The Victorians and Australian Penal Colonies


Establishment of Penal Colonies

The society of 19th century England was rapidly changing. Industrialization, the growth of the cities due to the flight of the rural poor from the countryside, and a climbing birthrate led citizens to embrace the conservative Victorian values of the age. These changes also led to an increasing crime rate that greatly frightened the upper and middle class citizens. This fear shaped the country’s laws and led to a search for a solution to the growing criminal population. The colonization of Australia was a direct result of this search. The failure of public hangings to deter crime and the cry for prison reform led the Government to see one solution that would put the problems of increased crime out of sight: transportation, to a land across the sea.

The initial idea of transporting criminals lay in a law of 1597, entitled: “An Acte for Punyshment of Rogues, Vagabonds and Sturdy Beggars.” This law stated that, “Obdurate idlers shall…be banished out of this Realm…and shall be conveyed to such parts beyond the seas as shall be…assigned by the Privy Council.” (Hughes 40) Convicts began to be shipped to the New World. With the outbreak of rebellion in the American colonies a new solution needed to be found, the colonists would no longer be polluted with England’s refuse. The solution arrived at, the Hulks Act of 1776, is described in Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations.


The Hulks were the old naval troop transports and men-o-war ships that were rotting at anchor along the Thames and various southern naval ports. As the convict population continued to grow on board these largely uninhabitable vessels, security and disease became serious issues. Examples of the security issues are reflected in Great Expectations with the escape of Pip’s convict Magwitch. While Pip, his sister, and Joe are sitting by the fire, the sounds of guns echo in the distance. ” ‘Ah!’ said Joe. ‘There’s another conwict off'” (Dickens 17). Magwitch has managed to escape the Hulks before he is transported and has swum to the shore where he meets Pip at the cemetery. Due to the challenges of holding the convicts on the Hulks it became evident to the English authorities that transportation must begin again and the destination was the vast and lonely land of Australia.
Although Australia’s first penal colony was often called Botany Bay, its actual site was at Sydney on Port Jackson. Although currently under dispute, many believe that Captain James Cook originally discovered the east coast of the continent in 1770 and named it New South Wales. The land was not cultivated which led authorities in England to believe the people inhabiting the area were not civilized and could be disregarded in having claims to the land. It appeared to be a good place to send the overflowing criminal population housed on the Hulks. Between the years 1788 and 1850, 162,000 convicts in 806 ships were sent to Australia by the English (Dunn).

Van Diemen's Land map, 1852
Van Diemen’s Land Map

Penal Colonies established by the British Empire:
Norfolk Island – active transportation 1788 – 1823. Reopened in 1824, finally turned over to descendants of the ‘Bounty’ mutineers who had been living on Pitcairn Island. Home to more than 2000 convicts under conditions instructed to be the ‘harshest possible discipline short of death’ (Convicts to Australia).
Van Diemen’s Land – (Tasmania
) Active Transportation 1822-1853. By 1846, 5000 convicts arrived per year.

Port Macquarie – Convicts sentenced a second time were sent beginning in 1821. The population peaked in 1825 then steadily declined until 1830. Active transportation ceased in 1832, but the colony remained housing for “special” convicts meaning those who were educated. It remained a convict depot for “specials,” lunatics, invalids and the infirmed until 1847 (Convicts to Australia).
Moreton Bay – Active transportation from 1824 – 1850. A particularly brutal colony established to house the worst of convicts.


