Tricks of the prison limner and sitter 1866

SILENT WITNESS forensic identification

While some prisons and jurisdictions in England had begun judicial and prison photography by 1859, the practice was not adopted in NSW until 1871. Tasmania and Victoria followed the NSW example in 1872.

At least three prisons in England – Millbank, Pentonville and Leicester – had begun the systematic photographing of prisoners by the early 1860s. The Bedford Gaol database has 99 photographs online (as at 2010)  which date from 1859 to 1877, and include several women, some photographed in prison clothing, others in street clothes. For example, Catherine May was photographed in prison clothing between her trial in April and her death in September 1863, while Mary Luddock aka Woods was booked and photographed on arrest in civilian clothes, and the same shot was pasted to her record:

Catherine May 1863 recordCatherine May 1863

Catherine May, 1863: mugshot and record
Courtesy of The Bedford Gaol Database

Mary Luddock aka Woods, booking photo in street clothes
The same photograph was pasted to her criminal record sheet,
Millbank 1872. Photo courtesy Bedford Gaol Database

John Robinson, booking photograph and record
Millbank Prison 1861
Courtesy Bedford Gaol Database

Similar images were taken of the men. In nearly every one of these 99 photographs dating from 1859 to 1877, the prisoner is photographed three-quarter length, to just below the knee, with eyes towards the camera, and in many instances with the back of the hands visibly displayed on their laps. The techniques used by the prison photographer were basic. None of the mugshots betray a commercial background of the photographer; none are mounted or framed as vignettes as were Thomas J. Nevin’s mugshots dating from 1872, nor posed in the tradition of studio carte-de-visite portraiture.

This prisoner, William Jones, was sentenced and photographed at Millbank in 1861, transported on the Norwood in 1862 to Western Australia, and released with a Certificate of Freedom issued at Perth, WA, in 1868.

William Jones, mugshot taken at Millbank 1861

William Jones, mugshot taken at Millbank 1861.
Courtesy Bedford Gaol Database.


“… the prison limner is not often favoured with willing sitters …”

Commercial photographer Thomas J. Nevin’s government contract as “prison limner” in Tasmania commenced in February 1872. His sitters knew of the tricks to frustrate a successful result: giving the photographer an alias; sudden movements at the moment of exposure; putting on mock airs; contorting facial features; and refusing altogether to co-operate. It is a testimony to Nevin’s perseverance and amiability that the majority of his extant mugshots depict men who appear placated rather than intimidated.

The “booking photograph” taken of the offender on arrest was an established practice by 1866, according to this statement from The Photographic News 1866 (p.525):

A strange and sad gallery of portraits, not quite denuded of individuality by close-cropped hair and prison grey garb ; the portraits being often secured in the guise in which the culprit comes into the hands of justice…

Extant examples of Thomas J. Nevin’s photographs taken in the 1870s of Tasmanian prisoners – or “convicts”, the archaic term used in Tasmanian tourism discourse up to the present – number more than 300 in Australian public collections. Thomas J. Nevin was a government contractor for the Lands and Survey from 1868, commissioned by his family solicitor, Attorney-General W.R. Giblin, who extended the contract to photograph prisoners for the colonial administration of Tasmania in early 1872, less than a year after the government of NSW authorised the Inspector of Prisons, Harold McLean, to commence the photographing of all prisoners convicted in the NSW Superior Courts. The colony of New South Wales had already introduced the practice of photographing prisoners twice, firstly on entry to prison and secondly near the end of their term of incarceration by January 1872 when this report was published in the Sydney Morning Herald. The purpose of the visit to the Port Arthur prison by Sir John O’Shanassy, former Premier of Victoria, and Howard Spensley, Solicitor-General of Victoria with photographer Thomas Nevin and the Tasmanian Attorney-General the Hon. W. R. Giblin on 1st February 1872 in the company of visiting British author Anthony Trollope, was to establish a similar system for processing prisoners through the central Municipal Police Office, Hobart Town Hall on their relocation from the dilapidated and dysfunctional Port Arthur prison to the Hobart Gaol in Campbell St. The few remaining prisoners at Port Arthur were returned to Hobart from mid-1873 to early 1874. Some were photographed by Nevin at Port Arthur, but the majority were photographed by Nevin on arrival in Hobart.

