A History of British Convicts Arriving in Australia With Hectic Tattoos

Examining 10,000 penal records and preserved skin samples, Simon Barnard has unearthed Australia's tattoo history back to the 1700s.

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Sep 27 2016, 12:00am

Tattooed human skin, believed to be French, Circa 1850-1900. Images via Convict Tattoos: Marked Men and Women of Australia. Source: Science & Society Picture Library

Between 1788 and 1868, over 160,000 convicts were transported from the UK to various penal colonies around Australia. Upon arrival, each convict was stripped to record their defining features, which often included tattoos. And as it turns out, these records still exist.

Simon Barnard's new book Convict Tattoos: Marked Men and Women of Australia talks about common tattoo motifs, differences between the sexes, and how 18th century tattoos got inked. We called up Simon to ask what he's learned sifting through thousands of old tattoo records, and how tattoos have changed since the First Fleet.

VICE: Hi Simon, let's start with how you came to write and illustrate a book about Australian convict tattoos.
Simon Barnard: Well I've been into convict history for a long time, and I've had to read through a lot of those tattoo descriptions. I became a bit obsessed with them, I suppose. So I started researching them and eventually amassed enough material to produce a book.

What was the research process like finding all of these centuries-old tattoos?
Research involved looking through the records of over 10,000 convicts. They're held in what's known as the "black books." They're big, beautiful, battered ledgers. The contents were written in copperplate, which is hard to read, but worth it. Each convict had their physical description recorded along with their vocation, birthplace, next of kin, and their crimes and offences, of course. This meant that convicts could be placed into suitable work, recognised among the general population, and punished or rewarded according to their behaviour.

The black books also allowed me to estimate how many convicts were tattooed, and which motifs were most popular. By working off these same records I was able to produce detailed drawings of the convicts—their height, visage, scars, etc. The most challenging thing was trying to find pictures of their tattoos. I got around that by studying contemporaneous pop culture—decorated snuff boxes and so on. And preserved human skin specimens also give a good indication of how they may have looked.

An illustration of convict absconder Miles Confrey

What kinds of crimes had these convicts committed that got them shipped to Australia?
All kinds. Oddball examples include sacrilege, poisoning, selling dodgy food, vagrancy, perjury and bigamy. A guy named Dennis Collins lobbed a rock at King William and was transported for life. Petty theft was the most common.

In your book you mention tattoos weren't popular among criminals in England nor were they popular in the penal colonies themselves, yet 37 percent of men and 15 percent of women arrived in Australia with a tattoo. How is that so?
It would be safer to say that tattooing wasn't as popular among English criminals and the general public. But we don't really know. Most convicts didn't have their tattoos recorded before they disembarked for Australia, and tattoo descriptions generally weren't updated after they arrived. But by examining the records of convicts that shipped together it becomes clear that tattooing was extremely popular during the voyage out. At least 31 men who sailed aboard the Lord Lyndoch were tattooed with a mermaid, for example.

Knife through the heart on unidentified preserved skin

What kinds of tools were they using on the ships?
Pretty basic stuff. Pins for puncturing the skin, charcoal, ink, and gunpowder as dyes.

I mean, that doesn't exactly sound hygienic. Did people get sick from infections?
Not very hygienic by today's standards. But tattooing couldn't have posed too much of a problem as it's not mentioned in the many rules and regulations pertaining to colonial New South Wales and Tasmania.

What images were popular for convict tattoos?
Well, some of the symbolism goes way back. Mermaids, for example. But generally speaking, the motifs recorded express love. Be it for Christ or one's country or family. Names and initials were most popular, followed by anchors, people, and then hearts. Some convicts were tattooed with rings and bracelets. Other convicts were tattooed with chains. Thomas Mead had the word "free" tattooed across his chest. William Langham's chest bore the words "catch me" and "fuck me." Alice Marsh was tattooed with a woman clutching a flower and handkerchief. Charles Woodirvis bore a birdcage.

Human skin tattooed with a fouled anchor, circa 1850-1890

Were there any particularly heavily tattooed convicts?
Isaac Comer, mentioned in the book, was heavily tattooed, including on his cock. But another interesting example is Henry Findlay, who was tattooed on his chest, arms, hands, fingers, calves, and from his knees to his groin "after the Burmese manner." Henry was a soldier, court-martialled in Burma, so presumably he got some pretty wild tatts during service.

What's your favourite convict story that you stumbled across writing this book?
I dig instances where the tattoo and bearer become strangely entangled. John Pilkington, for instance, was tattooed with a heart pierced with a dart. During a game of cards in Hobart Town, Pilkington was stabbed in the heart with a knife that left a wound eight inches deep.

Were there any really bad tattoos? Tell me the absolute worst one you found.
Worst tattoo? You mean naughty? Robert Dudlow had the word "cunt" tattooed on his hand. If anyone wants to know why, they can buy the book and find out.

Any differences between the sexes?
Men were more heavily tattooed than women, and with a greater array of imagery. Most tattooed female convicts were tattooed only with initials. Women were more likely to be tattooed in less visible areas such as the shoulder or leg but, like men, most were tattooed on their forearms. The left arm was more popular than the right, which suggests many tattoos were self-administered.

Finally, are you hoping your book will become a reference for people wanting genuine convict tattoos?
That'd be nice. If anyone wants a convict-style tattoo contact Text Publishing and I'll design you one for nothing.

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