map of the first fleet
Map of the route followed by the First Fleet in 1788

1787: The twenty eight year of the reign of King George III: the British government sends a fleet to colonize Australia.
1788: January 26; eleven ships of the First Fleet under the command of Captain Arthur Philip in his flagship Sirius arrive with a cargo of 736 British convicts, 548 male and 188 female, who are unloaded at the harbor of Port Jackson, Botany Bay in New South Wales, the location where Magwitch of “Great Expectations,” served his time. Port Jackson would later be named Sydney Harbor.
1790 – 1791: Two more convict fleets arrive.
1793: First free settlers arrive at Botany Bay. From 1788 – 1823 the New South Wales colony is officially a penal colony. The population consists of mostly convicts, marines and their wives.
Early 1800s: Convicts begin to be sent to Norfolk Island, Van Diemen’s Land, Port Macquarie and Moreton Bay, as well as Botany Bay.
1810-1821: Macquarie (Governor of New South Wales) changed the colony from a place of punishment for convicts to an environment where reformed convicts could prosper.
1822 The Bigge Report on the colony of New South Wales disagreed with Macquarie and advocated for harsher punishment of convicts in Australia to “counter claims that transportation was not an effective deterrent”.
1840-1868 End of transportation begins first in New South Wales, then Van Diemen’s Land, and then for all of Australia in 1868. Convict Era: Timeline

Crimes Leading to Transportation


Dorset Sturminster Newton Bridge Notice

An overcrowding of prisons and an increase in the sentencing of life imprisonment as opposed to death sentences became a driving force in England’s decision to send convicts to the Australian penal colony. However, the hulks which transported the convicts were not solely filled with murderers. On the contrary, the majority of convicts were being penalized for much smaller crimes. The Australian Studies Centre Online states that “stealing a buckle or a loaf of bread was enough to be shipped off to Australia” (The Convict 1). Three popular types of crimes that were punishable by transportation consisted of theft primarily by city dwellers, rebellion towards the King by Irish and Scottish immigrants, and other violent crimes such as rape, robbery, kidnapping, and murder (The Convict 3).The convicts of the First Fleet were compiled of individuals from various walks of life. Twenty four, 12 percent, were unemployed. Eighty four men, 44 percent, were laborers (Hughes 74). Convicts of the First Fleet.

William Buckley
William Buckley; (1780 – 30 January 1856) was an English convict who was transported to Australia, escaped, was given up for dead and lived in an Aboriginal community for many years.


Martin Cash (1808–27 August 1877) was a notorious convict bushranger known for escaping twice from Port Arthur, Van Diemen’s Land.

The Convicts of The First Fleet

Seamen 8
Carpenters, Shipwrights, Cabinetmakers 6
Shoemakers 5
Weavers 5
Watermen 4
Ivory Turners 3
Brickmakers 2
Bricklayers, Masons 2
Other Trades 47

Noteworthy Transported Convicts
“Unfortunate souls such as 20 year old Elizabeth Thakery, given seven years’ transportation for stealing five handkerchiefs worth a shilling – who in May 1787 became the first white woman to set foot in Australia” (Koster 19).
John ‘Red’ Kelly, the father of Ned Kelly, who was Australia’s most famous bushranger was also a transported convict. “The Irishman was sentenced to seven years for stealing two pigs – ‘value about six pounds’ – in Tipperary, which he had taken 14 miles down the road to sell at market” (Koster 19).

In addition to individual convicts who have become well-known in Australian history, there were many groups of convicts who were sentenced simultaneously and punished by transportation to Australia. These groups are unique because they participated in political crimes, as opposed to smaller felonies.
1. The First Scottish Martyrs were five men who were punished for supporting the ideals of the French Revolution and were transported to New South Wales.
2. The Naval Mutineers were a group of British sailors who rebelled against their poor food, pay, and living conditions and were transported to Australia in 1797.
3. The Castle Hill Rebellion was an uprising in Britain consisting of 300 Irish convicts. Prisoners that were not hung were sent to New South Wales in 1804.
4. The Machine Breakers were a group of farmers who disagreed with the use of machines in farming. They rioted and attempted to break the machines because they felt that the machines caused a loss of jobs. 475 of these farmers were sent to Van Diemen’s Land and New South Wales.
5. The Fenians were a part of the Irish Revolution and were transported to Western Australia aboard the last convict fleet, the Hougoumont. British officials feared that there would be attempts made to free the convicts and thus, great measures were taken to protect the ship including the addition of a man-of-war ship which followed the fleet throughout their journey. There were many successful escape attempts made by the Fenians, including one by a man named John Boyle O’Reilly who escaped by swimming to an American whaler. He later established himself in America as a well-known journalist. Other Fenians were able to escape to New Zealand, where they were turned away, and later ended their journey aboard a steamship with a destination in California.
(Political Prisoners)

Conditions of Transportation

Over the course of 81 years, beginning in 1787 with the First Fleet and ending in 1868 with the sailing of the Hougoumont England sailed 825 shiploads of prisoners averaging approximately 200 convicts per load (Hughes 143). Conditions for prisoners on board gradually improved over the years, but sailing the open seas at this time was never easy whether you were a convict or not. People regularly became ill and died during voyages.

