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A Convicts’s Memoirs : Lawrence Frayne – A Soul Survivor

A Convicts’s Memoirs : Lawrence Frayne – A Soul Survivor

How do you define ‘Success’? The Oxford Dictionary states:

1) A favourable outcome, doing what was desired or attempted; the attainment of wealth, fame or position.

2) A person or thing that is successful.

Often, we consider success to mean material wealth or importance in public status. Let us go back nearly two hundred years, however, and review the memoirs of convict Laurence Frayne where we will find a less empirical description. I acquired a copy of his memoirs over 11 years ago, and ever since have been fascinated by this ‘Steel Man’ (as he was known by the flagellators during Norfolk Island’s Penal Settlement 1825 – 1855) because of his ability to withstand repeated scourges of the lash. However, Frayne states in his memoirs; ‘Alas, delusive idea! – I felt too acutely the full weight, scourge & sting of every lash but I had resolution enough accompanied by inflexible Obstinacy not to give any satisfaction… I knew my real innocence and bore up against it.’

Frayne was a young, rebellious Irish convict who continually tried to escape whilst in New South Wales, ending up on Norfolk Island’s notorious penal settlement in 1830. His determination and free spirit were characteristics not common amongst other convicts. Yet this youth was not simply a one-dimensional character; a product of poverty and limited education. Laurence Frayne was articulate, intelligent, passionate, and he had another quality that I have long been interested in; he had a strong spiritual will, a will that despite pain, suffering and humiliation meant that he would survive degradation and the dark night of the soul.

‘…Though heart sick of my own existence, I could not bring myself to take away my own life with my own hands: which I well knew were given to me to procure food and nourishment for my body and make my life a comfort… This I also knew was the gift of God.’

Laurence Frayne succeeded, because he lived to tell his tale. His story has appeared in several history books and his memoirs show that whilst he was a broken man at times, he still managed to dig deep into his soul and find that divine spark of love and humanity within. This helped him to continue living when others might have crumbled and welcomed death. Frayne managed to keep his spirit alive whilst his heavily damaged body was testament to the cruelty he suffered.

Born in Dublin in the early 1800s, he came into this world when Ireland’s population was rapidly increasing; however its economy was declining and he would have known well the poverty that permeated family life at that time. He was sentenced in Dublin on October 5th, 1825 for ‘Stealing Rope’. Typical of the inequitable punishment-and-crime of the era, he was sentenced to seven years. Frayne was no more than a boy when he arrived in New South Wales on the Regalia in 1826. In 1828, he was reconvicted for continually trying to escape and was sent to Moreton Bay. This did not put a stop to his behaviour, and in January 1830 he was sent to the Supreme Court and reconvicted with a resulting death sentence. This sentence was commuted and he was sent to the stationary hulk, The Phoenix. This ship was described as a place ‘…of filth and place of cruelty and starvation’. Frayne tried to escape yet again, however he was caught and endured 200 lashes. He had no means of cleaning his wounds, and arrived on Norfolk Island in a dreadful state.

‘In this state immediately after my landing I was sent to carry Salt Beef on my back with the Salt Brine stinging… I really longed for instant death.’

Frayne fought against injustice and anyone who tried to curb his freedom. He continually found himself in trouble with authorities for one reason or another. However, he was soon to come up against Norfolk Island’s feared commandant, Lieutenant-Colonel James Thomas Morisset (1780-1852). He would encounter a man who had scant regard for human dignity and who might easily be described as a sadist. Our young protagonist’s traumatic journey to freedom had only just begun.

Morriset arrived to take up his duties on Norfolk Island in May of 1829, some 18 months before the arrival of Laurence Frayne. His appearance was rather gruesome due to a severe sabre wound on his face that was inflicted during the wars. Whilst he had a reputation in New South Wales for being ‘stern, but not unjust’, this would soon become a fallacy during his reign of terror on Norfolk. Prisoners, who worked in chain gangs, were encouraged to turn informants in order to receive some small privilege. Frayne’s memoirs reveal that any man could be flogged merely on suspicion. There was no jury, which meant prisoners were tried under tribunal. Since there was no defence, the convicted men were constantly in fear of being charged for some menial or false charge.

Frayne was brought before Morisset for breaking a flagstone in the quarry. He tried to defend himself, but states ‘As usual I found my defence useless’. He received 100 lashes.

‘After the sentence I plainly told the Commandant in the Court that he was a Tyrant. He replied that no man had ever said that about him before. I said they knew the consequences too well to tell him so. – But I tell you in stark naked blunt English that you are as great a tyrant as Nero ever was. The moment I said these words I was sentenced to an additional 100 & to be kept ironed down in a cell for Life and never to see daylight again.’

