Many convicts transported to Australia in the nineteenth century bore tattoos.1 These marks were recorded along with other physical characteristics. While tattoos would usually have been acquired voluntarily, some were altogether different.
Convict William Johnson, born circa 1813/14 in Lancashire, England is described as a twine spinner and soldier. He was court martialled at Woolwich, England in January 1831 and convicted as an army deserter for which he was sentenced to seven years transportation. On arrival in NSW aboard the “Exmouth” William was assigned to the Australian Agricultural Company at Port Stephens.2
The tattooed initials and blue dots which adorned his left arm and hand would have been of his choosing, but the “D” emblazoned below his left armpit would have been carried out by the military authorities to mark him as a deserter. This was a punishment originally performed by hot iron branding but a law enacted in 1807 prescribed the location and size of the mark which was then pricked into the skin by needle points. In 1841 a special spring-loaded instrument was invented which was considered more humane.3 The wound was then stained with an indigo-coloured wash. In 1851 medical officers were directed to carry out the procedure to ensure it was well done and would not fade.4
Author: Penny Teerman
1 Convict Tattoos – Marked Men and Women of Australia by Simon Barnard published by Text Publishing 2016
2 Convicts of the Australian Agricultural Company 1825-1850 published by Port Stephens Family History Society 2004
4 Convict Tattoos – Marked Men and Women of Australia by Simon Barnard published by Text Publishing 2016