Convicts in Australia

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Drawing of convicts in New Holland, 1793

Between 1788 and 1868, approximately 162,000 convicts were transported to the various Australian penal colonies by the British government.[1]

The British government began transporting criminals to overseas colonies in the 17th century. When transportation to the American colonies declined with the move towards American independence in the 1770s, an alternative site was needed to avoid further overcrowding of British prisons and hulks. In 1770, James Cook charted and claimed possession of the east coast of Australia for Britain. Due to the continent's isolation, it was considered ideal for a penal colony, and in 1787 the First Fleet of eleven convict ships set sail for Botany Bay, arriving on 20 January 1788 to found Sydney, the first European settlement in Australia. Other penal colonies were later established in Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), Queensland and Western Australia. Penal transportation to Australia peaked in the 1830s and dropped off significantly in the following decade. The last convict ship arrived in Western Australia on 10 January 1868.

Many of the convicts were transported for petty crimes; others were political prisoners. More serious crimes, such as rape and murder, were not transportable offences. After their prison terms were served most stayed in Australia and joined the other settlers, with some rising to prominent positions in Australian society. Approximately 20% of modern Australians are descended from transported convicts. Once deemed the "convict stain", it is now considered by many Australians to be a cause for celebration to have a convict in one's lineage. The extent to which the convict era has shaped Australia's national character has been studied by many writers and historians.[2]

Reasons for transportation

According to Robert Hughes in The Fatal Shore, the population of England and Wales, which had remained steady at 6 million from 1700 to 1740, began rising considerably after 1740. By the time of the American Revolution, London was overcrowded, filled with the unemployed, and flooded with cheap gin.[3] Poverty, social injustice, child labor, harsh and dirty living conditions and long working hours were prevalent in 19th-century Britain. Dickens' novels perhaps best illustrate this; even some government officials were horrified by what they saw. Only in 1833 and 1844 were the first general laws against child labour (the Factory Acts) passed in the United Kingdom.[4] Crime had become a major problem and in 1784 a French observer noted that "from sunset to dawn the environs of London became the patrimony of brigands for twenty miles around."[5]

Prison hulks in the River Thames

Each parish had a watchman, but British cities did not have police forces in the modern sense. Jeremy Bentham avidly promoted the idea of a circular prison, but the penitentiary was seen by many government officials as a peculiarly American concept. Virtually all malefactors were caught by informers or denounced to the local court by their victims.[citation needed] Pursuant to the so-called "Bloody Code", by the 1770s there were 222 crimes in Britain which carried the death penalty,[6] almost all of which were crimes against property. These included such offences as the stealing of goods worth over 5 shillings, the cutting down of a tree, the theft of an animal, even the theft of a rabbit from a rabbit warren.

The Industrial Revolution led to an increase in petty crime due to the economic displacement of much of the population, building pressure on the government to find an alternative to confinement in overcrowded gaols. The situation was so dire that hulks left over from the Seven Years' War were used as makeshift floating prisons.[7] Eight of every 10 prisoners were in jail for theft. The Bloody Code was gradually rescinded in the 1800s because judges and juries considered its punishments too harsh. Since lawmakers still wanted punishments to deter potential criminals, they increasingly applied transportation as a more humane alternative to execution.[8] Transportation had been applied as a punishment for both major and petty crimes since the seventeenth century. Around 60,000 convicts were transported to the British colonies in North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Transportation to the Americas ceased following Britain's defeat in the American Revolutionary War.

Penal settlements

New South Wales

The First Fleet arrives in Botany Bay, 21 January 1788
The Costumes of the Australasians: watercolour by Edward Charles Close shows the co-existence of convicts, their military gaolers, and free settlers.

Alternatives to the American colonies were investigated and the newly discovered and mapped East Coast of New Holland was proposed. The details provided by James Cook during his expedition to the South Pacific in 1770 made it the most suitable.

