‘Useful and worthy members of the colony’? : The life courses of the Point Puer boys who stayed in Tasmania
From the early days of British colonisation, and in the wake of rising public anxiety about juvenile crime in Britain’s rapidly growing cities and towns, male juvenile convicts were among the thousands of convicts transported to Van Diemen’s Land. Over two thousand of these youths were sent to the Point Puer Boys Establishment founded in 1834 near the Port Arthur penal settlement. Transported for petty street crimes, the boys sent to Point Puer – some as young as nine and ten – were consigned to years of punitive treatment there, in contrast to their adult counterparts assigned to private employment or, from the early 1840s, sent to probation stations before being able to obtain passes to work in the colony.
This thesis challenges a long-held view that many of the Point Puer boys were able to establish themselves in the colony. It demonstrates that the life experiences and treatment of the boys sent to Point Puer differed significantly from those of their adult male counterparts. Sharing a common experience of neglect and maltreatment in their early lives, these youths were consistently subjected to institutional regimes of punishment and reformation underpinned by maltreatment, reflecting prevailing societal attitudes and colonial policies. The thesis argues that, while the regime at Point Puer changed markedly in its final years, the establishment demonstrably failed to reform its inmates and prepare them for their later lives. With the establishment’s population rising to over 700 in the early 1840s, the administrators were forced to use harsh discipline to maintain control, leading to apathy and defiance by the boys.
Within Australia’s, and Tasmania’s convict historiography, the transportation of male juveniles has, before now, attracted relatively little scholarly attention, and the life experiences and later lives of the boys held at Point Puer have not been the subject of detailed study. This thesis addresses that gap through a life course study of boys held at Point Puer between 1834 and its closure in 1849. Three over-arching questions have guided this research. First, what did the Point Puer boys experience in their early lives and why were they transported to Van Diemen’s Land and sent to Point Puer? Second, how were they treated during transportation and at Point Puer, and to what extent did the realities of Point Puer reflect imperial and colonial aspirations to reform the boys and prepare them for their later lives in the colony? And third, to what extent did the former inmates of Point Puer establish themselves in the colony, and what factors influenced their later lives?
To address these questions, a study group of 230 male juvenile convicts – around 10 per cent of the total number of boys sent to Point Puer – was developed. This study group comprises six cohorts of boys who arrived at Point Puer at regular intervals between 1834 and 1845 and who stayed in Tasmania after gaining their freedom. A life course approach was used in seeking to explain both the criminal persistence and desistance of the former inmates of Point Puer in the study group. Five contemporary theories of criminology – strain, social control, social learning and differential association, labelling and desistance – were applied during this process and provide new perspectives on the later lives of these convicts in colonial Australia.
This thesis makes significant findings about the later lives of the former inmates of Point Puer. Most left Point Puer semi-skilled at best, and greeted by an unwelcoming society, many of those who stayed in Tasmania committed colonial offences accompanied by violence and spent further time in prison. Few were able to lead ‘respectable’ lives. Stigmatised as ‘Point Puer boys’, they were severely disadvantaged in their search for social acceptance, work and female partners. Consistent with the perspectives provided by life course criminologists utilising desistance theories, the later lives of the few former inmates of Point Puer who did succeed and become ‘useful and worthy’ colonial citizens underline the influence of key protective factors. Marriage, family formation, work ties and community bonds enabled these men, against the odds, to fulfil earlier hopes that Point Puer would produce useful and worthy members of colonial society.
The thesis adds to the body of knowledge of the life courses of the thousands of male and female convicts transported from Britain to Van Diemen’s Land during the first half of the nineteenth century and specifically sheds new light on the backgrounds, treatment and later lives of the youths sent to Point Puer. It shows the failings of the treatment of male juvenile convicts transported to the colony and deepens our understanding of the broader convict experience in Van Diemen’s Land.
- PhD Thesis
Paginationxii, 281 pages
Department/SchoolSchool of History and Classics School of Humanities
PublisherUniversity of Tasmania