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Convicts in Charge of Convicts

Student activities

Task no. 1

Convicts in Charge of Convicts

In the early days of the colony convicts were living with and working for their gaolers 24 hours a day. On special occasions, like the King’s Birthday in June 1788, everyone in the colony would gather around bonfires together, but when it was time to work, the barriers and differences between the convicts and those in charge were rigid.

A major complication for Governor Arthur Phillip was the refusal by the officer in charge of the soldiers, Major Robert Ross, to allow them to supervise convicts. Ross claimed the military was there to protect the colony from invasion, not guard the convicts. Arthur Phillip came up with a creative solution – he used the best-behaved convicts to become the convict ‘overseers’ or supervisors – convicts in charge of convicts! He later extended that to a quasi-police force called ‘watchmen’ who were also drawn from the ranks of convicts.

Read these quotes from primary sources about the role of a convict overseer.

Judge David Collins recorded in January 1789:

Those…who were qualified to instruct and direct others in the exercise of professions in which they had superior knowledge and experience, were appointed to act as overseers, with gangs under their direction.

He added in 1793:

To convey these materials from the brickfield to the barrack-ground… three brick-carts were employed, each drawn by twelve men, under the direction of one overseer.

Read these quotes from primary sources about the overseer’s possible rewards and challenges of the job.

In April 1791 Judge David Collins wrote that:

the governor had placed a convict, Charles Williams, who had recommended himself to his notice by extraordinary propriety of conduct as an overseer, giving him thirty acres and James Ruse received a grant of the same quantity of land at Rose Hill.

The next year he noted that:

A distinction was made, for the first time, in the ration they received; the commissary being directed to issue to the officers of the civil and military departments, the soldiers, superintendants, watchmen, overseers and settlers from the marines, six pounds of flour and but two pounds of rice per man, per week, instead of three pounds of flour, and five pounds of rice, which was the allowance of the convicts.

Later, in 1794:

A distinction was made in the articles of the slops served to watchmen and overseers, each receiving one coat instead of a jacket, one pair of duck trousers instead of a pair of breeches, and one pair of shoes.

In 1789 Captain John Hunter was on Norfolk Island and made the following order:

If the overseers… should have reason to complain of the idleness of any one man belonging to that gang, and the complaint should be found just, the offender will be severely punished.

Judge David Collins also wrote in 1792 that:

…all complaints [by convicts] being to be made through the…overseers.

There appears to have been a lot of trust placed in the overseers by the authorities.

Look at the image,below, painted in England at around the same time. We can imagine they are a group of convicts. One of the men may be an overseer or a watchman in charge of his friends. 

A group of three men
Image 1: Detail from David Scott Mitchell : watercolour drawings of sentimental genre scenes, ca. 1760-1800

Answer these questions:

  • Do you think the convicts followed the overseers’ orders at work?
  • How might that effect their friendships with fellow convicts out of work-time?
  • Do you think the other convicts may have treated the overseers and watchmen differently?
  • Would you have taken the job as overseer or watchman?

Discuss how challenging that might have been for the convicts in these roles.

Imagine you are an overseer. Write a report for Governor Arthur Phillip and talk about the benefits and challenges of the job.