Convict Labour - The building of the Dockyard (Pt 6)
By Freddie Gomez
[left] The wooden hulk H.M.S. Success was probably one of the few British ships purpose-built for the transportation of convicts to either Australia or the Bermudas.
Because of the convicts' unruly behaviour and the numerous complaints made against them on their work performance, the authorities in 1860 decided to hold a public inquiry to consider whether the works being carried out by them- which were way behind schedule - should be handed over to private contractors.
The inquiry came to the conclusion that the convict labour should be replaced by private labour on the works in progress. The number of convicts employed on naval works stood at 270 but apart from the Owen Glendower, which had by then been demasted and converted into a hospital ship, there were no hulks to provide accommodation for them in which most convicts had been housed in other countries and owing to deplorable and cramped conditions under which they were compelled to live in the hulks, they very much welcomed being housed in wooden or stone buildings where they lived in community wards.
Although there was much talk on building a Convict Establishment within the garrison walls as a way of preventing convicts from escaping to another country, which was a frequent occurrence, the Military Authority was totally against it, for , they argued that the possibility of an escapee running loose within the garrison was a risk to security they were not willing to take. The reason for the increase of escapees stemmed from a change in the law in 1853 which replaced the punishment of penal servitude in Gibraltar for that of transportation to Australia, and prisoners under sentence of transportation could, if their conduct merited it, have their sentence shortened under a release licence, whereas penal servitude convicts, sentenced under the 1853 Act, could not, under any circumstances, obtain a remission of their punishment.
The 1853 Act, however, was subsequently modified in1857, and this Act allowed penal servitude convicts, subject to exemplary conduct, to have their sentences shortened.
Notwithstanding convicts under sentence of transportation had an apparent advantage over the penal servitude prisoner retained in Gibraltar, for a prisoner sentenced to a transportation period of 10 years could obtain his release under licence at the expiration of four years servitude, the other, under the same period of sentence, could only acquire a remission of two and a half years on his sentence.
Whilst the following should not be taken as an expression on opinion upon the state of the law (at the time) or the comparative merits of transportation and penal servitudes as modes of punishment, but as a noticeable factor, that the effect of penal servitude was to lessen the stimulus to exertion in convicts employed in public works, as compared with others, and the effect which it had upon the public works at Gibraltar, and this can well be observed from the following statement:-
Penal Servitude Men (1853 Act)...520
Penal Servitude Men (1857 Act)...140
[Left] Convict Sutherland, (no other name given) 1874. Who served time in Gibraltar, and was later transferred to Australia. Local archives Records mention only his name and prison number 1873. Photo: National Australian Library.
[Left] Convict William Hayes, 1874. Who served time in Gibraltar and was then transferred to Australia, Local archive records mention both his name and prison number 4628. There is no indication of the crime for which he was sentenced to transportation. Photo: National Australian Library.