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A secret message

Students encounter flash language’s power for convicts and frustration for government officials.

Student activities

Task no. 1

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A secret message

Teachers note: Download and print Resource 1: Dictionary of Criminal Slang.

Convicts no doubt loved having their secret language that officials and the military could not understand! In fact, Captain Watkin Tench, a British marine officer, wanted to ban flash language altogether.

Read what Captain Watkin Tench commented on this language in his journal in 1791:

…convicts…use…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…I have ever been of opinion that an abolition of this unnatural jargon would open the path to reformation.

Form pairs and complete the following:

Define the words jargon, abolition, reformation and any other words you do not understand from Watkin Tench’s journal.

Answer these questions:

  • What does ‘kiddy’ mean to you? Does it mean the same thing when Watkin Tench writes ‘kiddy’ language in his journal? Why does he call it that?
  • Why did courts need to have an interpreter?
  • Why does Watkin Tench think that the flash language is ‘unnatural?’

Conduct a class vote and tally the results on the board: Do you think that if the Colony banned the ‘unnatural jargon’ or flash language of the convicts that it would stop them from wanting to commit crimes?

Discuss the kind of secret messages that would be passed between convicts? What would they say? Why would it need to be kept secret from the British officials and military? 

Write a coded message for other convicts using the flash language list from Activity 2 Resource 1: Dictionary of Criminal Slang.

More words can be found by looking at the published flash language dictionary at the end of Volume 2 of James Hardy Vaux’s autobiography, here.

If you would like to hear ‘flash language’ being spoken by a convict, refer to Activity 1 Who is she? from Ann Martin: a female flogged learning activity.