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Thursday, 30 April 2009

Australia's Convicts - Were they simply scum?

Source: Mollie Gillen's The Founders of Australia

The white settlement of Australia began in the late 18th century because the English wanted to be rid of thousands of people clogging up their gaols and spilling into old ships hulks where they led an indescribable existence of squalor and degradation.

In 1788 Captain Arthur Phillip led the First Fleet of ships bearing 1,400 people sent to found the nation which is Australia today. An overwhelming number of those people were convicts.

Source: Mollie Gillen's The Founders of Australia

Many stood trial at the famous Old Bailey courthouse in London (above), often for quite trivial offences. I’ve asked myself what type of people were these convicts whose suffering laid the cornerstone of today’s prosperous society in the Great South Land?

Source: Mollie Gillen's The Founders of Australia

These are the signatures of some of the ‘better off’ (non convicts) who were on board the First Fleet – beginning with the Captain who would become Governor Arthur Phillip, and Phillip Gidley King, also a Governor of the colony.

The young settlement certainly began in inequality, and it is indeed interesting that inequality seems to have been an abiding concern for Australians ever since. Governments seem to be more popular here today when they look to concerns of the little people as well as to those of the great and powerful.

Source: Mollie Gillen's The Founders of Australia

These signatures of some of the convicts on board demonstrate inequality. Note the large number who confirmed their signing with their mark ‘x’, signifying that they could not write – even in those days a barrier to advancement in society.

The first years of the colony were brutal, but inequality did dissipate somewhat and gradually as many convicts served their terms to become part of the society, contributing to the general good. This movement grew in pace as a new generation of Australians was born, declaring pride in their native land.

From a portrait attributed to R Read the elder, published in Australian Genesis 1974

Esther Abrahams (c7769-1846) is the only First Fleet convict known to be the subject of a portrait. She was sentenced to transportation in 1786 for the theft of some black lace, even though evidence against her was circumstantial.

She became the wife of First Lieutenant George Johnston who later held the position of Lieutenant Governor and was a leader in the rise against Governor Bligh. The marriage only took place some years after she had had seven children by Johnston.

There is no photograph of John Hudson, probably the youngest convict, who was found guilty on circumstantial evidence at the Old Bailey in 1783. His crime was alleged to be breaking into a house at night and stealing some clothing and a pistol. He was eight years-old at the time.

Our third convict, William Lane, stole a substantial bag of goods when he was 30 years-old, and was in trouble again soon after he reached the colony. He received 2,000 lashes when, with another convict, he stole 13 pounds of biscuit. He said he did it because he was hungry.

James La Rue began life in Exeter. He was sentenced there to be publicly whipped for petty larceny at the age of 20, and was later transported for an unnamed felony. He was sent to Norfolk Island and regularly received harsh punishment, including work in heavy irons and 800 lashes. Le Rue died in 1816 at the age of 51.

At that time the Hobart Town Gazette wrote: “Jemmy La Rou (sic), a poor maniac whose death was occasioned by being exposed during the night to all severities of the weather in the state of intoxication. He was a poor harmless being who was regarded with pity and compassion.”

Mary Humphries was known in London as “Hell-Fire Moll”. She was transported after she assaulted a young man until he cried. They accused her of stealing 23s 6d which was found in her chimney.

Will Parish was transported for threatening a man with a pistol in an attempted but unsuccessful robbery.
David Lankey was a young tailor sent on an errand by his father, when he was accused of the theft of a handkerchief. Even in the colony he continued his tailoring work, becoming known for his expertise. Apparently by this time he was regarded as “respectable” and useful.

Photograph: R N Dalkin

And then there was Thomas Headington, an unskilled labourer who was transported for stealing.

The inscription on his Norfolk Island gravestone was

“Dear wife do not grieve
Nor children shed a tear

For I am gone to heaven above

To meet sweet angels there.”

He died age 40 years.

Author Mollie Gillen spent 20 years hunting through primary documents to put together brief biographies of almost everyone on board the fleet, and her book The Founders of Australia is the result.

In her book Gillen quotes a German traveller Henry Meister on the barbarity of the English justice system. Meister noted that often the smallest theft (that is, against property) was punished with death, yet the most heinous violence often went unnoticed.

Other historians disagreed.

