Civilising the uncivilised and morally corrupt: a depiction of reading in Australian penal settlements

Mary Carroll, Jane Garner

Research output: Other contribution to conferenceAbstractpeer-review


This paper will focus on the portrayal of the reading culture and practices of convicts in the penal settlements of Australia in the late eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth centuries. Literacy instruction and reading were actively promoted for convicts in this period both on board the prison ships and the new penal settlements. The ability to read and the provision of books was seen as contributing to the construction of a new, ‘better’ society through their use in civilising the uncivilised and morally corrupt. Reading aloud to the convict population was a common part of prison routine with regular readings of sacred texts and of worthy books at mealtimes, in the evenings and during the winter months.

Libraries of books for convicts were established through donation, and funded by government with the selection of suitable books for the convict a topic of some discussion. Records of the collections of books available for reading by the convicts reveal a mix of works of practical utility and ‘useful recreation’ as well as moral inspiration including those on trades and agriculture and books intended for reading instruction and schooling. Through contemporary textual sources such as newspapers, prison rules, first-hand accounts of visitors to the colony and from prisoners themselves this presentation will explore the reading culture and practices of convicts in the penal settlements of Australia to allow us to develop a representation of early Australian convicts as readers. Photographs of spaces in our nineteenth century prisons devoted to library collections will also illustrate the importance placed on reading in the early penal settlements and gaols.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2017
EventPicturing the Reader: Reading and Representation in the Long Nineteenth Century - Liverpool Hope University, Liverpool, United Kingdom
Duration: 07 Sept 201707 Sept 2017 (Conference website)


ConferencePicturing the Reader
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
OtherThe long nineteenth century saw a prolific increase in the number of books being produced and read, and consequently in the number of visual and textual discourses about reading. This conference will examine a range of visual and textual iconographies of readers produced during this period and map the ways in which visual and textual representations of readers were linked and mutually influential. Whilst nineteenth-century Britain is a key focus, the event extends to include the British empire in order to explore how representations and understandings of reading differed geographically and were inflected by specific locales. Scholars are invited from the fields of literary studies, art history, social history, cultural studies, readership studies, library history, book history, history of education and history of leisure and recreation in order to foster interdisciplinary dialogues on the subject of nineteenth-century representations of readers.
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