Image: Millbank Prison in London, by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd, published 1829. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Convict Connections - Chapter 4
A transportee's journey from freedom in the East Riding of Yorkshire to incarceration in New South Wales or Van Diemen's Land could last months and even years. The convicts were often held in prisons or hulks for months before their transportation.
For more details on the ships which carried our convicts to Australia, choose 'The Convict Ships' in the dropdown below.
The journey began when the suspect was apprehended, perhaps by the victim of the crime or by local constables. A justice of the peace would then commit the suspect to gaol if he felt there was a case to be answered. For crimes that were not punishable by death, a prisoner apprehended in the East Riding of Yorkshire might be committed to gaol in Beverley or Hull. For more serious crimes, the criminal was taken to York gaol.
The suspect was then tried in the quarter sessions in Beverley or Hull if the crime was less serious, and in the Assizes (in York) if the crime carried a possible death sentence. If the court found the defendant guilty, and the justices of the peace decided on a sentence of transportation, the criminal would return to the local gaol for a few days or weeks until arrangements could be made for onward transportation.
The first leg of the transportee's journey would be made from the local gaol to a holding prison - perhaps Millbank prison in London or in one of the prison hulks at Woolwich or Portsmouth. This journey might be made by cart, or on a ship (perhaps departing from Hull's riverside quay). After perhaps two or three month's incarceration (although in the early period of transportation to the Australian colonies this could be many years), the convict would be loaded along with fellow prisoners onto a ship destined for New South Wales or Van Diemen's Land. (Female convicts were not typically sent to hulks, and instead would be held in prisons prior to transportation).
The duration of the sea journey varied - the First Fleet took eight months, stopping at Tenerife, Rio De Janeiro and Cape Town to replenish supplies, but ships became larger and faster across the period; once the colony became more self-sufficient there was no longer the need for ships to carry so many supplies. After 1810, most ships travelled to Rio and then straight to Sydney. The journey time was between three and four months.
The crew of convict ships tried to keep them fastidiously clean, and from very early on there was a regulation regarding overcrowding which meant that prisoners were to be kept in a better situation than enslaved Africans and troops. The efforts to ensure prisoner health taken on the First Fleet were relatively successful, resulting in 48 deaths from almost 1,500 people. However, not all convict transportation was so successful.
Image: The Lady Juliana from the ill-fated Second Fleet, after her main mast was shattered by lightning. Drawing by Robert Dodd. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
The Second and Third Fleets were in many ways exceptions. Most convict ships (such as those of the First Fleet) had a death rate that was low by the standards of the time. Furthermore, the growth of the British navy and burgeoning British empire brought improvements in the technologies of maritime transport across the period, and the government introduced strict regulations designed to eliminate disasters like the Second Fleet.
For most of the period of transportation, private contractors shipped the convicts to Australia; these contractors were required to adhere to government regulations. A death rate of 1 in 85 transportees in the early years had fallen to 1 in 180 by the end of transportation . From 1815, every convict ship was required to carry a naval surgeon to supervise sanitary conditions and prisoner health. From 1832, the Admiralty assumed full responsibility for transportation. During the nineteenth century, the death rate on convict ships rarely rose beyond 1 in 100.
 David Brandon and Alan Brooke Bound for Botany Bay. British Convict Voyages to Australia. (The National Archives: Kew, 2005), p.168.
Image: The ships Bangalore, Dominion, Duke of Portland, Lady Nugent, and Canterbury in 1851. Image taken from the Illustrated London News. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
This island, separated from the south coast of Australia by the Bass Strait, was the primary penal colony for much of the 19th century history of transportation to Australia. Around 40% of those transported to Australia landed here.
The island was first discovered by the Dutch explorer, Abel Tasman, in 1642. Tasman named the island after Anthony Van Diemen, the governor general of the Dutch East Indies. In the early 19th century, the governor of the British penal colony on New South Wales ordered that another penal colony be established in the island.
Van Diemen's Land gained a particularly fearsome reputation for harsh treatment of prisoners; Van Diemen's Land convicts gaining their freedom often left the island for the free colony of Victoria in the sought of Australia - free settlers here disliked and feared the ex-convicts. Penal transportation to Van Diemen's Land was abolished in 1853. In 1856 the island was granted self-government, and the name was officially changed to Tasmania.
Image: Bermuda Dockyard, built by convict labour. A convict hulk can be seen to the left. Image extracted from Bermuda, a colony, a fortress, and a prison; or, Eighteen months in the Somers' Islands by Ferdinand Whittingham. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Upon reaching Australia or Van Diemen's Land, convicts were assigned either to work as a servant of a free settler or to undertake government work. Government work included working in the Female Factory or helping to build infrastructure such as roads. Regulations protected convicts from abuse by private masters, but were often flaunted, particularly on remote farms..
Although labour was part of their punishment, and therefore they were not paid, convicts were allowed to sell their labour in their own time (outside of the hours allotted to serve their masters). Convicts could also be granted a ticket of leave, allowing them freedom within the colony (but not to leave the colony), if they were well behaved.
Political transportees, such as those sentenced for spreading 'sedition', did not have to undertake forced labour in the colonies.
Image: New South Wales ticket of leave passport. This allowed a convict with a ticket of leave to travel between certain points. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.