‘He was ambitious, diversely talented and appreciably amoral; a measure of self-discipline came later, with reluctance’ Australian Dictionary of Biography describing Jorgen Jorgensen.
In the week he arrived in the penal colony, five men were hanged. One was the bandit Matthew Brady, another the child killer Thomas Jeffries. The next morning, another seven, their last associates, dropped and swung for a time on the gibbet in the cool air of May.
He was not oblivious to these ministrations of justice. But he didn’t dwell upon them. In fact after London, and the last five years confined in a prison, he felt like a man recalled to life. And he had been here before too, twenty years ago. But how much the island had changed.
When The Woodman sailed up the estuary, he was amazed by the number of farms and cottages on the shores of the river.
Later, he was still more amazed to discover the large and crowded town of Hobart, and to trace in his mind the vanished forest: he could still picture that wall of impenetrable brushwood crowned by the tallest trees he had seen anywhere on this earth. And all along the rivulet had been thick with shrubbery; now there was a bank or a mill or a grog shop. At that time, great loads of fallen timber could be seen floating past the cold dark forest or lying strewn in the waters, clogging up a channel where thick rushes had grown. By night whales had sounded in the river’s estuary.
To see a busy town summoned thus out of the wildness was almost enough to revive in him his old faith in England.
Of course, he had changed too. Twenty years before he’d been a free man.
Now, like a piece of rotten timber, he’d fallen into the company of convicts. But he could have few real regrets. He’d been sentenced to death and that sentence had been commuted. And London, ah London, was not good for him. London it was that had trapped him in the magic circle of his great vice, London that had seen the dark period of his endless dissipation, dur- ing which he was drawn deeper and deeper into a bottomless whirl of mad- ness and misery. This violent remedy had been necessary.
And so he told himself he was still alive, and, in the seesaw of his life, felt his fortunes must surely rise, especially here in a young penal colony …
He was offered a position as a convict-clerk in the Naval Office and he ac- cepted. This was, in fact, an error. For, the Naval Office he soon discovered was not a Naval Office except in name, merely a Customs House, and he and the other convict-clerk were absorbed in endless administrative matters – the tedium of accounts, the dreariness of book entries – something that would never be his strong suit.
So, much of his stint as a government clerk was spent, like any other gov- ernment clerk, in trying to wangle a transfer. And thus, standing at his desk, he would wherever possible ignore his columns of numbers and compose petition after petition to high officials in Sydney and even London, peti- tions intended to get him extracted from the Customs House.
Those first weeks back, in the cold early mornings, he walked. Invariably he ended up at the docks, looking out at the whaling vessels or the ships of the Royal Navy that were moored there.
When he was a schoolboy he had often gone truant and had wandered through the streets of Copenhagen (to the great horror of his father who was Royal Clockmaker to the King of Denmark – yes his life had begun like a fairy tale, ‘Once upon a time in Copenhagen there was a boy called Jorgen whose father was Royal Clockmaker to the King of Denmark …’). As a schoolboy, too, he drifted down to the harbour and contemplated the ships that would prove his calling, except that now from this island at the end of the world he knew he would never, never go to sea again.
Now, in his hours after work and before the evening curfew, he read. He neither drank, nor solicited drink – an almost unprecedented occurrence – and as such had little to do with his fellow convicts, though he was aware of the trail of rumour that shadowed him:
‘Sent here for writing seditious pamphlets …’
‘A spy in England …’
‘A violent political character and a dangerous man in any country …’
‘They call him King of Iceland …’
He ignored this. What could you do with hog-swill?
So passed Jorgen’s time upon his return to the island penitentiary. And when at length his fortunes changed, it would have little to do with his petitioning.
The overture occurred at dusk.
He’d stayed back late to copy out a piece of correspondence, and was lock- ing up a side door when he smelled a musty smell.
Turning round, Jorgen observed someone or something standing on the stairs, someone or something he thought at first was part human, part mar- supial rat, until he perceived the wizened face, dark eyes and grey skimpy beard inside the cap and jacket of kangaroo.
‘You are Jorgensen?’ asked a voice from East London.
‘That is one of my names,’ he returned with barely detectable irony. 36
‘Pleased to meet you. Someone else wants to meet you.’ ‘And where is that?’