On 18 August 1786 the decision was made to send a colonisation party of convicts, military, and civilian personnel to Botany Bay under the command of Admiral Arthur Phillip who was to be the Governor of the new colony. There were 775 convicts on board six transport ships. They were accompanied by officials, members of the crew, marines, the families thereof and their own children who together totaled 645. In all, eleven ships were sent in what became known as the First Fleet. Other than the convict transports, there were two naval escorts and three storeships. The fleet assembled in Portsmouth and set sail on 13 May 1787.[9]

The fleet arrived at Botany Bay on 20 January 1788. It soon became clear that it would not be suitable for the establishment of a colony due to "the openness of this bay, and the dampness of the soil, by which the people would probably be rendered unhealthy" and Philip decided to examine Port Jackson, a bay mentioned by Captain Cook, about three leagues to the north. On 22 January a small expedition led by Phillips sailed to Port Jackson, arriving in the early afternoon:[9]

Here all regret arising from the former disappointments was at once obliterated; and Governor Phillip had the satisfaction to find one of the finest harbours in the world, in which a thousand sail of the line might ride in perfect security. The different coves of this harbour were examined with all possible expedition, and the preference was given to one which had the finest spring of water, and in which ships can anchor so close to the shore, that at a very small expence quays may be constructed at which the largest vessels may unload. This cove is about half a mile in length, and a quarter of a mile across at the entrance. In honour of Lord Sydney, the Governor distinguished it by the name of Sydney Cove.[9]

There they established the first permanent European colony on the Australian continent, New South Wales, on 26 January. The area has since developed into the city of Sydney. This date is still celebrated as Australia Day.

There was initially a high mortality rate amongst the members of the first fleet due mainly to shortages of food. The ships carried only enough food to provide for the settlers until they could establish agriculture in the region. Unfortunately, there were insufficient skilled farmers and domesticated livestock to do this, and the colony waited on the arrival of the Second Fleet. The second fleet was an unprecedented disaster that provided little in the way of help and upon its delivery in June 1790 of still more sick and dying convicts, which actually worsened the situation in Port Jackson.

Lieutenant-General Sir Richard Bourke was the ninth Governor of the Colony of New South Wales between 1831 and 1837. Appalled by the excessive punishments doled out to convicts, Bourke passed 'The Magistrates Act', which limited the sentence a magistrate could pass to fifty lashes (previously there was no such limit). Bourke's administration was controversial, and furious magistrates and employers petitioned the crown against this interference with their legal rights, fearing that a reduction in punishments would cease to provide enough deterrence to the convicts.

Bourke, however, was not dissuaded from his reforms and continued to create controversy within the colony by combating the inhumane treatment handed out to convicts, including limiting the number of convicts each employer was allowed to seventy, as well as granting rights to freed convicts, such as allowing the acquisition of property and service on juries. It has been argued that the suspension of convict transportation to New South Wales in 1840[10] can be attributed to the actions of Bourke and other men like Australian-born lawyer William Charles Wentworth. It took another 10 years, but transportation to the colony of New South Wales was finally officially abolished on 1 October 1850.[11]

If a convict was well behaved, the convict could be given a ticket of leave, granting some freedom. At the end of the convict's sentence, seven years in most cases, the convict was issued with a Certificate of Freedom. He was then free to become a settler or to return to England. Convicts who misbehaved, however, were often sent to a place of secondary punishment like Port Arthur, Tasmania or Norfolk Island, where they would suffer additional punishment and solitary confinement.

Norfolk Island

Norfolk Island military barracks

Within a month of the arrival of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove, a group of convicts and free settlers were sent to take control of Norfolk Island, a small island off the coast of New South Wales. More convicts were sent, and many of them proved to be unruly; early 1789 saw a failed attempt to overthrow Lieutenant Philip Gidley King, the island's commandant. This was followed by the wreck of the HMS Sirius on one of the island's reefs while attempting to land stores.


