Wow! It’s so strange to think people were executed for stealing food,’ my sister Jillian, 76, said while sifting through a pile of documents.
She was doing research for my latest book, about the transportation of convicts to Australia by the British.
‘And the last person who was executed for shoplifting was a woman, in 1822,’ she revealed.
In fact, at one time, there were more than 230 crimes you could be hanged for, including farcical things like ‘impersonating an Egyptian’ and ‘cutting down trees in an avenue’.
It was as horrible as it was ludicrous.
It was an era of madness, I chuckled.
Aussie history has always fascinated me. I’ve written and published 33 books on everything from bush poetry and yarns from the Gallipoli war, to great Australian scams, cons and rorts.
My mum, Sylvia, migrated from Britain to Australia when she was just four years old during the Great Depression. And my father, Len, came here from England on a battleship in the Second World War.
Meeting in Sydney, they married and welcomed Jillian in 1947 and me in 1948. Jillian and I were taught that Australia was the land of freedom and opportunity.
‘This is the best place on Earth,’ Dad always said.
I believe being a migrant, or child of a migrant, you have a fresh view of the place you live in, and what it means to be from there.
So for me there was a very strong connection and fascination with Australiana, our lifestyle and history – such as the convicts’ stories.
Most of my books are about people’s true lives.
‘Real stories are always the best stories,’ I say to my wife Robyn.
Jillian, who’s helped with the research of my last dozen books, goes through family history records, shipping lists and census records. And when we find something profound or absurd, we always look at each other, acknowledging a mutual fascination.
‘There were more than 800 convict transport voyages – with 624 men named John Smith coming to Australia,’ Jillian revealed.
Learning more about Australia together has brought us even closer.
For my latest book, Heroes, Rebels and Radicals of Convict Australia, I wanted to delve into the stories of real life characters.
And while being sent to Australia from the UK was seen as punishment back then, that can sound amusing now knowing how loved Australia is by so many today.
Focusing on 14 different characters, my book begins with British botanist and explorer Joseph Banks, who played a huge part in the decision to colonise Australia.
Captain James Cook went down in history for discovering Australia, yet Joseph Banks was the bloke who funded it!
Banks gave between 10,000 and 20,000 pounds to the expedition, worth up to a whopping $8 million in today’s cash.
Looking into notable and notorious convicts, I loved the stark contrast between the rebellious John ‘Jack’ Donohoe, whose surname had many spellings, and William Westwood.
William, a laundry thief, was sentenced to 14 years and transported to Australia for his crimes.
At 26, he led a mutiny on Norfolk Island, protesting against the harsh nature of the island’s prison, and ‘The Bloody Code’ – the overly strict list of laws.
Knowing he’d be executed for the act, he wrote a letter about it to be sent back to the UK after his death.
Westwood knew what his punishment would be. Still, he fought for justice.
Three months later in October 1846, he was hanged at 26 years old.
I was, like many, driven to despair by the oppressive and tyrannical conduct of those whose duty it was to prevent us from being treated this way, he wrote in the letter published in the Cornwall Chronicle.
Whereas with Donohoe, he was a dangerous, murderous thug who teamed up with two other criminals and robbed farms, simply wreaking havoc for the sake of it.
He was shot dead by police at 24 years old, in September 1830.
They may have both been defiant, but they’re from a different kettle of fish, I thought, having a lot more respect for Westwood over Donohoe.
And then of course there’s Mary Reibey, the woman on our $20 note, who was convicted for horse theft at 13 while disguised as a young boy.
Her story of becoming a community role model is well known. So I wanted to look into her husband Thomas Reibey and the connection to his probable birthplace in the Entally villages near the East India Company headquarters in Kolkata, India, after which they named several of their properties, including Entally Estate, now a heritage site in Tasmania.
The near century of madness called Convict Australia ended thanks to Robert Peel, who in 1823 did a ‘cut and paste’ job on the legal code in Britain, reducing the number of crimes to roughly the number that existed 100 years earlier.
‘I wonder if he just thought, Well, what else are we going to do?’ I said to Jillian.
We couldn’t keep executing people at that rate.
Now we might think it was ridiculous as we look back at how people could lose their lives over those misdemeanours.
But it’s important we don’t forget. It gives us perspective on our freedoms today, and reminds us not to take them for granted.