Alexander Maconochie (penal reformer)

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Alexander Maconochie (penal reformer) : biography

11 February 1787 – 25 October 1860

Alexander Maconochie (11 February 1787 – 25 October 1860) was a Scottish naval officer, geographer, and penal reformer.


John Barry states that “Maconochie was a pioneer in penal reform, and suffered the fate of men in advance of their times. His concepts and many of his practical measures are now the basis of Western penal systems.”

The Alexander Maconochie Centre, a prison in Canberra, is named in his honour.

Early life

Maconochie was born in Edinburgh, Scotland on 11 February 1787. He joined the Royal Navy in 1803 and as a midshipman he saw active service in the Napoleonic Wars, rising to the rank of Lieutenant, and was a prisoner of war from 1811 to 1814. He later saw service in the British-American War against the United States. He was a founder, and first secretary of, the Royal Geographical Society in 1830, and in 1833 became the first professor of Geography at the University College London, and was a knight of the Royal Guelphic Order.

Penal reformer

In 1836 he sailed to the convict settlement at Hobart in Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) as private secretary to the Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Franklin. Here he wrote a report strongly critical of the state of prison discipline. The convict system, being fixated on punishment alone, released back into society crushed, resentful and bitter expirees, in whom the spark of enterprise and hope was dead. Maconochie’s report “can be said to mark the peak and incipient decline of transportation to Australia” when it was given to Lord Russell, the Home Secretary and ardent critic of transportation, claims Robert Hughes. Although this report was used by the Molesworth Committee on transportation in 1837-38, the criticism of this work forced Franklin to dismiss him.

According to his biographer John Barry, Maconochie “was a deeply religious man, of generous and compassionate temperament, and convinced of the dignity of man.” His two basic principles of penology were that:

  • as cruelty debases both the victim and society, punishment should not be vindictive but should aim at the reform of the convict to observe social constraints, and
  • a convict’s imprisonment should consist of task, not time sentences, with release depending on the performance of a measurable amount of labour.

Following the Molesworth committee’s report, transportation to New South Wales was abolished in 1840, although it continued to other colonies. Disturbed at reports of conditions on Norfolk Island, Lord Normanby, Secretary of State for the Colonies, suggested that a new system should be used, and the superintendence given to an officer deeply concerned with the moral welfare of the convicts. Maconochie was recommended to put this new system in place.

In March 1840 he took up duties as commandant of the penal settlement at Norfolk Island and applied his penal principles. Convicts were awarded ‘marks’ to encourage effort and thrift. Sentences were served in stages, each increasing in responsibility. Cruel punishments and degrading conditions were reduced, and convicts’ sense of dignity was respected. Perhaps the fact that he was the only commandant to have experienced the life of a prisoner himself, played a part in his approach to his task.

These views contrasted greatly with the cruel conditions that had existed on Norfolk Island prior to Maconochie’s arrival. He was not permitted to apply his principles to the 1,200 hardened twice-sentenced convicts, but only to the 600 newcomers sent directly from the United Kingdom and who were separated from the ‘Old Hands’. His ‘mark’ system was not permitted to reduce a convict’s sentence, and it was difficult to find other incentives. His reforms were resisted by military guards, supervisors and constables (many of whom were ex-convicts) at his command. In particular, his deputy held views opposite to his own. In an exclusively male environment, he found he was unable to reduce the ‘unnatural offence’ of sodomy which was prevalent and which he continued to punish by flogging. Criticism of his methods in Sydney and England led Governor Sir George Gipps to visit the island in 1843. He was favourably impressed with the condition of the convicts and the effectiveness of the ‘marks’ system, and reported that Maconochie’s System of Moral Reform could work if carried through to its conclusion. However the order had already been given in the United Kingdom for Maconochie to be replaced. Under the commandants who followed him, Norfolk Island reverted to being an object of terror under brutal masters.

Almost 1,400 convicts had been discharged during Maconochie’s term, and he always claimed that a high percentage did not offend again. He is known as the "Father of Parole".

Later life

Maconochie returned to the UK in 1844 and two years later published a book outlining his system. This had an immense influence on the development of penology. In 1849 he was appointed governor of the new prison at Birmingham, but was unjustly dismissed and criticised for his actions, in spite of being praised for his humanity and benevolence.

He died on 25 October 1860 at Morden in Surrey, still campaigning for penal reform in spite of ill-health. He was buried at St Lawrence Church, London Road, Morden, Surrey.

Published works