Penitentiary at the Port Arthur convict settlement, Tasmania

In 1803, a British expedition was sent from Sydney to Tasmania (then known as Van Diemen's Land) to establish a new penal colony there. The small party, led by Lt. John Bowen, established a settlement at Risdon Cove, on the eastern side of the Derwent River. Originally sent to Port Philip, but abandoned within weeks, another expedition led by Lieutenant-Colonel David Collins arrived soon after. Collins considered the Risdon Cove site inadequate, and in 1804 he established an alternative settlement on the western side of the river at Sullivan's Cove, Tasmania. This later became known as Hobart, and the original settlement at Risdon Cove was abandoned. Collins became the first Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen's Land.

When the convict station on Norfolk Island was abandoned in 1807-8, the remaining convicts and free settlers were transported to Hobart and allocated land for re-settlement. However, as the existing small population was already experiencing difficulties producing enough food, the sudden doubling of the population was almost catastrophic.

Starting in 1816, more free settlers began arriving from Great Britain. On 3 December 1825 Tasmania was declared a colony separate from New South Wales, with a separate administration.

Macquarie Harbour Penal Station, depicted by convict artist William Buelow Gould, 1833

The Macquarie Harbour penal colony on the West Coast of Tasmania was established in 1820 to exploit the valuable timber Huon Pine growing there for furniture making and shipbuilding. Macquarie Harbour had the added advantage of being almost impossible to escape from, most attempts ending with the convicts either drowning, dying of starvation in the bush, or (on at least two occasions) turning cannibal. Convicts sent to this settlement had usually re-offended during their sentence of transportation, and were treated very harshly, labouring in cold and wet weather, and subjected to severe corporal punishment for minor infractions.

In 1830, the Port Arthur penal settlement was established to replace Macquarie Harbour, as it was easier to maintain regular communications by sea. Although known in popular history as a particularly harsh prison, in reality its management was far more humane than Macquarie Harbour or the outlying stations of New South Wales. Experimentation with the so-called model prison system took place in Port Arthur. Solitary confinement was the preferred method of punishment.

Many changes were made to the manner in which convicts were handled in the general population, largely responsive to British public opinion on the harshness or otherwise of their treatment. Until the late 1830s most convicts were either retained by Government for public works or assigned to private individuals as a form of indentured labour. From the early 1840s the Probation System was employed, where convicts spent an initial period, usually two years, in public works gangs on stations outside of the main settlements, then were freed to work for wages within a set district.

Transportation to Tasmania ended in 1853 (see section below on Cessation of Transportation).


William Buckley's transportation and escape to live with the Wathaurong in 1803, as depicted by 19th-century Aboriginal artist Tommy McRae.

In 1803 two ships arrived in Port Phillip, which Lt. John Murray in the Lady Nelson had discovered and named the previous year. The Calcutta under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Collins transported 300 convicts, accompanied by the supply ship, Ocean. Collins had previously been Judge Advocate with the First Fleet in 1788. He chose Sullivan Bay near the present-day Sorrento, Victoria for the first settlement - some 90 km south of present-day Melbourne. About two months later the settlement was abandoned due to poor soil and water shortages and Collins moved the convicts to Hobart. Several convicts had escaped into the bush and were left behind to unknown fates with the local aboriginal people. One such convict, the subsequently celebrated William Buckley, lived in the western side of Port Phillip for the next 32 years before approaching the new settlers and assisting as an interpreter for the indigenous peoples.

A second settlement was established at Westernport Bay, on the site of present-day Corinella, in November 1826. It comprised an initial 20 soldiers and 22 convicts, with another 12 convicts arriving subsequently. This settlement was abandoned in February 1828, and all convicts returned to Sydney.[12]

The Port Phillip District was officially sanctioned in 1837 following the landing of the Henty brothers in Portland Bay in 1834, and John Batman settled on the site of Melbourne.

Between 1844 and 1849 about 1,750 convicts arrived there from England. They were referred to either as "Exiles" or the "Pentonvillians" because most of them came from Pentonville Probationary Prison. Unlike earlier convicts who were required to work for the government or on hire from penal depots, the Exiles were free to work for pay, but could not leave the district to which they were assigned. The Port Phillip District was still part of New South Wales at this stage. Victoria separated from New South Wales and became an independent colony in 1851.