Jorgen was intrigued. The other nodded, ‘Yes?’ fog rising from his breath, and then sloped away, glancing round just once to confirm that Jorgen was behind him, as they went toward the vice-laden precinct behind the old waterfront.
Soon brick and stone gave way to timber structures that more and more re- sembled shanties. Soon Macquarie Street itself was narrowing into a world of suggestive lanes and alleyways. Soon they’d entered Hobart’s Wapping, which like its London namesake had sprung up here on the river flats of the old marshes. The road now was a causeway of mud and puddles left sloshing from the latest rains. The air was dirty, vapours drifting from the tanneries buried among the lean-tos. Other vapours climbed from under- foot, the smell of night soil and God knows what else tossed onto the street after nightfall. Jorgen’s guide was at one with all this mud and filth; he went scurrying through the crowd milling on the street. And just before a placard that read The Hope and Anchor, he turned round a second time to see if Jorgen was still there, then slipped up a track.
Reaching that corner, Jorgen saw him disappear off the street. He followed, and presently entered through a backdoor into the depths of an establish- ment that enjoyed a reputation as one of the town’s sleazier public houses…
There was a tobaccoey wall of warmth and on benches round a table sat a small group eating and drinking. This was a private dining room and the eyes of the table were on him. Jorgen gave them his best smile and said:
‘Good evening. I am Jorgensen.’
In the light of a stove his eye was drawn to a gaunt Iberian-looking gentle- man. He was wrapped inside a woollen blanket and had on a sheepskin hat.
He smiled back but very, very glumly, as though he were afflicted by the ague.
Seated beside him was an enormous man with a bloated face, shaven head and black imperial. He was staring at Jorgen negligently, picking at a plate of oily meat with a fork. His spare hand was on a woman – a tired girl she was, with shadows under her young eyes, sipping liquor. Jorgen’s guide was there, behind the fellow in the blanket.
‘Someone wanted me?’
The blanket stirred. ‘And we’re pleased you could come. I had feared I might have to have you chained and dragged along the street, to get you into this little cantina of ours!’ said a voice straight out of Spitalfields.
Jorgen laughed, as did the entourage, laughing, braying like mules.
‘You’ll forgive me if I don’t get up,’ the old fellow said. ‘My name is Bill and I should offer you a drink.’
A drink – there it was. Jorgen couldn’t deny he was thirsty. And if he’d sworn off the grog until now, it was also clear to him that something was afoot, but he wouldn’t learn what it was unless he appeared to relax and had a drink or two. Besides, he reminded himself, it wasn’t the drink that had done him in, not the drink but the gambling, the gambling and the debts and the borrowing. He’d pledged he’d never gamble again. And he wouldn’t. But he would permit himself the odd drink. So he said, ‘Thank you, I am thirsty.’
A rum was poured, and Jorgen was savouring the lovely liquor from Ben- gal, when Bill floated a question:
‘Word is you’re an interesting man, Mr. Jorgensen, but one who’s lucky to be alive, because you were once a spy for France was it?’
‘No,’ Jorgen replied after draining his glass. ‘That rumour,’ he declared, ‘is 38
false. Can I tell you a story?’
Bill gave a nod.
‘Twenty-five years ago, I was in Sydney Town. There I met Captain Baudin, the French explorer? Well, this Baudin wanted to do what no Englishman had done, and, because I was a Dane, trusted me to join him on his journey into the interior. This story incidentally is true. We’d gone some hundred miles west of Sydney, up the Hawkesbury. Wherever we went, we found evidence that white men had been – initials on a tree or an abandoned hut. Baudin was getting frustrated: he wouldn’t be able to return to Europe and boast he’d been where no European had gone. I, too, had had enough. So I ran ahead to a rocky bluff and with a great show of pride shouted, ‘Here I am Monsieur! This is the furthest point beyond which no white man has ever been!’ Baudin? He strutted past me some twenty paces. I strutted past him a few more. He strutted past me again, and so on, until I signalled my defeat. He was now well pleased with himself, and we could return to Syd- ney. That, I am afraid, is your Frenchman. Now, would I spy for France?’
