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Singing, Sex and Silence on a Victorian prison island

Katy Roscoe

Mrs Macpherson, ‘Cockatoo Island, Sydney’ (1856-7), courtesy of State Library of NSW.

CW: homophobia, sexual abuse.

In 1857, Reverend Charles Roberts, writing under a pseudonym, wrote into a local newspaper, The Empire, complaining that the shouting and singing of inmates from Cockatoo Island Prison was drifting over the harbour to the Sydney suburbs. Worse, it was interrupting his families’ prayers on the Sabbath,

He wrote:

Disorder on Cockatoo Island

“On Sunday last myself and my family were at a distance of nearly a quarter of a mile, we were disturbed by a frightful yelling and hallooing”

He went on to complain that “on calm evenings, I hear most distinctly singing and chorusses until a late hour”. (Empire, 26 Sept. 1857)

Philip Doyne Vigors, ‘Convicts Letter writing at Cockatoo Island: Canary Birds! NSW’ (1849), courtesy of the State Library of NSW.

By this time in the nineteenth century, silence had become foundational to ‘proper’ prison discipline. In 1820s New York ‘the silent system’ was introduced at Auburn prison, enforcing complete silence 24 hours a day. Prisoners were only allowed to listen to the gospel in weekly-services or during visits from the Chaplain. This was supposed to protect them from ‘moral contamination’ by fraternising with other criminals.

Cockatoo Island was far from a silent prison. The inmates’ days were marked by the clanging of pickaxes on sandstone, the blasts of explosives felling cliffs, and the sloshing of water against their legs as they finished building a dry dock for repairing ships (which opened in September 1857).

However, it was the noise of prisoners in their barracks at night that most worried the Victorian public. Another witness “G.W.H” wrote directly to the Empire’s editor Henry Parkes, complaining that the young lads were mixing with hardened ‘old lags’ and that ‘touch, pitch and defilement’ (Ecclesiastes 13:1) was bound to follow.

G.W.H. described a fictional 18-year old prisoner being sent to Cockatoo Island:

‘[He is] compelled to co-mingle with villains… compelled to the disgusting recital of their deeds of darkness… and sleep is banished from his sorrowful eyes by the wild chorus of vulgar, ribald and licentious songs’. (Board of Inquiry into the Management of Cockatoo Island, 1858)

Here, again, noisy singing drifts across space, crossing boundaries between prisoners’ bunks and between the prison island and the city. For Victorians, unwilling to name directly the ‘unspeakable’ crime of homosexuality, bawdy songs become a metaphor for illicit, sexual acts that took place in darkened barracks. Yet, the censure of male-on-male sex full stop renders the question of consent – was he “compelled”? – unknowable.

This speaking without saying persisted in an Select Committee into Cockatoo Island prison in 1861, which was chaired by Henry Parkes (the newspaper editor who had kicked off these inquiries). Prisoners testified that homosexual acts took place, but insisted that they had heard rumours, rather than having witnessed them directly. They described the prison slang for effeminate boys (‘sailor boys’ ‘sprigs of fashion’, or pejoratively ‘bleeding nuns’). But they displaced themselves from the room, by having heard rather than seen or touched anyone. Their testimony is silenced by the enforced morality of the board of inquiry.

As a historian, it can be frustrating to be confronted with all this “silence” at the heart of all this noise. What songs were sung, stories told and tender words shared by these Victorian prisoners is sadly lost to time.