In 1823 John Oxley sailed north from Sydney to inspect Port Curtis and Moreton Bay as possible sites for a penal colony. At Moreton Bay he found the Brisbane River, which Cook had guessed would exist, and explored the lower part of it. In September 1824, he returned with soldiers and established a temporary settlement at Redcliffe. On 2 December 1824, the settlement was transferred to where the Central Business District (CBD) of Brisbane now stands. The settlement was at first called Edenglassie. In 1839 transportation of convicts to Moreton Bay ceased and the Brisbane penal settlement was closed. In 1842 free settlement was permitted and people began to colonize the area voluntarily. On 6 June 1859 Queensland became a colony separate from New South Wales.

Western Australia

Fremantle Prison gatehouse. The prison was built by convict labour in the 1850s.

Although a convict-supported settlement was established in Western Australia from 1826 to 1831, direct transportation of convicts did not begin until 1850. It continued until 1868. During that period, 9,668 convicts were transported on 43 convict ships. The first convicts to arrive were transported to New South Wales, and sent by that colony to King George Sound (Albany) in 1826 to help establish a settlement there. At that time the western third of Australia was unclaimed land known as New Holland. Fears that France would lay claim to the land prompted the Governor of New South Wales, Ralph Darling, to send Major Edmund Lockyer, with troops and 23 convicts, to establish a settlement at King George Sound. Lockyer's party arrived on Christmas Day, 1826. A convict presence was maintained at the settlement for over four years. On 7 March 1831 control of the settlement was transferred to the Swan River Colony, and the troops and convicts were withdrawn.[13]

In April 1848, Charles Fitzgerald, Governor of Western Australia, petitioned Britain to send convicts to Western Australia because of labor shortages. Britain rejected sending fixed term convicts, but offered to send first offenders in the final years of their terms.

Most convicts in Western Australia spent very little time in prison. Those who were stationed at Fremantle were housed in the Convict Establishment, the colony's convict prison, and misbehaviour was punished by stints there. The majority, however, were stationed in other parts of the colony. Although there was no convict assignment in Western Australia, there was a great demand for public infrastructure throughout the colony, so that many convicts were stationed in remote areas. Initially, most offenders were set to work creating infrastructure for the convict system, including the construction of the Convict Establishment itself.

In 1852 a Convict Depot was built at Albany, but closed 3 years later. When shipping increased the Depot was re-opened. Most of the convicts had their Ticket-of-Leave and were hired to work by the free settlers. Convicts also manned the pilot boat, rebuilt York Street and Stirling Terrace; and the track from Albany to Perth was made into a good road. An Albany newspaper noted their good behaviour and wrote, "There were instances in which our free settlers might take an example".

Western Australia's convict era came to an end with the cessation of penal transportation by Britain. In May 1865, the colony was advised of the change in British policy, and told that Britain would send one convict ship in each of the years 1865, 1866 and 1867, after which transportation would cease. In accordance with this, the last convict ship to Western Australia, the Hougoumont, left Britain in 1867 and arrived in Western Australia on 10 January 1868.


Approximately 20% of the transportees were women. For protection, most quickly attached themselves to male officers or convicts. Although they were routinely referred to as courtesans, relatively few had been prostitutes in England as prostitution, like murder, was not a transportable offence.[14]

Political prisoners

Painting of the 1804 Castle Hill convict rebellion
Fenian convicts escape from Fremantle in the 1876 Catalpa rescue.

Political prisoners made up a small proportion of convicts. They arrived in waves corresponding to political unrest in Britain and Ireland. They included the First Scottish Martyrs in 1794; British Naval Mutineers (from the Nore Mutiny) in 1797 and 1801; Irish rebels in 1798, 1803, 1848 and 1868; Scots Rebels (1820); Yorkshire Rebels (1820 and 1822); leaders of the Merthyr Tydfil rising of 1831; The Tolpuddle Martyrs (1834); Swing Rioters and Luddites (1828–1833); Upper Canada rebellion/Lower Canada Rebellion (1839) and Chartists (1842).[15]