‘Have another drink,’ said Bill, lugubrious inside his greasy blanket. ****
The evening reeled on. Jorgen wheeled out more anecdotes. Shady custom- ers came and went. So did barrels of rum, lifted from the docks, and rolled over the flagstones, and bounced down the stairs. The dishes were cleared, some unfinished. He wasn’t invited to eat. The air began to feel inebriated. It must’ve been seven-thirty. He was wondering if he’d misjudged things and the evening was grinding on to nothing, when, behind his boozed ve- neer, Jorgen became more alert. Bill had just asked him a loaded question:
‘How is the Customs House under Mr. O’Ferrall?’
‘Well, Mr. O’Ferrall,’ – Jorgen pronounced the name with a slight laugh – ‘is a gentleman of the old school.’
‘Never quite got that phrase.’
‘You know, beautiful manners, smooth clothes, no dirt under the finger- nails, even speaks a little French. However, when it comes to running an office, Mr. O’Ferrall is no more competent than me. And that isn’t very.’
‘How is he not competent then?’ chimed in the musty kangaroo skins. ‘Excuse me, brother, I do not know your name.’
‘My name is John Davis Scott,’ responded John Davis Scott with dignity.
‘Well, Mr. Davis Scott, it is a Customs House I’m in and I am very bad with book-keeping. Always making blunders – listing bales of wool under imports, or manufactured articles as exports to the mother country. Mr. O’Ferrall never detects my blunders. Why? Because he does not bother his head over trifles. That’s it. If my hand is round and fair, which usually it is, Mr. O’Ferrall is happy.’
‘And you?’ asked Bill.
‘Me? You mean am I happy in the Customs House?’
‘That was the question.’
‘No. I am stuck in the Customs House, and I am trying to get out.’ And, then, Jorgen permitted his pent-up irritation to steam:
‘Bill, you probably know what I learned too late: the pay of a government clerk is dirt – sixpence a day and a penny each quarter for rations. And I arrived here with just one pound in my pocket. I’ve already had to sell the better part of my wardrobe, while I watch convicts assigned to farmers or trades enjoy a more comfortable life. And yet I can read and write, I am an educated man.’
‘Educated is it?’ the enormous fellow with the black imperial said in a soft brogue and laughed to himself, picking an upper canine.
‘This is Mr. Sharman,’ Bill disclosed. ‘One of Hobart’s best butchers. Can you tell us a story, Mr. Sharman?’
‘No,’ growled Mr. Sharman massively.
‘I must be leaving,’ said Jorgen and made to stand.
‘No, no, a minute more. You seem an honest fellow,’ said Bill, then reached under his blanket with a leathery hand to retrieve a wallet bound with pale stitching. Something in that gesture stirred a leaf in Jorgen’s memory: he was reminded of the pawnbrokers with whom he’d dealt during the days of his London depravity. He was fairly sure he’d never dealt with this man. Yet his tone was insinuating, as if he knew from personal experience that Jorgen always needed money and always could be bought.
A bill of exchange was produced. ‘Can you tell me what this is?’
‘Pass it over.’
In fact Jorgen knew what it was: it was a treasury bill issued by the Sydney Commissariat; and upon closer inspection he found it was in the amount of £40, made payable in favour of a Mr. Winder who he presumed was not in this room, and probably not on the island, either.
‘Well?’ said Bill with a sour smile.
‘It’s a treasury bill from the Sydney Commissariat. But what has that to do with us this evening?’ asked Jorgen feigning slowness.
‘Why don’t you answer?’ Bill finally replied. ‘You’re an intelligent man?’ ‘And wouldn’t do nothing stupid? Because we don’t want rats,’ added John Davis Scott.
At this, Mr. Sharman winched his colossal bulk forward and raised his thick black eyebrows as eloquent as any knife.
Jorgen let the moment pass.
‘Very well,’ he responded, his eyes glittering like a cat’s. ‘The denomina- tion’s probably too big for an honest man?’
‘And as an honest man you’d probably like me to exchange it for smaller notes, smaller notes that might be had from inside the Customs House?’
‘That would be helpful.’
‘And good for me as well I think?’
‘That could be so.’
‘How many of these bills do you have?’
‘Slowly,’ said Bill raising a finger. ‘Your answer?’
‘I’ll try,’ Jorgen pledged. ‘You have my word. But just once. I have no desire to hang at Queenborough Point. Where will I meet you tomorrow then?’
He was given an address for a shop.
‘And remember,’ Bill warned, ‘the Governor’s eyes are everywhere.’
