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2004-06, 341, 342, Australiana, Neil A Radford

The Convict Ship ‘Success’: A Very Successful Hoax


For half a century, between about 1890 and 1940, a wooden sailing ship named the Success was exhibited in Australia, the UK, North America and other parts of the world. She was claimed to be, among other things, the oldest ship in the world and the last of the fleet of Australian convict ships. She was well-named as a magnet for attracting paying customers and in 1930 it was claimed that she had been visited by 21 million people.

Souvenir books and pamphlets, with varying titles and contents, but essentially similar, were sold on board. The books, usually of about 150-190pp, were given such titles as The History of the Convict Ship “Success” and its Most Notorious Prisoners or The History of the British Convict Ship “Success”: the Darkest Chapter of England’s History . The contents were said to have been “compiled from Government records and documents preserved in the British Museum and State Departments in London”. Most versions bear no author statement, but some give the author as J.C. Harvie. The pamphlets, which were essentially a selfguided tour to the exhibits on board, were of about 15-25pp and had titles like Convict Ship “Success”: the Last of England’s Infamous Felon Fleet or Catalogue and Guide to the Famous Australian Convict Ship “Success” . Some of these publications state that they were printed on board the ship, others have colophons identifying commercial publishers.

It would be difficult to compile a complete bibliography of these materials, but Ferguson’s Bibliography of Australia describes eight editions printed before 1901; the US National Union Catalog lists copies from 1911, 1912 and 1929; and when this article was being written the Internet site http://www.abebooks.com had for sale no fewer than 57 copies of the book and 10 of the pamphlet, many undated but the dated copies ranged from 1891 to 1929. Their prices ranged from US$5.65 to US$247, so, as always, collectors need to do their research before purchasing. The number of these items printed and sold over the years is unknown, but they must have been produced in huge numbers, especially if the figure of 21 million visitors is accurate. They are not exactly rare, but are seldom seen in Australia because they were mostly sold in England and North America.

What does the book tell us about the Success?

It is stated that the Success was built in 1790 at a place called Moulmain, near Rangoon in Burma. Her early voyages, we are told, were as a trading ship between England and the Indies, and she was once attacked by pirates in the Bay of Bengal. Once, there was a mutiny on board, off Calcutta, and when the captain signalled Calcutta for assistance they mistook the signal and fired upon the ship, hitting the mast and causing it to fall among the mutineers, thereby aborting the insurrection. This is exciting stuff, right out of the Boy’s Own Paper, and the writing style is definitely of that genre. In 1802, we are told, the Success began “carrying condemned unfortunates to their doom in the newly established penal settlements in Australia.” There follows a lurid account of the British convict system, “a black disgrace to civilisation”, relying heavily on the fictional accounts of nineteenth century authors. There is a chapter on the typical voyage out, full of floggings and rape and torture. Then a chapter on what the convicts did when they landed, more floggings and rape and torture (it is said that this account is from “the Sydney Bulletin, Australia’s leading newspaper”!). Chapter 4 has the arresting title “Flogging as a Fine Art” with gruesome accounts of brutal punishment.

After these scene-setting descriptions of the brutality of the convict system we are told that in 1852 the Success anchored at Melbourne “with her usual cargo of convicts on board” but the crew mutinied and went off to the goldfields. We then have pages of excited description of the gold fever which gripped Melbourne at that time, larded, of course, with lurid tales of murder and robbery fuelled by greed. The Success, unable to secure a crew for the homeward voyage, “was turned to the base uses of a convict hulk”, a floating prison anchored off Williamstown. We then have several more chapters of lurid tales about convict discipline, attempted escapes etc., all in that breathless Boy’s Own Paper style of journalism.

The second half of the book is entitled “Prisoners on the Success a brief account of those who through some circumstances became famous or notorious and their connection with the Success as a convict ship”. It contains chapters on eight individual convicts, plus the Kelly gang and the Tolpuddle Martyrs, all of whom, it is said, either were transported to Australia on the Success or were imprisoned in her as a hulk. Like the rest of the book they are ripping yarns full of blood and gore and brutality.

Priced at 6d in the UK, or 25c in USA, this is a very good read for the money and would have thrilled any imaginative youngster. What a pity so much of it is nonsense.

What are the facts?

The Success was built not in 1790 but in 1840, just as the convict system was coming to an end. She was owned by London merchants and was used originally in trading around the coast of Britain, then in the UK-East Indies trade. In 1843 she sailed on her first voyage to Australia carrying emigrants to Fremantle. Between 1847 and 1852 she made several further voyages to Australia carrying free emigrants. She never carried convicts to Australia.

It is true that she arrived in Melbourne in May 1852, but with free emigrants rather than what the book calls “her usual cargo of convicts”, and the crew did desert for the goldfields. Because of a shortage of prisons at the time the Victorian government purchased her and converted her into a prison hulk with cells to accommodate 120 prisoners and, with several other similar ships, she was moored off Williamstown in Port Phillip Bay. She served as a prison hulk until 1858, and subsequently as a reformatory and dormitory for boys, and then as an explosives hulk.