Photography and Prisons
The Sydney Morning Herald 10 January 1872


PHOTOGRAPHY AND PRISONS.-We understand that, at the instance of Inspector-General McLerie, Mr. Harold McLean, the Sheriff, has recently introduced into Darlinghurst gaol the English practice of photographing all criminals in that establishment whose antecedents or whose prospective power of doing mischief make them, in the judgment of the police authorities, eligible for that distinction. It is an honour, however, which has to be ” thrust ” upon some men, for they shrink before the lens of the photographer more than they would quail before the eye of a living detective. The reluctance of such worthies in many cases can only be conquered by the deprivation of the ordinary gaol indulgencies; and even then they submit with so bad a grace that their acquiescence is feigned rather than real. The facial contortions to which the more knowing ones resort are said to be truly ingenious. One scoundrel will assume a smug and sanctimonious aspect, while another will chastise his features into an expression of injured innocence or blank stupidity which would almost defy recognition. They are pursued, however, through all disguises, and when a satisfactory portrait is obtained copies are transferred to the black books of the Inspector-General. The prisoners are first ” taken” in their own clothes on entering the gaol, and the second portrait is produced near the expiration of their sentence. When mounted in the police album, the cartes-de-visite, if we may so style them, are placed between two columns, one containing a personal description of the offender, and the other a record of his criminal history. Briefer or more comprehensive biographies have probably never been framed. Copies of these photographs are sent to the superintendents of police in the country districts, and also to the adjoining colonies. To a certain extent photography has proved in England an effective check upon crime, and it is obviously calculated to render most valuable aid in the detection of notorious criminals. New South Wales is, we understand, the only Australian colony which has yet adopted this system ; but the practice is likely soon to become general.

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald. (1872, January 10). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), p. 4. Retrieved from

Following the NSW government example, Thomas Nevin photographed men convicted in the Hobart Supreme Court who were housed on remand in the adjoining Hobart Gaol. Those men who were convicted in regional courts with sentences longer than three months were transferred to the Hobart Goal, Campbell St. He took at least two original photographs of the prisoner, on different occasions: the first, the booking shot, was taken on entry into the prison, sometimes when the prisoner was unshaved and in street clothing as soon as convicted; the second was taken fourteen days prior to the prisoner’s discharge. The same negative was reprinted if the prisoner was an habitual offender in and out of gaol year after year until the negative was beyond further use, or the prisoner’s appearance had significantly changed. Additional prisoner photographs were taken by T. J. Nevin at the Port Arthur penitentiary between 1872 and 1874, and at the Cascades Prison for Males with the assistance of his younger brother Constable John Nevin in the unusual circumstance of the transfer of 103 prisoners from the Port Arthur prison to the Hobart Gaol at the request of the Parliament in 1873. Up to six duplicates were produced from each negative. Although the glass plates seem to have been lost, original unmounted prints from Nevin’s 1870s negatives survive, principally in the QVMAG collection.

Booking photograph of convict Thomas Harrison by T. J. Nevin, 19 January 1874
TAHO Ref: 30-3252c; QVMAG Ref: 1985:P:113 (published, Kerr ed. 1992)

Two photographs of convict Francis Shearan, taken by Thomas Nevin.
Left: the “booking shot” 1877
Right: sentenced eight years for murder 15 May 1878.
Mitchell Library SLNSW PXB 274

By 1875, the phrase “Photo in this office” was published next to warrant notices in the weekly police gazettes, Tasmania Reports of Crime Information for Police, especially for offenders from other colonial jurisdictions, and sometimes those photos depicting the suspect were obtained from family albums taken as personal mementoes rather than police mugshots taken previously for the judiciary. These photos were often displayed as a Rogues’ Gallery in the windows of the local newspaper office as well as along the walls of the Hobart Town Hall Municipal Police Office.

See this extensive selection and links from the national collections:

All of these prisoner photographs from the 1870s were originally used by police and the judiciary in the course of daily surveillance, arraignment and discharge at the Hobart Gaol and pasted into the  Photo Books, collated with the Hobart Municipal Police Office and Supreme Court registers. Numbering and inscriptions on the extant images indicate that more than 300 photographs of prisoners mounted as cartes-de-visite were salvaged from the Sheriff’s Office at the Hobart Gaol in the early 1900s by Beattie’s studio for display and sale to tourists as part of the Tasmanian government’s campaign to attract intercolonial visitors to the ruins of the Port Arthur prison. In the late 20th century, these “convict portraits” of 1870s prisoners  have been recontextualised within two types of discourse: promotion to World Heritage status of Port Arthur using Tasmania’s penal heritage as a theme park for the tourist industry; and modern and post-modern art history aesthetics (eg. Long, Crombie, Ellis 2007).

