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The haunting picture below of an Irish “convict”was taken in Port Arthur prison, Tasmania in 1876. Dennis Doherty had been transported from Europe 43 years earlier and was one of the longest serving prisoners in the Australian penal system. He served a staggering 43 years and received somewhere in the region of 3,000 lashes of the whip, as well as losing the sight in his right eye. His picture shows a man worn down by ill treatment but hides his incredible spirited resistance to the 19th century penal system.

The story of Dennis Doherty began over a half a century earlier in Derry, Ireland where Doherty was born in 1814. His childhood was shaped by an emerging economic, political and social tornado that was brewing in Ireland at the time.

The crisis had begun in earnest a year after his birth, ironically in an event celebrated by many. In 1815 Duke of Wellington defeated Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo. While this was eulogised by many few realised what this meant for Ireland. With Napoleon defeated trade between England and the continent resumed and this resulted in a collapse in the price of food stuffs produced in Ireland and peasant farmers were hit hard.

When Doherty was only ten his fate and indeed to a certain extent no the fate of his generation was sealed when a death blow was dealt to the economy in Ireland. The Act of Union, which had been introduced in 1800 had seen Ireland fully incorporated into the United Kingdom. Clauses within the act stipulated that the countries in the United Kingdom: Wales, England, Scotland and Ireland would operate a joint Free Trade area. This was not be implemented for 40 years as the economy in Ireland needed to adjust. However this 40 year adjustment period was scrapped when powerful “free trade” lobbyists in Britain got these clauses enacted in 1824. This exposed Ireland’s emerging Industry to the might of British industry and it was devastated not only industry but plunged Ireland deeper into recession.

These two hammer blows the defeat of Napoleon and the Act of Union sent Ireland’s economy into a tail spin. Poverty was widespread and systemic. We get some glimpse of what Dennis Doherty’s earlier years were like in a latter penned by the Duke of Wellington himself an Irish man. In 1830 he noted

I confess that the annually recurring starvation in Ireland…….occurs every year, for that period of time that elapses between the final consumption of one year’s crop of potatoes, and the coming of the crop of the following year………However, we must expect that this evil will continue, and will increase as the population will increase, and the chances of a serious evil, such as the loss of a large number of persons by famine, will be greater in proportion to the numbers existing in Ireland in the state in which we know that the great body of the people are living at this moment.

While this letter was disturbingly prophetic Dennis Doherty would not see the famine in 1845 the Duke of Wellington so accurately predicted in 1830. By the time Dennis Doherty was nearing adulthood in the 1830’s many people were escaping through emigration indeed 1.5 million emigrated in the 3 decades between the start of the recession in 1815 and the famine in 1845.

For many young men a cheap way of emigrating and the guarantee of a steady if dangerous job was the British Army. After 1815 numbers from Ireland dramatically increased and by 1830’s 42% of the rank and file were recruited in Ireland. In Derry with little opportunity Dennis Doherty along with two friends William Moore and James O Dea joined the army in the early 1830’s to escape what was a cycle of perpetual poverty with little hope for the future. While the army sought out what they called “spirited young fellows” Doherty, Moore and O Dea would prove to be a little too spirited.

Very quickly it became apparent to these three men that they were not suited to the harsh army life and tough discipline. The British army operated a brutal regime in the early 19th century. Soldiers were treated extremely poorly and were frequently beaten and flogged indeed within a few months Doherty and O Dea had received three hundred lashes in a flogging for an recorded breach of the austere army regulations. This punishment was excruciating so much so it victims often passed out with pain. The victim was strapped to an A shaped frame in front of the soldiers in their regiment – the punishment was supposed to act as a deterrent for others. They stripped to the waste or entirely naked. They were then flogged on the back or buttox with a cat o n nine tails, a whip with nine smaller offshoot at its head often laced with lead. This meant each lash cut the victim 9 times. Flogging was not only painful, it could be fatal in 1846 a soldier in the British army John White died after 150 lashes. By time Doherty had had been flogged 300 times his back would have been completely covered in scars.After this its little surprise then that these three young men when they found themselves on the Island Guernsey awaiting to be shipped to India facing a life of this army discipline decided to desert.

