Flash Jim by Kel Richards

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

The life of James Hardy Vaux, convict author, is told by Kel Richards in an entertaining way which compliments nicely the colourful life of his subject.

Vaux’s claim to fame lies with his compilation of Australia’s first dictionary. He also wrote an autobiography which, when published in London, sold well.  Vaux is Flash Jim because his dictionary is a reference point for the flash language developed by the convicts in order to communicate without being understood by their guards. It is inventive and often witty.

The book is fascinating for the dictionary alone, which appears at the end. It reveals how many words and terms, coined by convicts, have become an integral part of our language. ‘Bounce’ once meant to bully or threaten, has morphed into the ‘bouncer’ who guards an entry to a nightclub.  ‘Cadge’ which described the profession of begging, still means to beg or persuade.  ‘Chum’ was a fellow inmate in prison whereas it became to mean a friend, usually in a private school. PG Wodehouse characters would have had their chums.

On the other hand, ‘drag’ once meant to rob a cart, wagon or carriage. Whereas today, it is dressing up, as in drag queen.

‘Frisk’ is used in the same context today, as are ‘whack’ (share) ‘swag’ (bundle) ‘sting’ rob or defraud.

Many words cleverly reflect the convicts’ humour that, even in their straightened circumstances, survived. A ‘wrinkle’ was a lie which reflects the bending of truth. ‘Slop’ was tea, ‘lamps’ were eyes.

James Hardy Vaux was born in Surrey, England in 1782. His family were genteel, his father a butler for a wealthy magistrate and member of parliament, and his mother considered to have married beneath her.  He was educated, and his ability to read and write enabled him to have clerical jobs. Vaux’s charm and personality won the support of employers and friends alike but his self-indulgent character proved to be disastrous to his progress in life.

Kindness of employers was rewarded with dishonesty and his seizing any opportunity to dupe them.  It is almost comical the manner in which he devises easy ways to make money and survive, by utilising minimum effort.

When he was inevitably apprehended, he was often dealt with in surprisingly lenient ways but his luck was destined to run out.

When he was 18, he was sentenced to seven years transportation to New South Wales, for the crime of stealing a silk handkerchief.

The voyage was a terrible ordeal, lasting nine months. Having landed in the colony, he managed to become a scribe for Governor King. Trouble and Vaux were linked and he suffered several scrapes but his term was eventually served and he set sail to return to England.

He is the only recorded convict to have been transported three times, a testimony to his incorrigible penchant for risk and law breaking. He is astonishing in his inability to learn from his mistakes.

It was at the stage, when serving time at Newcastle, that he began his dictionary and his autobiography. However, he never abandoned the idea of escape, which he frequently attempted with admirable tenacity.

He was probably married three times, could have converted to Catholicism, and managed to survive until at least fifty-nine. Records are inconclusive. Given his precarious, often dangerous existence, it is a credit to his ingenuity and determination that he survived this many years.

Kel Richards has woven historical fact with a well-paced narrative into his account of Flash Jim’s life. This makes it a really enjoyable exercise, breathing colour and life into events that are in themselves, so remarkable for demonstrating the irrepressible nature of, and sometimes fortunate, life of the convict author. He has given us a book which would lure the reluctant history student into discovering and thrilling to, the fascination of past lives.

Flash Jim


by Kel Richards

Harper Collins

ISBN 978 14607 5976 9

$32.99; 312pp

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