In 1956 Manning Clark had looked also at later convict arrivals to conclude that they were professional criminals. Others did the same.

In 1970 John Cobley seemed to put the newcomers in the same bag as Manning Clark’s later arrivals. Cobley concluded that the First Fleeters were NOT “more sinned against than sinning” and that no convict in that fleet was transported for a purely political crime.

It is possible that convicts in the First Fleet may have been hand picked to assist the fledgling colony, colouring Mollie Gillen’s general conclusions.

Whatever the historians may say, Australia’s convicts were certainly human beings with hopes, and desires, and needs.
They were people who, just as we do, felt pain and hunger, and love and hate, with the need to satiate these needs. They were people who may have been into crime for excitement and easy profit. They may have been vicious and violent people. Or they may have become embittered by cruelty.

Of course it is very difficult to compare values and behaviour of the past and today.

Regardless, convicts were torn from their personal roots, whatever former lives had been. Once the fleet sailed, they certainly lived with increasing fear and uncertainty, often bereft of love and respect – for themselves and others.

The story of the white settlement of Australia, today so sophisticated, is fascinating.

It is certainly a mixed story and often an ugly one. But it is also to some degree at least a tribute to the hard work of these raggle taggle people.

Were the First Fleet convicts universally no-hopers, deserving of the label “scum of the earth”?
What would we do if our children were hungry?
Would our characters change under such pressures?
Would we respect our captors?
Should we put labels on people as a group anyway?


  1. Fascinating post.

    I don't think you can label people. There won't, as far as I can make out, have been a systematic plan to send a certain type of convict out. Society won't have been advanced enough then.

    It will have depended on local conditions, local judges etc.

    And as for the inequality and brutality?

    You cannot judge that against the situation as it is today.

    Inequality and brutality were a part of English life back in the 18th century so, providing they survived the journey, many may well have seen an improvement in their lot.

    And if we found ourselves living in a world like that we would, no doubt, behave in a similar fashion.

  2. OMG June what a thought, none of us know what 'we' would do if push came to shove and our kids were starving ... This was a great post and made me want to know more about what went on during the early days. It must have been horrendous at the start - they probably survived through gut courage and determination.

    Cheers for now Kate x.

    Mollie Gillen's research was centred on First Fleet convicts - the people sent out to do the 'spade work' for the new colony. Don't you think the English of that time would have chosen the first convicts carefully to ensure, so far as possible,a reasonable start? And that later convicts would have been more problematic? Surely Britain was sufficiently sophisticated to allow such decisions?

    Convicts who survived the journey and the privations on land were ultimately better off in many many cases.

  4. Yes KATE Australia's early days were horrific. The colonists couldn't even grow food easily in the poor soil around Sydney. They had to re-learn agricultural practices from the bottom up.

    Once they did begin to explore, the inhospitable inland was another huge challenge.

    Also Kate, it's sobering to note the convict built roads and buildings which can still be seen - you wonder how people constructed them as part of gangs often with chains around their ankles.

    Then there were the wars with the Aborigines - an altogether different, sad story.

  5. Interesting post. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. There was also a time in the settlement of America when jails were emptied across Europe and those creatures found refuge and a new life here in this country.

  6. WOW!! these are wonderful info about Australia...Thanks a lot June .....and old pictures are always interesting to watch.....we may get a small outlook of that period if fortunate...

  7. Hi again ABE LINCOLN
    Would you call those people 'creatures'?

    Yes, each peek at history only realises a tiny piece of the picture, but they're generally worth having. 'He who ignores history is destined to repeat it'

  9. To me it appeared that the society wanted to get rid of these people because it ran short of means to get back to them to main stream of life. But I find at least some of them were in the path of guilt because they were compelled to do so. Some one stole biscuits out of hunger and he was punished without finding out the means and ways so that he may earn his food. So those trying to put labels and want to dump criminals in other country are to be lebelled as criminals. Thank you June for such anice post and an eye opener.

    It is an interesting story.
    And the less fortunate are still being moved around the globe today.

  11. Hi June, no the convicts were in the main ordinary folk who got in trouble for mainly minor offences. My mother is an historian and she has traced her family tree back and of course on her Dad's side there are a couple of convicts. They stole bread or something. What I dont like is that in the UK, in particular, they go on and on about our criminal past. It annoys the hell out of me. It wasnt their ancestors that had to come here and settle the country. I am GLAD that my ancestor stole that piece of bread because without him I would not be here today. Plus a little drama in your background is kind of a great talking point. We are all Gods creatures. Shame about the cruel way the indiginous Australians wee treated though.

