First novelist was a convict

Port Arthur’s eerily-named Isle of the Dead is the repository of more than 1000 convicts, officials and their families who died at Tasmania’s infamous penal settlement.

Many graves were not marked, and their stories are lost to time.

But one convict has been remembered, due to his special place in history.

Henry Savery’s writing skills led him down two very different paths – forger and novelist.

But it seems his accounting skills were to blame for his forgery, as he tended to commit forgery as a way to avoid his businesses’  bankruptcy. He also tended to try suicide.

The headstone above was placed on Port Arthur’s Isle of the Dead in 1992 to honour the 150th anniversary of his death.

Born in London, and with a grammar school education finished with a business apprenticeship, he was a partner in a sugar refining business when he forged some bills. He was found out and fled by ship (with a good amount of stolen money) but was caught within half an hour of sailing. He threw himself overboard but didn’t get far.

The resultant death sentence was commuted to transportation for life the day before he faced the gallows.

He sailed for Hobart in 1825, leaving behind his young wife and child. While his education led to him serving his time working in colonial offices, there was political tension over a convict being employed by the unpopular Lieutenant, Governor George Arthur.

Savery paid the price – he was penalized by having his possessions sold off – meaning  that when his wife Eliza and son Oliver arrived by ship in 1828, having survived a shipwreck and become very close to fellow shipmate and attorney-general Algernon Montagu, he was still bonded and penniless.

His wife had expected him to provide more comfortable circumstances, and this, along with doubt about his wife’s fidelity led to a suicide attempt – cutting his throat.

He survived, but after Savery was back in prison for debt, his wife left, never to return.

While in prison, Savery wrote satirical sketches under a pseudonym, which was gathered into a volume and published as Australia’s first book of essays in 1829. He also started his semi-autobiographical novel Quintus Servinton. It is considered important because of its unique position as a first-hand account of convict life.

His book was published anonymously in 1831.

While Savery was given a ticket-of-leave in 1832, his problems were far from over. It was revoked when he was again caught up in anti-Arthur sentiment, and it wasn’t until 1838 he was given a conditional pardon.

He gave farming a try, but as a farmer, was a more successful novelist, and his attempts to get out of financial trouble meant that two years later  he was again found guilty of forgery and sent to Port Arthur – condemned by his wife’s former protector, Montagu.  

After two years on that remote and unforgiving settlement, he died in 1842, after at least one more throat-slitting suicide attempt, possibly from a stroke.

Despite its aged appearance, the headstone above was only placed on Port Arthur’s Isle of the Dead in 1992 to honour the 150th anniversary of his death.

Isle of the Dead, Port Arthur, Tasmania, Australia

SOURCES: Quick, C, Businessman, forger, convict and author, State Library of Victoria, viewed at https://blogs.slv.vic.gov.au/uncategorized/businessman-forger-convict-and-author/

Defining Moments, Quintus Servinton, National Museum of Australia viewed at https://www.nma.gov.au/defining-moments/resources/quintus-servinton

Convict: University of Tasmania; https://www.utas.edu.au/library/exhibitions/quintus/convict.html

Published by Sharyn Moodie

Travelling around Australia for work, I've found so many amazing headstones. But what is more amazing is the stories behind some of these deaths, and the way newspapers of the day reported them.

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