Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Nott, Leslie Cecil Joshua (1895–1963)

by John Ramsland

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Leslie Cecil Joshua Nott (1895-1963), comptroller-general of prisons, was born on 5 April 1895 at Cobbora, near Wellington, New South Wales, twelfth and youngest child of English-born parents James Nott, farmer, and his wife Elizabeth Ann, née Thompson. Educated locally and at Mudgee High School, Leslie entered the Department of Prisons in 1913 as an administrative clerk at Bathurst gaol. Competent and diligent, in 1923 he was promoted chief clerk at the central state penitentiary at Long Bay, Sydney. On 31 March that year at St Barnabas's Church of England, South Bathurst, he married Minnie Gaynor Doswell, a dressmaker.

Transferred to the comptroller-general's office in 1925, Nott was chief clerk there in 1931-36. He was inspector of prisons from 1936, gaining a comprehensive knowledge of prison conditions across the State, and was promoted deputy comptroller in 1941. In 1943 he was responsible for setting up for the prison system's incorrigibles the small, retractable wing, based on a Canadian model, at Grafton Gaol. The wing acquired a brutal and draconian image and was widely known by prisoners as 'The Bloodhouse'; here 'any sense of defiance' was 'well and truly knocked out of them'—a place to which they feared to be transferred. This revealed the harsher side of Nott's penal ideology for prisoners whom he believed to be incapable of rehabilitation. His ideas for redeemable prisoners were more humane and progressive.

Obviously being groomed for higher office, in April 1947 Nott was sent to examine the prison systems of Britain and North America. On his return in July he presented a neatly analytic and well-received report that became a blueprint for the future. He argued that the foundation of an effective prison system was a highly structured 'discipline', in contrast to the outdated Victorian notion of moral reformation. Nott proposed four 'pillars': accurate classification of prisoners according to age and criminal history; provision of trade training in prisons to allow inmates to acquire work skills so that they could earn an honest living on release; expansion and articulation of academic and general education for prisoners; and the introduction of structured leisure and recreational activities to develop and maintain good morale. He emphasized the need to develop policies of supervised after-care, to complete successful rehabilitation into society. While none of these ideas were new, they were systematically organized in Nott's proposed scheme.

On his promotion in 1949 to comptroller-general of prisons, Nott introduced his declared policies, but was hampered by lack of resources. He was particularly impressed by the casework services that he had observed at first hand in American prisons. In 1951 he appointed two parole officers, whose work was primarily limited to inmates of prisons in the various forms Nott had defined and refined: penitentiaries, training centres and afforestation camps. Their prime task was classification on arrival, which was carried out at Long Bay. While Nott recognized the diversity of the prison population, he believed most were 'good prisoners' and a few 'bad' or habitual for whom nothing could be done. He restructured prisons as maximum, medium and minimum, with graduated forms of discipline and differing educational and training opportunities.

Nott was appointed O.B.E. in June 1954. Next year the film division of the Department of the Interior produced a documentary highlighting his achievements in the prison system. Before Nott ceased duty in 1956, a reporter described 'the kindly, almost shy man with the rugged face as he sat . . . behind his blue serge-covered desk and stoked his pipe'. He retired on 30 June that year. As comptroller-general, Nott had modernized the State's geographically vast system, with its average prison population of around 5000. The Laurel Hill Afforestation Camp was renamed the Leslie Nott Afforestation Camp in his honour in 1958. After retirement he remained active as a member of the Parole Board. A Freemason, he belonged to Maroubra lodge No. 725, United Grand Lodge of New South Wales. Nott died of myocardial infarction on 23 October 1963 in hospital at Little Bay and was cremated. His wife and their son and daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • T. Vinson, Wilful Obstruction (Syd, 1982)
  • R. Hay, Catch Me If You Can (Syd, 1992)
  • J. Ramsland, With Just But Relentless Discipline (Syd, 1996)
  • Annual Report of the Comptroller-General of Prisons (New South Wales), 1947-56
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 13 Aug 1955, p 249
  • Australian Journal of Social Work, 12, no 2, Dec 1959, p 14
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 8 Apr 1956, p 28.

Citation details

John Ramsland, 'Nott, Leslie Cecil Joshua (1895–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/nott-leslie-cecil-joshua-13134/text23769, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 21 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

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