In the town of Sydney there were three distinct orders of population, brought together in a closeness of propinquity such as no European city could show. There were the respectable settlers, the owners of land, the owners of cattle and sheep, the shopkeepers and traders of all kinds; there were their farm workers and domestic servants, the convict men and women whose presence no community in England would endure; and then there were the blacks, as the native population were called, who used to flock into the streets of Sydney very much as the Red Indians used to stream into the western cities of America. The black fellows, as they were commonly called, used to bring their wives into the town, and sell them to the convicts for a drink of rum or a piece of tobacco. The convicts in their turn soon infected the poor natives with the basest crimes belonging to the scum of great English cities. The colonists, naturally, were the first to complain of the loathsome conditions which civilisation in the Mother Country had thought fit to impose on them. It may seem hard to believe now, but it is none the less true, that some English champions of the abominable transportation system, actually accused the colonists of ingratitude because they had complained of the efforts we were making to improve them.
It was pointed out by many of these orators in the House of Commons that the whole transportation system was got up for the benefit of the Colonies themselves, and in order to supply them with cheap labour. Indeed, the Act of Charles II. especially set forth that the object of the new system was to supply the Colonies with labour at a cheap rate. The Colonies, however, did not seem to see things in just that light. They complained bitterly that their towns and their lands were contaminated and corrupted by this constant infusion of the scoundrelism of the Mother Country into their peaceful settlements. When the gold mines were discovered in Australia it began to be evident that the transportation system would have to undergo some change. No advocate of that system who happened to be in possession of his senses could well affirm that it would be a judicious thing to send cargo after cargo of gaol-birds out to a country where the discovery of gold lent a new temptation to crime. Yet it is surprising to recall to mind how long our philanthropists here at home, and the colonists across the ocean, had to argue and to agitate before the conscience of England could be thoroughly awakened to the abomination of the whole system. Even when it was shown that such a colony as New South Wales would have nothing more to do with our felons and our gaol-birds, English law-makers still thought that the system would be good enough, at all events, for Western Australia. Once the experiment was tried of sending a cargo of convicts to the Cape of Good Hope; but the Cape Colonists absolutely refused to allow them to be landed; and the Cape Colonists then, as now, were sturdy folk, and the experiment was not pressed and was never repeated. The transportation system was therefore practically at an end. But then another question arose - what is to be done with the convicts whom we cannot put to death and whom we are no longer allowed to transport? The authorities at home still had their eyes fixed on Western Australia as a place to which, in case of necessity, some of the very worst of our criminal classes might still be despatched; and, in fact, several successive Acts of Parliament dealing with the whole convict system still retained provisions by means of which any convicts who could not possibly be kept in order at home, might be shipped off as a present to the inhabitants of Western Australia.
This idea, too, had to be given up in the end; but it is necessary to bear in mind that for some time to come the possibility of its being put into practice made an element in all our legislation dealing with the convicts. The first great change which the Government adopted was to introduce what was called the ticket-of-leave system. Now the ticket-of-leave system was itself borrowed from the practice of the Colonies to which we had been in the habit of sending out our shiploads of scoundrelism. We have just seen that in New South Wales, for example, a convict man or woman could obtain, after having served a certain number of years of actual prison punishment, a ticket-of-leave which permitted the bearer to go about freely in civil life, and to obtain employment wherever, within the limits of the colony, employment was to be had. An Act of Parliament was passed in England which enabled all convicts here, after having served a certain number of years in prison, to obtain a ticket-of-leave and to go about and look for work anywhere in Great Britain and Ireland. It is curious and interesting to notice how differently the new practice worked in Great Britain and Ireland. In both countries the ticket-of-leave man was still held under the observation of the police and had to report himself at certain stated intervals, and to show that at all events he had committed no new crimes. If he had committed any new crime his ticket-of-leave was of course revoked, and he was captured and sent to trial like any ordinary offender. But the system worked quite differently in Great Britain and in Ireland, because the authorities in the two islands interpreted the principle of the Act in quite different ways. In Great Britain, for some reason which it seems hardly possible to understand, the Act was supposed to mean that after a certain time of prison detention any convict who had not committed any gross violation of prison discipline, or misbehaved himself in some outrageous fashion, was entitled to demand a ticket-of-leave and to get it as a matter of course.
An English Home Secretary, Sir George Grey, actually told the House of Commons that there could not be a greater mistake than to suppose that the ticket-of-leave was meant as a reward for good conduct or was intended to be, in any sense whatever, a certificate of good conduct. In any ordinary case, Sir George Grey explained, the convicts, unless they had transgressed the prison rules and acted in such a manner as to incur an unfavourable report from the prison authorities, were, after a stated period of imprisonment, entitled as a matter of course to a ticket-of-leave. Nothing could be more clear than this explanation, and nothing could have foreshadowed more correctly the utter failure of such a system founded on such a principle. In fact it has been well observed the ticket-of-leave system at first got no fair chance in England at all. Sir George Grey's interpretation of the Act merely meant that year after year a gang of miscreants, whom the judges had sentenced to terms of imprisonment for many years, were to be turned loose upon society without having given the slightest evidence that they were reclaimed or that they wanted to be reclaimed. They had only to take care that during the actual term of their imprisonment they did not grossly violate any of the prison rules. In England too it was held by the authorities that it would be unfair to the interesting criminal, now turned adrift upon society, and might interfere with his chances of-getting a decent employment, if it were known that he was still under the supervision of the police. The police were considerately recommended by the authorities to be very cautious about admitting any previous knowledge of a ticket-of-leave man's character. Therefore if the police came to know that some incorrigible scoundrel, just turned loose from gaol, was seeking employment, say as a gardener in a quiet suburban household, they were not by any means to give the slightest hint as to the man's previous career, lest it might deter the quiet householder from giving him instant employment. What happened is, of course, what every one who was not a Home Secretary must easily have anticipated. Of those who were thus turned loose with a ticket-of-leave, at least fifty per cent. committed new crimes and were convicted over again. The temptation was too great. Somebody of the character of Charles Dickens' Bill Sikes obtained employment in the service of our quiet householder, the quiet householder not having the slightest idea as to the antecedents of the man he was employing, and Mr. Sikes, no doubt, being liberally furnished with forged certificates of character. About seventy per cent. of the ticket-of-leave men relapsed altogether into their old courses within the first year of their freedom from the prison. The writer of this book heard the late Baron Bramwell, one of our greatest judges, declare from the Bench that there were instances within his own knowledge of criminals coming before him who had already three sentences, one overlapping the other.