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Price, John Giles (1808–1857)

by John V. Barry

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

John Giles Price (1808-1857), magistrate and penal administrator, was born on 20 October 1808, the fourth son of Sir Rose Price, first baronet, of Trengwainton, Cornwall, England. He was a pupil at Charterhouse in 1821, matriculated at Brasenose College, Oxford, on 21 May 1827, but left without taking a degree. Arriving in Hobart Town in May 1836, he took up farming in the Huon River district. On 12 June 1838 he married Mary, eldest daughter of Major James Franklin and the ward of Sir John Franklin, lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen's Land.

On 1 January 1839 Price was appointed muster master of convicts and assistant police (stipendiary) magistrate. He acquired a thorough knowledge of the ways and cant language of the 'flash men' and confirmed criminals among the convicts, and is said by a critic, Rev. Thomas Rogers, to have disguised himself as a constable and gone about Hobart at night in search of disorderly characters. In 1846 he suffered an illness the nature of which is not known but which was of sufficient gravity to lead Surgeon Bedford to state that Price should have leave of absence 'or else he will be laid up seriously'. Leave was approved, but in July 1846, before he could take it, he was appointed civil commandant of Norfolk Island, at a salary of £600, later £800, to take the place of Major Joseph Childs, during whose administration, on 1 July 1846, a section of the convicts revolted and four minor officials were murdered. Before his departure, at a public meeting of Hobart citizens, Price was given a service of plate valued at £300, and resolutions of regret at the loss of his services as a magistrate were carried. Leslie Norman (Sea Wolves and Bandits, Hobart, 1946, p. 165) asserts that Price was unwilling to take the appointment and did so only on the insistence of Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Eardley-Wilmot. He held the position of commandant from August 1846, when he arrived on Norfolk Island with his family, until January 1853. One of his first duties was to arrange for the trial of twenty-six convicts alleged to have been implicated in the murders during the revolt. Twelve convicts were hanged in two groups of six on 13 October 1846, and within the next three weeks five more convicts were executed, one for complicity in a murder during the revolt and four for other crimes.

Price's administration has been praised for its firmness and denounced for its harshness. A contemporary historian, John West, asserted that he commenced it with a 'vigorous, summary, and, it is said, merciless exercise of his authority', and noting that the charges against him had been disputed, commented, 'their substantial truth is, at least, rendered probable, by the accumulation of similar facts in the history of such settlements'. In February 1847 Price required the Anglican chaplain, Rev Thomas Rogers, to leave the island. Cogent evidence that Price was guilty of grave cruelty and abuse of power is furnished by Rogers in his Correspondence etc. and Review of Dr. Hampton's First Report on Norfolk Island, which were published in Launceston in 1849 while Price was still commandant, and by the Rt Rev. Robert Willson, Roman Catholic bishop of Van Diemen's Land. Bishop Willson visited the island in 1846 when Childs was commandant, and twice during Price's administration, in 1849 and in 1852. He found conditions so much degenerated in 1852 that he wrote a long report to Lieutenant-Governor Sir William Denison, describing the plight of the convicts and the use of unduly harsh punishments. Before Willson's final visit the lieutenant-governor had required Price to explain the increased use of corporal punishments; Price defended his use of flogging, to which he professed great aversion, as necessary to enforce obedience to regulations, especially those controlling the use of tobacco.

The British government had in mind to abandon the island as a penal settlement and at his own request Price was given leave and in January 1853 returned to Hobart. He was appointed inspector-general of penal establishments in Victoria in January 1854. The newly-established colony was confronted with grave problems arising from the explosive influx of gold seekers, who included many former convicts. The inadequate gaols were supplemented by hulks, moored in Hobson's Bay, on which conditions were appalling. Public disquiet forced investigations, and in 1856 the Legislative Council and the Legislative Assembly each appointed a select committee. The Legislative Council committee sat intermittently from 27 November 1856 to 29 July 1857, and the Legislative Assembly committee from 8 January 1857 to September 1857. Price gave evidence before both committees, but he was dead before either returned a report. On 26 March 1857 he visited Williamstown to investigate complaints about rations by convicts from the hulks employed there on public works. While he was listening to some grievances a party of convicts gathered around him. Missiles were thrown and one struck him heavily; as he turned away he was knocked down and severely battered about the head and body. On the next afternoon he died from his injuries. At the inquest fifteen convicts were committed for trial. They were tried in four groups, and seven were convicted and sentenced to death. Three were hanged on 28, three on 29, and one on 30 April 1857. Accounts of the trials leave the impression that some of the executed men may have been wrongly convicted.

Price's widow died at Malvern, Victoria, on 2 October 1894, and her death certificate states there were eight children of the marriage. When Price died six were living: John Frederick (b. 3 October 1839); James Franklin (b. 20 March 1841); Thomas Caradoc (b. 21 October 1842); Emily Mary (b. 5 October 1845); Anna Clara (b. 30 January 1846); and Jane de Winton (b.1850?). John Frederick was among the early alumni of the University of Melbourne. He entered the Madras Civil Service and was appointed C.S.I. in 1893 and K.C.S.I. on his retirement in 1898. Known as Sir Frederick Price, he died at Trengwainton, Exmouth, on 12 June 1927. James Franklin was slain by natives on Mulgrave Island in Torres Strait in 1878 with three other members of the crew of the schooner Gem, captained by Francis Cadell. Thomas Caradoc served in the British army and later commanded the Victorian Mounted Rifles in the South African war, and was well known in Victoria as Colonel 'Tom' Price. He died at Warrnambool on 3 July 1911.

John Price became a legendary figure during his lifetime; after his death, 'Price Warung' (William Astley) made him the central figure in the story, 'John Price's Bar of Steel', in Tales of the Old Regime (Melbourne, 1897), and in the novel For the Term of His Natural Life (London, 1885) Marcus Clarke used Price as the foundation for 'Maurice Frere'. Clarke based his account of the conduct of Maurice Frere at Norfolk Island on Rev. Thomas Rogers's Correspondence …, from which he took almost verbatim extracts for use in the diary of 'Rev. James North', and his description of Frere's appearance accords with Price's. He was a man of great personal strength and considerable courage, and was capable of sentimental as well as merciless deeds.

Select Bibliography

  • J. West, The History of Tasmania, vol 2 (Launceston, 1852) 299
  • (T.L.B.), Biographical Memoir of the Late Mr. John Price, Inspector-General of Penal Establishments for Victoria: With an Account of the Assassination, Inquest & Funeral
  • Also, a Full Report of the Trials of the Prisoners (Melb, 1857)
  • H. A. White, Crime and Criminals, or Reminiscences of the Penal Department of Victoria (Ballarat, 1890)
  • J. Singleton, A Narrative of Incidents in the Eventful Life of a Physician (Melb, 1891)
  • G. J. de Winton, Soldiering Fifty Years Ago (Lond, 1898)
  • J. V. Barry, The Life and Death of John Price (Melb. 1964)
  • Bishop Willson's Letter, Parliamentary Papers (House of Lords, Great Britain), 1852-53, vol 18, 88-95
  • Select Committee on Penal Discipline, Report, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1856-57 (48)
  • Select Committee on Penal Establishments, Report, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Council, Victoria), 1856-57 (D 13)
  • CO 280/292.

Citation details

John V. Barry, 'Price, John Giles (1808–1857)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/price-john-giles-2563/text3497, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 21 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

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