Born in comfortable circumstances in Finchley, Middlesex, Suffolk was sent to sea as a youth when his father was ruined, and on return found himself homeless and fell into a life of crime. Charged with stealing in 1844 and sentenced to a year’s detention he was then convicted of forgery in 1846 serving time in Newgate, Millbank and Coldbath Fields prisons before being transported in 1847. In Victoria, Australia by his own account he led a colorful life as a bushman, bushranger thief, prison identity and repeat offender. In his third period of incarceration commencing in 1858 he began his autobiography.
In July, 1866, Suffolk received a ticket of leave, his third in Victoria, and a full pardon on board the Norfolk bound for London on 20 September 1866. This pardon (in the possession of the National Museum of Australia) was conditional on his not returning to Australia. Suffolk thus obtained the neat distinction of having twice been made an exile. His story published in the Australasian newspaper in 1867 was well-written, racy and a powerful account of criminal and prison life by an insider, one that squared well with the popular fiction of the day. His account of family misfortune, ill-treatment at school and at sea, subsequent misadventures, romantic interludes and descent into vagrancy and crime in London, reads like a misplaced Charles Dickens plot. In Australia he tells of his youthful infatuation with crime, bush ranging and difficulties in finding honest work, and the hardships, injustices and folklore of prison life.
Back in England he quickly resumed his old habits as a confidence-man, swindler and thief and added bigamist and deceiver of women. In March, 1867, he married a widow, Mary Elizabeth Phelps, in London. In August 1868 Owen Suffolk, 'a journalist', appeared before Lord Chief Justice Sir Alexander Cockburn at Ipswich charged with stealing a black mare and carriage belonging to the landlady of the Great White Horse Hotel and obtaining ten pounds by false pretences. Suffolk begged for mercy on account of his de facto wife, aged 19, who was his brother's child, and her infant. The judge rejected the marriage as bigamous and sentenced Suffolk to 15 years penal servitude. By 1880 he had been released from prison and on 4 August married Eliza Shreves at St Lukes Church in the parish of St Marylebone in London.
Suffolk is remembered as Victoria's 'prison poet' and for his readable autobiography which reveals much about London street life and the behaviour and treatment of criminals in the Victorian era. An important contribution to Australian literature it influenced Marcus Clarke and his novel His Natural Life.
- Owen Suffolk's Days of Crime and Years of Suffering, edited and introduced by David Dunstan, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2000.