Convict Life

Between 1788 and 1868, around 162,000 convicts were transported from Britain to different penal colonies in Australia. The majority of these convicts were transported for petty crimes often for the theft of trivial items such as a handkerchief or some feathers or some cheese. Imagine getting seven years hard labour that.

Most convicts were men, even though, one in seven were women, and there were also children as young as nine, and the elderly as old as 82, who were sentenced to transportation to Australia.

The trip Down Under.

In the early days of transportation, conditions on board the convict ships were horrendously poor and many died during the four to six-month journey on the way Down Under. Many convicts were already disease-ridden before they were brought aboard rat-infested ships in iron chains, led below deck, and locked away in filthy and cramped conditions with little to no fresh air or light for the entirety of their journey.

Many of these convicts died of diseases like typhoid and cholera in these abhorrent conditions onboard these ships. For those lucky enough to survive the trip alive, they were often severely weakened by scurvy, dysentery, and fever.

As the years rolled on, conditions began to slowly improve, and surprisingly few convicts died on the voyage towards the end of the 80-year convict transportation period.

Arrival in Australia.

On their arrival Down Under to a prison the size of a continent that most would never leave, convicts were brought ashore and marched to a location such as the Government Lumber Yard where they were stripped, washed, and inspected with officers taking their vital statistics for record. Things like age and height.

If a given convict had a skill, for instance, being a carpenter, a cobbler, a blacksmith, a stonemason, they could be retained and employed on government work programs. Otherwise, and most commonly, they were assigned to hard labour or given over as workers property owners, merchants, or farmers, many of whom happened to be ex-convicts themselves.

Daily life and doing hard labour.

Convicts assigned to hard labour, in places such as Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney, slept in hammocks that were tightly packed into small rooms. Each morning convicts were awoken by a bell that tolled at sunrise in the courtyard telling men that it was time to get out of bed and head downstairs for brekky, most often a form of porridge that might be your only meal for the day.

The second time the bell rang meant it was time to line up in the yard to be inspected by the superintendent who checked everyone was present and that they hadn’t stolen anything. You know, these pesky convicts. And this all occurred before beginning a day’s hard labour.

There was a vast amount of work that could be done in the rapidly growing penal colonies dotted across the Australian coastline, and convicts could find themselves making bricks, building walls, roads, or buildings, carving stones or smashing stones, cutting down trees and working with the timber, making buckets, water barrels, or cartwheels.

And if you were a female convict, you might find yourself working as a domestic servant for an officer in the colony. Or if you are less fortunate, you might find yourself in the Female Factory making rope, span, or carded wool, or maybe the less difficult work of laundry or needlework.


Needless to say, convict discipline was brutal. Where if you mucked up or misbehaved, you were likely to find yourself lashed to a flogging triangle, a wooden tripod that word hold you up when you were too weak to stand, and you were given a flogging with a cat of nine tails whip.

The minimum punishment was 25 lashes, which convicts affectionately nicknamed ‘the tickler’, right? ‘Cause it only ‘tickled’. I don’t reckon. However, the more severe punishments could see you receiving as many as 300 lashes.

Another punishment was called ‘the treadmill’, which was a wooden hut under which a rotating cylinder of wooden planks was housed. As many as 16 men could be forced to climb upwards on this device similar to a giant wheel made of steps in order to turn to grinding stones that ground the flour to be made into porridge or bread the food that they might eat the next day.

From convict to free citizen.

Convicts were freed and given a certificate of freedom at the end of their sentences, which often ranged between seven and fourteen years in length. However, convicts were able to reduce their sentences if they worked hard and stayed out of trouble.

So, if you’d put in the hard yakka and you‘d kept your nose clean, you might receive a ticket-of-leave or even a pardon generally after serving two thirds of your sentence.

Ticket-of-leave holders could work for themselves and even acquire property on the condition that they lived within a specified area and report regularly to a magistrate. Failure to do so or any misbehavior could see the ticket-of-leave confiscated.

And there were two types of pardons. A conditional pardon, which was granted by the Governor on the condition that you stayed within the colony, and an absolute pardon, that gave a convict unconditional freedom to travel wherever he or she desired in the world.

Returning to Britain.