Cessation of transportation

With increasing numbers of free settlers entering New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) by the mid-1830s, opposition to the transportation of felons into the colonies grew. The most influential spokesmen were newspaper proprietors who were also members of the Independent Congregation Church such as John Fairfax in Sydney and the Reverend John West in Launceston, who argued against convicts both as competition to honest free labourers and as the source of crime and vice within the colony. Bishop Bernard Ullathorne, a Catholic prelate who had been in Australia since 1832 returned for a visit to England in 1835. While there he was called upon by the government to give evidence before a Parliamentary Commission on the evils of transportation, and at their request wrote and submitted a tract on the subject. His views in conjunction with others in the end prevailed. He was concerned about the individuals transported. The anti-transportation movement was seldom concerned with the inhumanity of the system, but rather the hated stain it was believed to inflict on the free (non-emancipist) middle classes.

Transportation to New South Wales ended in 1840, by which time some 150,000 convicts had been sent to the colonies. The sending of convicts to Brisbane in its Moreton Bay district had ceased the previous year, and administration of Norfolk Island was later transferred to Van Diemen's Land.

The continuation of transportation to Van Diemen's Land saw the rise of a well-coordinated anti-transportation movement, especially following a severe economic depression in the early 1840s. Transportation was temporarily suspended in 1846 but soon revived with overcrowding of British gaols and clamour for the availability of transportation as a deterrent. By the late 1840s most convicts being sent to Van Diemen's Land (plus those to Victoria) were designated as "exiles" and were free to work for pay while under sentence. In 1850 the Australasian Anti-Transportation League was formed to lobby for the permanent cessation of transportation, its aims being furthered by the commencement of the Australian gold rushes the following year. The last convict ship to be sent from England, the St. Vincent, arrived in 1853, and on 10 August 1853 Jubilee festivals in Hobart and Launceston celebrated 50 years of European settlement with the official end of transportation.

Transportation continued in small numbers to Western Australia. The last convict ship, the Hougoumont, left Britain in 1867 and arrived in Western Australia on 10 January 1868. In all, about 164,000 convicts were transported to the Australian colonies between 1788 and 1868 on board 806 ships. Convicts were made up of English and Welsh (70%), Irish (24%), Scottish (5%) and the remaining 1% from the British outposts in India and Canada, Maoris from New Zealand, Chinese from Hong Kong and slaves from the Caribbean.

Only South Australia and the Northern Territory had never accepted convicts directly from England but they still accepted ex-convicts from the other states. Many convicts were allowed to travel as far as New Zealand to make a new life after being given limited freedom, even if they were not allowed to return home to England. At this time the Australian population was approximately 1 million and the colonies could now sustain themselves without the need for convict labour.[16]


In 2010, UNESCO inscribed 11 Australian Convict Sites on its World Heritage List. The listing recognises the sites as "the best surviving examples of large-scale convict transportation and the colonial expansion of European powers through the presence and labour of convicts."[17]

Cultural depictions

Marcus Clarke (c. 1866), author of For the Term of His Natural Life, Australia's most famous convict novel
Convict Alexander Pearce has inspired three feature films (drawings by convict Thomas Bock, 1824).

Convict George Barrington is (perhaps apocryphally) recorded as having written the prologue for the first theatrical play performed by convicts in Australia, one year after the First Fleet's arrival. It is known as "Our Country's Good", based on the now-famous closing stanza:

From distant climes, o'er wide-spread seas, we come,
Though not with much éclat or beat of drum,
True patriots all: for, be it understood:
We left our country for our country's good.

The poems of Frank the Poet are among the few surviving literary works done by a convict while still incarcerated. His best-known work is "A Convict's Tour of Hell". A version of the convict ballad "Moreton Bay", detailing the brutal punishments meted out by commandment Patrick Logan and his death at the hands of Aborigines, is also attributed to Frank. Another ballad, "Botany Bay", describes the sadness felt by convicts forced to leave their loved ones in England.

