Dora B. Montefiore Justice, October 1911

An Important Report for Scientific Socialists

Source: Justice, p.2, 14 October 1911;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

The annual report of the Comptroller of Prisons for New South Wales is a remarkable testimony to the soundness of the Socialist position that, given better environment and improved economic conditions, criminality in the race will steadily diminish till it reaches vanishing point.

We are just now overwhelmed out here with reports in the capitalist papers of the lucubrations of Mr Ramsay MacDonald on the necessity of redemption of the individual through a species of new birth of “character-making” before Socialism can be got to work. He seems, judging from the cablegrams, to spend his leisure, when not intriguing with the Liberals, in addressing Quaker and Non-conformist meetings with Me. object of bringing the audience into line with his own uplifted and spotless character. The capitalist press, voicing as it does “the rich man’s hurrying terror,” hastens to record the unco guide Scotchman’s pious utterances as being so reassuring to those who cannot, or will not, or dare not, tackle the economic basis – which is the only basis – of Socialism.

It is so comforting, so pleasant, so soporific, when the handwriting is on the wall, and when the outposts of the organised industrial army are already thundering at the gates of privilege, to be told in rounded periods that the object of the class-conscious workers can never be accomplished till they each and severally put on the Salvation Army halo and beat the Ramsay tambourine!

Meanwhile, we scientific Socialists are collecting and collating facts which cut the ground from under the feet of Mr. MacDonald and the saints. We can prove, and prove conclusively, that given even decent conditions and relief from the daily pressure of want the character of men and women is modified and elevated; and we can reasonably argue that with full and free access to the means of life the ordinary man and woman would be likely to excel, morally, even a Labour politician.

Muddled as is the reasoning of the reactionary and groping “Sydney Morning Herald” when attempting to account for the astonishing results shown in the report, yet we can extract from its bewilderment some rays of light which show up the sureness of the ground on which we Socialists tread. “The general spread of education is in a large measure moulding law-abiding instincts in the community, and that has been assisted by good seasons. Abundance of work at remunerative rates has been the means of reducing the ranks of the occasional offender, a class considerably affected by the social elements.... It is probable that the dominating factor may be traced to the educational facilities and the general prosperity of the country.”

Now, what are the facts? New South Wales was founded originally as a convict settlement, and a large infiltration of convict stock has trickled through the whole population of privileged and unprivileged. Thanks to a certain amount of class consciousness among the manual workers wholesale migration has been discouraged, while the vast resources of land and natural wealth still attract settlers to outlying districts and prevent the towns from becoming too congested. We learn, therefore, by this report that in spite of the criminal taint in the population “between the years 1875 and 1910 the ratio of criminals in each 100,000 of the population was 239, and in the latter year was reduced by steady diminution to 78.” Here are the figures:-

Pop. Ratio per

Dec. 31, Gaol In prison 100,000

Year. 1910. Entries. Dec. 31. of pop.

1875 6o6,652 11,832 1,453 239

1885 949,570 20,740 2,562 269

1893 1,277,870 18,552 2,460 192

1905 1,496,050 13,380 1,685 112

1909 1,645,444 11,550[1] 1.340[1] 86

1910 1,690,316 9,840[1] 1,320[1] 78

Something may also be said for the more humanitarian prison regulations prevailing in this State, for it is found that of 1,215 first offenders passing through Goulburn Gaol since 1910 only 147, about 12 per cent., have been reconvicted. Under the head of expenditure it is shown that the cost of the gaols has decreased from 129,059 in 1895 to 82,130 in 1910. Referring to habitual criminals, Mr. Macfarlane, the writer of the report, says “Only two persons, one male and one female, were declared to be habitual criminals in 1910. The female, 76 years of age, was at one time a clever pickpocket, and, latterly, a notorious shoplifter. Up to the close of the year 43 persons had been, declared habitual criminals since the coming into operation of the Habitual Criminals Act of 1905, the above mentioned being the only female.” This distinguished lady I saw when visiting the women’s reformatory, a large, up-to-date building erected lately on the coast about 10 miles from Sydney. In this establishment there is separate treatment for inebriates, who do gardening, and other outdoor work; the rest of the female prisoners are graded, and when working in association at needlework, etc., are allowed to communicate with prisoners of their own grade. There are hammocks in the cells instead of the plank beds provided in England; and as the good conduct of the prisoner is reported, ameliorations in the furnishing of the cell are allowed till some of the cells take on them quite human aspect.

Taking the report of the Commissioner for Prisons in Great Britain for 1908 we find that the total number of inmates of British prisons was 169,493, being 127,198 males and 44,195 females, which number works out as one in every 239 of the population. Socialists in England might well use these facts to combat the silly fallacy of there being any character panacea of greater importance in our fight against capitalism than is our economic interpretation – that crime is in proportion as the mass of the people are shut out from means of life.


1. These figures include persons convicted or unconvicted. Prisoners received more than once during the year have been included accordingly. Persons detained under Acts 1900 and 1909 are not included.