‘And not just his eyes,’ Jorgen replied with a cynicism that produced an appreciative snort through old Bill’s nostrils.
As he rose he heard the woman at the table, the butcher’s girl, who’d been drinking silently, say in a low inebriated whine:
‘Don’t trust him, Bill Haywood! I’ve been watching him all evening. It’s clear as day. He is a rogue in grain!’
A rogue in grain! He understood that poisoned phrase: criminal parlance for an honest man. He didn’t dispute the accusation though. He calmly said, ‘Good night,’ and walked out. But his heart was beating in his throat, wildly, just then.
I should mention some of the parts Jorgen Jorgensen played in his sixty- two years of life:
He was, variously, a son and brother, a truant schoolboy, a sailor, sealer, whaler, privateer and prisoner-of-war, a parole breaker turned revolutionary then imperial subaltern, Lord Protector of Iceland and traitor to his country, novelist, drunkard, gambler, debtor, spy, travel writer, theologian and felon sentenced to death, embarrassment to his friends, a doctor’s apprentice, a transported convict, a government clerk, Tasmanian explorer, cop, husband but never (to our knowledge) father, a journalist, de facto military officer in dirty war of accidental extermination, also political economist, linguist, ethnographer, hedge lawyer, memoirist, public disgrace, hero, anti-hero, dirty rotten scoundrel, Sir John Falstaff, Don Quixote and even a dash of William Wordsworth rolled into one.
How might such a man respond to an offer of the kind he has just received? ****
He walked on into the night.
One hand kept flicking as he strode on up the hill. For, Jorgen had just been shown an unexpected doorway out of his predicament. He also knew exactly where he was headed, and it didn’t involve an early return to his lodgings. So, when he reached Elizabeth Street, confident he wasn’t being shadowed, he turned in the opposite direction of where the curfew said he should be going, and hastened on.
The road was abandoned; it was probably later than he’d appreciated; prob- ably the curfew had commenced. But Jorgen stepped on regardless and didn’t bother to disguise his presence on the street.
He was approaching the guard post that marked the northern boundary. But rather than attempting to skirt the soldiers, with their rifles and their dogs, he went straight up. A fire was burning and a soldier, in a greatcoat, stood warming his big hands.
‘Good evening,’ said Jorgen.
The guard started and lifted his gun:
‘Wh-ooa! The Devil!’
‘Not the Devil,’ Jorgen assured him.
Who was he then? What was his status? And what was he doing?
He gave the details.
‘Why are you out, Jorgensen – you’re breaking curfew?’
‘I am on urgent business,’ he replied in a tone of authority. ‘I must see Ado- larius Humphrey tonight.’
This name pronounced with such assurance by a convict on the road late at night perplexed the soldier and his eyes narrowed. But these words had their effect: Jorgen was told to wait while the guard disappeared into a hut
to return with his non-commissioned officer: ‘Hallo you!’ said the latter.
‘Sergeant,’ Jorgen responded, ‘I require an escort to take me to the house of Adolarius Humphrey in New Town.’
The outrageousness of this request coming from the mouth of a self-con- fessed convict caused the sergeant to laugh. And on what basis was the request made?
‘I’m not at liberty to divulge. You’ll merely escort me along the New Town Road.’
‘No,’ answered the sergeant, and then explained even if he were so in- clined he was unable to oblige. The post was undermanned. Nevertheless he waved Jorgen through.
‘God be with you,’ Jorgen responded and went a few steps. Then he broke into a rusty jog and went into and through the frozen Tasmanian forest crouching all around him in the blackness ahead.
Adolarius Humphrey was, at this time, the second most powerful man in Van Diemen’s Land, being Coroner, Chief Magistrate and Superintendent of Police, a remarkable confluence of offices. Yet it seems he didn’t benefit personally at all. Perhaps that was why when we meet him, in the bleak winter of 1826, he was a man drained by years of honest service, managing everything from licensing, through weights and measures, to quelling the latest bushranger insurgency. Indeed at times that winter it almost seemed that Adolarius was living inside a black hole, so sick and tired of his profes- sional duties had he become. In short, at forty-four years of age, he was an unhappy man and was busy plotting his retirement (which for the record he secured in 1828, only to die the following year).