Morisset’s unbalanced mental state showed itself to a large degree when he wanted to be present whilst Frayne received these 200 lashes. The lashes were given intermittently so that they could be inflicted again just as the wounds were beginning to heal over. He said that he wanted to see the flagellator inflict the lashes as severely as possible. Consequently, heavier cats were obtained specifically for Frayne’s torture.

Yet another flogging (300 lashes) was arranged for Frayne when he was accused of assaulting a convict informer. After his second lot of 100 lashes, Frayne describes in his memoirs how he was thrown into jail with a meagre ration of water. He poured this small amount of water on to the floor and lay down to soak his shoulders in an attempt to relieve the pain. There would be no medical treatment and he had no soap. Before he would receive his third lot of 100, news arrived that would save him from his final flogging. The colonial secretary in Sydney announced that floggings be limited to 100 lashes. Consequently, Morisset decided to put Frayne into a dumb cell (a stone, dark, soundless chamber) for two months. This was to be typical of Laurence Frayne’s life whilst under the rule of Morisset. But Morisset was not a well man, and in 1834 he had to be moved to Sydney. He advised the authorities that he would resign and took a year’s sick leave. One can only imagine the state of his mental health as his frustrations lead to more controlling and sadistic behaviours whilst in control of Norfolk Island’s convicted. For now, Morisset’s rule was over and Laurence Frayne, amongst other convicts, would have been relieved at his departure. Other commandants came to oversee the island using harsh discipline in the six years that followed. Then, there was a change in the Austral wind.

In March 1840, a light would be cast over the shadows of this dreadful penal settlement. Captain Alexander Maconachie (1787-1860), a Scottish naval officer from Edinburgh, arrived on Norfolk Island and served for four years as the commandant who would experiment with a new type of penal system. Lord Normanby, Secretary of State for the Colonies, was concerned about the reported conditions on Norfolk Island. Maconachie was known for his progressive and humanitarian views, which were presented in the Molesworth Committee report after his visit to Hobart’s convict settlement in 1836. His understanding was not simply based on theories, for Maconachie had been a prisoner of the Napoleonic wars between the years 1811-1814. In 1833, he was made the first Professor at the University of London. His personal and professional experience meant that he was well equipped to be the harbinger of change that Norfolk Island needed.

Maconachie awarded points to prisoners for good behaviour and his aim was to restore a sense of dignity within each human being. The more points the prisoner earned, the further the sentence was reduced until, finally, the convicted man could walk free. He was ahead of his time and whilst authorities in Australia and the U.K. condemned his approach, the results proved to be largely positive. Cruel punishments were reduced and prisoners were reminded of their home land; in particular, their allegiance to young Queen Victoria. It is documented that on the Queen’s 21st birthday, May 24th 1840, the prisoners walked free from their cells in the morning, swam down at beautiful Emily Bay, and toasted their Queen at a lunch alongside the prisoners’ barracks. Convicts played music, recited Shakespeare and performed in plays. On this day, trust was restored and convicted men were touched by the hand of humanity.

You are reading about Frayne’s life today thanks to Captain Alexander Maconachie. He invited prisoners to read and learn as much as possible. He had two churches erected as there was no place of worship on the island before his arrival. Frayne’s memoirs describe his experience, but also his views on the penal system of that time. Maconachie’s liberal approach meant Frayne’s perception stretched beyond his experience. Education was
paramount, and Maconachie knew this.

What happened to Laurence Frayne? What happened to the man who, according to a letter from Maconachie in 1841, ‘had received first and last 2,350 lashes’? We know that Frayne helped erect a burial stone for his friend, William Storey, who died at age 29. Frayne’s name is on the tombstone. Frayne was released from Norfolk and was granted a Ticket of Leave in Maitland (TOL), New South Wales in 1845. A TOL meant that the individual was free to live and work in the district and had to attend church regularly. If Frayne received this TOL and wanted to leave the district, he would have to request permission to move outside of his designated area. The TOL was cancelled however, because Frayne was ‘absent from the district’ at the time it was announced in the Maitland Mercury and Hunter River Adviser. It is recorded that he received his Certificate of Freedom in 1846, 20 years after he arrived in Australia for a seven year sentence.

If Laurence Frayne were alive today with all its social and cultural benefits, what would his life be like? Would he be a writer, a humanitarian or a business executive? My sense is that he could have been any of those, because he had a passion that refused to die. One thing is certain; his strong, spiritual will would certainly mean that Laurence Frayne would be considered ‘successful’.


Image Credit: Robin Nisbet


Article content disclaimer: Article first published in YourWorld, Volume 02 Issue 02, 2012. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.




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