Passages from the Life of a "Lifer": Chapter I
(originally serialised in Moreton Bay Courier, (Brisbane), 2, 9, 16, 23 & 30 April 1859)
Edited by Ian Duffield
© all rights reserved
This narrative has been broken into 6 sections:
Chapters I, II, III, IV , V & VI.
Early Life - Entrance to Crime
(Moreton Bay Courier, Vol. XIII, No. 739, Saturday 2 April 1859)
"Push back the hand on the dial plate. Would that I could do so. Ah so! I cannot recall the past, but memory plays fantastic tricks and though nearly of the age allotted to man on the earth, I must tell you how I came to be an exile from the land of my birth. I am not about to paint myself an angel, or quarrel with the laws which drove me out from my country.
I was born in a densely populated part of the north of England, nearly seventy years ago, and the earliest recollections show to me a father, working hard to find a large family bread, with brothers and sisters plenty in number, living on coarse food and herding together with no care for moral or religious training. I had my playmates - but even our manhood was premature, so far as liberty to eat meal and potatoes without toil. At the age of eight years of age I had to help my father, and at 13 years of age I was working a loom myself, weaving an inferior kind of cotton cloth. Thus time went on, with little variation, until I considered I was old enough to wed, which I did with a lass I loved as well as my mind was capable. A few short years of life, with ever pinching poverty standing gauntly in the back-ground, was mine, until the lass of my love died and then there was a blank. The light of the loom was put out, and for me there was no recall. I neglected the little garden, for I had removed to a village, and began to seek for company at the ale-house, where I found those who had travelled already from the joy of honesty, and who spoke in tones of mystery of ways in which "swag" could be made other than by "weaving".
My loom was, in a great measure, neglected; where I had been in the habit of finishing two cuts, now only one saw taken away. I kept visiting the haunts where I found company, and in a short period had formed an alliance with another female whom I married from a feeling I cannot now describe. There was no love. All that my rough nature was capable of (but Jack Bushman will interpret for me) had gone into the grave with the weaver's darling; and I entered matrimony the second time far worse in mind and pocket, than when I first trod the cold world as a weaver. In the times of her who was gone from me for ever, I could have endured the spare meal, and worked until my hands and knees had ached, in hope to keep away starvation. The small spark had fled. My wife and I did not jog along well together. There were little stories of her inconsistencies, and some of my boon companions would sneer at old memories. Still there was something terrible in starvation; and, at this crisis in my history, my father being dead, my mother and some of my younger brothers and sisters began to be in want. I was agitated to know what to do. I kept in quietude my thoughts, and at last made a firm resolve, come what would, there should be bread for my mother and gold for myself.
A few nightly visits were made to the public house to form plans; and if necessary to make a league with those I felt satisfied were already guilty. I saw and heard enough to satisfy me that they were not to be trusted; and I came home determined to do business for myself.
Next to the place where we lived was a higgler's shop, just such an one as has often been described, with the small tinkling bell hanging behind the door, the contents of the littler store being varied and plentiful. Old Jones who kept the shop was a notorious old screw, and kept large sums of money in the house. I had heard this reported in the public house, after the old man had retired to the little back parlour, where he used to go of a night to smoke his pipe and talk to the landlord. More than this, I owed old Jones a spite. He had denied me credit, and as I had kept my dish pretty decently crumbled in this respect, more I grant through my lassie that had gone for ever than any particular modesty that I possessed myself, I felt a double purpose in the plan I had formed.
One dark night, it was old Jones' late night. I watched him away, saw him stowed comfortably in the old seat in the public house parlour, and then I hastened by a back way to his house. At the back of the house was a small window, which I, with difficulty, forced open, but not until I had broken part of the frame and some of the glass. It was a tight squeeze to get through, which I did by elevating myself sufficient to get my feet through first, and then passing my body. I was just ready for dropping, when there was a perfect rattle of saucepans and crockery, with which my feet had come into contact. I had gone too far to turn back, and if there had been any person in the house I must have been taken, as I could not readily have left the hole in which my body was pressed. I listened - there was no further noise. I forced my toes against something of an abutment, and in a short time stood inside the house of old Jones.
I was in the act of striking a light, when something darted past, and small as the incident may appear, it startled me. I listened again, and my heart beat violently against my ribs. "Its na' use to come here for nought," I said half aloud, and then striking a light, I was soon on my search.
