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Frederick William Neitenstein (1850–1921)

by Stephen Garton

This article was published:

Frederick William Neitenstein (1850-1921), prison reformer, was born on 8 January 1850 at Shoreditch, London, son of Frederick Henry John Neitenstein, sugar refiner, and his wife Mary, née Nutkins. Educated at Sherman College, Kent, he entered the mercantile marine and served with the Devitt & Moore Line. In 1872 he arrived in Sydney and, liking the colony, stayed. On 6 October 1873 he was appointed mate and clerk in the Nautical School Ship, Vernon, and on 1 April 1878 commander and superintendent. In St Thomas' Church, Balmain, he married Marion Walker on 26 July 1879.

His new position allowed Captain Neitenstein, as he was always known, to introduce reform of the treatment of juvenile offenders. Unlike other reformers who favoured the boarding-out system, he believed that institutional treatment could be effective. The essence of his system was discipline, surveillance, physical drill and a system of grading and marks. He aimed at creating a 'moral earthquake' in each new boy. Every new admission was placed in the lowest grade and, through hard work and obedience, gradually won a restricted number of privileges. He gained considerable pleasure from this process and preferred the challenge of tackling boys who showed a 'little sturdy hot-headedness at first'. In 1892 the Vernon was closed and he became superintendent of the new N.S.S. Sobraon.

In 1896, his reputation as a reformer already established, Neitenstein was appointed comptroller-general of New South Wales prisons. Adapting many of his schemes for juvenile reform, he introduced the grading, mark and physical drill programmes, and developed the policy of 'restricted association' and other schemes to reduce contact between inmates as a means of separating different classes of prisoner.

Hoping to turn the prison into a 'moral hospital', Neitenstein sought to remove first offenders, inebriates, juveniles, lunatics and summary offenders from the inmate population. Only 'real criminals' were to be subjected to the new 'reformative regime'. The apparent success of many of these policies in the 1900s was achieved partly through skilful manoeuvring—in 1906 he was able to transfer the cost of maintaining lunatics in prison to the Lunacy Department, thereby effecting on paper a substantial cut in both prison expenditure and the number of recorded prisoners.

Neitenstein was an occasional member of the Public Service Board and served on the Public Service Tender Board, the Central Board for Old-Age Pensions and the 1906 royal commission on weights and measures. He had been a prominent Freemason, was a founder of the Discharged Prisoners' Aid Society and belonged to the Howard Prison Reform League. In 1906 he was appointed I.S.O.

In 1909 Neitenstein retired as comptroller-general and next year from the public service. Parliament granted him a gratuity of £500. Thick-set and round faced, with heavy brows and a luxuriant Edwardian moustache, he was considered an aloof, prudish man, who revelled in the trappings of office and demanded absolute obedience from his subordinates. An earnest bureaucrat, he listed his recreations as reform and philanthropy.

After returning from a two-year visit to England, Neitenstein became a virtual recluse in his Burwood home. Ill health marked his declining years. On 23 April 1921, survived by his daughter, Neitenstein died at home of cerebro-vascular disease and was buried in the Congregational section of Rookwood cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • School Ships Vernon and Sobraon, Annual Report, 1878-91, 1892-95, Parliamentary Papers (Legislative Council and Legislative Assembly, New South Wales)
  • Prisons Dept, Annual Report, 1896-1909, Parliamentary Papers (New South Wales)
  • Magistrate (Sydney), 1 Sept, 1 Oct 1909
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 25 Apr 1921
  • M. L. Sernack-Cruise, Penal Reform in NSW: Frederick William Neitenstein, 1896-1909 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Sydney, 1980)
  • Neitenstein papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Stephen Garton, 'Neitenstein, Frederick William (1850–1921)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


8 January, 1850
London, Middlesex, England


23 April, 1921 (aged 71)
Burwood, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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