The 1894 book Tales of crime and criminals in Australia, which can be viewed online, is an absorbing look at Victoria’s early criminal history. Far from being just a record of events, the book is filled with lively anecdotes and descriptions of notorious people and often gruesome crimes.

The book commences with the founding of the Pentridge Stockade in 1851, and also includes chapters dedicated to Ned Kelly and the Kelly Gang, as well as other lesser known criminals, such as James Johnson, who murdered his wife and four children in December 1890.

An 1849 watercolour of pentridge in Melbourne.

The stockade, Pentridge, Melbourne. 1849. The first established receptical for criminals, H15947

One of the many fascinating stories retold in the book involves the bushranger ‘Captain’ Melville. He is described by White, on page 12, as ‘one of the worst specimens of humanity to be found in the long catalogue of criminals in Victoria’. He was born in Inverness, Scotland, in 1822, and by the age of 15 had already served four prison sentences. In 1838 he was transported to Australia and placed at the juvenile institution at Port Arthur, but by 1851 he was free and had taken up life as a bushranger in Victoria.

He was eventually arrested and sentenced to 32 years’ hard labour. On the 22nd October 1856 Melville, along with other prisoners, had been working at Point Gellibrand quarry when, during their return to the prison hulk Success, they attempted to escape. They captured the boat that was towing them back to the hulk, killing a constable and two others.

An 1857 wood engraving showing convicts fighting with spades.

Rising of the convicts in 1857IAN25/06/87/SUPP/14

According to White ‘[Melville] blamed his actions on his harsh and brutal treatment, declaring that he had been confined in a small dungeon not two feet six inches in height, and then kept in irons for five days and six nights, his food being placed within view, but not within reach’ (p. 55).

Melville’s testimony contributed to the establishment of two inquiries into the harsh treatment of the penal system. Furthermore, a Citizens Committee  was also set up to investigate the penal system and the treatment of prisoners. The Committee was especially concerned by the methods of the Inspector-General of penal establishments in Victoria, John Price.

On the 26th March 1857 prisoners from Success were brought to Gellibrand Point to work, however they refused and demanded to see Inspector-General Price. After Price had spoken with some of the prisoners, a group rushed towards him and then began throwing earth and rocks. Price was struck by stones and fists as well as with a shovel and died the following day.

At the trials, seven of the accused were found guilty and sentenced to death, whilst the other eight were found not guilty. The seven men were hung. The events were widely reported in the newspapers of the day such as in the Cornwall Chronicle, 15 April 1857 and the Freeman’s Journal4 April 1857.

Written by Debra Hutchinson
Librarian, Australian History and Literature Team

Further reading

Biographical memoir of the late Mr. John Price 

From Pentonville to Pentridge: a history of prisons in Victoria

The life and death of John Price: a study in the exercise of naked power

An address from the officers & warders of the penal establishment in the Colony of Victoria to Mrs. Price, relict of the late John Price Esq., Inspector General, April 1857

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