James Hardy Vaux – The Flash Language of Coal River

James hardy Vaux

This month on ABC 1233 I will be discussing James Hardy Vaux’s Memoirs and Dictionary of the Flash Language. Both these works were penned in the Coal River (Newcastle) in the period of 1812-1814.

Newcastle’s history continues to amaze, and none more that the story of James Hardy Vaux. This infamous pickpocket has provided Newcastle with a wonderful legacy of being the place at which Australia’s first substantial autobiographical work was written, and the first dictionary of the convict slang (or flash) language was compiled.

Newcastle in 1812
Newcastle in 1812

The illustration above is a composite panoramic image from T.R. Browne’s Newcastle, in New South Wales, with a distant view of Point Stephen, 1812 and View of Hunters River, near Newcastle, New South Wales, 1812. Both engravings are held in the Newcastle Region Art Gallery, and were recognised to be a panorama by Russell Rigby (Coal River Working Party’s mining geologist) .

This is what the Coal River looked like in 1812 when James Hardy Vaux compiled his dictionary and later his Memoirs. The words he recorded in his dictionary provide us with the sounds of convict tongue, the language and expressions they used in the excution of their criminal profession. They are the sound of early Newcastle.

Language continues to evolve, and it is the key to all culture. Vaux’s dictionary is very helpful in providing explanations to terms in early historical accounts. For example back in 1801 the convicts asked the then Corporal Wixsted whether he would join them in “jacketing” Dr Mason, who was to be the next commandant of the settlement. In Vaux we learn that ‘jacketing’ is a term:

‘applied to removing a man by underhand and vile means from any birth or situation he enjoys, commonly with a view to supplant him’

It is also synonymous with another term ‘bridging’:

‘to bridge a person, or throw him over the bridge, is, in a general sense, to deceive him by betraying the confidence he has reposed in you, and instead of serving him faithfully, to involve him in ruin or disgrace’

Read the full Memoirs and Dictionary scanned by Google Books here)

For a etext version see Project Gutenberg http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0600111.txt

Gionni Di Gravio
June 2008


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