Unfortunately Guernsey is a the tiny island, a British outpost off the coast of France and was not the best place to escape the clutches of the army. None the less Doherty, O Dea and Moore decided to give it a try and they made a run for it. However being on an island only 30 square miles, it didn’t take long before they were re captured. They were brought before a court marshal to be punished for this serious breach of military discipline in March in 1833. Dejected they now faced harsh punishment which could range from imprisonment to flogging however few were dismissed as the army needed to prove desertion didn’t work.

Court Martial

When the military court found the three guilty and read out its verdict on Doherty, O Dea and Moore the men must have nearly collapsed in shock. All three were dismissed from the army, O Dea and Moore received 7 years each and Doherty received 14 years imprisonment – to be served in Australia.

Whatever about imprisonment the word Australia was devastating. Australia in the early 19th century for most was a one way trip. The only route to Australia from Europe was South around Africa and across the Indian ocean, a 15,000 mile trip that would take 4 to 5 months.

The Prison Hulk – The York

Getting prisoners from Europe to Australia was not an easy task – this was still the era of sail. The government held prisoners until a sufficient number were awaiting transportation. In April the three men now convicts were taken from Guernsey to a prison hulk – The York, at Gosport near Portsmouth harbour. Prison Hulks were decommissioned Ships converted into prisons. Conditions were cramped and dark on these floating prisons.

In July the ship that would take to Australia – The Aurora, arrived in Portsmouth. As Doherty and his friends were moved from the Hulk to the Aurora, this must have been a sobering moment. This was their last look at somewhat familiar surroundings. On board the bitter resentment Doherty felt was no doubt reflected in numerous other prisoners. Another Convict was the 16 year old George Maurice from Wiltshire who had received 14 years for the crime of stealing eleven pieces of rope worth 4 shillings.

After 122 days the Aurora arrived on the 3rd of November 1833. Already disoriented having been taken to Australia, worse was to follow. O’Dea, Doherty and Moore lost the last connection to their past lives – their friendship. In Sydney the three friends were split up and never saw each other again. O’Dea served his 7 years and disappeared into history and Moore was executed in 1838 for a stabbing. However Doherty began what can only be described as a truly epic life where he battled against the prison regime at every turn.

Doherty no doubt in prison in Australia felt a deep sense of injustice he had joined the British army to escape poverty had been horrifically brutalised receiving 300 lashes and then after trying to escape he was sentenced to 14 years and not just anywhere but in Australia – 4 months and 15,000 miles from home.

This alone would be enough to break most people but in Australia aged only 19 he refused to accept his fate. Doherty resolved that he would be free and began a relentless pursuit of this goal and a battle against the prison authorities. The prison authorities for their part were equally resolute that Doherty would not escape indeed 19th century prison systems enforced absolute obedience from prisoners controlling every aspect of their lives with strict regulations and brutal punishment.

Any infraction was met with harsh physical punishment. In his first few years Doherty tried to escape on no less than five occasions and this was dealt with ferociously. In 1834 he received 200 lashes, 100 in 1835 and 270 in 1836. Incredibly it seemed to have little affect. In the early months of 1837 now aged only 23 and having received nearly 1000 lashes in total he escaped yet again with a man called John McGuinness. Doherty and Mc Guinness were successful in getting away from the prison.

In the Australian high summer where temperatures frequently hit the forties the two survived for a few months engaged in bush ranging which was essentially banditry. This was the first time Doherty had enjoyed freedom in nearly 5 years but it wasn’t to last and in May 1837 the two were caught.

Taken before a court given they were charged with robbery and other offences. He was convicted and sentenced to death however the sentence was commuted to 20 years imprisonment. For Doherty who craved freedom this prison sentence must have seemed like a fate worse than death when he found out where he was being taken. He was no longer going to be held on mainland Australia. Instead he was shipped to the incredibly remote Norfolk Island a dreaded penal colony in the middle of Tasman Sea lying North of New Zealand and East of Australia. In May 1837 Dennis Doherty was put on-board yet another prison transport ship to began the 1000 mile journey to Norfolk Island.

Norfolk Island

Arriving on the Island it must have been abundantly clear there was no escape from this prison. Situated 550 miles from the closest island – New Zealand, Norfolk itself was only 4 miles in length and 4 miles in width and the regime was truly brutal.

