Culture and heritage

Heritage

Thematic Listings Program 2009-2010: Convict sites

Australia is renowned as a nation whose origins began with convicted criminals rather than free settlers. For many years this unsavoury beginning was underplayed in Australia but, in time, its true importance has been recognised. Crops and seed from the first successful Government Farm, worked by convicts, kept the infant colony from starvation in 1789.

Old Government House, Parramatta, built by convicts in 1799 and extended by Governor Macquarie in 1816

Old Government House, Parramatta, built by convicts in 1799 and extended by Governor Macquarie in 1816

Old Government House seen from the Government Farm site across the river

Old Government House seen from the Government Farm site across the river

The site of Government Farm at Rose Hill (Parramatta), north of the Parramatta River in present day Parramatta Park

The site of Government Farm at Rose Hill (Parramatta), north of the Parramatta River in present day Parramatta Park

Not only did convicts provide the bulk of the original population, but their labour built the infrastructure such as roads and ports, workplaces, homes and the services for the early economy. Before wool growing became the mainstay of the economy, private producers such as graziers and tradesmen supplied goods and services to the government Commissariat to feed, clothe, house and manage the convicts. The private enterprise that had arisen in the colony in the few years could only rely on supplying the convict administration rather than an export market.

The 'bloody' penal code operating in Britain in the 18th and early 19th centuries handed out severe sentences for a range of offences. Few then questioned the aptness of executing those who committed murder, rape, regicide or violent assault. But, as the century progressed and crime in the cities became more pronounced, the code was extended to relatively minor crimes, such as burglary and stealing with menace. Death was not appropriate for such crimes. Many judges and juries agreed. After passing sentence of death in such cases as they were obliged to do by law, judges often commuted the sentence to exile or transportation.

The loss of the American colonies in 1783, following the American War of Independence, deprived Britain of a place to dispose of its offenders. The problem was finally solved when a penal colony was established at Sydney Cove in 1788, soon called New South Wales. Other colonies on the Australian continent were added which also received convicts, such as Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), Moreton Bay (Queensland), and lastly, Western Australia.

The experience of convicts changed markedly over the period in which they were sent to NSW. Before 1815, many were relatively free to wander about the town, finding their own shelter and sometimes working for wages out of hours. This system was then formalised in the Macquarie period with the issue of a Ticket of Leave, which allowed them to work outside government control. Until the early 1820s emancipated convicts were provided with grants of land for farming to increase the colony's food supply. James Ruse successfully farmed the colony's first land grant on the site of Experiment Farm. Skilled workers laboured in the Sydney, Parramatta or Newcastle Lumber Yards. These were large state workshops which turned out a host of products needed by government such as window frames, nails, horseshoes, furniture, leatherwear, footwear and so on.

Billy Blue, a chocolate maker convicted of theft, was sentenced to seven years transportation. He was appointed harbour watchman and constable and granted land by Governor Macquarie on the north shore of the harbour that became known as Billy Blue's Point. Reproduced courtesy of Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW

Billy Blue, a chocolate maker convicted of theft, was sentenced to seven years transportation. He was appointed harbour watchman and constable and granted land by Governor Macquarie on the north shore of the harbour that became known as Billy Blue's Point. Reproduced courtesy of Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW

Certificate of freedom granted to Thomas Siderson in 1832 after serving 14 year sentence. Reproduced courtesy of Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW

Certificate of freedom granted to Thomas Siderson in 1832 after serving 14 year sentence. Reproduced courtesy of Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW

A strong military presence was essential if the convicts revolted. The most notable instance was the Castle Hill uprising when Irish convicts at the Castle Hill Government Farm rebelled and marched on Parramatta. Their progress was halted on 5 March 1804 when Major George Johnston met them with troops near Vinegar Hill. A swift capture of the leader and the routing of the convicts ended the uprising. Apart from that incident, convict opposition was often more informal, ranging from swearing through sluggishness or non-co-operation.

A large number of convicts accepted their place and saw it as an opportunity to better themselves rather than lapse back into crime. Some went into business, originally acting for members of the military garrison for whom it would have been inappropriate if they had openly engaged in trade. In time, some graduated to dealing in their own right. Notable ex-convict entrepreneurs included merchants Samuel Terry and Simeon Lord, merchant and sealer Joseph Underwood, surveyor James Meehan, distiller Robert Cooper who erected Juniper Hall as his home and Mary Reiby, a widowed ex-convict woman who took over her husband's business and hotel.

Governor Macquarie was inundated with a large influx of convicts who arrived as the Napoleonic Wars were ending in 1815. Insufficient demand from private employers for convict workers allowed Macquarie, in 1819, to undertake his large building program that began with the construction of Hyde Park Barracks to confine his convict workforce. Macquarie also built or commissioned other facilities for their care, such as the Rum Hospital, Sydney, Liverpool Hospital and St James's Church, Sydney. But the free settlers who wanted his skilled workers and the elite who were antagonised by his fostering of ex-convicts successfully lobbied against him in Britain and effected his recall after Commissioner Bigge reported unfavorably on his administration.