First Fleet Charlotte
The “Charlotte” of the First Fleet docked at Portsmouth, England Prior to departure in May 1787.

The First Fleet was the only transportation of convicts completed by the government. Every ship thereafter was a private contractor. The highest amount of traffic sailed between 1831 and 1835 when 133 ships transported 26,731 convicts to Australia (Hughes 144). At this peak time, slightly more than one percent died from illness.
The death rate was much higher in the 1790s and began to decrease after 1815 when naval surgeons were placed on board to monitor conditions and the shipping contractors were given monetary incentives to deliver the convicts alive. The Second Fleet went down in history as having the largest death rate of all British convict transports. Out of a total of 1006 prisoners, 267 died at sea and another 150 perished on arrival (Hughes 145).
At this time many of the ships were former slave transports equipped with slave shackles, iron bars placed between the ankles, rather than chains and ankle irons. This arrangement disallowed even the slightest range of movement. Sea water often entered the bowels of the ships soaking all that lay below decks. “The starving prisoners lay chilled to the bone on soaked bedding, unexercised, crusted with salt, shit and vomit, festering with scurvy and boils” (Hughes 145). The convict Thomas Milburn wrote the following home to his parents. ” [We were] chained two and two together and confined in the hold during the whole course of our long voyage…[W]e were scarcely allowed a sufficient quantity of victuals to keep us alive, and scarcely any water; for my own part I could have eaten three or four of our allowances, and you know very well that I was never a great eater…[W]hen any of our comrades that were chained to us died, we kept it a secret as long as we could for the smell of the dead body, in order to get their allowance of provision, and many a time have I been glad to eat the poultice that was put to my leg for perfect hunger. I was chained to Humphrey Davies who died when we were about half way, and I lay beside his corpse about a week and got his allowance” (Hughes 145-146).

Lachlan Macquarie
Governor Lachlan Macquarie, New South Wales, January 1, 1810 until November 11, 1821

William Redfern, a transported convict is largely responsible for improvement of conditions for prisoners on ship. An accomplished doctor, who served Governor Macquarie, himself a reformer of the system, suggested various improvements that would increase the well being of the convicts. Increased cleanliness as a whole, ventilation and exercise raised the survival rate considerably. From 1811 to 1815 an average of 1 in 31 prisoners died. After Redfern’s suggestions were put into practice the death rate dropped to 1 in 122 (Hughes 151). The sailing time dropped considerably over the years as well. While it took 252 days for the First Fleet to reach Botany Bay, by the 1830s the average sail time had dropped to 110 days (Hughes 151).
Berths for the convicts usually consisted of two rows of double height against the hull housing four convicts in a six feet square space. The hatchways that supplied the only air circulation were usually kept closed with thick heavily padlocked grilles. Not many prisoners complained about the food provisions. The convict Mellish, who wrote his own account of his experience in New South Wales stated, “As to provishions there is not much reason to find fault; on Sunday’s plumb pudding with suet in it, about a pound to each man, likewise a pound of beef; Monday, pork a pound and peas with it; Tuesday, beef and rice; Wednesday, same as on Sunday; Thursday, same as Monday; Friday, beef and rice pudding; Saturday, pork only, for breakfast oatmeal boil’d, with about 2 ozs. of sugar to each man” (Mellish).
Security was considerable on board. Captain Alfred Tetens of the Norwood described the area below deck. “…the main and forward hatchways were furnished with three-inch iron bars; through the small door remaining, only one person at a time could squeeze with some difficulty… [A] barricade was erected across the width of the ship on deck behind the mainmast. This also had a narrow door. A watch of ten soldiers with loaded guns was stationed night and day at the rear of the quarterdeck. Four cannon loaded with grapeshot were aimed forward and a multitude of weapons were piled here. This gave the whole warlike picture an imposing aspect that had a calming effect not only on the prisoners but on their warders as well” (Hughes 153). After 1820, security and discipline ran smoothly with rarely any problems. This was largely a result of the surgeon-superintendents who ensure the prisoners were taken care of adequately and treated humanely, making him a beacon of hope for the prisoners who regarded him with respect.
In comparison to the experience the convicts would have once arrived on shore, the actual voyage was benign. Robert Hughes, author of The Fatal Shore describes their fate, “The society into which they now came, as they were mustered at the side of Sydney Cove or the Hobart dock, feeling the beaten clay heave beneath their feet after those months at sea, was more punitive in its conventions, more capricious in its workings: a lottery, whose winners went on to found Australia but whose losers were no better off than slaves (Hughes 157).