I found something. Yes! I found one of old Jones' hoards. There were sixty gold guineas, and I pocketted them every one. I let myself out at the back door and thought it was alright. It was not though. There was somebody saw me getting over old Jones' fence, and in my joy at having found the money I had forgotten my tinder box, and also forgotten footmarks on the soft mould. My first care was to come home. I did not tell my wife. I knew better than do that. If it had only been the one that was gone, I could not have kept it. Somehow I always found that I used to tell that lass everything. Now it was different. I hid the greater part of the money where I knew I should be able to find it, and I bought food for my mother, for my brothers and sisters, but let no one see or know of the hoard.
It was well for the hungry ones that I did provide for them thus early, as before forty-eight hours had past I found myself arrested, lodged in the lock-up, the next morning taken before the magistrates, where I found the tinder box, with an old file for a steel, to which a neighbour was able to swear. There was a witness to swear he saw me leave the garden, and the boots I had worn had been compared to the indentations in the mould, but no property was found on me. Suffice to say that I was committed for trial, at trial found guilty, and as nothing criminal was known of me previously, sentenced to three months' hard labour, with a little advice from the judge, in the following words as near as I can remember.
"Young man, you have been found guilty of a crime, for which in years gone by your life would have been forfeited; and, even now, there are many who are passing their lives in hopeless servitude, for smaller offences. It is, I hope, the first departure you have made from the path of honesty, and in the trust that your escape may make you in the future a worthier member of society, I pass upon you the nominal punishment of three month's imprisonment."
I turned round in the dock to go away, when I found my wife waiting, with her head thrust over the barrier, to speak to me.
"Where didst put money, lad?" she whispered.
"That's not for thee to know, my lass."
I served my three months, and when I came out again, I found the people did not seem to like to be seen speaking to me. I knew I had the money all right, and I hoped to do a little on my own account.
Finding there was no employment in the old line, I took to a new job, conveying of goods by fly-boats. I performed the part of driver to the then considered rapid mode of water carriage. For a time all went well, I had plenty to eat and drink, and so had my mother and my wife. Times, however, soon became bad - the sixty golden guineas were gone, the place I had was lost, and want stared me in the face. It may be satisfactory to those who read these passages to know, that during the time I was connected with the fly-boat I was honest; though valuables of every description were sent by that means of conveyance I did not touch them; and this not because I had not the opportunity of so doing. The fact was, I had plenty to eat and drink and wear, and I never stole in my life from the love of the act, or because I was too idle to work.
A philosophy I had learned somewhere or other, that it was wrong to starve in the land of plenty; and I had determined that I would rather steal than see any of mine want food.
Pressure, therefore, no sooner came than I cast about my thoughts, and this time I determined to rob another shop. I did so, had the fortune to get £40; and, not content with the cash, I took some of the goods. A poor widow, whose husband had been transported, had some children; and, in the goodness of my nature, for I did not mean to criminate her, I gave her some cotton stuff I had taken. She, woman like, told who had given it to her, though I cautioned her, and the result was, I was apprehended, tried, convicted, and the proofs being conclusive, was sentenced to transportation for the term of my natural life.
They didn't get the money this time; I made that right, and after I was sentenced, I told a certain person where to find it. I didn't cry and whimper, I knew I was guilty, and ought to suffer; but untutored as I was in the dreadful punishment to which I was consigned, I had not that horror which would have taken possession of me, if I had known then a tithe of what I shall have to tell you in my narrative.
I had not very fine feelings, but as I paced the prison yard after sentence I could not help wishing I was free. The one bright spot of my existence, that love for the lass I had loved, shone less lovely on me, for I began to feel I had disgraced the vows I had sworn to her; and though my second wife was on the point of being a mother, I had a slight inclination to grieve on her account.
I go by again, in my simple manner, to the dark dull prison, the stern gaolers, the strange mixture of human beings, the uncertainty of where I was to be sent, and the dogged listlessness I professed to the future, with wonder at myself. I remember the labour of endeavouring to think what would be the end, and once I actually found my eyes wet with tears, which had come gently stealing to soften the hardness of my soul - but they were only the rising of the spring tide on which I might have been, had I only valued it sufficiently, wafted through life to an old age of peaceable reflection.
I took the food which was given to me without a murmur. I obeyed all orders with alacrity, never returned a saucy answer to those in authority, and was, on the whole, I believe, considered a hard-working fellow with an honest face, who might have had a better fate in the world than being what is known as a "lifer."
Edited by Ian Duffield, University of Edinburgh
This narrative has been broken into 6 sections. You have just completed Chapter I. Continue with chapters: II/ III/ IV /V/ VI. See also the introduction to Jack Bushman's narrative by Ian Duffield.