Generally a useless character


William Campbell stared at the man in front of him, “I ain’t doin’ it...”.  He was pale and small, standing four foot six inches, his steady dark blue eyes betrayed his insolence. Only 16 years old, Will was a convict of experience, he drank, stole and gambled with the best of them and had felt the indiscriminate heavy punishment of the time. After years of imprisonment in putrid hulks and heavy beatings, this final arduous three-and-a-half-month journey across treacherous oceans, saw a hardened William Campbell, in leg irons, shuffled off the ship, the David Lyon.  It was Thursday evening on the 19th of August 1830 and Will was in Van Diemen’s Land. He turned his pock pitted face away from yet another ‘shoddy’. Pieces of his matted brown hair were picked up by the new coastal air and swept across his forehead. His youthful whisker less face was fixed making it clear that he hadn’t suddenly become obedient. 

Digging on an archaeological site goes beyond just unearthing walls, dirt and broken crockery. Archaeologists are also discovering a human story and a connection to those who lived and worked in these places before they were ruins. At the Kings Meadows Convict Station, we found that connection and his name was William Campbell.

Campbell spent over 30 years as a convict in Van Diemen’s Land. He was originally sentenced to 14 years in Edinburgh, for stealing clothes. In his convict records he was described as an errand boy and clearly had light fingers as he continued to offend in the new land. Campbell's story is the diamond in the rough, his records so filled with details we can image what he looked like, how he lived and what he was like.  He is the forgotten man amongst many that makes for a good yarn.

Campbell is described in1831 by his overseer as ‘generally a useless character’. He never yielded to convict life and at this time received one week on the treadmill for "idleness and neglect of duty". This is just how it sounds, a treadmill that uses human labour to power machinery in work such as milling grain.

Campbell was part of the Launceston Chain Gang in 1833. His numerous offences earnt him this less than enviable job. Chain gangs were convict labour undertaking the hardest work under brutal conditions saved only for the most troublesome. Work involved exciting tasks like rock breaking, ditch digging, land clearing and road building. For Campbell, who was often in trouble for idleness, this must have been agony.

However, given inspiration, Campbell could put in a little extra effort. One of the more intriguing crimes he committed was in 1837 at the Kings Meadows Convict Station. He was found guilty of ‘leaving his ranks and throwing a dog over the bridge and into the river’. Ok? For this he received 'seven days solitary confinement on bread and water’.

Later that year, still in the Launceston Chain Gang, Campbell is again in the limelight. This time he receives a small write up in the local rag, the Cornwall Chronicle. He had absconded, with another convict, William Davies. However, soon after, Campbell was apprehended and sent to the infamous cruelty of Port Arthur with an extra two years on his sentence for his trouble. True to form our young villain had his time extended for numerous other offences and ended up spending the next 10 years at Port Arthur.

Campbell committed over 100 offences in the colony. His offences included the ever present 'idleness', disobedience of orders, drunkenness, gambling, absenteeism without leave, profane swearing, insolence, absconding, burglary, stealing, having tobacco without permission, fighting and quarrelling, wilfully lying and general misconduct. Oh, and that dog incident. Pure convict gold.

However, Campbell was not just a one-dimensional criminal. He was gainfully employed in 1849 by G. C. Clarke at Ellenthorpe Hall and in 1855 by William Carter at New Town in Hobart. Both of these employers were of high social standing, with Carter being the first Mayor of Hobart later in life. Over these stints Campbell even earned 19 pounds. Perhaps he thought he'd give the straight life a whirl. If so, these thoughts may have only been fleeting as in the 6 years between these secondments he was on the horrific Norfolk Island at her Majesty's pleasure.

Campbell is recorded as being back under sentence and at Port Arthur by 1856. He was given a ticket of leave in 1858 however this was revoked in 1859. Campbell just couldn't seem to 'go straight'.

During his life Campbell was brutally treated. He received hard labour (sometimes in chains), solitary confinement, reduced rations, assignment to some of the most notorious prisons in Tasmania including Norfolk Island, numerous extensions to his sentence and assignment to road gangs. On many occasions he was flogged for gambling, gross misconduct and neglect of duty.

Campbell's life may illustrate the brutal aspects of a convict's lot however his ‘idle’ hands and blood, sweat and tears are the mortar and foundations of the roads and bridges in Tasmania.

Figure 1: Newspaper article from the Cornwell Chronicle, 9th December 1837, detailing the escape of William Davis and William Campbell from the KMCS. Source: Trove 2019.

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