How would you research convict music? Through police reports, of course!
Apart from the remarkable music manuscript of the Scottish convict fiddler, Alexander Laing, there are very few sources of information about the music or songs which convicts themselves played, sang, and danced. People wrote songs about convicts, particularly after the convict era ended, for example, the well known ballad Botany Bay (Singing too-ral, li-ooral, li-addity) was composed for a burlesque drama in the Gaiety Theatre, 1885.
This resource draws primarily on the newspaper accounts from the early colony between 1803 and 1840. Many of these reports come from the court transcripts taken when convicts appeared before local magistrates, charged with various offences. It presents a list of the music and songs which the convicts themselves performed. Often the stories were embellished by the journalists for comic effect. It is worth noting that most of the constables, known as ‘charleys’, as well as the journalists, were convicts or ex-convicts.
Theatre was a focal point of popular culture, supplying many of the songs and tunes which people took to their hearts and embraced as their own. A large proportion of tunes now regarded as traditional folk music came from 18th and 19th century theatre productions. This is apparent in many of the convict references where the songs and tunes were drawn directly from well-known plays, melodramas, and pantomimes.
Many thanks to Trove at the National Library of Australia for making these newspapers readily available online.
This is an ongoing project with plans to considerably extend the resource.