Thursday, July 1, 2010

Over the past few weeks Janelle Blucher has been working on many of the leg-irons in our collection, removing corrosion and applying new coatings. They will be added to those on display in the Commissariat Store significantly increasing their display. On one level, handling these objects is the practical and professional activity of carrying out a check of each piece, identifying work to be done, methodically carrying it out and recording each activity. Metal objects in our collection are always subject to corrosion, particularly given our location so close to the sea, so there is no end to the conservation of these objects.

However, on another level, it is a very sad and emotional experience handling these leg-irons. We know academically of the brutality of the Second Settlement however there is nothing like picking up a heavy leg iron complete with chains, to really make you think about the poor souls whose lot it was to wear them. These men worked in leg-irons in the most difficult of circumstances - while quarrying stone from Nepean Island, working the crankmill and undertaking all sorts of buildings works. Chain gangs would leave the Prisoners Barracks each morning heading out to work across Kingston. Just walking in the leg-irons was difficult so you can imagine the pain and labour required to carry out a days work in them.

Leg-irons were riveted on to convicts ankles and stayed in place for months or years. They were made of cast iron and many were connected by a 1 foot chain, to prevent prisoners from running away. Because they were permanently worn, special canvas pants were made for the convicts which had their sides split the whole way up, with buttons and holes used to hold them together, and which could be unbuttoned for removal. The chain on the irons comes from behind the ankles so that if you were to run in them the chain pulled tight and as the iron twisted it would give the ankle a nasty jerk

In the book “The Uncensored Story Of Martin Cash” by J.D And B.T. Emberg, the convict Martin Cash recounts being placed in leg-irons by the order of the notorious Commandant John Price.

“I had scarcely been an hour on the stone heap when John Price and his secretary visited the works, and on passing, he turned his eyes upon me but did not utter a word. On returning, however, he halted on coming to where I was at work and observed that I was not the man they talk so much about in Van Diemans Land. He delivered his words in a low, contemptuous tone, and when he had finished I looked up and replied in the same tone as near as I could, that if he would give me one of the pistols which he wore at his belt, I’d run him into the sea. He made no reply, but returned directly to the gaol and gave Heley orders to provide the heaviest pair of irons on the Island and put them upon me when I returned to dinner. Of course, I was ignorant of this, but at the dinner hour, when reaching the gaol, I found a blacksmith with his hammer and anvil in readiness; and in the space of a few minutes I had on the largest pair of irons I ever saw, the basil which had encircled each limb being thicker than a man’s arm and the links of the chain of nearly equal proportions, and although I was then as strong and vigorous as most men, I experienced the greatest difficulty in moving my feet from the ground, and being obliged to wear them in bed I felt as if my feet were riveted to the boards.

At work I did not feel so much inconvenienced for, being then in a sitting position I could rest the irons on the ground. After having worn the leg irons eleven days, Mr Price paid me another visit, appearing on this occasion to be much altered in his manner towards me. He enquired how long I had been wearing the irons, and on being informed he said, “Well, Martin, you must wear them for fourteen days, and then you can have your ‘trumpeters’ again”. Three days after I was relieved of my heavy encumbrances, on which I found some difficulty in preserving my equilibrium, feeling, when walking, as if I should lose my balance and topple over. Fourteen days after, I was divested of my ‘trumpeter’ irons also, and a lighter pair substituted”.

The new display of leg-irons at the Commissariat Store is not there as a ghoulish entertainment for visitors. Hopefully these objects will help us reflect on the real misery people lived through in such brutal times and re-mind us of our common humanity.


  1. The Museums is a must see for all visitors, with so much to do and see a week is not enough! The multiple entry pass is the best deal you can find and when you can use it as many times as you like the overwhelming history of this beautiful Island can be absorbed at your own pace(for me rather slowly). The trial of fifteen is a good fun way to see the history come alive and as a visitor to the Island I would put both at the top of my list!!

  2. Very pleased that you enjoyed visiting our museums and the Trial of the Fifteen. The flexibility of the Pass is great - designed for people who want to do their own thing! Hope to see you back here one day.