Convict Musicians

THE  CONVICT MUSICIANS TRAIL 1985

The ambivalent place of convict musicians in Australian culture is exemplified in the lives of 19th century entertainers at the Port Arthur Penal Station in Tasmanian – then known as Van Diemen’s Land. Such performers were the secret main-stay of prison society, and today they are still invisible.

While historian at Port Arthur Historic Site in 1985, I became aware of the   sub- culture involving collusion between officials & skilled creative prisoners. In fact Port Arthur Penal Station was a cultural site for prisoners and staff.

i) music was a tradeable commodity or black market within penal stations.

ii) officials sent to Port Arthur (&/or VDL), had often broken taboos within their own social sphere, & were “banished” as much as prisoners.

iii) at penal stations, musical traditions of free and prisoner blended in uneasy, an until now, neglected manner.

A Fiddler, a Piper and Two Guitarists

A Fiddler, a Juggler and Mrs Champ (Playscript)

 Some of the talented prisoners at Port Arthur who entertained Commandants Charles O’Hara Booth & WTN Champ were:

Some of the other Convict Musicians in Van Diemen’s Land were:

Alexander Laing- fiddler

Zephania Williams – harpist 

Simon Fraser – bagpiper

Musicians were not always considered to be respectable, and the authorities tried to ban them from playing in pubs. Even though for many ex-convicts, it was the only saleable skill they had.

Fourteen Fiddlers – Petition of 1848 – discrimination against music and musicians in old Hobart Town.