William Fraser, the Convict Conjurer

Watkin Tench

Watkin Tench (c.1759 - 1833) was a Marine officer of the First  Fleet which established Australia's European settlement, in 1788. He wrote two accounts of his journey to Australia and the first four years of the new colony, in his 'Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay' and 'Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson', which provide an insightful look at the earliest years of Australian settlement.

In 1997, magician Timothy Hyde pointed out (1) that Tench's 'Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson' made mention of a convict, a Mr Fraser, who had at one time been "a travelling conjuror". While there is no evidence that Fraser ever displayed his conjuring skills in Australia, and thus cannot be named as the earliest magician to perform in Australia, this is certainly the first mention of conjuring in connection with the new colony. Tench's account places the travelling conjurer in the same league as thieves, pickpockets and highwaymen.


The Settlement At Port Jackson, Chapter XVIII

"In so numerous a community many persons of perverted genius and of mechanical ingenuity could not but be assembled. Let me produce the following example. Frazer was an iron manufacturer, bred at Sheffield, of whose abilities as a workman we had witnessed many proofs. The governor had written to England for a set of locks to be sent out for the security of the public stores, which were to be so constructed as to be incapable of being picked.

On their arrival his excellency sent for Frazer and bade him examine them telling him at the same time that they could not be picked. Frazer laughed and asked for a crooked nail only, to open them all. A nail was brought, and in an instant he verified his assertion. Astonished at his dexterity, a gentleman present determined to put it to farther proof. He was sent for in a hurry, some days after, to the hospital, where a lock of still superior intricacy and expense to the others had been provided. He was told that the key was lost and that the lock must be immediately picked. He examined it attentively, remarked that it was the production of a workman, and demanded ten minutes to make an instrument “to speak with it.”

Without carrying the lock with him, he went directly to his shop, and at the expiration of his term returned, applied his instrument, and open flew the lock. But it was not only in this part of his business that he excelled: he executed every branch of it in superior style.

Had not his villainy been still more notorious than his skill, he would have proved an invaluable possession to a new country. He had passed through innumerable scenes in life, and had played many parts. When too lazy to work at his trade he had turned thief in fifty different shapes, was a receiver of stolen goods, a soldier and a travelling conjurer. He once confessed to me that he had made a set of tools, for a gang of coiners, every man of whom was hanged.

Were the nature of the subject worthy of farther illustration, many similar proofs of misapplied talents might be adduced.

Their love of the marvellous has been recorded in an early part of this work. The imposture of the gold finder, however prominent and glaring, nevertheless contributed to awaken attention and to create merriment. He enjoyed the reputation of a discoverer, until experiment detected the imposition. But others were less successful to acquire even momentary admiration. The execution of forgery seems to demand at least neatness of imitation and dexterity of address. On arrival of the first fleet of ships from England, several convicts brought out recommendatory letters from different friends. Of these some were genuine, and many owed their birth to the ingenuity of the bearers. But these last were all such bungling performances as to produce only instant detection and succeeding contempt. One of them addressed to the governor, with the name of Baron Hotham affixed to it, began “Honored Sir!”

 A leading distinction, which marked the convicts on their outset in the colony, was an use of what is called the ”flash” or “kiddy” language. In some of our early courts of justice an interpreter was frequently necessary to translate the deposition of the witness and the defence of the prisoner. This language has many dialects. The sly dexterity of the pickpocket, the brutal ferocity of the footpad, the more elevated career of the highwayman and the deadly purpose of the midnight ruffian is each strictly appropriate in the terms which distinguish and characterize it. I have ever been of opinion that an abolition of this unnatural jargon would open the path to reformation. And my observations on these people have constantly instructed me that indulgence in this infatuating cant is more deeply associated with depravity and continuance in vice than is generally supposed. I recollect hardly one instance of a return to honest pursuits, and habits of industry, where this miserable perversion of our noblest and peculiar faculty was not previously conquered."

Further investigation into the identity of "Frazer" turns up an article, quoted below, from which appears to confirm the convict's name as WILLIAM FRASER (otherwise spelled as Frazer) and makes the interesting note that he fathered the second white child to be born in the Australian colony. He died in 1791, barely three years after arriving in the colony.

JOHN FRASER was born on 7 June, 1789, the second white child to be born in the Colony. He died 10 December 1823 at Concord. His headstone still stands in Liverpool Pioneers Park (the original Liverpool cemetery).

His parents Ellen (Redchester) and William Fraser, (Frazer, Frazier) married on 8 November 1783 at Aldborough, Yorkshire, were sentenced at Manchester Quarter Sessions in January 1787 for stealing "6 pieces of fustian, (a thick cotton cloth used to pad bustles worn by the ladies of the time), 1 piece of yellow canvas and half a gross of white filleting (used either to bind the hair or as a headband)". They were transported on the First Fleet, Ellen firstly on the Prince of Wales and William on the Charlotte, but she is probably the unnamed female convict transferred from the Prince of Wales to the Charlotte at Rio, on 13th August, 1787 as they both arrived on the Charlotte after a journey of 36 weeks.

William Fraser was employed as a blacksmith, and described by Collins as "an excellent workman, who seldom chose to accept any article but spirits in payment for work done in his extra hours."

A second child, Daniel was born in 1791 (drowned in 1806) to Ellen and William who died on 1st June, 1791, reputedly from excessive drinking.

Ellen (Eleanor) Fraser was granted 10 acres at Concord on 20th February, 1794 and another 20 acres on 22nd July, 1794. William Morgan had a grant adjoining Ellen, and by 1806 she and William had 5 children. Ellen had 15 acres under full cultivation of wheat and maize, and had 6 prisoners working for her. William Morgan died 27 October 1828. Ellen died on 18th November, 1840 and her obituary in The Australian reads: “At her residence at Concord, Mrs. Eleanor Fraser, aged 83 years, was a ‘First Fleeter’. Her intellect was unimpaired to the last and she had a perfect recollection of the first deeds in NSW. Her remains were interred with those of her eldest son John in St. Lukes Churchyard Cemetery, Liverpool.”

(1) Geniis Magic Journal, magazine of the Geniis Magical Society, February 1997.
(2) Confirmation of the shipment of the Frasers on the First Fleet can be found here .