He has a deeper history though. In 1804 he was on the vessel that sailed to establish the first British settlement in what is now Tasmania. He was then a young mineralogist. Alongside him was a young Danish sailor. The two became friends and were among the first party of Europeans to ascend the mountain that rises over Hobart, which was known then as Table Mountain after the mountain in the African Cape it was thought so much to resemble by seafaring types like Jorgen himself who knew southern Africa well.
The rest we know. Adolarius remained in Van Diemen’s Land eventually to become an official of rare integrity, while Jorgen followed the drift of his own private archipelagoes into ever more disgraceful waters. And possibly it was that – personal shame – that explains why Jorgen in an act of un- characteristic restraint did not quickly renew the acquaintance, when years later, through whatever irony of history it was, he returned as a convict to the very colony he, as a free man, had helped Britain found? For, after all, the world had shifted, and that was then, and this is now?
And yet suddenly the barrel-chested Dane was jogging through the forest toward the house of his old friend Adolarius Humphrey in New Town.
He was shown in by the back door, dogs still barking in the yard.
He sat hunched on a kitchen bench, worn-out, his knuckles purple. But Jorgen wasn’t wrong about the impact of the note he scrawled:
Someone wishes to see Mr. Humphrey Esq. He bears a message from Mr. Jorgensen, lately of London.
For within minutes there came a tread, and then a puffing, and then the figure of Adolarius Humphrey appeared, blocking up the doorway with his belly.
Perhaps I shouldn’t describe him as Jorgen saw him then? Suffice to say he struggled to unearth the exuberant companion of his youth in the large
shabby man now standing before him, bearded and pale in dark clothes, starched linen and the sad cravat of an ageing would-be Beau Brummel.
As for Adolarius, he was of course aware of Jorgen’s recent history, and so was somewhat surprised not so much to discover him sitting there, as by the obvious signs of physical health and animal vigour that Jorgen exuded. His face in the middle of winter was an outrageous mahogany and his body was strong and compact, while he, Adolarius Humphrey, had become a wreck – his limbs knackered by a simple walk along a passageway.
‘Hello,’ said Jorgen.
‘Hello,’ said Adolarius, and found he could not but smile, and as he did all the world-weariness, the sloth, the boredom and the contempt of life that had sat upon him like a carapace lifted.
‘I won’t say you look well.’
‘No,’ Adolarius grunted. ‘This is the end of the world. Honestly, what mis- anthrope or hermit would come voluntarily to this place of exile?’
‘Yes, I never got away. Now I can’t afford to return to Surrey.’
Adolarius might have added that his wife wasn’t quite presentable either, being the daughter of a convict, but it was too early in the evening for a confession, and so he said:
‘Do you mind if I clean my face and hands first? It’s been a while.’ Jorgen was directed to a water closet.
Meanwhile Adolarius lumbered across the room to get himself a glass of water, then headed back to the far side of the kitchen, where he parked him- self with his boulder-like back to the fire, one introspective hand shoved deep inside a trouser pocket.
He took a long meditative mouthful of water.
And there he remained, standing very still, or more precisely slouching forward a little and gazing off into the void, the old thousand-yard stare, a surprisingly abstracted attitude for such a man, who outwardly at least seemed so fully to incarnate the principle of the flesh. Only once did he move, and then absentmindedly, raising a paw and slowly swabbing his beard and the side of his face as though he were removing an invisible layer of sweat or of dirt.
‘How are you?’ Jorgen inquired upon his return.
‘Not bad,’ answered Adolarius without lifting his heavy gaze from the op- posite wall. ‘You might have come before now, though?’
‘I felt I couldn’t. As you know, charity always comes at a price, and I prefer loans with interest and then to repay them.’
‘That I am afraid is an untruth, Jorgen. You never repay your debts. In fact you owe me from 1804. I really think, though, we should have cognac.’
Soon the two of them were seated on the kitchen bench, talking. Remark- ably, neither the chief policeman, nor the convicted felon, rushed to discuss the question that was legally most germane: What was Jorgen doing run- ning the curfew so late at night? Instead Adolarius, who’d just escaped from a dinner with local businessmen, felt compelled to ask about certain unbelievable episodes from Jorgen’s past of which he had heard snippets. Jorgen obliged. And it wasn’t until Adolarius had heard about Jorgen’s situ- ation in the Customs House and efforts to secure a transfer that the matter of the treasury bill was broached.
