Banner Image

The convict experience

In nineteenth century England, the sentence for a variety of crimes was transportation to Australia, a harsh punishment with many convicts never seeing their homeland again.

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.

Sketch & description of the settlement at Sydney Cove Port Jackson in the County of Cumberland

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.

Views in New South Wales and Van Diemens Land : Australian scrap book 1830 - Government jail gang

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.

/robert-jones-recollections-13-years-residence-norfolk-island-and-van-diemans-land
/robert-jones-recollections-13-years-residence-norfolk-island-and-van-diemans-land-0

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.

/william-anson-ticket-leave-16-may-1828-0
/absolute-pardon-hannah-dodd-alias-foster1827

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. 

/convict-caps
/aa-co-convict-button
/convict-jacket-ca-1840
/leg-irons-1849

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.