Frank the Poet - Miscellany

On 18 June 1832, when the prison ship Eliza II was in the middle of its journey from Ireland to New South Wales, one of the ship's officers, James Gordon recorded in his log:

'Today gave MacNamara 2 dozen for bad conduct. This fellow is a sad scamp and yet far above the common herd in some respects. He has considerable abilities, has written some very palpable lines on his trial and sentence since he carne on board and has a very extensive knowledge of the Scriptures. He it appears was tried for a very slight offence but his conduct on his trial was so bad that he was transported for 7 years. He recited a mock heroic poem of his own composing in which he ridiculed judge jury and other officers of the Court that had tried him. This of course enhanced his offence and added to his punishment.'


The primitive conditions and life threatening nature of mining work for convicts in Australia is described by James Tucker in his 1929 novel The Adventures of Ralph Ranleigh

'Their work was to fill the wagons with coal, drag them to the opening at the shaft's foot, and tip out the contents according to the directions of the man in charge there. They set to work immediately, and continued without rest under the blows and threats of their taskmaster until night, when each man received a small portion of boiled maize grain, a morsel of salt beef, and water. They slept naked in any part of the workings, the heat being so excessive that any clothing or covering only added to the misery of life. No bedding was provided, but those who were not too exhausted to make the effort could scrape together enough dust to make a comfortable sleeping-place. The convict miners remained underground the whole week, and on Saturday afternoons were taken to the surface to wash themselves and their clothing in sea water. When their clothes were dry they were marched to the convict barracks and confined there until Monday morning.'

Conn Flynn who worked with MacNamara in a road gang wrote:

'Oh! Those were the days when the grasses wide
Wet a horseman's feet on his morning ride.
When the mighty bullocks, their work-days past,
As rations to convicts were served at last.
And the tale is told how it chanced one day
That a smoking round came the convicts' way.

Then Frank the Poet, as large as life,
Stood and tapped the beef with his carving knife
And intoned this verse, so the tale relates
To the crowded board of his grinning mates:
'Oh! Redman, Redman how came you here?
You served the Gov'ment many a year
With blows and kicks and with much abuse
And now you are here for convicts' use'.

Harry the Forger spoke up:
'Faith! Frank, I don't know for sure what you will be remembered most for, your verses or for that natural cross in the rocks, on top of the Devil's Pinch, where you always doff your cap when you pass and which they name Frank the Poet's Cross. '
'Must a man be remembered at all?' asked Frank.
That goes without saying: replied Harry. Tis a poor soul indeed who leaves no signature on history when he departs. Significant and permanent, if it's something great that he has done, or temporary and fading if he has merely passed that way and left no more than a track in the clay, like a straying beast. Tis not an epitaph, but his "signature on history", a symbol to keep his name in the minds of men, as long as the caprice of Fate decrees.'


The convict Hugh Leonard who was at Port Arthur when MacNamara arrived there on 29 October 1842 describes the famous shingle strike:

'Everything went on well, until one morning the brig Isabella came into the bay, and I was told that it was loaded with Sydney men from Cockatoo Island. Next day they came ashore, and were put into the carrying gang. The runner, as usual, started off, but the Sydney men all kept in their ranks, and walked on steadily.

The overseer shouted for them to close up, but they took no notice of him, so that the other men were coming back for loads before they had reached the first resting place. We each had bundles of shingles to carry, and the Sydney men said, 'Now, do you think these bundles are overweight?' Some of them replied, 'Yes'. They then emptied some of the shingles out, and tied them up again, so that by the time they had done that, the other men had been into the settlement with their loads. When they got into the settlement they were marched in front of the office, and the commandant came. The loads were weighed, and found to be underweight.

The commandant then ordered the flagellators to be sent for, and the triangles; and the clerk took down all their names. Amongst the rest there was the notorious Jackey Jackey, Frank the Poet, and Jones, and Cavanagh. There were upwards of thirty pairs of cats and four flagellators, and the surgeon, a young man named Dr Benson, who kept laughing and joking, and playing with his stick as unconcerned as though he was in a ballroom. When their names were taken, every other man was called out, and received thirty-six lashes. A fresh flagellator giving every twenty lashes, and they try to see who can give it the worst.

Next morning they went on just the same. They were then ranked up, and all were flogged and sent to work again; the overseer still snapping at them and if they could have got him in the bush they would have killed him. Next day they were all brought up again, and received seven days' solitary confinement on bread and water. When they came out they did just as before and were brought up before the commandant again, and he listened to what they had to say this time, and ordered that there was to be no more running in the gang.'


Marcus Clarke describes a night on the grog in Melbourne in 1868, which shows that the gift for extempore poetry was not confined to MacNamara:

'One of the men around the table, a little Irishman, with a face that would make his fortune on the stage, is a well known charader in the low public houses. He is termed the 'Poet', and gains his living by singing his own compositions in the bar rooms. At our request, he favoured us with an improvised ditty – which, despite the reckless disregard of metre and rhyme, was really clever, the personal peculiarities of the company, including ourselves, being hit off with some degree of humour. The 'Poet', however, is an unconscionable drunkard and has, moreover, done several sentences for petty thefts. Having made him temporarily grateful by the bestowal of largesse, we turned in to the next house.'


Our Hobart Letter

Many old hands here will remember "Frank, the poet." Frank was a curiosity in his way, and was possessed of considerable poetical talent. One could not classify him with Adam Lindsay Gordon,
but still he turned out some rhymes which, if altogether rude, showed talent which might have developed under better educational auspices than Frank in his earlier days moved under. The last I heard of Frank was that the reaper with his sickle keen had reached him, but in a general rummage made amongst some old papers I discovered one of his effusions, entitled "A tour to the lower regions."
The poem, if one can call it a poem, is a skit on the early prison days of the colony, and in parts is literally sarcastic whilst not altogether devoid of humour. I quote the end of the last stanza, which reads thus:

And many saints from foreign lands
With Frank the poet all shook hands,
And began to sing and praise his name,
But at last I woke—'twas all a dream.