Prisons and philately: Norfolk Island commemorated

As part of my job, I spend some time every week in Chichester’s West Sussex Record Office, trailing through the newspaper archives to find interesting stories and pictures from yonder year. The further you go back through the years in old local newspapers, there’s often greater quantities of unintentional hilarity, cringe-worthy displays of sexism in advertising, and “breaking news” of the rural, trouble at t’mill variety.

However, whilst hunting through the huge, tombstone sized texts which house past copies of the Chichester Observer today, I came across an eccentric piece entitled ‘Stamp reminder of a grim past’ (The Observer, Friday, July 12, 1974).

Interestingly for a piece printed under the ‘For Our Younger Readers’ section,  accompanied by a picture of a boy which could be straight out of a ’50s Nabisco advert, this article explores a place known as ‘the hell of the Pacific’.

Commemorated on a 5c stamp, this little corner of heaven was a convict settlement on Norfolk Island, which is an Australian tourist destination.

Prisoners, penal colonies and philately. I’m sold.

Even on the 1970s-era postage stamp, it looks like a pretty grim place. This particular Norfolk Island stamp (there’s a series commemorating choice moments in the island’s history) displays details from contemporary drawings of the prison buildings, which were built by the convicts themselves from local stone and timber.

Several of the buildings, which were built in the first half of the 19th century, survive today. For more than 30 years, Britain sent, as the article states, “some of her most violent and hardened criminals […] to be kept in harsh conditions of captivity in what was then one of the most isolated places in the world”.

The building on this particular  5c stamp is the massive outer gateway of the pentagonal jail – a sight which was intended to strike fear into the hearts of the newly arriving convicts. Carved above the archway is the date when the prison on Norfolk Island was completed – 1847.

Although the pentagonal jail had a short career, with the penal settlement closing in 1856, the history of the convict settlement is a far cry from the holiday destination we associate with Norfolk Island today.


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