Prisoner mugshots by Constable John Nevin to 1890

Constable William John Nevin (1851-1891), younger brother of professional photographer Thomas J. Nevin, died suddenly of typhoid fever on 17th June, 1891. The earliest date on record of his service with the police is 1875 when he was stationed at the Cascades Prison for Males, Hobart. His service continued at the Hobart Gaol, Campbell Street, as “Gaol Messenger”, a rank which covered his duties as photographer, until his untimely death while still in service, aged 39 yrs old. The registrar of his death gave his age as 43 yrs old; however, his burial records at Cornelian Bay Cemetery on 19th June 1891 listed his death at 39 yrs, i.e. born 1851, and this date is consistent with the Fairlie sick lists shipping records which recorded that he was a babe in arms, less than 6 months old, when he arrived in Hobart on 3rd July 1852 with his settler parents, John and Mary Nevin, and his three older siblings Thomas, Rebecca Jane, and Mary Ann.


Constable John (W. J.) Nevin ca. 1880.
Photo taken by his brother Thomas Nevin
Copyright © KLW NFC & The Nevin Family Collections 2009 ARR. Watermarked.


The Electoral Roll of the Electoral District of North Hobart, year commencing 11th April, 1884:
NEVIN, William John
Place of Abode: H.M. Gaol
Nature of qualification: Salary
Particulars of Qualification: H.M. Government


Archives Office Tasmania
RGD 35/13
Death of John Nevin, Goal Messenger, of Typhoid Fever
17th June 1891

Older brother, commercial photographer Thomas J. Nevin was commissioned by the family solicitor W.R. Giblin, later Attorney-General and Premier from 1872 to 1876 to provide the colonial government of Tasmania with photographs of prisoners while he was still operating from his commercial studios in Elizabeth St and New Town, Hobart. And from 1876 to 1880, when employed in full-time civil service as Office and Hall keeper of the Hobart Town Hall, his photographic services for police continued at the Hobart Gaol with the Municipal Police Office and at the Mayor’s Court, housed within the Town Hall. Thomas Nevin was assisted by his younger brother Constable John Nevin at the Hobart Gaol in producing photographic records of prisoners until ca. 1886, his last record (to date) of service to police as assistant bailiff.

During the early to mid-1870s, Thomas Nevin deployed the conventional techniques of 19th century commercial studio vignette portraiture in matters of posing, photographing and printing the final official prisoner identification photograph (mugshot). The prisoner was usually posed with his upper torso turned 45 degrees from the photographer, with sightlines deflected to the edge of the oval vignette, and backgrounded by a plain backcloth. The majority of Nevin’s prisoner photographs taken between 1872-75 evince his use of this commercial technique, for example:


State Library of NSW
James Ogden, photographed by T.J. Nevin 23 September 1875
Call Number DL PX 158


National Library of Australia
John F. Morris, photographed by T.J. Nevin 25th April 1875
nla.pic-an24612762 PIC P1029/36 LOC Album 935

Most prisoner photographs taken in the 1880s in Tasmania required the subject to face the camera, and in some instances, show the backs of the hands clearly. The full frontal gaze marked the transitional phase between Thomas Nevin’s early to mid-1870s commercial vignettes and the 1880s prisoner photographs, taken more often than not at the Hobart Gaol by his brother John Nevin.  No full profile photographs, in addition to the single full frontal shot, were taken until the late 1890s when the methods of Bertillon took hold.


Roland Hill, 23 yrs old, 20th February 1890.
Ref: TAHO GD 6719, p. 148. Gaol Register from the Sheriff’s Office Hobart.

Remarkably, this prisoner identification photograph dated 1890 was printed in the commercial oval vignette format, its sole difference from the earlier prisoner vignettes taken by Thomas Nevin being the full frontal gaze of the prisoner. This photograph is not an old one, reprinted from an earlier photograph of the 1870s. It was taken of Roland Hill, 23 years old, a clerk and a first offender, sentenced to two years for larceny, and taken on incarceration at the Hobart Gaol by Constable John Nevin when Roland was transferred from Launceston.


Roland Hill, 23 yrs old, 20th February 1890.
Ref: TAHO GD 6719, detail mugshot from criminal sheet p. 148

Many of the photographs in this register GD 6719 dating to 1890 were reprinted from an earlier photograph of the prisoner, some quite visibly showing the original vignette frame under the second printing within an oblong frame with rounded corners.


This photograph of Charles Dawson was taken by Constable John Nevin on 11 December 1888 at the Hobart Gaol adjacent to the Supreme Court where Dawson was sentenced to 4 years for uttering a forged cheque. The print from the negative was framed initially as an oval vignette, and reprinted within an oblong frame, as an overlay of the vignette, for reasons best known to the printers, whether at the gaol itself in Campbell Street or at the Municipal Police Office, Town Hall in Macquarie Street, or even at the government printing office and registrar in Davey Street. The duties of Constable John Nevin by 1888 was both photographer and gaol messenger. He would have conveyed copies of these prisoner photographs and criminal record sheets back and forth to any of these three authorities.


Charles Dawson, 33 yrs old, 11 December 1888.
Ref: TAHO GD 6719, detail mugshot printed with oblong overlay p. 101