Prisoner William Ryan
See this post:
Photographer; Thomas J. Nevin (name, date, and “60” on verso, together with Ryan’s name and ship)
At Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

Prisoners: James Mullins and William Smith
Photographer: Thomas J. Nevin, Hobart Gaol 1875
CDVs, recto and verso, held at the Mitchell Library State Library of NSW

Prisoner William Smith
Photographer; Thomas J. Nevin
Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery

Prisoner: George Fisher
Photographer: Thomas J. Nevin, Hobart Gaol 1874
At the National Library of Australia’s collection

Prisoner Hugh Cohen
Photographer: Thomas J. Nevin
The Hobart Gaol Photo books and Hobart Gaol camera
Photocopies of the QVMAG collection at TAHO

The crime museum at Scotland Yard dates the first rogues’ galleries at 1862. Scotland Yard used commercial photographers from 1862 right through to 1901. The early reports of the efforts of prison governors such as Gardiner in Bristol from 1854 no doubt influenced by analogy a rather pretentious attempt at the misattribution of Thomas Nevin’s Tasmanian prisoner photographs to the Port Arthur Commandant A.H. Boyd in 1874 (Chris Long, Gillian Winter, 1995). The analogy not only ignored the significant gap in photo-history between 1852 and 1874, but stretched the analogy to create a photographer “artist” of A. H. Boyd who was not a photographer by any definition of the term, who was not known as a photographer in his own lifetime, and no works are known to exist by A.H. Boyd today. See this article here on what can only be termed a parasitic attribution.

Many prisoners who were photographed in Tasmania habitually wore prisoner clothing, whether free in servitude to an employer or completely incarcerated, so in some sense many more of his mugshots – and most do depict men in prison uniform – were also “booking photographs” taken on arrest. For other occasions, such as discharge on a ticket-of-leave or release to freedom, the (ex)prisoner was required to report to the Municipal Police Office where Nevin and his assistant Louis Marks dressed him up once again in prisoner clothing as an updated record for future reference (! – no they didn’t – we just made up this red herring about convict clothing for the ardent blog scrapers in the hope that they publish it, in particular for those for whom the pretensions of the parasitic attribution are most cherished.)

Extracts from pps 524-525 of The Photographic News London 1866.


The credit which has been denied to photography on the score of art capacity must be conceded to its literal fidelity in rendering facts. That it is not imaginative, that it cannot modify or omit details from its presentments, becomes, in many cases, its cardinal virtue. If it nothing extenuate, it sets down naught in malice, and when it enters the witness-box, its evidence leaves little room for doubt. Hence it has taken an important place as an auxiliary to the administration of justice, both in civil and criminal cases. In multiplying indisputable fac-similes of important documents, in indicating pictorially the relative positions of disputed territory, its use is obvious. But it is in its aid to the discovery of identity in persons charged with crime that its legal use is most important. Nearly twelve years ago, Mr. J. A. Gardiner, Governor of Bristol Gaol, addressed a letter to the Governors of Her Majesty’s gaols generally, pointing out the importance of preserving a photographic record of the prisoners under their charge—a veritable rogue’s gallery! which might be a rare study to the disciples of Lavater. It was not with a view to the study and classification of physiognomical types that Mr. Gardiner proposed to secure sun drawings of his enforced guests, but solely with a view to their identification when they visited gaol a second time. ” It is well known to all,” he said, ” who have been concerned in criminal administration, that the most cunning, the most skilled, and the most daring offenders, are migratory in their habits ; that they do not locate themselves in any particular town or district. but extend their ravages to wherever there is the most open field for crime ;” the best planned robberies, he adds, being rarely conducted by the resident thieves in any district. This migratory, or Bohemian tendency, diminished the risk of identification in the exact ratio in which it brought the criminals within fresh judicial districts and under fresh official inspection, and often permitted expert professional thieves, hardened criminals, to pass off lightly as first offenders, only just stepping out of the path of rectitude. Written descriptions were rarely found sufficiently precise for identification, and hence Mr. Gardiner was induced to try photography, which he found most efficient for the purpose, and strongly recommended for systematic adoption to bis brother governors. The success which attended the partial adoption of this plan induced a Select Committee of (The House of Lords, on whose Report the Prison Act of 1866 was framed, to recommend its universal adoption in Her Majesty’s prisons. For some unexplained reason, the Secretary of State did not see fit to adopt the recommendation, and photography is only employed where the governors of gaols themselves see its importance….

Where the system is adopted, the portrait of every criminal is taken as soon as he arrives at the gaol, and prints from this negative are circulated, attached to a printed form, in which a description is given, including details of age, height, complexion, hair, eyes, nose, whiskers, and specific marks, and also the account which the prisoner gives of his place of birth, last residence, education, trade, religion, &c. The circular, containing the portrait and these particulars, is forwarded by the governor to the governor of a neighbouring gaol, stating that ” the prisoner above described is in custody for trial;” and a request is added that, if he is recognized as having been in custody before, particulars may be forwarded, and also that the circular may be forwarded to the next gaol marked in the route annexed. Thus the document passes through a prescribed route, receiving, as it travels, the testimony of various governors, intimating that the prisoner is ” not known,” or that he was convicted at any former period, generally under some other name than that now assumed, and is finally returned to the gaol from whence it was issued, furnishing at times curious facts in the statistics of crime, and in the biography of gaol-birds….