‘Ah,’ said Adolarius, his eyes sharpening, that carapace returning. ‘May I?’ Jorgen produced the article. ‘Is it forged?’
‘Almost certainly. There’ve been a few like this.’
And by the time Jorgen left the house, he was well fed and the two of them had agreed upon a plan, the reward for which should be better than a transfer. Adolarius thought it might be possible to obtain a full pardon, using the same businessmen who were drunk around his dining room table that very night.
The next scene is very simple. The following afternoon, Jorgen presented himself at Bill’s shop and handed over the money. All were present, not just Bill, but the entire confraternity: the butcher Sharman, John Davis Scott, and a fourth fellow called Ben Jackson. So do criminals reveal their mutual trust, thought Jorgen. He asked Bill how many more notes there might be? Bill admitted to the astonishing sum of £4000. £4000 Sterling! Jorgen could only reply he wouldn’t be able to move such an amount quickly. He then said he realised the notes were forged, and as such knew he was run- ning a grave risk, and so requested not a commission but a percentage of the total venture. This display of avarice sealed their trust. Nevertheless, the fraternity bridled, and Bill said he couldn’t respond immediately. Short- ly thereafter Jorgen quit the shop. The four were arrested later that night.
There was of course an added twist.
The historical record reveals that the four men, Bill Haywood, a shop- keeper in Murray Street, William Sharman, a butcher of unknown address, Ben Jackson, a groom at The Ship Inn, and John Davis Scott, a hawker of poultry, were all charged over the forgeries, and then mysteriously discharged by special proclamation from the Governor himself. It seems the four turned King’s evidence against a fifth man, the actual forger. That they did so isn’t surprising. For, the Governor, a gentleman called George Arthur, had just embarked upon a campaign of mass hangings unrivalled in Australian history that in the space of just two years would see 103 people swing from the Hobart gibbet. The forger was a young man called Thomas Bidwell Child. Thomas Bidwell Child received no special consideration. A newspaper article described his fate. I copy the relevant paragraphs:
At the appointed hour on Tuesday morning, Mr. Hayes the Under Sheriff, (Mr. Ferredy, we regret to say, being indisposed) sum- moned the eight unhappy men condemned to die, from their cell to the fatal scaffold. He found them in earnest preparation, at- tended by the Reverend Mr. Bedford, whose blessed exertions in their behalf have been unceasing since their sentences were passed. They were all in the upper rooms, and having had their irons taken off, were brought down one by one that their arms might first be pinioned. We have never seen men so penitent, so resigned and apparently so contented to die….
Thomas Bidwell Child, aged 26, was next.
He alone of all the miserable men maintained throughout a fixed and resolute silence as to the crime of which he stood convicted. Although he had assumed a composure which showed itself in the features of his face, the effort to preserve it was frequently betrayed by a tremulous action at the joint of his jaw. He had screwed up his courage, as it were, to the last, to meet the rage of the short and stormy passage he was about to take. He joined with resignation in the devout exercises of his companions, and frequently held the book with Mr. Bedford. When the rope was adjusting, he seemed already to have entered on the journey, ex- claiming, ‘I am sure I shall go to heaven, I can see heaven.’ Mr.
Child was respectably connected, and the son of the present Mr. Child, Solicitor, in Bristol….
The painful ceremonies being completed, the rope adjusted and the cap drawn over their faces, the Clergymen and Sheriff de- scended the ladder, the executioner withdrew the bolt, the plat- form fell, and these miserable men, in full possession of their faculties, were almost in a moment suspended lifeless corpses from the beam.
Saturday July 7, 1827
Jorgen reading that article cannot but have been moved. But no doubt his unsentimental view of life would have fortified him and allowed him to regard the execution as unavoidable and even necessary. He did not, how- ever, receive the pardon he wanted. Adolarius Humphrey did orchestrate a group of businessmen to lobby the Governor. But where convicts were concerned – and Jorgen was a convict – the Governor was a stickler. The pardon was refused. Instead Jorgen was granted his transfer and quit the Customs House. He joined an outfit called the Van Diemen’s Land Com- pany. It was the launch of his true antipodean career.
Note on Sources: This tale is indebted to Jorgensen’s autobiographical sketch, A Shred (which makes no mention of the Forgeries Affair) and to Dan Sprod’s The Usurper (which does).