Convict Musicians


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.