The 'Hanging Session' of the Tasmanian Parliament, 1858

In December 1858 the Tasmanian Parliament sat for a one-day session, although its consequences lasted an eternity. A similar one-day session in March 1982 that saw the fall of Premier Harry Holgate's Government was not as terminal except for the ALP's loss at the May elections. In contrast the 1858 session became known as the 'Hanging Session' because after it three bushrangers were executed.

Earlier, in mid-October, 1858 Parliament had passed an 'Offences Against the Person Act'.But it was flawed because it did not perpetuate sentences for crimes under the old law. Therefore, three bushrangers, Daniel Stewart [alias 'Wingy'] and Peter Haley [alias 'Black Peter'], and William Fern [alias 'Flowers'] were truly in limbo - which means a world of souls barred from heaven, if they were ever destined for it!

Proceeding normally the Governor Sir Henry Fox Young terminated the parliamentary session on November 5, directing it to return on June 1, 1859. But three weeks later on November 29 he was forced to recall Parliament, as 'no time ought to be lost' to rectify this legal loophole. When Parliament met on December 9 he apologised for the recall, adding the legal error'.admits of no diversity of opinion'. But Young had only recently transferred from South Australia, and therefore underestimated the factiousness of Tasmanian parliamentarians.

The Hobart Town Advertiser said 'but few visitors' witnessed this historic debate, although the Inspector and Superintendent of Police were there. The Legislative Council debated the urgent Bill first, and passed it without amendment. But contradicting Young's plea for 'no diversity of opinion' James Whyte, MLC declared the Bill was a 'great injustice' to the three convicts, who stood a better chance of acquittal under the new law. Also Francis Burgess, MLC supported Whyte's complaint but the Bill still passed, at which the Council adjourned at 3.15pm to reconvene at 6pm.

The House of Assembly commenced its short 'hanging session' at 2pm and immediately Thomas George Gregson, famous for his combativeness, tried to delay proceedings to debate the Governor's Speech. But he failed; although ironically he gained a temporary adjournment for several MP's to attend an unrelated funeral. So despite Young's claim there was 'no time to be lost', at 2.45pm the Assembly also adjourned until 6pm.

When Parliament reconvened Gregson, said the Bill smacked of the 'dangerous practise of 'ex post facto' or retrospective legislation, and Gregson's son John, himself an MP, also queried the 'unseemly haste', because a 'matter of life and death was at stake'.His father then asked, rhetorically: 'What had these convicts done? There were, he said 'greater robbers in the country than these men', declaring certain government officials 'stole' their salaries by being no benefit to the people!

In 'Tasmanian Gallows' Richard Davis describes these bushrangers as 'Norfolk Island graduates' who had committed mostly minor offences after their escape from detention. He also places them in the 'chivalrous school of Martin Cash' because of their lenient policy towards females. And in their support 160 citizens signed a petition to save them because they claimed to have only shot at a constable's horse and not at the rider, hurting neither.

When this urgent legislation finally passed the Legislative Council, it had sat for only three hours and thirty-seven minutes, and the House of Assembly four hours and five minutes. The next day, after formally reconvening at 2pm, the Governor simply prorogued the 'hanging session' after just a few minutes, by saying: "Thanking you, Gentlemen, for your attendance, I now prorogue this Parliament to 1st June next'.

With the legal loophole closed, on February 13 1859, 'Wingy', 'Black Peter' and "Flowers' were hanged - 'launched into eternity' - along with two others: John King, who had shot his de facto wife and William Davis, an axe murderer. Before this public executions in Tasmanian had ceased in 1855, after the scaffold had been relocated at a cost of ?157. But with five held on one day the Hobart Town Courier called these executions ' the most exciting event of the week'!

The Courier was also unimpressed with 'Wingy's final 'reckless demeanour' refusing to shake hands with the officiating priest, insisting'this is worse than a savage Government to hang men for doing nothing at all'. Whilst not as pithy as Ned Kelly's 'Such if life', the Courier retaliated saying ' .the law of the land is too strong .to permit outrages with impunity in the wildest fastnesses of our island... sooner or later justice will overtake the evil-doer'. So despite Governor Young's plea for 'no diversity of opinion' the opposite continued even after the 'hanging' session.

A slightly edited version of this page appeared in the Mercury 30 March 2001 p38