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Booth, Charles O'Hara (1800–1851)

by Frederic C. Hooper

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

Charles O'Hara Booth (1800-1851), commandant of convicts, was born on 31 August 1800, at Basingstoke, Hampshire, England, the son of Richard Booth of Basing House, and his wife Mary Patricia, née Rézé, of Gibraltar. At 15 he was sent to the care of an uncle in India, where in August 1816 he was appointed an ensign in the 53rd Regiment serving at Madras. In April 1819 he returned to England, applied for a commission in the 21st Fusiliers and in January 1820 joined his corps in the Isle of Wight, before embarking for the West Indies. The corps returned to England in 1827. At Windsor he was promoted captain in September 1830, and two years later embarked for Van Diemen's Land in the Georgiana, arriving at Hobart Town in February 1833. In March 1833 he was put in the Commission of the Peace, and appointed commandant of the Port Arthur convict settlement, with jurisdiction over all stations on Tasman Peninsula. This was restricted to Port Arthur and to the juvenile establishment at Point Puer in 1840, and his designation changed to civil commandant under the probation system.

Under his command the township of Port Arthur was laid out on an extensive scale, harbour construction carried out and reclamation undertaken, a government farm established at Safety Cove, and the semaphore telegraph system brought to a high degree of efficiency for helping to arrest escapers. His administration of the convict system was extremely efficient, his rule was impartial, never capriciously tyrannical, and, though by present standards justice then seemed merciless, he was as prompt to reward as to punish; he had patient attention for the most trivial cases and used the lash as a last resort with great reluctance. Both his personal qualities and his administration received high praise from his contemporaries: Lieutenant-Governor Arthur, entirely satisfied, described him as 'kind and humane, active and most determined', and Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Franklin was favourably impressed by his plans at Point Puer.

This juvenile reformatory was hailed by Rev. John West as 'an oasis in the desert of penal government'. The boys were separated from the adult prisoners, meals were adequate, habits of devotion and cleanliness were taught, morning and Sunday schools were established, with industrial training a special feature of the reformative process. Booth planned disciplined routines and made daily inspections to see that his directions were followed. After criticism was made of his magisterial trials to enforce discipline, he dropped them for minor offences.

Booth was married in Hobart on 20 November 1838 to Elizabeth Charlotte, née Eagle, the widow of her cousin Solomon Eagle, and stepdaughter of Booth's regimental surgeon. In 1838 he suffered exposure when lost in the bush for four days. His health was undermined; and he sold out from the army in 1839, and in 1844 accepted the less demanding appointment to the Queen's Orphan School, New Town. He died at his home, Stoke, New Town, on 11 August 1851, a man with high integrity of purpose 'who', West wrote, 'deserves to be remembered with respect'. His wife and two daughters returned to England in 1852. T. J. Lempriere's portrait of Captain Booth and one of his wife, the property of Mr Bernard Walpole, are on loan to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.

Select Bibliography

  • J. West, The History of Tasmania, vols 1-2 (Launceston, 1852)
  • T. J. Lempriere, Penal Settlements of Early Van Diemen's Land (Launceston
  • 1854)
  • F. C. Hooper, Point Puer Experiment (M. Ed. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1956)
  • C. Booth journal (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

Frederic C. Hooper, 'Booth, Charles O'Hara (1800–1851)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/booth-charles-ohara-1802/text2047, published in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 23 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

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