The blurb: Oxford 1863: Young Samuel Speed sets a barley stack alight in the hope it will earn him a bed in prison for the night. He wants nothing more than a morsel of food in his belly and a warm place to sleep off the streets. What he receives is a sentence of seven years’ servitude, to be served half a world away in the penal colony of Fremantle, Western Australia.
When Samuel boards the transport ship Belgravia, he is stripped of his clothing and even his name, and given regulations of when to rise, eat, clean and sleep. On arrival at Fremantle Prison, hard labour is added to the mix and he wonders if life can get any worse. The only solace he finds is a love of reading, which allows the likes of Tom Sawyer and Oliver Twist to become his lifelong friends.
Samuel is granted a ticket of leave in 1867 and full freedom in 1871, but what sort of life can a man forge for himself in the colony, with no skills, no money and no family? Will it be the beginning of the life he has always dreamed of, or do some sentences truly never end?
A colourful recreation of the life and times of the last known convict to be sent to Australia, The Last Convict is a moving study of old age and loneliness, as one social outcast finds meaning in his impoverished life through the power of literature. Meticulously researched and brilliantly woven into an engaging fictional account, it is an unforgettable story by an award-winning writer and historian.
My review: The Last Convict is an Australian book, written by an Australian author. I saw it in my local library and the premise jumped out and immediately took my attention. I live near a pioneer cemetary and while the book is not based on anyone in that resting place, I have discovered an interest of that time.
As the title suggests, the book relates to the story of the last surviving convict in Australia. It is based on a real person. However, little is known about Samuel Speed, but the author used what is known (I actually found and read the newspaper report referred to in the book) and filled in the rest to create this story and I think he’s done an excellent job.
The book isn’t fast paced, but it is captivating in other ways. The main character is relatable and I wanted to know what would happen to him. My heart broke for him in so many ways. Poor Sam and his mate were desperate. Homeless, going from poorhouse to poorhouse looking for a dry bed and a meagre meal. And their desperation made them make a decision that changed their lives. They ended up as convicts for seven years and heading for Australia. Sam spent most of his life in an institution of some kind. His life was lonely and isolated. Yet, in the story, he came across as a lovely man who only wanted peace of mind.
I found myself wondering what his life would have been like if they didn’t make that first decision. And for the life of me, I cannot imagine it would have been any better.
In those days, life as a pauper and a convict would have been most difficult. It’s something I’m glad I have not and will never experience. Living in Australia, I find the history fascinating and thoroughly enjoyed this book as a result.