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Monday, May 12, 2014

Australiana #4: The Convict-scribe

Australia is no stranger to convicts-turned-novelists e.g. Gregory David Roberts of Shantaram fame or scribes being threatened with conviction e.g. Julian Assange of Wikileaks. While leafing through the pages of Matthew Condon's book, Brisbane, I chanced upon a rather interesting character named Thomas Dowse.

When he was 15 years old, Dowse was presented to London's Central Criminal Court. He was charged with stealing a coat, waistcoat, trousers, shirt and handkerchief from his mother, Catherine. Dowse had pawned the clothes, belonging to his minor brother, for 35 shillings. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. Like many convicts on death row in England, he was sent to the new penal colony in New South Wales aboard the ship, Florentina. In New South Wales, he was pardoned in 1839, after serving eight years as a convict. He then made his way up to Moreton Bay (near Brisbane) in 1842, when the convict settlement was opened to free settlement.

Thomas Dowse
Dowse dabbled in different trades. He was an auctioneer, a landlord, a small businessman and also the secretary of Brisbane Teetotal Society. At his premises in Queen Street, he sold almost anything from shirts, frock coats, cutlery, looking-glasses, books and livestock. His auction mart became a centre for discussion of social reform, for perhaps no one then had a greater horror of the degrading convict system or worked harder to end it. He was a keen observer and prolific diarist. 

After the Moreton Bay Courier was first published in the winter of 1846, Dowse found a platform for his witty letters. He became the first Brisbane-based correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald, where he wrote with the byline, Old Tom. He wrote political commentary, historical vignettes, character sketches and gossip. In his Brisbane Courier series, Old Times, Dowse recorded his recollections of the early years of the settlement. His diary is currently in the State Library of Queensland. 

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