DAYS OF CRIME AND YEARS OF SUFFERING AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY,
Reprinted from "The Australasian" of 1867 by special permission)
CHAPTER XLL (CONTINUED)
... Hefferan, the prisoner in the next cell to me on my right, one day, asked me if I knew a man called Frank the Poet. I told him I had often heard of him, but that I had never seen him. He said that Frank was the fellow to "show 'em up" in poetry, and he begged of me to compose something for him about the other penal officials without any other dictionary words in it. "Just put John down below along with a lot of parsons and judges and them there sort of swells," said Hefferan.
In a foolish moment I consented to do this, and I put together a lot of doggrel, which I repeated aloud a few lines at a time for Hefferan to commit to memory as I composed it.
The prisoner in the opposite cell could hear as well as Hefferan, and with the tooth of a comb he scratched the lines down upon the margin of a Bible. After he had got the whole of the rhymed rubbish (very often the unrhymed) he sent for the superintendent, and obtained from him privately pen, ink, and paper for the purpose of writing it out, to show, the inspector-general.
On that gentleman visiting, the doggrel was handed to him, and he came to my cell with it in his hand. He read aloud to the the part which referred to himself, and he then asked me if I avowed the authorship. I knew it was useless to deny it, and so I admitted that I had put it together for amusement. "Well," he said, "as some of the rhymes are very bad, you can amuse yourself for the next five years in improving them, for you can take my word that you will not get out until the expiration of your sentence of ten years."
I asked him if he intended to prohibit men writing to a friend for the purpose of trying the legality of my detention by a writ of habeas, and he very cooly replied, "You'll write nothing but rhymes here."...
This description of the way poetry was composed by convicts (in this case aboard the President Hulk) and memorised as well as the reference to Frank the Poet suggests a number of observations:
- The serialisation of this autobiography, by Owen Suffolk, in The Australasian (1867) and its reprinting in The Gippsland Times (1898).
- The importance of Frank the Poet with his "show 'em up" kind of verse, and his use of the vernacular "without any other dictionary words".
- The currency of his epic poem The Convict's Tour To Hell as in imagining the penal officials "down below along with a lot of parsons and judges and them there sort of swells".
- The oral nature of the composition and memorisation of the work.
- The danger of it being written down for use as evidence against the prisoner.
- The inevitable punishment inflicted.
Owen Suffolk began his autobiography, Days of crime and years of suffering, in his cell on a prison hulk moored off Williamstown (Melbourne) in Hobson's Bay in 1858. The book describes his expereriences as a convict transported to Australia from Victorian England for a series of petty crimes.
A rarity among convicts, Suffolk was middle-class, literate and well-spoken. His autobiography, an impressive document of the Victorian era, caused a sensation when published in newspaper serial form in 1867.
Suffolk's autobiography is available in a new edition edited and introduced by David Dunstone:
Owen Suffolk's Days of Crime and Years of Suffering, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Kew, 2000