Convicts in Australia

During the late 18th and 19th centuries, large numbers of convicts were transported to the various Australian penal colonies by the British government. One of the primary reasons for the British settlement of Australia was the establishment of a penal colony to alleviate pressure on their overburdened correctional facilities. The last convicts to be transported to Australia arrived in Western Australia in 1868.

Reasons for transportation

Poverty, social injustice, child labour, 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, the first general laws against child labour, the Factory Acts, were passed in the United Kingdom.

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, rose dramatically after 1740. By the time of the revolt of the American colonies, London was overcrowded, filled with the unemployed, and flooded with cheap gin. Crime had become a major problem. In 1784 a French observer noted that "from sunset to dawn the environs of London became the patrimony of brigands for twenty miles around The Peel government feared the "organized crime" of a "criminal class," and enacted draconian laws against crimes of property.

Each parish had a watchman, but Britain did not then have a police force as we know it. Jeremy Bentham avidly promoted the idea of a cicular prison, but the peniteniary 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.

Thanks to the notorious Bloody Code, by the 1770s, there were a massive 222 crimes in Britain which carried the death penalty, almost all of them for crimes against property. Many even included offences such as the stealing of goods worth over 5 shillings, the cutting down of a tree, stealing an animal or stealing from a rabbit warren. For example, Michael Hammond and his sister, Ann, whose ages were given as 7 and 11, were reportedly hanged at King's Lynn on Wednesday, the 28th of September 1708 for theft. The local press did not, however, consider the executions of two children newsworthy. The Bloody Code died out in the 1800s because judges and juries thought that punishments were too harsh. Since the law makers still wanted punishments to scare potential criminals, but needed them to become less harsh, transportation became the more common punishment.

The industrial revolution saw an increase in petty crime in Europe due to the displacement of much of the population, leading to pressures on the government to find an alternative to confinement in overcrowded gaols. The situation in Britain was so dire in fact, that hulks left over from the Napoleonic Wars were used as makeshift floating prisons.

Transportation was a common punishment handed out for both major and petty crimes in Britain from the seventeenth century until well into the nineteenth century. At the time it was seen as a more humane alternative to execution. Around 60,000 convicts were transported to the British colonies in North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. When the American Revolutionary War brought an end to that means of disposal, the British Government was forced to look elsewhere. After Captain Cook's famous voyage to the South Pacific in which he visited and claimed Australia in the name of the British Empire, he reported his findings to the government, and the British, for the first time, became aware of the existence of the continent of Australia.

New South Wales

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. The term 'Australia' was first used by Matthew Flinders about 1800, derived from the ancient mythological reference to 'Terra Australis', the Great South Land.

On 18 August 1786 the decision was made to send a colonisation party of convicts, military, and civilian personnel to Botany Bay. 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.

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, and the group relocated to Port Jackson. There they established the first permanent European colony on the Australian continent, New South Wales, on 26 January. The area has since developed into 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 abolition of convict transportation to New South Wales in 1840 can be attributed to the actions of Bourke and emancipists such as William Wentworth.

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 that 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.


In 1803, the first 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. From this location a second expedition was sent to locate other suitable locations, and in 1804 the settlement at Sullivan's Cove, Tasmania was founded by Captain David Collins. This later became known as Hobart, and the original settlement at Risdon Cove was abandoned.

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

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).


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 separate colony from New South Wales.

Western Australia

Transportation of convicts to Western Australia did not begin until 1850 and lasted until 1868. During that period, exactly 9668 convicts were transported to the colony, on 43 convict ships.

The first convicts to arrive in what is now Western Australia were convicts transported to New South Wales, 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 nearly four years; in November 1830, control of the settlement was transferred to the Swan River Colony, and the troops and convicts withdrawn.

In April 1848, Charles Fitzgerald was appointed Governor of Western Australia. He petitioned Britain to send convicts to Western Australia for labor. Britain had refused to send convicts for a fixed term, but offered to send out 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 of convicts, 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 convicts 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 the convict’s good behaviour and wrote, "There were instances in which our free settlers might take an example".

Western Australia's convict era only 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.


It was not until the Henty brothers landed in Portland Bay in 1834, and John Batman settled on the site of Melbourne, that the Port Phillip District was officially sanctioned (1837).

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.


Approximately 20% of the transportees were women, for whom conditions could be particularly harsh. For protection, most immediately attached themselves to men, particularly officers, or other convicts as soon as possible. Although they were routinely referred to as courtesans, in fact relatively few had ever been prostitutes in England, if only because prostitution, like murder, was not a transportable offense.

Cessation of transportation

With increasing numbers of free settlers entering New South Wales and Van Diemens Land 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. 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 Diemens Land.

The continuation of transportation to Van Diemens 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 Diemens 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 to arrive in Western Australia, 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.


The history of convictism in the British Australian colonies is etched into the minds of most Australians even today. The lasting effects of the long dead practice are still felt in some areas of life. Many Australians can accurately trace their lineage back to colonial times, and most cases being related to one of the original British convicts invokes a sense of national pride. It should be remembered that these convicts were, for the most part, not violent criminals, but rather petty thieves, other non-violent offenders or supporters of Irish independence. This attitude is, however, a relatively new phenomenon in Australia. Until after the Second World War most Australians felt a sense of shame about the existence of British Convicts in what is now Australia, and many did not even attempt to investigate their families' origins, for fear that they could be descended from criminals. This was known as the Convict Stain attitude, and it made research all the more difficult. In recent decades community attitudes have changed, and many Australians with convict ancestors are now more comfortable to investigate and discuss their past.

British and Irish convicts and ex-convicts, became an important class in Australian society, because they were the most significant source of labour until the mid-19th century.

Famous convicts transported to Australia


  • 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 & Punshments: 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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