The convict origins of ‘public servant’

by Amanda Laugesen

Tasmanian convict Bill Thompson in leg irons and convict uniform, 1870s. Image source: State Library of Tasmania



Following on from Mark Gwynn’s recent blog on pube, this week I will take a look at public servant. When I have talked about my work on Convict Words: the Language of Colonial Australia (OUP, 2002), it has always been a source of some amusement (especially for us Canberrans) that public servant was first used to refer to a convict assigned to public labour or work for the government. It was first recorded in 1797, and by 1812 was being used to refer to a (free) member of the public service (civil service).

David Collins, in his An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, writes in 1799 of the convict public servants:

A number of the public labouring servants of the crown, having lately absconded from their duty, for the purpose of either living by robbery in the woods, or of getting away in some of the ships now about to sail, that none of those concerned in the concealing them might plead ignorance, public notice was given ‘that any officer or man belonging to the above ships, who should be known to have countenanced or assisted the convicts above alluded to in making their escape, would be taken out of the ship, and punished with the utmost severity of the law. … Such of the above public servants as might have taken to concealments on shore for the purpose of avoiding their work, or making their escape from the colony, if they did not return within a week to their respective stations, might, upon discovery, expect the most exemplary punishment; but they would be pardoned for the present attempt if they returned immediately.

Today’s public servants perhaps don’t take such extreme measures to avoid doing their work. Interestingly, the various citations in the Australian National Dictionary for the more respectable types of public servants are not much more flattering than the early description of convicts by Collins. In 1935, J. Hamlet wrote in Salmagundi: ‘Our so-called “public servants”, instead of listening to obey our behests, spent months manufacturing excuses for disregarding their duty.’

Public servants have contributed a number of terms to the Australian English lexicon – Mark discussed pube, a Canberra term for public servant, in his earlier blog; another popular term for a public servant is shiny bum (or shiny arse), which was first used in a military context during the Second World War of someone with an office job.

Inaugural Departmental Heads of the Commonwealth Public Service, 1901. Image source: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade