Crime, Punishment and Redemption: A Convict's Story
How I came to write about convict John Ward's diary
15 October 2014
Recently, the National Library published my book, Crime, Punishment and Redemption: A Convict’s Story. I call it ‘my’ book, but in fact it is the result of a great deal of effort and expertise from many people, both at the NLA and elsewhere; people to whom I am eternally grateful. The story is based on John Ward’s convict diary written while he was imprisoned on Norfolk Island from 1840 to 1844. The diary is a rare treasure as few convict diaries or letters have survived and, to my knowledge, Ward’s is the only existing convict diary written during the Australian penal era while its author was in prison.
I am constantly being asked why I chose to write about John Ward, the convict ‘hero’ of the story. John Ward is not an ancestor of mine, as far as I know, but, curiously, my maternal grandmother was a Ward from Kingston-on-Hull, England, John Ward’s birthplace. It is assumed that my professional interest in juvenile delinquency and at-risk children led me to John Ward’s diary, and, in a way, it did, but there was a more personal impetus.
Years ago I accompanied a friend to a genealogy centre where she was researching her family. After she had taught me the mysteries of the microfiche, I looked up my family name, ‘Slee’, and to my surprise, it stretched across the centuries. One woman in particular caught my attention; Francesa Slee died in a poorhouse in the early 19th century, leaving a son, Alfred, only two days old. I was haunted by that information, and still wonder about the fate of that young child who had such a wretched start to his life.
That brief excursion into my family history motivated me to study the lives of poor, orphaned and destitute boys who at a young age drifted into crime. This eventually led to my decision to write a doctorate on juvenile penal reform based on the extraordinary behavioural interventions of Dr Alexander Nisbet (later Sir), who served as a superintendent-surgeon on convict transports from 1824 until 1840. His seventh and final voyage was aboard the Mangles in 1840, the convict ship that transported John Ward to Sydney (pictured above). While researching Nisbet, I was directed to Ward’s diary by a librarian at the National Maritime Library in Pyrmont, NSW; he recalled that Ward had written about Nisbet, describing him as 'a kind man to all who conducted themselves properly' and a skilled doctor to whom he owed his physical and psychological survival.
Years later, I contacted the NLA and asked if they were interested in a book based on Ward’s diary as part of their publishing project on the diaries which they hold in their archives. They were, and now, four years later, the NLA has produced a very fine book—its quality and contents far beyond my dreams. So, to all those people who have helped me on this long and fascinating voyage, I say, 'thank you'.
Dr June Slee's Crime, Punishment and Redemption: A Convict's Story was released by NLA Publishing in October 2014.