Perhaps the most famous convict in all of fiction is Abel Magwitch, a main character of Charles Dickens' 1861 novel Great Expectations. The most famous convict novel is Marcus Clarke's For the Term of His Natural Life (1874), followed by John Boyle O'Reilly's Moondyne (1879). Thomas Keneally explores the convict era in his novels Bring Larks and Heroes (1967) and The Playmaker (1987). Convicts feature heavily in Patrick White's take on the Eliza Fraser story, the 1976 novel A Fringe of Leaves. Convictism is canvassed in Bryce Courtenay's "Australian trilogy": The Potato Factory (1995), Tommo & Hawk (1997) and Solomon's Song (1999). The title character of Peter Carey's 1997 novel Jack Maggs is a reworking of Dickens' Magwitch character. Many modern works of Tasmanian Gothic focus on the state's convict past, including Gould's Book of Fish (2001) by Richard Flanagan, a fictionalised account of convict artist William Buelow Gould's imprisonment at Macquarie Harbour. Kate Grenville based the novel The Secret River (2005) on the life of her convict ancestor Solomon Wiseman.

Along with bushrangers and other stock characters of colonial life, convicts were a popular subject during Australia's silent film era. The first convict film was a 1908 adaptiation of Marcus Clarke's For the Term of His Natural Life, shot on location at Port Arthur with an unheard-of budget of £7000.[18] This was followed by two more films inspired by Clarke's novel: The Life of Rufus Dawes (1911), which draws on Alfred Dampier's stage production of His Natural Life, and the landmark For the Term of His Natural Life (1927), one of the most expensive silent films ever made.[18] W. J. Lincoln directed many convict melodramas including It Is Never Too Late to Mend (1911), an adaptation of Charles Reade's 1856 novel about cruelties of the convict system; Moodyne (1913), based on John Boyle O'Reilly's novel; and Transported (1913). Other early titles include Sentenced for Life, The Mark of the Lash, One Hundred Years Ago, The Lady Outlaw and The Assigned Servant, all released in 1911. Few convict films were made after 1930; even the Australian New Wave of the 1970s, with its emphasis on Australia's colonial past, largely avoided the convict era in favour of nostalgic period pieces set in the bush around the time of Federation. One exception is Journey Among Women (1977), a feminist imagining of what life was like for convict women.[18] Alexander Pearce, the infamous Tasmanian convict and cannibal, is the inspiration for The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce (2008), Dying Breed (2008) and Van Diemen's Land (2009).

Notable convicts transported to Australia

See also


  • Alan Frost, Botany Bay: The Real Story, Collingwood, Black Inc, 2011, ISBN 978-1-86395-512-6
  • Alexander, Alison. Editor. The Companion to Tasmanian History. Hobart, 2005. ISBN 1-86295-223-X
  • Bateson, Charles, The Convict Ships, 1787–1868, Sydney, 1974.
  • Pardons & Punishments: Judge's Reports on Criminals, 1783 to 1830: HO (Home Office) 47, volumes 304 & 305, List and Index Society, The National Archives, Kew, England, TW9 4DU
  • Gillen, Mollie, The Founders of Australia: a biographical dictionary of the First Fleet, Sydney, Library of Australian History, 1989.
  • Gordon Greenwood, Australia: A Social and Political History, Angus and Robertson 1955.
  • Hughes, Robert, The Fatal Shore, London, Pan, 1988.
  • A Pictorial History of Australia, Rex & Thea Rienits, Hamlyn Publishing group, 1969.
  • Robson, Lloyd. History of Tasmania, 2 Volumes.
  • Edward Shann, An Economic History of Australia, Georgian House 1930.
  • John West, History of Tasmania, 1852


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  2. Hirst, John (July 2008). "An Oddity From the Start: Convicts and National Character", The Monthly. Retrieved 4 May 2015.
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  6. Part I: History of the Death Penalty[dead link]
  7. The Floating Prison: British Prison Hulks
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  10. Convict Labour
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  14. Hughes, ibid, p372
  15. Guide to Researching your convict ancestors
  16. Convicts and the British colonies in Australia
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  20. D. Richards 'Transported to New South Wales: medical convicts 1788–1850' British Medical Journal Vol 295, 19–26 December 1987, p. 1609

External links