Punishment of Convicts

Convicts who committed crimes while living in the colonies were disciplined very harshly. Though there were many ways to do so, perhaps the harshest was a flogging (also known as scourging). On Norfolk Island though, the flogging was usually enforced using the “cat o’nine tails”. This medieval whip, made of leather strands often with a piece of lead at the end of each strand, was administered at upwards of 50 to 100 lashes per occurrence. Five lashes were usually enough to draw blood from a man. One report of a “cat o’nine tails” punishment tells of a man walking home in boots filled with his own blood resulting from such a severe beating. (
Another harsh punishment was the assignment to a chain gang. The chain gang consisted of a large group of prisoners chained together with heavy leg irons. The prisoners were then employed to back-breaking jobs like building new roads. Transportation to a more isolated penal settlement was another way to punish secondary offenders. It is said that at remote places such as Norfolk Island, Port Macquarie and Moreton Bay beatings and other punishments could be so severe that some convicts were said to have preferred death (

Rarely, a prisoner was hanged. Hanging was reserved for major crimes, such as murder and bushranging (robbing travelers). However, in the first years of settlement in Sydney, when food supplies were extremely short, hanging was used to discourage the theft of food. In 1788, five men were hanged. Eight men and a woman were hanged in 1799 (

How Convicts dealt with Incarceration

Botany Bay song lyricConvicts often created folk songs to acknowledge their experience. Many songs were a lament and some commented on the conditions they found themselves in along with the treatment they received from their captors. Botany Bay, a well known song of lament is actually not an authentic folk song, but one that comes from the British Music Hall Tradition (Crooke).
“The Convict’s Lament,” a traditional transportation song sung by prisoners on ship, sung by Raymond Crooke.

Life for a Repeat Offender in the Australian Penal Colonies: An English 206 Student’s Journey into the Melbourne Goal

Second Floor of the Goal; the better behaved a prisoner was, the higher the floor he could live on. First Floor prisoners were held in solitary confinement. Example of one of the more accommodating prison cells Most only had a bucket in the corner and housed over 20 prisoners. Fraternizing with the infamous Ned Kelly. I heard him say, “Such is life!” (Famous last words at his hanging in 1880. While he was not a transported convict, his father was!) Where 136 hangings took place, including the infamous Ned Kelly’s.


Leaving Australia

For those convicts lucky enough to survive the near starvation, unsanitary conditions and near death beatings; release was sometimes granted. One could receive a ticket-of-leave for paying their debt to society with hard work and good behavior. This system was similar to our modern parole system. Prisoners were required to have served a stipulated portion of their sentence before they were eligible for a ticket. The sentences and eligibility were as follows:

7 year terms must serve 4 years with 1, or 5 years with 2 masters
14 year terms must serve at least 6 years with 1, 8 years with 2 or 12 years with 3 masters
“Lifers” must serve 8 years with 1, 10 years with 2 or 12 years with 3 masters.

