John Giles Price (commandant)

John Giles Price (1808 – 1857), magistrate and penal administrator, was the only civilian to command the second convict settlement at Norfolk Island, being in charge from 6 August 1846 to 18 January 1853.

He was the son of a minor baronet, studied at Oxford without taking a degree, and arrived in Hobart, Van Diemen's Land in May 1836 with letters of introduction from influential relatives. There he farmed in the Huon River district and married Mary, the ward of Sir John Franklin, lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen's Land from 1836 to 1843.

In 1839 Price was appointed muster master of convicts and stipendiary magistrate. Being in close contact with the convicts he gained a knowledge of their ways and language. It is claimed by a critic, Reverend Thomas Rogers, that he would disguise himself as a constable and move around Hobart, seeking disorderly characters. Hazzard claims that “he seemed to know, with terrifying accuracy, the way a criminal's mind worked, and this, coupled with his merciless administering of the Law, gave him an almost hypnotic power over them”.

In 1846 he suffered a mystery illness and was recommended by his doctor to take leave of absence. However, he was appointed commandant of Norfolk Island in July of that year, to replace Major Joseph Childs, and the leave was never taken.

One of his first duties was to arrange for the trial of 26 convicts alleged to have been involved in murders during the revolt of July 1846 at the end of Childs' administration. Twelve convicts were hanged in October, and five others shortly after.

During his first years, Price's actions were staunchly supported by Governor Denison, but by 1852 he expressed regret at the extent to which corporal punishment was used. Price justified his actions by pointing out that he was responsible for the worst convicts, those of most dangerous and vicious character, who being “reckless of future consequences”, mocked persuasion and advice, and laughed at sentences in irons. As Price did not have sufficient cells for solitary confinement, “what then remains but to have recourse to the scourge?” Having been driven to corporal punishment, he claimed “that it has had a beneficial effect I have no hesitation in asserting”.

Hughes' claims that, in Hobart “the suspicion that the commandant was out of control, that the island's remoteness from Hobart had permitted some cancer of his soul to metastasise wildly, could not entirely be allayed”. He hints at a connection between Price's unspecified illness in 1846, and “the morbid ferocities of his rule”.

Price has been praised for his firmness and denounced for his harshness. He “ruled by terror, informers and the lash” according to Hughes. A contemporary historian noted the “merciless exercise of his authority”. Rev. Thomas Rogers provided “cogent evidence that Price was guilty of grave cruelty and abuse of power” in his reports on Norfolk Island published in 1849. Bishop Robert Willson, following his third visit to the island in 1852, described the harsh punishment of the convicts. He observed “the state of the yard, from the blood running down men's backs, mingled with the water used in washing them when taken down from the triangle - the degrading scene of a large number of men … waiting their turn to be tortured, and the more humiliating spectacle presented by those who had undergone the scourging … were painful to listen to”. When Willson asked Price to explain the increased use of corporal punishment, the commandant “defended his use of flogging, to which he professed great aversion, as necessary to enforce obedience to regulations, especially those controlling the use of tobacco”.

In all accounts of Price's rule, only Principal Overseer Aaron Price (no relation) had a positive view, noting on the commandant's departure that “a kind of melancholy dejection is apparent [among the officers who witnessed his departure] . He is good and I must mark the general marked opinion of the gentlemanly deportment in his public and private life”.

Price returned to Hobart in January 1853 as the British government intended to abandon Norfolk Island. He was appointed inspector-general of prisons in Victoria in January 1854, to deal with the problem of crime arising from the gold rushes in that colony.

On 26 March 1857, while investigating complaints by convicts employed on public works at Williamstown, he was struck by missiles, knocked down and severely battered. He died next day, and following the inquest, fifteen convicts were tried for murder, seven being hanged.

After his death Price has, in Hughes' opinion “remained one of the durable ogres of the Australian imagination”, featuring in Price Warung's tales and as the basis for the cruel commandant Maurice Frere in Marcus Clarke's "For the Term of his Natural Life" (1885). Hazzard calls him “a rock of a man against whom some might lean with confidence; others he might crush without pity”, while his biographer concludes that “he was a man of great personal strength and considerable courage, and was capable of sentimental as well as merciless deeds”.


* Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 2,
* Barry, John V., "The Life and Death of John Price", Melbourne, 1964.
* Hazzard, Margaret, "Punishment Short of Death: a history of the penal settlement at Norfolk Island", Melbourne, Hyland, 1984. (ISBN 0-908090-64-1)
* Hughes, Robert, "The Fatal Shore", London, Pan, 1988. (ISBN 0-330-29892-5)

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