About 1890 the Success was sold to speculators who fitted her up as a convict ship with wax effigies of convicts languishing in their cells and examples of prison paraphenalia such as whips and balls and chains, and exhibited her in Melbourne as a grim relic of the convict days. In 1891 she was towed to Sydney and exhibited there for several months until a fire caused her to be towed to Berry’s Bay on the north shore, where she sank. She was a good enough profit-maker to be refloated, and was then shown in Brisbane, Adelaide and New Zealand. In 1895 she was taken to England and was exhibited as a grim relic of England’s ghastly convict system around the coast of the UK until 1912, when she was purchased by an American and moved to New York. She was displayed at various American ports until the shortage of cargo ships in World War I caused her to be fitted with an engine and converted for cargo work in 1917. She was sunk by ice in the Ohio River, but was raised again and once more resumed her old job as an exhibition ship. She was shown all around the coastal areas of America, and was a star attraction at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. During World War II she was laid up on Lake Erie. In 1946 fire broke out on board and she was burned to the waterline and sank. She had lasted just over a century, of which more than half was spent as an exhibition ship of the convict era. She earned her owners a considerable fortune, but few if any of the millions of visitors would have realised that she was a hoax. She was not an 18th century ship, had never carried convicts to Australia, and most of the dramatic claims and lurid tales in her souvenir booklets were untrue, or exaggerated at best.

The section on famous or notorious convicts carried on the Success is amusing to any historian of the convict system. The chapter on the Kelly gang states, for example, that Ned Kelly’s father, John Kelly, had been transported to Van Diemen’s Land on the Success but in fact he came on a ship called the Prince Regent. The false connection to the Success is merely a peg on which to hang an exciting tale of the activities of the notorious Kelly gang, and to justify the exhibition in one of the Success‘s cells of Ned Kelly’s armour (which I expect was also faked). None of the Kelly family or the Kelly gang ever had anything to do with the Success, but they were famous outlaws, and the public would pay to see their dubious relics and listen to their story.

The Tolpuddle Martyrs, the six farm labourers from Dorset who were transported for organising what would now be considered a type of trade union to agitate for better wages and working conditions, were, we are told, transported to Australia on the Success in 1834. In fact they came on a ship called the Surry, and again the false claim of a connection to the Success is used to justify a chapter on their sufferings and the injustices of the penal system of the time. It makes good reading, but is irrelevant, and among the exhibits on board were wax effigies of the men, languishing in irons in their cells. It is said, with a straight face, that descendants of one of them came on board the Success in 1925 when it was being exhibited at Port Huron, Canada, and “commented very favourably on the striking likeness” of his wax figure. How the descendants would have known what their forebear looked like 90 years before is glossed over.

The pamphlet is said to be an abridgement of the book, but it is more of a self-guided tour of the exhibits on board, which are 96 in number. It is an interesting catalogue of this contrived chamber of horrors.

On the main deck Exhibit #1 is the Branding Room where, it is said, the convicts were branded with a redhot iron on the palms of the hands with the broad arrow, “the sign of English ownership”. I am not a scholar of the convict system but I have not been able to verify that this branding was the normal practice. But the paying public would have been impressed by its painful and brutal connotations, and wouldn’t have questioned it. There are some leg-irons, handcuffs, a straight jacket and a spiked collar – all the necessary accoutrements for a grisly display of the brutal aspects of the convict system. Ned Kelly’s armour is #12, next to the flogging frame and a cat-o-nine-tails with grisly descriptions of their use. #19 is mysteriously described as “Relics of the Middle Ages”, whatever they were and which seem out of place in a display about the convict system, and #21, improbably, is a cell door formerly in Newgate Prison. I don’t know what that’s doing there.

We then descend to the cells on the middle deck, where wax effigies of numerous notorious characters are skulking in their cells. It is not claimed that most of them were ever connected with the Success, which is just as well. They are merely notorious bushrangers and other criminals whose stories are likely to be of interest to the paying public who are seeking a good grisly exhibition for their money, whether or not it is based on truth. Also on this deck is the prison chapel in which there is, incongruously, a display of members of parliament holding an enquiry into the convict system.

There are yet more cells on the lower deck and more wax figures of desperados, not necessarily with any connection with the Success but making for a good show. The last section of the tour seems to be a miscellaneous collection of “old stuff” such as an engraving of Hobart Town, some old keys, rifles, and even the officers’ bath!

Somewhere on board there was, presumably, a souvenir shop which sold these printed publications and other items. Postcards of the Success under sail and of some of the exhibits turn up now and then, for a few dollars. More interesting is a range of copper souvenirs which were sold on board at American ports. The book and pamphlet both tell us that when the ship was being fitted out in England in 1912 prior to its relocation to North America the British Board of Trade ordered some of its copper bottom to be replaced. This metal, it says, “is portion of that first placed upon her when built in 1790” (which we have seen is a fiction). Anyway, the salvaged copper was made into “handsome and artistic souvenirs of various and charming designs. Each one bears the stamp of the ship. Your inspection of them is invited and they may be purchased at exceptionally moderate prices as a memento of your visit to this wonderful and unique old vessel. The supply is limited and cannot be replaced. You should secure one immediately as their scarcity makes them daily of increasing value.” As with all other statements about the Success I would take this with a grain of salt, but the story about the copper bottom being removed during refitting is plausible.

As the booklets turn up in secondhand bookshops, I expect that the copper souvenirs occasionally surface in American antique shops. These souvenirs included match box cases, napkin rings, jewellery boxes, watch fobs, snuff boxes, and spoons. They were all stamped with an image of the Success under sail and bear the statement “original copper from the Convict Ship Success.” I have never seen any of these copper souvenirs but that is most probably because they were sold in North America not here.

So the Success was exhibited around the world for 50 years as “the last of England’s infamous felon fleet”. Millions of people paid their money to see an exhibition based on fiction rather than fact, and bought souvenir booklets and other objects which are now not only rare and uncommon, but are also interesting artefacts of an extremely successful and profitable hoax. Like some other famous hoaxes the story of the Success has generated its own literature in books and magazine articles, and one keen fan has even produced the results of thirty years of research on a Web site http://home.gci.net/~alaskapi/success/ It includes links to an amazing number of places with further information and connections to the story of this proud ship which was exploited for half a century.

Neil A. Radford



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