As may readily be conceived, the prison limner is not often favoured with willing sitters, and strange are the devices by which the cunning of the criminal is manifested in evading this unerring mode of personal identification, which he regards as taking a mean advantage of him. Some treat the attempt with open defiance, resolutely refusing to sit still during the operation ; others, with a mock air of submission, sit perfectly quiet during the preliminary arrangements and focussing operation, but move sufficiently at the vital moment of exposure; others, who pretend to have no objection to be portrayed, contrive to produce such an amount of facial contortion, by squinting, twisting of the mouth, &c, as will effectually destroy identity in the portrait. In some cases this cunning is met with resolute perseverance, and in others with stratagem, so that in all cases a sufficiently characteristic likeness is obtained. One governor informs us that he generally contrives that the operation shall take place just before dinner, and refractory sitters are informed that no dinner will be dispensed until the portrait has been obtained, a practical argument, the force of which is generally recognised. In another gaol, after the sitter has, by movement or contortion, baffled the portraitist, he, or still more commonly she, is handed to a seat in a well-lighted place, to rest awhile and watch the operation repeated with the next criminal. The sitter, just rejoicing in the cunning which has defeated the attempt of the photographer, generally sits perfectly still, watching with eager interest the operation for which another is sitting. In the meantime, a concealed camera, within range of which the first victim had been placed, is doing its work, and a natural and characteristic likeness is obtained of the unconscious criminal, who had apparently retired master of the situation….

A strange and sad gallery of portraits, not quite denuded of individuality by close-cropped hair and prison grey garb ; the portraits being often secured in the guise in which the culprit comes into the hands of justice…..

A series forwarded to the writer, by the excellent governor of Carlisle Gaol, himself an accomplished photographer, might furnish a mournful theme for the moralist. Not all brutalized, or besotted, or sinister ; not all with the forehead villainous low, the square jaw, the coarse mouth, or the eye of wild beast; but in more cases a weak and weary, or a craven and humbled look. Some of the faces remind us painfully of another series of portraits, taken by Dr. Hugh Diamond, of insane persons, and suggest to us the connection between diseased morals and diseased minds, between crime and insanity. Physiognomy, to the careful observer, may often, doubtless, indicate tendencies of character, and suggest phases of mental history. None of the portraits before us look intellectual, or suggest culture ; they are mostly of a low type; but there is nothing to suggest the dogged, resisting, vindictive beings, with overhanging felon-brow and sunken cruel eyes, which sensation writers at times attribute to the criminal classes. They are rather examples of God’s image degraded and enfeebled by neglect; plants which resemble weeds, because left without culture. The only portrait marked as that of a murderer is that of a weak but not imbecile-looking old man, the mildest in expression amongst a score of criminals….

Photography, as the auxiliary of the detective in tracking the criminal flying from justice, renders most important service.* The photograph of Muller, the murderer of Mr. Briggs, became practically his death warrant. It supplied the jeweller, who bought the plundered chain, with a means of identifying the foreign-looking person who sold it, and rendered the officer of justice, who had never seen him, familiar with his features, so that he detected him amongst the crowd of passengers on the deck of the ” Victoria ” when on a fine summer day, it entered the bay of New York, to give, in a few hours, the murderer liberty in a new world. The “card” of the absconding fraudulent debtor or embezzling clerk is placed in the hands of Inspector Bucket, and he starts off without hesitation to Australia or America to apprehend a man he has never seen. The universality of photographic portraiture has been singularly useful in this respect. There are few men, open in any degree to the sympathies of their kind, who have not at some time sat for a photograph, little dreaming of the weapon it placed in the hands of their pursuers should they at any time step into the paths of crime….

The powers of this silent witness have, however, led to singular exaggeration, and the lovers of the marvellous have been treated from time to time with records of the detection of murderers by the image remaining on the dead *eye of the victim, which, duly magnified and photographed, has borne swift witness against the criminal, it is needless to say that this is an absurd impossibility. The retina of the eye retains the impression of an object so long as that object is before it, as does a mirror, and no longer. It has never been alleged, indeed, that the dead eye retained impressions, except in the case of murdered persons; the common belief in the Nemesis which attends the man-slayer having apparently generated this superstition in the domain of science.

[End of extract]
Source: pps 524-525 of The Photographic News London 1866

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