Violators, Victims and Vigilantes

The Western Australian government is about to introduce controversial legislation to let parents know about convicted child sex offenders who may live nearby.  Queensland is struggling to a way to deal with offenders who have served their time, but can’t be reintegrated into the community.  We are all troubled, one way or another, by people who are sexually aroused by children.  And the state struggles to find ways to deal with such people, to appease community outrage while treating them appropriately within the law.

The problem isn’t new, but definitions of childhood have changed greatly since the days when midshipmen went into battle at 10 and girls routinely married as soon as they reached puberty. The age of consent in England was 12 until 1885, when it was raised to 16 because of public concern about young girls being sold into brothels.  [See W.T. Stead, ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’ from The Pall Mall Gazette]

Girl in a Pinafore

David Cox, Girl in a Pinafore, c. 1800. In Yale Center for British Art, Yale Digital Commons

The first recorded case in Australia of the sexual assault of the child came to court in Sydney in September 1789, when Henry Wright, a private in the Marines in his early 30s, was tried for the rape of Elizabeth Chapman, aged 8.  The details of the case are here [R. v. Wright, 1789], a sad story told through the evidence of a fairly shambolic court case.  Elizabeth Chapman was visiting one of the sergeants’ wives ‘to drink tea’.  Henry Wright led her away from the settlement to Cockle Bay, where he molested her, ‘hurt her very much’, and threatened to smash her legs if she resisted.  Another little girl, Mary Ann Wright, presumably Henry’s daughter, was present at the time.  We can only assume that for her such events were not unusual.

Like so many children, Elizabeth said nothing afterwards, and it was only when her mother found her daughter’s bloodstained bedding and questioned her, that the story came out.  Elizabeth said that she was frightened that her mother would beat her because she had been warned not to have anything to do with Wright.

Jane Chapman was wary because she ‘had heard he had the character of doing such things with children’.  A court would never allow such prejudicial evidence these days – though as it happens, Jane Chapman was right to be concerned.  Henry Wright was a repeat offender.

The man in charge of the court was David Collins, deputy judge advocate and lieutenant governor of the colony of New South Wales.  He was a thoughtful, educated man, but he had no legal training.  He was careful in some matters of law.  For instance he asked Elizabeth whether she understood the meaning of an oath, before he accepted her evidence – a problem for the prosecution even today, because a child’s evidence is often hard to evaluate and sometimes discounted.

Henry Wright was found guilty.  Collins sentenced him to death, but then added a recommendation for mercy.  In his Account of the English Colony of New South Wales (1798) he explained that:

This was an offence that did not seem to require an immediate example; the chastity of the female part of the settlement had never been so rigid, as to drive men to so desperate an act; and it was believed that beside the wretch in question there was not in the colony a man of any description who would have attempted it.

The first part of this quote has become notorious amongst social historians of early New South Wales.  It has even become a book title: Their chastity was not too rigid: leisure times in early Australia (Cunes, 1979).  But it is the second part of his statement that I find interesting.

Collins was preoccupied with deterrence.  The following November a woman was hanged for breaking into a hut to steal clothes, and this sentence was carried out. In the desperate settlement, stealing food or clothing was evidently seen as more wicked than the rape of a child – or perhaps thieves were more likely to be deterred from their wicked ways by the threat of harsh punishment.

Henry Wright didn’t hang.  Instead, Governor Phillip did what state and religious authorities have done so often in similar situations, he offloaded the problem on to somewhere else.  Wright was sent to Norfolk Island, with his unfortunate wife and children, to spend the rest of his life there.

There, in July 1791, he assaulted 10-year-old Elizabeth Gregory.  If David Collins’ court in Sydney was amateurish, Major Robert Ross on Norfolk Island ran a truly weird system.  The population was tiny, and Ross tried to involve the whole community in the legal process in very unorthodox ways.  (Alan Atkinson discusses this very interestingly in The Europeans in Australia (1997).)

Henry Wright was found guilty of attempted rape, and was sentenced to ‘run the gauntlet’.  The idea probably came from the Navy, where this was a punishment for theft.  The victim had to run between 2 rows of people who could hit him with – well, the rules vary, but probably with sticks or cudgels, not edged weapons.  Ross ordered every adult man and woman on the island, convict or free, to take part in this act of communal punishment.  According to Lieutenant Ralph Clark in his diary, on ‘Munday 18th’,

Punished Heny. Wright  by making him Run the Gantlet throu all the men and women in her[e] for attempting to deflour Elizt. Gregory a Girl of a bout ten Years of Age … he is to undergoe the Same punishment at Port Jackson when his Back is well

Further punishment took place on 2 August, and Henry Wright survived.  Despite everything, he received a conditional pardon on 13 September 1796.

In 1807, Governor Bligh closed down Norfolk Island, and moved everyone to New Norfolk, near Hobart, and he disappears from the record, but a Mary Ann Wright is buried in St David’s Cemetery, in Hobart.  She died aged 63, on 13 April 1846.  If this is the right Mary Ann, this would make her 6 at the time of Elizabeth Chapman’s rape.

We worry these days about lynch mobs, and vigilantes getting hold of the names of pedophiles.  Imagine then, what it was like for Wright to run the gauntlet on Norfolk Island, in a tiny community with no escape.  Imagine what it was like for his wife, who petitioned to be allowed to return to Sydney with her children.  Imagine too what this public act of collective violence and vilification did to the community as a whole.

How should such sex offenders be treated?  There seems no easy answer.  David Collins’ leniency put Elizabeth Gregory at risk.  Robert Ross’s solution was to hand over punishment to the community – or rather, to the mob.  This savagery probably appeals to today’s shock jocks – but do we really want to encourage such unrestrained violence, or allow the state to abdicate its authority in this way?

2 responses to “Violators, Victims and Vigilantes

  1. Pingback: …neither bodies to be punished, nor souls to be condemned… | Historians are Past Caring

  2. Pingback: The Hangman’s Rope | Historians are Past Caring

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