Despite the seeming lack of hope Doherty refused to give in. For example in May 1838 his record was astounding. The month began with Doherty being flogged 200 times for foul language and neglect. Less than three weeks later no doubt his back still raw from the whipping he was put in Double Irons, a punishment which saw him locked in very heavy iron chains for “insubordination” and then a week later on the 30 May he locked in his cell for two weeks for “disorderly conduct”. Before the year was out Doherty received another 250 lashes. In spite of this, Doherty seemed unbreakable. The following year he continued to resist and received 400 lashes.

By this stage Doherty back must have been completely and utterly scared. In the years between 1833 – 1839 he was flogged somewhere between 1500 – 2000 times. This must have been having a serious impact on his overall health and no doubt when a major change occurred in the prison regime in Norfolk, Doherty welcomed the respite from brutalisation that accompanied it.

In March 1840 a penal reformer Alexander Maconochie took over the prison at Norfolk, Maconochie believed in rewarding prisoners and reduced the amount of corporal punishment so much so that from records it appears Dennis Doherty was not flogged at all in 1840.

Flogging or no flogging Doherty never gave up on his goal to be free. In Norfolk Island hundreds of miles of sea made this impossible. To have any hope he had to get off Norfolk before he could think of escaping. In 1841, now 27, Doherty feigned madness and he was moved from Norfolk back the thousand miles to Sydney where he was incarcerated in a mental asylum.

19th century asylums were far from caring understanding places indeed they themselves were brutal establishments but Doherty having survived what would kill many, probably found it easy going. Back on the mainland now he could escape and within a few months Doherty had absconded and began robbing to survive. After robbing the Goulbourn mail train however he was captured and sentenced this time to Port Arthur Prison in Tasmania. Four years later in 1845 he was due to be sent back to Norfolk Island. Being put aboard the transport vessel The Governor Phillip Doherty was in desperation. In many ways this must have seemed like the end of the line, if returned to the remote Norfolk Island escape was impossible and he was highly unlikely to be able to con his way off a second time. As usual Doherty was unwilling to accept his fate and attempted to instigate a mutiny on the ship. This failed and Doherty received yet another prison sentence. This must have been one of the darkest moments in his life where even the unbreakable Doherty must have felt like the game was up but nevertheless he struggled on and would not give in.

When he arrived back on Norfolk island Dohertry found the reformer Maconochie had been replaced by the brutal John Price who reinstated a harsh regime. Ideas about prison were changing and Doherty faced a new challenge, seemingly unbreakable through physical punishment he would now have to deal with solitary confinement. Continuing to resist Doherty was in and out of Solitary confinement almost constantly but never relented , refusing to submit the prison authorities. Indeed author Robert Pringle Stuart having observed prisoners on Norfolk in 1846 described Doherty as a ringleader. How he kept himself going is remarkable, with little hope of getting of the island he nevertheless refused to give in. In 1853 though Doherty’s situation was dramatically altered by a policy decision in London.

That year the British Government decided transportation to Australia was to stop. Norfolk Island now served little purpose and given the logistical difficulties in maintaining such a remote outpost it was closed. Doherty and the other inmates were boarded on transports and shipped back to Tasmania, a large island slightly smaller than Ireland, 150 miles South of Australia. Two years later as Doherty was coming to the end of sentence he was released to work on farms near the prison. Although a more lax regime it was not freedom and unsurprisingly in 1856 Doherty escaped again.

Returning to the only life available to him he engaged in bush ranging and robbery. It seems that during 1856 Doherty having teamed up with another prisoner and was involved in the murder of a colonialist George Sturgeon. The two fled Tasmania but it appears by stage Doherty was well known and within a few months he was captured.

For Doherty this must have been heart breaking, being returned to captivity he faced a trial and now given he was being charged with murder a death sentence was highly lightly. Convicted and sentenced to death, Doherty miraculously for the second time in his life spared the hangman’s noose and the death sentence was commuted. However this time Doherty was to be put in what was arguably the most difficult prison he had ever faced.<

Port Arthur Model Prison.

While Doherty had survived lashing and beatings on Norfolk Island what he was put through next was arguably worse. He was incarcerated in Port Arthur in Tasmania where a so called model prison was recently opened. The design and regime was based around a perverse version of reforming prisoners.

