Many claims have been made about his servitude there, particularly regarding his punishments. Some say that he received frequent and extended incarcerations in the solitary confinement cells. Some say that he was flogged. One book even suggests that he was raped!
So what was Cockatoo Island really like?
The nights were the worst. The men were locked up for twelve hours in five wards containing two tiers of bunks on either side of a central passage. Two wards had 88 bunks each while the other three had around 50 bunks each. The bunks were enclosed coffin-like tubes with openings only on the ends that faced the central passage, so the men had to crawl in on their hands and knees. The bunks were designed that way to prevent the “unnatural” activities that occurred in the dark when dozens of men were confined in one room.
The ventilation was inadequate, comprising only four small windows in each ward, two on either side, made worse by the fact that the men were allowed to smoke in the wards. The men themselves stank. Bathing regulations were not enforced. Once a week the men were allowed to bathe in the seawater-filled dock, if they chose. Other than that, there were four or five tubs in the prisoners’ yard which were supposedly filled with clean water each day but in fact contained recycled kitchen water every so often. For the first few men to reach the tubs after they were filled, it wasn’t too dirty, but thereafter …! Some men never bathed.
By far the worst stench came from the open tubs inside the wards that served as “necessaries” for the twelve hours the men were locked away. The stench was so bad that even the sentries remained as far from the windows as possible. They could often see faces at the windows gasping for fresh air, particularly on hot summer nights.
The nights were made even more unbearable by the vermin. The bedding was never washed unless prisoners paid for it to be laundered. The wards were fumigated a few times a year, but this reduced the population of bed-lice and other bugs for only a couple of weeks. The men were shaved twice a week and their hair cropped but it didn’t eradicate the head lice. One witness told the Parliamentary committee that the men often looked more haggard in the morning than after a full day’s work.
For five-and-half days a week the men worked hard at their duties yet their rations included only breakfast and dinner (the midday meal). After their day’s work ended, they had nothing to eat unless they had saved bread from a previous meal or used the money they earned by exceeding their work quota to purchase bread.
It was a system designed to make the prisoners work hard, and they received indulgences if they did so. Every full day worked took that day plus another half-day off their sentence; that is, for six days of work they received nine days off their sentence. Those who continued to work hard and behave well were eligible for a ticket-of-leave, the colonial equivalent of a parole pass. However every day in the solitary confinement cells – the usual punishment for minor infractions – added another full day to their sentence. Effectively, each day in the cells (which meant they could not work) added two-and-a-half days to their sentence.
That was the world of Cockatoo Island servitude during Fred Ward’s first stint there between 1856 and 1860 under what became known as the “Old Act” regulations. The system worked. The “Old Act” men rarely attempted to escape from the island because they had a legal way of reducing their sentences.
When Fred Ward returned in 1861, however, he was a “New Act” man. The “New Act” regulations came into force for those convicted from 1 July 1858 onwards. They abolished the ticket-of-leave system. With no “rewards” available for hard work and good behaviour, Fred took his future into his own hands … !
For detailed information about Fred's punishments, see What punishments did Fred Ward receive on Cockatoo Island? Other references to his servitude are found in Timelines: 1835-1863
Anyone interested in a detailed description of the conditions on Cockatoo Island can read the reports from the Parliamentary Committees of Inquiry in 1858 (Report from the Board of Inquiry into the management of Cockatoo Island, 1858, New South Wales Legislative Council, 1858 [ML Q365.99441/2]), and 1861 (‘Minutes of Evidence taken before the Select Committee on the Public Prisons in Sydney and Cumberland’ in Votes & Proceedings of the NSW Legislative Assembly, 1861, Vol.1, pp.1063-1310), and 1863 (‘Penal Establishments’ in Votes & Proceedings of the NSW Legislative Assembly, 1863-64, Vol.2, pp.919-20). UnfNo one has yet written about the Cockatoo Island penal establishment in any depth.