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Suffolk, Owen Hargraves (1830–?)

by Jill Eastwood

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

Owen Hargraves Suffolk (born 1830?), convict writer, was born, according to his autobiography, at Finchley, Middlesex, England, only son of a well-to-do family. When his father suffered financial reverses, Suffolk was sent, aged 8, to an inferior boarding-school at Margate, where he learned Latin, French and book-keeping. At 12 he went to live with his parents, then virtually penniless; as cabinboy he soon joined a ship bound for Rio de Janeiro. During the seven-month voyage Suffolk rebelled against the fierce discipline; on his return he failed to find his parents, whose letter telling him of their new address had never reached him. He led a vagabond life until sent to Coldbath-fields prison for vagrancy. There he learned the arts and rewards of crime and on his release briefly became a successful confidence trickster, spending his gains on culture and self-education. An advertisement by his father in The Times brought written contact with his family but both guilt and success made him refuse reunion. On 30 March 1846 he was convicted at the Central Criminal Court for 'forging an undertaking for payment of money'; next year he sailed as a chaplain's clerk in the convict ship Joseph Somes which arrived in Melbourne on 24 September. Prison records described him as 'age 17, reads and writes, former tailor, single'.

In the Port Phillip District Suffolk was successful in two positions as tutor-book-keeper until information about his past brought dismissal. In 1848, attempting to escape arrest on a false accusation, he stole a horse and was sentenced to five years on the roads, but served two years and three months only; due for a ticket-of-leave he 'absconded while on pass to take up his indulgence'. On 21 June 1851 he was sentenced to ten years for robbing the Portland mail; during the trial he had 'addressed the jury in a very clear and eloquent speech, which fairly took the Court by surprise'. His help to gaol authorities, his writings and remorse appealed to Chief Justice Sir William à Beckett, who commented in July 1852 that 'He is certainly no common criminal—and both in prose and poetry professes no mean powers of composition'.

Probably through à Beckett, Suffolk was made prisoner-clerk, and he met and fell in love with the daughter of a prisoner. He gained a ticket-of-leave and sentence remission in September 1853 and planned to marry, but in November it was discovered that he had forged an entry reducing the sentences of two prisoners from four to two months. In December he was sent to the prison hulk President; after fourteen months his health broke down and he was transferred to the Success and then to the Sacramento. Among his several unsuccessful petitions was a fourteen-page document of 16 January 1857, written in a distinctively neat, round hand, which described the revocation of his remission of sentence as 'a proceeding which carries with it an utter violation of faith, and which, as such must be derogatory to the essential dignity of the power by which it is enforced'. In December 1857 he was again given a ticket-of-leave; but his fiancée had died and he was soon unemployed. Again reverting to crime, in February and June 1858 he was given sentences totalling twelve years for horse-stealing; he received a ticket-of-leave on 4 July 1866, and on 1 September his application for pardon was granted. On 17 September, giving his occupation as miner, he sailed in the Norfolk for England.

Suffolk claimed to have begun his autobiography on 6 August 1858. It was bought by the Argus, possibly for the £50 that he claimed in his petition for pardon had come to him from a brother in England, and was published in the Australasian between January and October 1867. Called 'Days of Crime and Years of Suffering', it included six of his poems and a chapter, 'Thoughts on Penal Discipline' written after his release. His fate is unknown, though J. M. Forde in 1911 maintained that he again relapsed, causing trouble in a Midlands town. While regretting his criminality, Suffolk frankly enjoyed those aspects of his career which involved play-acting and fooling society. His library included works by Cowper, Byron, Moore and Scott, Bacon's Essays, and Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations; though his verse was mediocre he had an excellent prose style. The publication of his story led to the formation of a Discharged Prisoners' Aid Society.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Graham, Laurence Struilby (Lond, 1863)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 23 June 1851
  • Australasian, Jan-Sept 1867
  • Old Chum (J. M. Forde), ‘Early Melbourne’, Truth, Mar-June 1911
  • manuscript collection, box 20/7 (LaTL)
  • Chief Secretary in-letters, 1866/9027, Prisons box 302, and Inspector General of Penal Establishments, Suffolk file, 57/1 to 57/1500 box 573 (Public Record Office Victoria).

Citation details

Jill Eastwood, 'Suffolk, Owen Hargraves (1830–?)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/suffolk-owen-hargraves-4665/text7713, published in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 2 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

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