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The story of notorious convict Mark Jeffrey

In July 1893 an advertisement appeared in The Examiner for the autobiography of notorious convict Mark Jeffrey who had been in the colonial penal system for nearly 40 years and was a resident of the Launceston Invalid Depot in Paterson Street.

A Burglar's Life, The Stirring Adventures of the Great English Burglar Mark Jeffrey was printed by The Examiner with the publisher named as Henry Button, the newspaper’s proprietor.

The book, it was said, was a true record of Mark Jeffrey's remarkable career in England, Norfolk Island and Port Arthur and “constituted a thrilling history of the dark days of convictism in Australia.”

The book was subsequently reprinted by many other publishers.

Mark Jeffrey was born at Wood Ditton near Newmarket, Cambridgeshire, on August 31, 1825, and had an impoverished childhood. He received very little education and worked as a farm hand and hawker before embarking on a career as a burglar.

He was 24 when he was sentenced to 15 years transportation for burglary in 1849.

Big Mark, as he was known, was intelligent and articulate but prone to violent and unpredictable behaviour. He was powerfully built and stood 1.95m tall.

His convict record is long and his punishments many, including transportation for life for manslaughter, numerous sentences of solitary confinement and hard labour in chains.

He was initially sent to Norfolk Island until it was closed in 1855 and then Port Arthur until it too was closed in 1877.

At Port Arthur he served a period as the grave digger on the Isle of the Dead. Although he had several periods of freedom, they were brief.

Mark Jeffrey spent the final 13 years of his sentences in the Hobart Penitentiary and sought redemption for his crimes through religion.

After being granted his freedom in 1890 he became a resident of the Launceston Invalid Depot where many other aged and destitute former convicts spent their final years.

When The Examiner visited the Invalid Depot in October 1893 it reported that there were 156 residents with an average age “midway between 70 and 80” with two residents over 90 years of age.

“In the corner the celebrated Mark Jeffrey has his bed, and in consequence of the extensiveness of his circle of friends he has the privilege of a little extra accommodation,” The Examiner reported.

He walked with the aid of two sticks and The Examiner noted that his health was failing with a serious chest ailment.

“When spoken to yesterday by an Examiner representative he made the remark that he was not long for this world.”

Mark Jeffrey was 68 when he died at the New Town Charitable Institution in Hobart on July 19, 1894. He was buried in a pauper’s grave in the Cornelian Bay Cemetery.

Images -- Top: Mark Jeffrey about 1877 by police photographer Thomas Nevin (from the Beattie Collection, QVMAG). MIDDLE: Cover of Mark Jeffrey's autobiography printed in 1969 by J. Walsh & Sons of Hobart. BOTTOM: A view of the Invalid Depot and Kings Bridge c1875, Launceston Collection, TAHO, LPIC147/4/225.

(Written for the Launceston Historical Society and published in the Sunday Examiner on 31 July 2022)


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