Review Blog

Apr 27 2018

Gaolbird: the true story of William Swallow, convict and pirate by Simon Barnard

cover image

Text Publishing, 2017. ISBN 9781925498172
Highly recommended. Australian history, Convicts, Van Diemen's Land, Mutiny, Transportation. William Swallow's escapes are breathtaking as he lurches from one prison to another always managing to elude his captors, but in the end dying an unheralded death at the prison at Port Arthur after serving time at the notorious Sarah Island. Simon Barnard has chronicled his life and times in this book, Gaolbird, in which Swallow's life and that of his fellow convicts is drawn with humour and panache, reminiscent of Hogarth.
Swallow, born William Walker in 1792 came back from the Napoleonic Wars with no option but to thieve to keep his family alive. Sent to Van Diemen's Land he escaped and returned to England, but then was sent out again, only to escape in Hobart. Sent to Sarah Island he managed to take over the ship, the Cypress and incredibly he and his fellow convicts made it to Japan and then China, fooling many about who they really were.
Popjoy, another of the convicts aboard the Cypress, escaped and eventually returned to England where he was able to undermine what Swallow had said about their adventures. A spectacular trial at the Old Bailley saw several of the group hanged and incredibly again, Swallow was set free. This mercurial man was eventually sent back to Hobart and there died in the 1830's.
This absorbing read, an amalgam of comic, graphic novel and history book will keep readers highly entertained. The funny illustrations, the snippets of information, the rollicking story line are all designed to entrance the reader, as they absorb the history of the convict era in Australia. Barnard's eclectic illustrations reveal the lives of the convicts and their escapades with rollicking humour and many readers will delve into the illustrations with glee, winkling out the smallest of detail.
The convict records in Australia and England are there for all to peruse and I am sure readers will take the opportunity offered to look further, and incredibly a picture of Swallow was very recently found in Japan.
Fran Knight

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