At the end of the sixteenth century English prisons were showing signs of collapse. Thanks to absolute monarchs like Henry VIII, plus the warring sections of the Church, plus the sheer volume of petty crime in rural and urban districts, not enough gaols could be found to ‘house’ the criminal element, at least half of which was not criminal at all, but had crossed the wrong person.
Transportation was introduced as a means of banishing from Britain convicted felons guilty of most ‘petty’ offences, which could mean anything from stealing a loaf of bread or tearing down a fence put up by a landowner. The new colonies in America were considered ideal and a suitably long way from the motherland, and organised transportation to America started in 1597 and continued through the 17th and 18th century, until stopped by the American Revolution or War of Independence. Naturally the established and prospering settlers in the thirteen colonies did not wish to see convicted criminals (who could be of any age or sex) in their settlements.
As a result, the Government turned to another colony, even farther away from home – Australia. 162,000 convicts, mostly males, were transported in specially designed ships to Australia from 1788 to 1868. They stayed as convicts, but transported convicts, mainly in New South Wales, Van Diemen’s Land (1803 – 52) and Western Australia (1850 – 68), but also in Newcastle (1801 – 24), Port Macquarie and Harbour (1821 – 33), Moreton Bay, Port Arthur (after 1830) and Norfolk Island (after 1825).
The prisoners were placed in penal settlements, where everyday life (as it had been also in America) ranged in quality from extremely hard to utterly severe. The settlements were not extermination camps, as in the Europe of the late Thirties to nineteen forty-five, or Stalin’s Russia, or Mao’s Communist China, but the convicts had to be made of a very special material to survive. In both cases, North America and Australia, the extreme hardiness of some but not all citizens in the 20th and 21st centuries owes a great deal to the predecessors, the convicts. Even their eventual release after serving the sentence did not mean a pleasant return to Britain. If they returned, they would certainly be hanged. This is one of the themes in Charles Dickens’ masterpiece Great Expectations.
Before release, life in the penal settlements meant hard labour and punishment for any offence with the lash in public. Few prisoners survived the whipping, and if they did they were scarred for life.
Most transported convicts were young, uneducated urban under-class, normally convicted for theft. They were used to build their own settlements, and indeed most actual Australian towns and cities were founded as convict settlements, and their parish records have a dreadful tale to tell. Many men and women on release could only find work as domestic servants with the newly rich, and, logically enough, this led to their becoming murderers as well as thieves. Transportation does not bear thinking about in the modern, progressive, civilized mind, but to the rulers of previous centuries it seemed the only answer to desperately over-crowded jails.