edward Searle’s album ca. 1911-15
Photos taken at the National Library of Australia, 7th Feb 2015
Photos copyright © KLW NFC 2015 ARR Watermarked.

The National Library has photographed and catalogued as single items the three photographs which appear on a single page in Searle’s album. The other two photographs pasted with William Lee’s are of prisoner William Meagher and Charles Rosetta, The original photographs were taken by Thomas Nevin between 1874-1876. These three photographs, unmounted, were originally pasted to a Hobart Goal Records book of sheets which has been lost, according to the Archives Office of Tasmania. Perhaps Beattie and Searle destroyed the original criminal sheets while trying to save the photographs.

National Library of Australia
Portrait of William Lee [picture].
Extent 1 photograph : b&w, sepia toned ; 9.4 x 6.9 cm.
Context Part of Tasmanian views, Edward Searle’s album of photographs of Australia, Antarctica and the Pacific, 1911-1915 [picture].
Photographer is uncertain. Possibly E.W. Searle.
Part of the collection of photographs compiled by Australian photographer E. W. Searle while working for J. W. Beattie in Hobart during 1911-1915.
On the photograph held, the image including the name of the subject appears in reverse.
“Official Prison Photographs from Port Arthur” and “Types of Convicts”–Inscription on page of album, below photograph.

T. J. Nevin’s carte-de-visite of William Lees’ original 1870s photograph printed in an oval mount is not recorded in the holdings of the QVMAG, the NLA, the TMAG, or the Archives Office of Tasmania, and the reason is this: it may never have been printed by Nevin as a mounted carte-de-visite, because paupers, as William Lee was in the 1870s, were not a police priority. William Lee was a pauper, detained only for a short time in 1872 for being idle and disorderly, and thereafter housed at the Brickfields depot in Hobart where he was discharged every year because he was too old and unfit to work. The police gazette gave his age in 1872 as 78 yrs old.