You prisoners of New South Wales,
Who frequent watchhouses and gaols
A story to you I will tell
`Tis of a convict’s tour to hell.

Several people have asked me how I chose the title of Tour To Hell.

It’s my tribute to Frank ‘The Poet’ MacNamara, an Irish convict who was shipped out to New South Wales in 1832. His most famous composition is probably the ballad Moreton Bay, which celebrates the death of a tyrannical commandant, but he wrote many others. He even put some of his petitions to the authorities in verse.

One of his greatest works is A Convict’s Tour To Hell, written in October 1839. Pretty much in the style of Jonathan Swift, it satirises the penal colony by having a nameless convict dream of visiting hell and heaven. Hell is inhabited by overseers and colonial officials, suffering all kinds of torment. He doesn’t shirk from naming names, either.

Then I beheld that well known Trapman
The Police Runner called Izzy Chapman
Here he was standing on his head
In a river of melted boiling lead.

Heaven, meanwhile, is filled with convicts – even Bold Jack Donahue (the famous bushranger was then nine years dead). The verse is in effect an imaginative escape, straight from the mind of a transportee still under sentence. And so too, in a sense, were the myths of place in Tour To Hell.

The title seemed doubly appropriate as many convicts who fled to the bush unwittingly embarked on their own tour to Hell. Expecting Arcadia, they soon found themselves lost and facing the prospect of death from starvation and exposure.

Although the Poet’s original sentence was transportation for seven years, he couldn’t keep out of trouble and 15 years passed before he got his ticket-of-leave. He was flogged 14 times, did time in road gangs, on a treadmill and ended up being sent to Port Arthur. But he dreamed of a happy place for himself and 

.. many others whom floggers mangled
And lastly were by Jack Ketch strangled.
Peter, says Jesus, let Frank in
For he is thoroughly purged from sin

Frank The Poet wrote this a few years after the escape myths had subsided. Even so, his words preserve the sort of imaginative longings in the penal colony that helped such tales flourish in earlier years when Australia was barely known to Europeans.

The full text of A Convict’s Tour To Hell is at this State Library of NSW  link. It’s a fascinating time capsule as well as a masterpiece of colonial black humour. Enjoy!