This involved essentially breaking the individual down and reconstructing them. In order to do this prisoners were kept almost in constant isolation. When the mixed with other prisoners they could not come with 4.5 metres of each other and had to wear a cloth mask covering their face. They were never referred by anything other than their prisoner number. The greatest result of this prisoner regime unsurprisingly was not to reform the prisoners but to drive them insane, studies showed that prisoners in these prisons had an increased chance of losing their sanity given the amount time they had to spend on their own.

However even this regime could not break Dennis Doherty. In 1863 he was released from the model prison back to the normal prison at Port Arthur. The following nine years Doherty battled away with the prison authorities. His infractions were less frequent but nonetheless he didn’t give in.

In 1871 Doherty gave one last attempt at freedom. Aged 58 he escaped again with George Fisher and John O’Brien but this time he was not physically able for the rough life in the bush. When he was captured he was almost dead from starvation. In this escape Doherty also lost the sight of his left eye. He was returned to prison for a time in Hobart Jail and then Port Arthur both in Tasmania. Much of this time he spent in Solitary confinement.

Towards Freedom

It was after this escape that Anthony Trollope visited Port Arthur prison and interviewed Doherty. Trollope who lived in Ireland in the 1840’s had sympathy for Doherty’s plight. Doherty revealed to Trollope’s that he was finally broken by the last escape. Perhaps it was Doherty’s age rather than the prison system that had broke him. It was Trollope who made Doherty famous when an account of the interview was published in his book “Australia and New Zealand” in 1873. In 1874 Doherty was photographed by the police photographer Thomas J. Nevin and this picture reveals a face that tells Doherty’s story in its worn haunting look.

In 1876 it appears the prison Authorities were satisfied Doherty now 62, was broken because he was given a ticket of leave. This allowed Doherty to live outside the prison and enjoy most freedoms. 30 years earlier he would have no doubt absconded but it appears Doherty was beyond that in 1876. He was an old man, he had ¾ of his life in prison all after a foolish move in 1833 when he had joined the British army. When he was released in 1876 the world he had grown up in was gone.

In Hobart Tasmania Doherty would no doubt have seen large numbers of Irish people and perhaps began to realise the enormity of what had happened in Ireland during his incarceration. The famine had ravaged the society he had grown up in and no doubt killed many of his friends and family. The world was changing fast in the 1870’s the telegram had been invented electricity was beginning to be used, a technological revolution was just starting to transform everyday life. What happened to Dennis Doherty after this is not known. It is hard to see him surviving long in society having spent so long in prison. The physical regime he endured must also have had an impact on his health. His life was none the less incredible and perhaps the best way to end his story in with his own words. When interviewed by Anthony Trollope in 1872 he explained his life and actions in prison “I have tried to escape, always to escape as a Bird does out of a cage. Is that unnatural? Is that a crime?”.

A distant shore

Barnard, E  (2010) Exiled: The Port Arthur Convict Photographs –  National Library of Australia

O’Hegarty ,P (1952) 291–2 P. S. A history of Ireland under the Union London
Karsten, P. Irish Soldiers in the British Army, 1792-1922: Suborned or Subordinate?, Journal of Social History, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Autumn, 1983), pp. 31-64
Hughes R (1987) The  Fatal Shore London

For 19th century Irish newspapers check out this link

For more on photographs of 19th Australian Prisoners this site is pretty good

0 comments on “Dennis Doherty: A life of survival against the odds….

    • Irish History on

      He certainly wasn’t but i think one thing that sets Doherty apart is that he managed to survive relatively in one piece. Most people going through the mincer Dennis Doherty did, did not survive the 41 years he did……I am really eager to find out what happened to him after release – it’s hard to imagine him readjusting to life…..

  1. len barnett on

    However, my question is about Edward Nagle Ryan, my ancestor and convict lilke Doherty, about whom my family said that once they heard how well he had done, every relative in Ireland came to Galong to join him.

    What I would like to know is what was the context in Ireland – political and economic – for Edward Nagle Ryan’s transportation. I am sure the era is well covered by one of your podcasts. My email is and Edward N Ryans’s story is

    I see you have used Hughes’ book The Fatal Shore – excellent source – and interesting writer

    Len Barnett


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