Entering Australia: The Life of a 19th Century Criminal

Australia, like the rest of Oceania, has been working hard at keeping its borders closed over the past 18 months to stop the spread of COVID. However, this was not always the case.  In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries many, many British people entered Australia- these were as convicted criminals. Between 1787 and 1868 approximately 4000 Norfolk citizens were transported as part of this scheme. For some of these people details of their life before, during or after transportation can be found at the Norfolk Record Office.

The Case of William Tuck

The minute book for the Norwich Quarter Sessions held on 3 January 1839, records the case of William Tuck, an eight year old, tried for stealing two bottles from John Culley. He confessed to the crime and was sentenced ‘to be transported beyond the seas to such place or places as Her Majesty, by the advice of her privy council, shall order and direct for the term of seven years’.

Time in England

The process of trying to reform a criminal started even before transportation. Official information sent with a letter from James Gray, a prisoner at the Convict Establishment, Portland, near Weymouth, states that ‘the permission to write and receive Letters is given to the Convicts for the purpose of enabling them to keep up a connection with their respectable Friends’. Visits were restricted to once every three months, and visitors had to keep to a 2-4pm time slot. In addition, friends were ordered not to send clothes, money, or any other items. Penalties for breaking this rule included a fine or imprisonment for the friend and ‘severe punishment’ for the convicted person. However, the establishment did allow convicts to prepare for life after transportation. James Gray asked the recipient of his letter to send information about his property in England to enable him to ‘depart for the far country with mind at rest’.

Information contained within a letter from James Gray, Convict Establishment, Portland, Near Weymouth, 1860. NRO, AYL 1076/5

Travelling across the sea

After leaving the establishments convicts had to endure a three-month journey across the sea. J F Mortlock was sentenced to transportation in 1843. In his memoirs he recalls that 600 convicts were housed in compartments separated by iron bars on three decks of a ship. The men were kept in miserable conditions. For Mortlock there was good news: three months into the voyage his ankle irons were replaced by a light ring, as a reward for good behaviour. However, this caused other problems: ‘upon losing the weightier shackles, my foot, in walking, used to fly up in an odd manner for some time afterwards, till the muscles grew accustomed to their lighter load’. On arrival at Norfolk Island, the men were ordered to jump into the water and swim to shore, where, Mortlock states, the warm sun soon dried their clothes. However, a few men didn’t make it, drowning before reaching land.

Conditions in Australia

Conditions in Australia were little better than those onboard the ships. Convicts slept in a long dormitory containing 120 hammocks. Food was poor: dinner consisted of coarse maize bread, which tasted like sawdust, and salt junk. Fresh meat was only available in hospital for the sick. However, convicts did benefit from an abundance of wild local fruit, including guavas, sugar cane and cape gooseberries.

Integrating into Australian Society

On arrival, convicts were put to hard labour for the duration of their sentence. However, any convict who behaved well could receive a ticket-of-leave, allowing them most of the privileges of a free man. A ticket-of-leave could be upgraded to a pardon for good conduct or rescinded for bad behaviour. Despite this process many settlers had reservations about accepting convicts. In 1850 the settlement of Western Australia became a penal colony. A letter dated 20 December 1849 by Earl Grey, colonial secretary, explained how the system was to work. It stated that convicts would work on improving the harbour, opening roads, cutting timber and other public work as directed by the government. In addition the conduct of the convicts would be assessed before selection, to ensure the project was a success.

On 7 June 1850, the Perth Gazette recorded the arrival of the first convict ship, the Scindian. The ship carried seventy-five convicts, fifty-four pensioners with wives and families and fourteen emigrant young women, amongst others. John Jermyn, a shoemaker convicted of rape at the Norfolk Assizes was also on board. Records held in Australia reveal he was 5ft 9 in., had brown hair, blue eyes and two moles on his neck. Convicts on this first ship were expected to build a pier from Arthur’s Head in the town. The settlers gave a mixed reaction. The article reports that only sixteen months earlier the colony was ‘upon the brink of destruction’ and a large number of settlers petitioned the home office to introduce transportation to provide badly needed labour. However, it also states that a number of settlers were anxious about freed prisoners mixing with the free population.

Extract from the Perth Gazette, 7 June 1950 regarding the arrival of first convict ship. NRO, NEV 9/10, 590×3

Only three years later attitudes on both sides of the world had changed. Settlers were informed that the English Government had doubts about continuing transportation. On 2 June 1853, The Inquirer reported on a meeting in Perth. During the meeting a number of locals spoke in support of the experiment. The sheriff ‘believed, after the experience of three years, there was not a man in the colony that did not desire the continuance of transportation’. Police Magistrate, Mr Yule, explained the freed convicts were fitting in well. He stated that despite 2000 ticket-of-leave men living in Western Australia, more than 400 of them in Perth, little crime had been reported. In addition, Mr Yule felt these men did not face the same prejudices as in English society, stating that in the colony they could ‘recover their lost ground, whereas in England the emancipated convict should never possibly have regained his former position’. It seems for many settlers and convicts the experiment proved a success until its demise in 1868.

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4 Responses to Entering Australia: The Life of a 19th Century Criminal

  1. Richard Rogers says:

    Good article. I have been researching a Martham man, James Hall, convicted at Norwich and transported for life in 1834. The best records I found were the Australian ones. I will copy the final report to you when it is completed.
    Richard Rogers


    • victoriadraper24 says:

      Wow, thanks Richard, that sounds great. I look forward to reading it- and perhaps if you are happy we can include it on the blog? I’m sure other people would be really interested too.


  2. Thank you for this post – my 4th great-grandfather, James Lawley, was convicted at the Quarter Sessions in King’s Lynn in January 1822 and transported in April 23, after spending over a year on a prison hulk in Portsmouth. The information above helps me to understand his experience. He was definitely a lost soul as he committed more crimes while in Tasmania.


    • victoriadraper24 says:

      Thanks for letting us know a bit about your 4th great-grandfather. We are pleased it helped you to understand his experiences on a prison hulk a little more. A shame he wasn’t one of the convicts which went on to build a better life in Australia.


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