G.T. Stilwell's letter to Mrs Shelverton 1977

Preparations began in early 1977 for the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery's exhibition of Thomas J. Nevin's convict photographs conventionally dated 1874 which were (re)discovered among the John Watt Beattie holdings acquired by the QVMAG shortly before Beattie's death in 1930.

Geoff Stilwell

Above: Geoffrey Stilwell
Special Collections Librarian
State Library of Tasmania
Mercury photo

The late Geoffrey Stilwell , curator of Special Collections at the State Library of Tasmania, collected biographical data on Thomas J. Nevin from a diverse range of sources, including information from Mrs Jean Shelverton, a grand-daughter of Thomas and Elizabeth Nevin. Mrs Shelverton's mother Mary Ann who was known as Minnie to living descendants, was the second daughter and fifth child (to survive), born to photographer Thomas and Elizabeth Nevin on November 9th, 1884, in Hobart, Tasmania.

GT Stilwell letter 1977

Above: G.T. Stilwell's letter to Mrs Shelverton, 25 February 1977
Click on image for large readable version


Dear Mrs Shelverton

Miss Beatrice Kelly suggested I write to you. I understand from her that you are a descendant of Thomas J. Nevin the photographer who succeeded to Alfred Bock's practice in the late 1860s. The Queen Victoria Museum has a large number of photographs by Nevin of the convicts at Port Arthur taken in the early 'seventies. They are soon to display these and are keen to have biographical information about the photographer. I wonder if you could tell me anything about him such as where he was born and when, when he came to Australia, did he come straight to Tasmania, had he any previous photographic training, where and when and to whom he was married and when and where he died. I am sorry to ask so many questions but there is now a great interest in our early photographers and it is important these details be recorded.

Yours sincerely,
(G.T.S.) initials
G.T. Stilwell

Mrs Shelverton provided information in answer to these questions from documents passed down from Nevin's estate to her mother. However, there were many more documents and photographs from Nevin's estate still lying untouched in trunks, shoe boxes and garages belonging to the descendants of Nevin's other five children who were not aware of the forthcoming exhibition when the State Library began their research in 1977. And there were many more examples of Thomas J. Nevin's "convict portraits" and other photographic work held in public institutions which were yet to be catalogued at the TMAG, AOT, SLTas, SLVic, NLA, Mitchell Library SLNSW etc, apart from private collections.

A summary document was then prepared by the State Library of Tasmania, using information from shipping records held at the Archives office of Tasmania (MB2/98) and Mrs Shelverton's information. The information was not correct in the detail of Nevin's date of death (1923, Southern Regional Cemetery burial records).

Courtesy State Library of Tasmania
G.T. Stilwell files

The handwritten insertion of Thomas Nevin's middle initial "J" (James) appears on this document because the verso of the convict cartes held at the QVMAG are stamped with Nevin's government stamp signifying his joint copyright under tender. The stamp included his vocational designation "T.J. Nevin Photographic Artist" and the Royal Arms insignia, a stamp he was using by February 1873 . Confusion about Nevin the photographer and his son by the same name has arisen in the course of the last thirty years. Thomas and Elizabeth's second child and first-born son, Thomas James Nevin (1874-1948) was born in 1874, the same date which was coincidentally transcribed across the versos of many of Nevin's convict photographs by archivists in the early 1900s. Known as "Sonny" to the family, Thomas J. Nevin jnr did not become a photographer. He was listed as a bootmaker on the 1905 electoral rolls, lived in California with his wife Gertrude Tennyson Bates in the 1920s, and joined the Salvation Army in Hobart sometime in the 1940s.

Nevin photo of convict Smith QVMAG

In April 1977, Geoffrey Stilwell conveyed the biographical information per Mrs Shelverton to the curator of Nevin's convict photographs exhibition at the QVMAG, John McPhee, in this letter:

Above:Letter to John McPhee, curator, QVMAG, 4 April, 1977.
Courtesy State Library of Tasmania


Dear Mr McPhee,

At last I have some biographical details about Thomas Nevin though I am afraid these are somewhat late for your exhibition. These were mainly supplied by his granddaughter Mrs Shelverton.

Thomas Nevin was born on 28 August 1842 near Belfast, Northern Ireland (Mrs S[helverton]). He was the son of Private John Nevin and Mary his wife whom he accompanied on the convict ship Fairlie which arrived at Hobart Town in July 1852. John who was one of the guards of this vessel was also accompanied by his other children Mary A. and Rebecca both under fourteen and Will[iam] J under a year old (MB2/98).

The following marriage notice appeared in the Mercury of 14 July 1871.

NEVIN-DAY – On Wednesday, 12th July, at the Wesleyan Chapel, Kangaroo Valley, by the Rev. J. Hutchison [sic], Thomas, eldest son of Mr. J. Nevin, of Kangaroo Valley, to Elizabeth Rachael, eldest daughter of Captain Day, of Hobart Town.

Kangaroo Valley is now know as Lenah Valley. From about 1876 to 1880 he lived at the Town Hall, Hobart as caretaker. Two of his four sons were born at the Town Hall residence. He had in addition two daughters one of whom was Mrs Shelverton’s mother.*

According to Mrs Shelverton he died about 1922, she is not sure of the date, and was buried at Cornelian Bay. The tombstone has now fallen over.

Yours sincerely,
[signed] G.T. STILWELL
Librarian, Special Collections
This was only the beginning of G.T. Stilwell's research. Later in 1977, two more grand daughters of Thomas Nevin (daughters of his youngest son Albert) visited the exhibition at the QVMAG in Launceston. In 1978, a great grand daughter interviewed G.T. Stilwell at length, providing him with more information including details about photographic items by the firm Nevin & Smith held in family collections. This greatly respected specialist of Tasmanian colonial collections, G.T. Stilwell, had never any doubt about his conviction of Nevin's attribution as the photographer of the convict cartes held at the QVMAG, duplicates of which are held at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and the National Library of Australia, a conviction he later published with Professor Joan Kerr in 1992.

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Below each image held at the National Library of Australia is their catalogue batch edit which gives the false impression that all these "convict portraits" were taken because these men were transported convicts per se (i.e before cessation in 1853), and that they might have been photographed as a one-off amateur portfolio by a prison official at the Port Arthur prison in 1874, which they were not. Any reference to the Port Arthur prison official A. H. Boyd on the NLA catalogue records is an error, a PARASITIC ATTRIBUTION with no basis in fact. The men in these images were photographed in the 1870s-1880s because they were repeatedly sentenced as habitual offenders whose mugshots were taken on arrest, trial, arraignment, incarceration and/or discharge by government contractor, police and prisons photographer T. J. Nevin at the Supreme Court and adjoining Hobart Gaol with his brother Constable John Nevin, and at the Municipal Police Office, Hobart Town Hall when appearing at The Mayor's Court. The Nevin brothers photographed more than 2000 prisoners, the bulk now lost or destroyed. These extant mugshots were the random estrays salvaged - and reproduced in many instances- for sale at Beattie's local convictaria museum in Hobart and at interstate exhibitions associated with the fake convict ship Success in the early 1900s. The mugshots were selected on the basis of the prisoner's notoriety from the Supreme Court trial registers (Rough Calendar), the Habitual Criminals Registers (Gaol Photo Books), warrant forms, and police gazettes records of the 1870s-1880s. The earliest taken on government contract by T. J. Nevin date from 1872. The police records sourced here are from the weekly police gazettes which were called (until 1884) Tasmania Reports of Crime Information for Police 1871-1885. J. Barnard, Gov't Printer.