The State Prisoners.
(From The Age, February 14th, 1855.)
The following is the copy of a letter addressed by the state prisoners now awaiting their trial in the Melbourne Gaol, to the Sheriff, complaining of the treatment they have received:—
“Her Majesty’s Gaol, Melbourne,
“February 6th, 1855.
“To the Sheriff of the Colony of Victoria:—
“Sir — As the chief officer of the government, regulating prison discipline in Victoria, we, the undersigned Ballaarat state prisoners, respectfully beg to acquaint you with the mode of our treatment since our imprisonment in this gaol, in the hope that you will be pleased to make some alteration for the better.
“At seven o’clock in the morning we are led into a small yard of about thirty yards long and eight wide, where we must either stand, walk or seat ourselves upon the cold earth (no seats or benches being afforded us), and which at meal times serves as chair, table, etc., with the additional consequence of having our food saturated with sand, dust, and with every kind of disgusting filth which the wind may happen to stir up within the yard.
“We are locked in, about three o’clock in the afternoon, four or five of us together, in a cell whose dimensions are three feet by twelve, being thus debarred from the free air of heaven for sixteen hours out of the twenty-four. The food is of the very worst description ever used by civilized beings. We are debarred the use of writing materials, except for purposes of pressing necessity; are never permitted to see a newspaper; and strictly prohibited the use of tobacco and snuff. We have been subjected to the annoyance of being stripped naked, a dozen men together, when a process of “searching” takes place that is debasing to any human being, but perfectly revolting to men whose sensibilities have never been blunted by familiarity with crime — an ordeal of examination, and the coarse audacity with which it is perpetrated, as would make manhood blush, and which it would assuredly resent, as an outrage upon common decency, in any other place than a prison. And again, when the visiting justice makes his rounds, we are made to stand bareheaded before him, as if — etc.
“We give the government the credit of believing that it is not its wish we should be treated with such apparent malignity and apparent malice; and also believe that if you, sir, the representative of government in this department, had been previously made acquainted with this mode of treatment, you would have caused it to be altered. But we have hitherto refrained from troubling the government on the subject, in expectation of a speedy trial, which now appears to be postponed sine die.
“We, each of us, can look back with laudable pride upon our lives, and not a page in the record of the past can unfold a single transgression which would degrade us before man, or for which we would be condemned before our Maker. And we naturally ask why we should be treated as if our lives had been one succession of crime, or as if society breathed freely once more at being rid of our dangerous and demoralising presence. Even the Sunday, that to all men in Christendom is a day of relaxation and comparative enjoyment, to us is one of gloom and weariness, being locked up in a dreary cell from three o’clock Saturday evening till seven on Monday morning (except for about an hour and a half on Sunday); thus locked up in a narrow dungeon for forty consecutive hours! We appeal to you, and ask, was there ever worse treatment, in the worst days of the Roman inquisition, for men whose reputation had never been sullied with crime?
“We therefore humbly submit, that, as the state looks only at present to our being well secured, we ought to be treated with every liberality consistent with our safe custody; and that any unnecessary harshness, or arrogant display of power, is nothing more or less than wanton cruelty.
“Some of us, for instance, could wile away several hours each day in writing, an occupation which, while it would fill up the dreary vacuum of a prison life, as would the moderate use of snuff and tobacco cheer it, and soothe that mental irritation consequent upon seclusion. But that system of discipline which would paralyse the mind and debilitate the body — that would destroy intellectual as well as physical energy and vigour, cannot certainly be of human origin.
“Trusting you will remove these sources of annoyance and complaint,
“We beg to subscribe ourselves,
“Your obedient servants.
[Here follow the names.]
Sheriff Claude Farie, Inspector Price, Turnkey Hackett, they will praise your names in hell!
Raffaello Carboni. The Eureka Stockade: The Consequence of Some Pirates Wanting on Quarter-Deck a Rebellion, Public Library of South Australia, Adelaide, 1962 [facsimile of the 1855 edition], pages 102-103
sine die = (Latin) “without day”; in legal terms “sine die” means “without a day being fixed”; in this instance, without a day being designated for a trial
The State Prisoners = this was a phrase used in various newspaper reports of the time to refer to the men on trial for the Eureka uprising [Carboni uses the same title for chapters LXXI (71) and LXXX (80)].
Eliezer Edwards. Words, Facts, & Phrases: A Dictionary of Curious, Quaint, & Out-of-the-Way Matters, Chatto & Windus, London, 1897, page 516 (accessed 10 January 2013)
The State Prisoners:
“The State Prisoners”, The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, NSW), Wednesday 17 January 1855, page 5
“Colonial news” [see section entitled “Trials of the State Prisoners”], The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser (Maitland, NSW), Saturday 27 January 1855, page 2 of the supplement
“The State Prisoners” [letter], The Geelong Advertiser and Intelligencer (Geelong, Vic.), Tuesday 30 January 1855, page 3
“The Ballarat State Prisoners”, The Geelong Advertiser and Intelligencer (Geelong, Vic.), Friday 23 February 1855, page 2
“Legislative Council” [see section entitled “The State Prisoners”], The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.), Friday 2 March 1855, page 4
“The State Prisoners” [letter], The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.), Saturday 3 March 1855, page 6
“Bendigo” [see section entitled “The State Prisoners”], The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.), Tuesday 27 March 1855, page 6