Convicts sent to Australia

Through the Ages – Convicts sent to Australia

The late 18th century was a period of huge social and political change throughout Europe. France was reeling from the revolution and America was celebrating independence. In Britain the industrial revolution had driven thousands of poverty stricken people into the cities.

At this time new laws came in that allowed “undesirables” and poor folk to be jailed. The undesirables included pick-pockets, homeless children, prostitutes, poachers, alcoholics , vagrants and ethnic people. In England you could be hanged for more than 200 different offences. However as an alternative to hanging, prisoners were sometimes sentenced to transportation.

No known murderers or sex offenders were transported as such criminals were executed in England during these times.

The prisons were overflowing and transportation was a relatively humane punishment. At any rate it was better than hanging!

Botany Bay in Australia had been discovered 18 years earlier during Captain Cook’s Discovery expedition. He had claimed the whole of Australia (or New South Wales) for Britain. It was decided this was the place to send them. It wasn’t the ideal choice as it had only been glimpsed all those years ago and was 15,000 miles away but it was decided that a new colony would be set up there and the prisoners could be used as cheap labour to set up the new colonies.

The first fleet of convicts comprised people from all over Europe and between 1788 and 1868, 165,000 convicts made the arduous journey to this unknown land now known as Australia.

The Journey
The journey was long and hard and for the first 20 years prisoners were chained up for the entire time they were at sea. It took eight months by sea for the ships to reach Australia.

The cells on the ship were compartments that were divided by iron or wooden bars and up to 50 convicts could be crammed into just one compartment.

Sea-sickness and disease were prevalent. 39 of the 759 convicts on the first fleet died but conditions worsened. By the year 1800 one in 10 prisoners died during the voyage due to scurvy, and outbreaks of dysentery.


Convicts were normally sentenced to 7 or 14 year terms but others had sentences ranging from 10 years to life. If they were well behaved, convicts were not usually required to serve out their full term and could qualify for a Ticket of Leave, Certificate of Freedom, Conditional Pardon or even an Absolute Pardon.

With good conduct, a convict serving a 7 year term usually qualified for a Ticket of Leave after 4 or 5 years while those serving 14 years could expect to serve between 6 to 8 years. ‘Lifers’ could qualify for their ‘Ticket’ after about 10 or 12 years. Those who failed to qualify for a pardon were entitled to a Certificate of Freedom on the completion of their term and it was calculated from their original trial date.

Relatively few people were sent to Australia during the long wars with France from 1793-1815 because the war at sea made it difficult.

Transportation to Australia lasted for eighty years and in that time around 162,000 men and women were transported to Australia.

Look out for a Life Issues article on a day in the life of being a convict.

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