For the majority of convicts, once they had been set free or earn their freedom Australia was now home and they would never return to Britain. Returning to Britain was prohibitively expensive for most. And after so many years cultivating and becoming accustomed to a new way of life in a foreign land, which had many more opportunities now than Britain, there was little incentive even for those with the means of returning to Britain.


ST = something

SO = someone

SW = somewhere

A cat o’ nine tails whip – a type of multi-tailed whip that originated as an implement for severe physical punishment, notably in the Royal Navy and Army of the United Kingdom, and also as a judicial punishment in Britain and some other countries.

A close call – a narrow escape from danger or disaster.

A flogging triangle – a tripod of wooden beams for holding up an offender who is going to be whipped.

A free market – an economic system in which prices are determined by unrestricted competition between privately owned businesses.

A way of life – the typical pattern of behaviour of a person or group.

Abhorrent conditions – horrible situations or circumstances.

Affectionately nicknamed “…” – given a nickname in a way that displays fondness or tenderness (in this case, because in reality it is the complete opposite of something tender or that you would be fond of).

All over the place – everywhere.

At loggerheads (with SO) – in violent dispute or disagreement.

Brekky – (Australian slang) Breakfast.

Chuck ST on – (English slang) put ST on.

Come out ahead (of ST) – to have an advantage over the people you’re competing against.

Democratic socialism – a political philosophy that advocates political democracy alongside social ownership of the means of production, with an emphasis on self-management and democratic management of economic institutions within a market or some form of decentralised planned socialist economy.

Disease-ridden – full of or causing disease, sickness.

Do you get it? – do you understand it?

Down Under – (Australian slang) Australia.

Economic liberalism – an economic system organized on individual lines, which means the greatest possible number of economic decisions are made by individuals or households rather than by collective institutions or organizations.

Fight tooth and claw (for ST) – To fight, battle, or compete with great ferocity, vigor, and intensity.

Get a lot out of ST – to enjoy something or think something is useful.

Get fed up (with ST) – become bored, annoyed, or disappointed, especially by something that you have experienced for too long.

Get the hang of ST – learn how to operate or do (something).

Get told off (by SO) – to speak angrily to someone because they have done something wrong.

Get used to ST – become accustomed to ST.

Go forth – for plans to take place or happen; go forward.

Happen to be ST – be ST by chance.

Hard labour – heavy manual work as a punishment.

Hard yakka – hard work.

Have bad results – for poor consequences to occur.

In favour of ST – in support or to the advantage of ST.

Keep your nose clean – stay out of trouble.

Level (ST) up – improve a skill.

Little incentive – a tiny reason for doing ST.

Look ST up – search for information about ST.

Muck up – behave badly; mess around.

Needless to say… – of course.

No spoilers – the lack of any information about a book or TV show that would ruin the ending for people before they read or see it.

Not move an inch – not change your opinion.

Not want a bar of ST – want nothing to do with ST.

On the condition that… – When you agree to do something on condition that something else happens, you mean that you will only do it if this other thing also happens.

Origin wise – “wise” here means “in regards to” or “related to”.

Penal colonies – a settlement used to exile prisoners and separate them from the general population by placing them in a remote location, often an island or distant colonial territory.

Petty crimes – a type of crime that is not considered serious when compared with some other crimes: petty crime such as shoplifting.

Rat-infested ships – a boat where large numbers of rats are present.

Receive flak (for ST) – receive criticism (for ST).

Report back (to SO) – return to give information (to SO).

Roll on – continue to occur.

Set SO apart from ST – to make someone or something different and special.

Severely weakened – significantly have the strength of ST reduced.

Stay out of trouble – behave well; not do anything bad.

Strictly controlled – heavily regulated or influenced.

The F word – a polite way of referring to the rude word “Fuck” without saying it.

The House of Representatives – one of the two houses of the Australian Parliament; the other is the Senate.

The S word – a polite way of referring to the rude word “Shit” without saying it.

The stage is set – used to mean that conditions have been made right for something to happen, or that something is likely to happen.

Tie in to ST – to show that something is connected to something else.

Tightly packed into SW – incredibly densely placed in a space together.

Trivial items – things that are of little value or importance.

Under siege – (of a place) undergoing a military operation in which enemy forces surround a town or building, cutting off essential supplies, with the aim of compelling those inside to surrender.

Unfavourable reactions – expressing or showing a lack of approval for something done, felt, or thought in response to a situation or event.