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The convict experience

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During the first 80 years of white settlement, from 1788 to 1868, 165,000 convicts were transported from England to Australia.

Transportation wasn’t limited to Australia - it was a method various governments had been using for dealing with convicted criminals. The most common reason for transportation was theft – this included pickpocketing, shoplifting, stealing horses and sheep, highway robbery, housebreaking and receiving stolen goods. In some cases, the theft was associated with violence.

You didn’t have to steal much to be exiled– even pinching a handkerchief was deemed a transportable offence.

Less common reasons for being transported were the crimes of rape, manslaughter, murder, forgery and even bigamy.

Convict labour

Governor Phillip often employed convicts according to their skills; they may have been carpenters, servants, cooks, farmers or shepherds before they were transported.

Convicts were a source of labour to build roads, bridges, courthouses, hospitals and other public buildings, or to work on government farms, while educated convicts may have been  given jobs such as record-keeping for the government administration. Female convicts, on the other hand, were generally employed as domestic servants to the officers.

Crime and punishment

Convict discipline was invariably harsh and often quite arbitrary. One of the main forms of punishment was a thrashing with the cat o’ nine tails, a multi-tailed whip that often also contained lead weights. Fifty lashes was a standard punishment, which was enough to strip the skin from someone’s back, but this could be increased to more than 100.

Just as dreadful as the cat o' nine tails was a long stint on a chain gang, where convicts were employed to build roads in the colony. The work was backbreaking, and was made difficult and painful as convicts were shackled together around their ankles with irons or chains weighing 4.5kg or more.

During the day, the prisoners were supervised by a military guard assisted by brutal convict overseers , convicts who were given the task of disciplining their fellows. 

At night, they were locked up in small wooden huts behind stockades. Worse than the cat or chain gangs was transportation to harsher and more remote penal settlements in Norfolk Island, Port Macquarie and Moreton Bay.

Old diary entry with hand writing and drawing of a man being flogged whilst tied up with others standing by watching
About this item: 

It is now known that this document was not written by Robert Jones in 1823. The identity of Robert Jones has been the subject of conjecture. Research by Reg Wright ('Who was "Buckey" Jones?', Descent, vol.28 part 3, Sept. 1998) has shown that the person most likely to be Robert Jones (also known as Bob Buckey or Bob Jones) was a convict transported to Norfolk Island in the second voyage of the Scarborough in 1790. He received a Conditional Pardon in 1796 and an Absolute Pardon for services as gaoler in 1800/1801. In 1802 he stated that he simultaneously held the positions of Superintendent, Gaoler and Chief Constable. Following the closure of the Norfolk Island settlement, Jones was appointed Superintendent at Port Dalrymple and later Assistant to the Superintendent of Police at Sydney in 1811. He died in Sydney, aged 47, in 1818. Robert Jones died in 1818, so he cannot have written the Recollections in 1823. Reg Wright believes it to be 'a work of fiction actually produced about 1850 or an even later date'. This estimate is based on an examination of the many inaccuracies in facts and chronology which occur in the text. In addition, the watercolour illustrations depict buildings erected after 1823. This document has been widely used as a source of information on the convict era. The identity of its maker remains unknown.

Transcript: 

[plate 3]
The Flogging of Charles Maher
J.L. 1823
The Flogging of Charles Maher, 250 lashes, (single flogger)


little effect in subduing the most hardened criminal.  Thursday April 11 I well remember the date, began the most stormy weather on record here.  The cascade was partly destroyed.
The flogging of Charles Maher allmost brought about a mutiny. his back was quite bare of skin and flesh.  Poor wretch he received 250 lashes and upon receiving 200 Kimberly refused to count, meaning thereby that his punishment was enough

Robert Jones - 'Recollections of 13 years Residence in Norfolk Island and Van Diemans land', dated 1823 [?], and associated papers to 1938
About 1823
Robert Jones
Digital ID: 
a1287023
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A drawing depiction of a man being flogged with a group of people watching
The fell tyrant, or, The suffering convict : showing the horrid and dreadful suffering of the convicts of Norfolk Island and Moreton Bay, our two penal settlements in New South Wales : with the life of the author, William Ross
London : J.Ward, 1836.
William Ross
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Digital ID: 
a1644003

That’s the ticket

In the first 50 years of white settlement, society was changing rapidly. Free settlers were moving to Australia, and convicts were increasingly employed to work for them. As convicts either finished their sentence, or were pardoned, they were able to earn a living and sustain themselves through jobs and land grants. By the mid-1830s, most convicts were assigned to private employment.

The easiest way for a convict to reduce their sentence was to work hard and stay out of trouble. They could then be given a ticket-of-leave or pardon.

Ticket-of-leave holders were allowed to work for themselves, and to acquire property, on the condition that they live within a specified district and report regularly to a magistrate. Any misbehaviour at all could result in the ticket being taken away from them.

There were two types of pardon available – a conditional pardon was granted by the governor on the condition that the former convict stayed in the colony. An absolute pardon gave a convict unconditional freedom to travel wherever they liked in the world. Convicts who didn’t qualify for either a ticket-of-leave or pardon were given a certificate of freedom once their sentence had been served.

See more pardons and tickets-of-leave here.

Old document with text and coat of arms at top titled Ticket of Leave  for a Mr William Anson
William Anson - ticket of leave, 16 May 1828
16 May 1828
Digital ID: 
A128342
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Text on a page titled Absolute Pardon for Hannah Dodd alais Foster, 10 July 1827
Absolute pardon granted to Hannah Dodd alais Foster, 10 July 1827 (A 3815/9)
1802-1858
Digital ID: 
a586011
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Convict clothing

Until 1810, the government haned out civilian clothes or ‘slops’ to convicts – there was no need for a uniform because nearly everyone in the colony was a convict. However, as more free settlers moved to Australia, and convicts finished their sentences, it was necessary to be able to easily distinguish the convicts. 

The new uniform consisted of a coarse woollen jacket, a yellow or grey waistcoat, a pair of trousers and long socks, shoes, two cotton or linen shirts, a neckerchief and hat. 

Old cap that has a bow tied at the front known as a convict cap pre 1849
About this item: 

Dated from the year convict transportation ended on the east coast of Australia.

Convict caps
pre 1849
Digital ID: 
a1156003
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About this item: 

Mounted on card inscribed: "This brass button was found in the ruins of the Australian Agricultural Company's cottages in Pit Row off Darby Street, Newcastle. The A.A.Co. worked their mines from 1830 by convicts assigned to them by the Governor of N.S.W. These convict miners were housed in Pit Row and fed and clothed by the A.A.Co. The buttons were made in England for the Convict Clothes. 1922." In later hand: "Pit Row is now known as Swan Street at bottom end of Anzac Avenue". Dated from the time of transfer of the Newcastle Mine from the Government to the Australian Agricultural Company. Reference: 'The Australian Agricultural Company 1824-1875' / Jesse Gregson. Sydney : Angus & Robertson, 1907.

AA Co. [convict button]
1830
Digital ID: 
a2724001
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Convict Jacket ca. 1840
Convict jacket
ca. 1840
Digital ID: 
a1157001
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Old metal leg irons before 1849
Leg Irons, before 1849
Dixson, William, Sir, 1870-1952
Digital ID: 
a1612001
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This story has been developed with the support of the State Library of NSW Foundation.

We would like to acknowledge the generosity of Public Purpose Fund (The Law Society of NSW), Allens Arthur Robinson, Clayton Utz, Gilbert & Tobin Lawyers, Henry Davis York Lawyers, Freehills.