Painted portrait of a convict Fraser

Convict life: a convict career

Over 75,000 convicts served time in Van Diemen’s Land. The Calcutta carried the first convicts from NSW in 1803 and the St Vincent disembarked the final convicts to Hobart in 1853. Until 1812 all VDL convicts came via NSW. These early convicts had poor documentation. The Indefatigible brought the fi​rst t​​ransported convicts directly from England in 1811. The term convict applied to those transported from England and its Colonies as well as those convicted locally.​

Coloured drawing of convicts at work 1832

Convict life: The earliest arrivals 1803-1810

The resumption of the Napoleonic Wars in 1803 made the delivery of supplies to the new Colonies impossible. After the initial supplies ran out both the convicts and their masters were thrown upon their own resources. Those with skills were employed in building official buildings but very little official work was able to be done during this time, due to the lack of skills, equipment and supplies. The administration drew its authority from providing the necessities of life to the convic​ts, but in the absence of provisions anarchy threatened.

Drawing of convict working on a farm

Convict administration – The Assignment Period 1803-1839

In this period, private settlers were made responsible for the food and clothing of their convict workers. Landholders were required to take on at least one convict for every 100 acres. Recordkeeping practices were designed to record each convict’s “career”. Convicts were physically described and their prior histories recorded. A rigid system was imposed providing rewards and punishments. More literate convicts could be placed in government service, while others on secondary punishment (about 10%) were sent to Port Arthur from 1830.

"Convict ploughing team breaking up new ground at the farm, Port Arthur" postcard circa 1926

Convict administration – The Probation Period 1840-1853

A probation system replaced the assignment system for male convicts in 1840 following complaints that the system was an unfair ‘lottery’. On arrival convicts now served a period ‘on probation’ with stages of punishment. Convicts were imprisoned at a penal settlement, worked in gangs or were sent to probation stations. Depending on their behaviour they passed through stages, with restrictions reduced as they moved towards ‘Ticket of Leave’ status. More than 80 probation stations were constructed during this period. From 1844 Women spent their probation at Anson Station or New Town Farm.

Photograph - Convict Disciplinary articles - leg irons, chains, ball and chain, lash

Treatment of convicts

Convict servants had a measure of power, as they were needed to ensure a productive economy. They were given a ration of food and clothing as set out in official regulations. Employers could give extra provisions, favours, free time, or even money to convicts to encourage ‘good’ behaviour. ‘Bad’ behaviour, such as drunkenness disobedience, insolence, neglect of duty, absconding from service, and abusive language, was punished. If a convict was mistreated by their employer they could appeal to the courts. However, a lost appeal meant further punishment.

The political drama. No. 33 the ministers and their cronies off to Botany Bay, and the Dorchester men returning

Convicts sent to mainland Australia

NSW received over 80,000 convicts between 1788 and 1842 when transportation to NSW stopped.  Moreton Bay, Queensland acted as a place of secondary punishment for over 2,500 convicts from 1824 until 1842. From 1850 until 1868 just under 10,000 locally convicted prisoners and transported convicts were sent to WA’s Swan River Settlement.

Photograph - Police Office, Tower Cottage, Guard Tower and Commandants house, Port Arthur c1910

Repeat Offenders

About 10% of convicts never left the system. Some died under the initial sentence while others reoffended. Those convicts on Australian shores were also called “convicts”. A few criminally insane remained at the Asylum Port Arthur until that closed in 1877.

[View of the prisoners' barracks, Campbell Street]

Colonial Offences

About 10% of convicts never left the system. Some died as convicts while others reoffended. Those convicted locally of crimes were also known as convicts. A few criminally insane remained at the Asylum Port Arthur until that closed in 1877

Port Arthur, during occupation A.D. 1860

Penal establishments and secondary punishment

While most convicts were assigned to work roles, serious or repeat offenders were sentenced to secondary punishment institutions where the work was harsh and the punishment brutal. The first prison was built in Murray Street, Hobart (1817), followed by a convict barracks in Campbell Street (1821), and a prison in Launceston (1827).
Punishment stations were also established – Macquarie Harbour (1817), Maria Island (1825), Port Arthur (1830), and Point Puer boys prison (1834). Female convicts undertook punishments, such as the treadmill, at female factories.

Photograph - Female Factory, Cascades

Life for female convicts

Convict women were primarily assigned as domestic servants. Many female convicts’ behaviour, questioning authority and social expectations, swearing, smoking, drinking, was seen by the establishment as indicating bad character. If a woman misbehaved while under assignment/service she was sent back to a female factory for punishment. Women were in the minority, with female convicts sought after as wives.

Trinity Church, Cressy

Family and indulgences

Convicts under sentence needed offici​al permission to marry.This was seen as an “indulgence” or reward for good behaviour but in reality marriage was encouraged as a means to settle down both female and male convicts. Married convicts with family in the UK may also apply for the ​”indulgence” of their families joining them in VDL. The family had the choice of coming or not. ​Other indulgences were being allowed to sleep outside barracks, to be released from irons, to have a ticket of leave and to have a sentence remitted.

Photograph - 'Notice to Ticket-of-Leave Men', conditions of conditional pardon (copy)

Steps to freedom

Convicts required formal documents ending their service. Early convicts were mainly given pardons, which could be given at any stage from first arrival in Australia to the end of their full sentence. Pardons could be absolute or conditional, with conditions usually restricting travel from the colony. Under Governor Arthur Tasmania maintained a more complex system. Initially convicts could gain a ticket-of-leave allowing them to seek employment. Tickets could be revoked.​ Certificates of freedom were issued at the end of a sentence or granted on the basis of good behaviour under a ticket-of-leave.

Lord Auckland (3)

Convict records

With less formal processes and administration from NSW, very early convict records are minimal. Many simply include a name, where tried, ship and sentence. Once systems were established more information was collected including convict employment records, conduct records, descriptions, indents and indulgences. On arrival convicts provided information on their trade, crime, sentence, and family. This information was matched against that collected before transportation.

Was this helpful?