Landsdowne Bridge

Lansdowne Bridge

Liverpool Hospital

Liverpool Hospital

Hyde Park Barracks

Hyde Park Barracks

St James Church, Sydney

St James Church, Sydney

A more rigid scheme of control was instituted from the early 1820s so that convicts were made to feel the effect of their incarceration. Most convicts served out their sentences under assignment to 'private masters' (the more prosperous free settlers). Some masters were good and just managers whilst others were poor people managers and often harsh. Individual convicts had a wide range of experiences of private assignment.

Beyond the direct control of government, convicts were overseen by unpaid local magistrates who were appointed from local notables by the government. Since many were landholders themselves who had convicts assigned to them, they tended to favour their own kind when cases were brought before them involving master and servant. Some magistrates were reputed to have had informal cells in their homes to hold convicts who were brought before them, or who were being returned to the government.

Female convicts were also sent out on assignment to free settlers where they worked as domestic servants. Others were housed separately in Female Factories, such as the first at Parramatta (part of which survives today) where they worked for the government, usually doing 'women's work' involving textile production or repair or domestic work.

Former 3rd Class Penitentiary, Female Factory, Parramatta

Former 3rd Class Penitentiary, Female Factory, Parramatta

Former 3rd Class Penitentiary, Female Factory, Parramatta

Former 3rd Class Penitentiary, Female Factory, Parramatta

Former 3rd Class Penitentiary, Female Factory, Parramatta

Former 3rd Class Penitentiary, Female Factory, Parramatta

Increasing government control from 1825 onwards ensured that more convicts were worked in irons for part of their sentence, an experience that was extended even further for the serious offender. From the late 1820s, the government used many of them on road works such as the Old Great North Road in the early part of their sentences. Projects such as these relied on a quota of skilled men who undertook key components of the work.

Old Great North Road at Wisemans Ferry

Old Great North Road at Wisemans Ferry

Old Great North Road at Wisemans Ferry

Old Great North Road at Wisemans Ferry

Old Great North Road at Wisemans Ferry

Old Great North Road at Wisemans Ferry

Old Great North Road at Wisemans Ferry

Old Great North Road at Wisemans Ferry

Convicts who offended again in the colony, if they were guilty of serious crimes which did not warrant death, could be sent to places of secondary punishment, i.e. they were transported again to more distant outposts. Originally, they were sent to Newcastle, but as settlement advanced, new penal stations were opened at Port Macquarie, Moreton Bay (Queensland), Norfolk Island and, in the last year of transportation to NSW, at Cockatoo Island.

Convicts writing letters on Cockatoo Island. Reproduced courtesy of Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW

Convicts writing letters on Cockatoo Island. Reproduced courtesy of Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW

Following a damming report by the British Government's Molesworth Committee on the private assignment system in NSW, transportation of convicts to NSW ceased from 1840. The convict system in NSW wound down gradually until 1848 when control of the assets such as the gaols, asylums, barracks, hospitals and roadworks was passed over to the colonial administration.

The abolition of transportation to NSW did not eliminate its impacts. Old convicts remained for a long time (the last of them apparently dying in the 20th century) whilst the buildings and places built to handle them lingered on in public use. Many former 'lags' who remained did not marry or settle and by the late 19th century they were inmates in the benevolent asylums which the state was forced to set up to deal with the aged infirm without families. Others ended up in lunatic asylums such as Gladesville and Parramatta (Cumberland Hospital Precinct).

Though convictism had a profound impact on the colony, sites that demonstrate the full range of site types have not all been identified. We need help to locate, identify and record those of State Significance.

Significant references

  • Fletcher, Brian, Landed Enterprise and Penal Society; A history of farming and grazing in New South Wales Before 1821, Sydney University Press, Sydney, 1976
  • Hirst, J B, Convict Society and Its Enemies: a history of New South Wales, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1983
  • Kerr, James Semple, Design for Convicts - An account of design for convict establishments in the Australian colonies during the transportation era, Library of Australian History, Sydney, 1984
  • Kerr, James Semple, Out of Sight, Out of Mind - Australia's places of confinement, 1788-1988, S. H. Ervin Gallery in assoc with Australian Bicentennial Authority, Sydney, 1988
  • Nicholas, Stephen (ed), Convict Workers: reinterpreting Australia's past, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 1988
  • Oxley, Deborah, Convict Maids: the forced emigration of women to Australia, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 1996
  • Ritchie, John (ed), The Evidence to the Bigge Reports: New South Wales under Governor Macquarie, 2 volumes, Heinemann, Melbourne, 1971
  • Ritchie, John, Lachlan Macquarie: A biography, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1986
  • Sturma, Michael, Vice in a Vicious Society: Crime and Convicts in mid-nineteenth century New South Wales, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1983
Page last updated: 01 September 2012