My name is Joseph Byrne and I have been a prisoner inside the granite walls of Beechworth gaol for close to three months now, my survival down to nothing but water, bread and gruel. It is far from pleasant fare, but it has given me the strength to work, so for that I feel I should at least be thankful. In May, I was sentenced to six months hard labour for the unlawful possession of meat. How I have survived these past months is any cove’s guess. It was never my doing you see, not really. This crime of ‘unlawful possession’ was down to my mate, Aaron Sherritt. I wish now that I had been one hundred miles away when he told me of the cow he had spotted in El Dorado. That is the truth of hindsight, easy to look back and wish, never so easy at the time though. Perhaps if it were, I would not be isolated from the world outside and left in here to rot. The cow we slaughtered was the school cow, I suppose it were a pet for the kiddies, but when Aaron saw it, the beast should have known its hours were numbered. He is a bugger like that, always has been. I know I should not begrudge him so harshly, for I am liable to act the same. It is like itching and picking at a scab, you know it is wrong, but the temptation is too much to bear. Of course, once the cow was butchered and the meat packed in brine, we knew our luck could not last. Old Sandy Doig, a man with a nose like a blood hound, soon had us spotted. The mongrel went straight into Beechworth and it were not long before we were handcuffed and tried. We had no defence, and after my mother told the Jury she could not say whether I was kind to her, the verdict was as clear as day.
I have no desire to paint too dark a picture of my current circumstances, but this place is far worse than the promised hell itself. By no means am I a coward, and I will gladly stare any cove directly in the eye, however, if presented with the opportunity of escape, I will certainly not falter to take it. The hopelessness I feel at present is difficult for me to express in words, for I never believed such a feeling were possible. I long for nothing more than to be curled around my opium pipe, beckoning the release of sleep, or to savour the smoky burn of whiskey as it trails down my throat. Of course, all this is denied me here and when I am allowed my liberty, I do not think I will be long separated from the bottle or the pipe. How could I not be? I have seen more suffering in this cursed place than I have in all my life. Even the very act of having sufficient tobacco rations is often denied me. I feel I must smoke twice as much as every other cove, for I seem to be the only fellow without a plug of it to pack in my pipe. Last month, I smuggled a letter out to Jack Sherritt, requesting he fetch me a pound of it from William Foster, but some bugger must have intercepted it as I am yet to receive what I asked.
I apologise if I appear to be lacking in resolve, but I must speak frank. I am unsure how I will survive three more months in this cursed and wretched place. Each day, we are marched, two by two, into the work yard. Our faces covered by a calico cloth, with nothing visible but our eyes. The work yard is truly a dreadful place. High granite walls keep us well concealed from view, with nothing but the sky above us and the harsh stare of the turnkeys who watch us from the tower. Here, we are made work like dogs and are not permitted to tire until the break bell is rung. I must confess, the hauling and cutting of rock that is forced upon us is near back breaking. At the beginning of my sentence I were ignorant of the bone jarring effect of a sledgehammer on rock, but I were soon set straight. It is impossible to display feelings of fatigue since the turnkeys are ever watchful and if you are seen to be idle, you are quickly punished. Yesterday, I was breaking rock beside a chap who had earnestly complained that the work was killing him. For his trouble, he was poked firmly in the ribs and told to keep quiet. His limbs were soon taken over by a fit of spasms and he was hurried to the hospital. Being winter, the days have been freezing and it is impossible to keep warm, but after a day in the work yard, my uniform is usually dripping with sweat. The ill-fitting hobnail boots we wear have caused my feet to become nothing but a mess of blisters and the pain I feel when walking is near debilitating. We are permitted to bathe our feet at night, but this offers me little relief. Each day we are given a new cell to sleep in and cannot take our bedding with us, as the buggers fear we may conceal weapons in this way. Last week I found a strip of leather under the rotted matting we are forced to sleep on like mangy dogs. The gruel that is fed to us is by far the worse tucker I have ever eaten and there is never enough of it to satisfy the hunger that plagues me. I am sure seeing men treated so unfairly amuses the turnkeys. I know there is one of their number that does and I would relish the opportunity of taking to him with my fists. On several occasions I have caught him sniggering at me while I was in the act of bathing. I blush as I think of it, but the water was so cold and filthy when it was my turn to wash, that I found it hard to hide my repulsion. It was like the dregs of a stew pot.
It is the isolation, you see, it is near maddening. I cannot remember when I was last able to converse freely, for the turnkeys stalk the mess hall like a pack of wild dingos, waiting for the death of a tired bullock. Some of the men have tried their luck, but of course it did them no good, and on more than one occasion I have seen an unfortunate fellow marched to solitary confinement for having such nerve as to forget his place. In here everything has been taken from me, even the name I was christened with is no longer mine to use, it being replaced with a number that is sewn onto my jacket. 13890 it reads, identifying me from the rest of the imprisoned coves like the brand on a herd of cattle. The only escape I am granted are my visits to the library on Tuesday afternoons, but the selection offered is limited. Nothing like the shelves in the Public Library. We are allowed to select one book each week, its condition always thoroughly checked on return. I must say, I pity the bugger who was left to explain the two pages missing from ‘Wilson’s Tales of the Border and of Scotland’, as the letter I wrote to Jack had been done so on its fly leaf and title page. We are never given access to paper, so a fellow must make do with whatever he can get his hands on.
At night my dreams have been consumed with visions of Bessie, my beloved. It is a difficult thing being separated from her and I am yearning to be back in her arms, even more than I am for a lung full of opium smoke. Before my arrest, we had begun living together in the hut on Aaron’s selection. It is nothing grand, but it served its purpose and allowed us to be alone and far away from the worries she claimed clouded her mind. I try not to think of it too much during the day, it is like a knife through my heart. It pains me to say, but I have never known disappointment like was in her eyes the day I was loaded into the cart and conveyed here. At that moment, all I had promised her seemed to slip through my fingers like grains of sand and no matter how I altered my grasp, it did no good. The damage was done.
I must end this narrative here, for there is nothing left for me to say or do, except bide my time and wait for the freedom that lies behind the wooden gates. A freedom I long for daily.