The bearer of a ticket-of-leave was permitted to work for themselves and even to own property on the condition of living within a specified district and reporting regularly to a magistrate when required, and to attend church regularly. However, the ticket could be withdrawn for any misbehavior ( Governor King first issued tickets of leave to any convict who seemed able to support themselves; this allowed the government to save money on feeding and housing the prisoners. The system ended up being more successful at securing good behavior than the threat of flogging ( The ticket recorded the convict’s number, name, ship, year of arrival, the master of the ship, native place, trade, offence, place and date of trial, sentence length, year of birth, physical description, district assigned to, granting Bench, date of issue, and any details of the ticket.
Another way that convicts were dismissed from the penal colonies was through pardons. A conditional pardon could be issued, but the convict would be required to stay in Australia as a free citizen. An absolute pardon, on the other hand, allowed the prisoners to return to England (or wherever they chose to go). These pardons were usually earned, but could also be issued by a governor for many reasons. Those convicts who failed to receive a pardon or ticket of leave were issued a Certificate of Freedom upon the completion of their sentence (

Cessation of Transportation

The transportation of convicts to Australia ended at a time when the colonies’ population stood at around one million, up from 30,000 in 1821. By the mid-1800s there were plenty of people living there to work, and just enough jobs for them. The colonies were able to sustain themselves and continue to grow. The convicts seemed to have served their purpose, building roads and other infrastructure. There was now a great deal of pressure to abolish transportation. Many Australians and Englishmen believed that transportation to Australia was an inappropriate punishment – that it did not deliver “a just measure of pain”. This, combined with the employment needs of Australia’s thriving population, worked to completely abolish convict transportation by mid-year 1868. Transportation to the colony of New South Wales was officially abolished on 1 October 1850, and in 1853 the order to abolish transportation to Van Diemen’s Land was formally announced. South Australia and the Northern Territory of South Australia had never accepted convicts directly from England, but still had many ex-convicts from Ireland and other countries. After they had been given conditional or full pardons, many convicts traveled as far as New Zealand to make a new life. Some, when allowed, even returned to England.


-“Australia.” The Irish Cultural Society of the Garden City Area. 13 May 2009 <>.

-“Background on the Foundation of White Australia- The Convict Era: Timeline”. Humanities and Social Studies Education Academic Group. 17 May 2009.
-“Botany Bay Folk Song”- First published in Sydney Golden Songster in 1893 This song is a burlesque, written by Stephens and Yardley, from the comedy ‘Little Jack Shepherd’ that played in London in 1885, and in Melbourne in 1886. ‘Botany Bay’ shares two verses with ‘Farewell to Judges and Juries’ a broadside c.1820
-Chain Gang Image: <>

-Charlotte of the First Fleet Image < >
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-Dickens, C. (1999). Great Expectations (E. Rosenberg, Ed.). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
-Dorset Bridge Image < >
-Dunn, C., McCreadie, M. The Founders of a Nation: Australia’s First Fleet – 1788. Retrieved May 11, 2009, from <>
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-“Getting out | State Library of New South Wales.” Home | State Library of New South Wales. 11 May 2009 <>.
-Governor Lachlan Macquarie < >
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-“Index to Certificates of Freedom, 1823-69 State Records NSW.” Welcome to State Records NSW State Records NSW. 17 May 2009 <>.
-Koster, O. (2007, July 25). Web will transport 2m Brits to their Oz convict cousins. Daily Mail (London), 1ST; p.19. Retrieved April 20, 2009, from Lexis Nexis database.
-Magwitch Image <>
-Map of the route followed by the First Fleet in 1788
-Martin Cash <>
-“MAGWITCH AS CONVICT.” Home: University of Michigan-Dearborn. May 2009<>.

-Magwitch – “He was taken on board and instantly manacled at the wrists and ankles.” (Scanned image, caption, and commentary by Philip V. Allingham.
Norfolk Island Picture <>
The Peril of Certain English Prisoners < >
-“Pilot Short History of Convict Australia: Pardon and Punishment.” The official Globe Trekker website. May 2009 <>..
-“Political Prisoners”. Convicts to Australia (A Guide to Researching Your Convict Ancestors
). May 2009 <>
-Van Diemen’s Land Map <>
-William Buckley < >

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