  12. Well written June...interesting to read. I always loved finding out the real Aussie history; it was not a nice one, thanks to the usual nonsense the British carried out. They did it in so many places, too...
    Hope you're well...sorry I haven't been for a while; slowly finding my feet again and wandering the web :)

  13. Hi LILLY
    I come down on the side of your Mum (as I do in my post, while trying to be balanced). I minored in history in a uni degree not too long ago and my lecturers were the same, believing that most were 'ordinary folk' in trouble.

    There were a lot of political convicts such as those from Ireland and, of course, we also had our murderers and highway men, although not so many on the First Fleet.

    Many convicts did become most embittered by being poor and with the treatment they got in the gaols and hulks, and violent personalities resulted.

    However I would nominate members of the NSW Corps (the 'Rum Corps' which comandeered rum supplies and sold them for their own benefit) as among the least moral in the place.

    Let alone those who were indiscriminate in their treatment of Aborigines.

  14. BRAJA
    Yes, I really enjoyed my recent Australian history units at uni. When I was at school we learned from the texts that gave the British point of view only. Kids were fed this stuff for generations and it is only in fairly recent years that we have been told some of the truths.

  15. What a well-researched post. We had always read the Brit coloniser's account, you give us the other perspective.

  16. Thank you Sucharita - I drew on some stuff I did at uni for background.
    People in India had some similar difficulties - of being a British colony I mean ...

  17. What becomes history is more often than not pretty sad and one sided... labeling people can be very non considerate too. Thank you very much for this post! I have quite a few Australian friends but I am ashamed to say that I do not know a whole lot about the history!

  18. A very interesting and well researched post. It's good to re-acquaint myself with this history which I've been aware of.

  19. Hi Tulsa
    I enjoyed your post about the American written Japanese constitution ...
    We share an interest in history, I see ...

  20. G'day Cath - good to have you visit again.

    I do think Australian history is fascinating, especially now we're beginning to look squarely at it while remembering that he who writes history is destined to own it. Taking that into account helps to sort out truth from fiction.

  21. June, this post was fascinating. Our education is sadly lacking in information about your country. My dad's family was said to be Irish, but a few years ago, thanks to a DNA project for which my brother volunteered, we learned that his closest DNA matches are in Australia. We have been wondering if we descended from one of the convicts taken to your country. I haven't been able to find any genealogical evidence, but new info comes to light daily, so I won't give up hope of straightening out the story to my own satisfaction. Thank you for the history lesson.

  22. SugarCain
    There are many many people of Irish descent here, and many came as convicts. Indeed, a good percentage were political prisoners, fighting against the unjust British behaviour in their country.

    I have some Irish in me, but can't find a convict (yet). It's become a bit of a status symbol to have one in your family now!

    If you send me a few names together with birth and death dates I may trip across a relative or two of yours as I do my own family history ...

    Do you edit books for publishing Sugar? Or are you a journalist/editor?

  23. Hi Linda
    I like your new site!
    The pictures I use on 70 Plus are mainly from my Canon Powershot A610 5 megapixels. Not an expensive camera, but easy to use and I think it does a great job. Have had it for about three years with no troubles.

  24. Hi again June. I just added this blog to my list as well. Your garden pictures are amazing. I haven't had time to read the actual posts here yet but I'll be back!

  25. Hi June, I love the old pictures and "Yes", I would probably steal if my children were hungry. I would do whatever it took to keep them safe and healthy. I do think they chose the more competent ones to make the trip and settle the land. Even today, we often punish someone for years for a menial crime and let someone off that has committed murder or worse crimes.

  26. Hi JUDY
    I would have bet my boots that was your point of view on this. You're certainly a passionate mum and grandmum.

  27. Hi Mystery Lady
    Yes I think my camera did a good job on those shots.

    My poor garden needs a little TLC at the moment ...

  28. Funnily enough I was just writing and thinking about this topic this week as I reviewed Kate Grenville's book The Secret River. As a transplanted Australian I visited Australia last month and revisited some historic sites and brushed up on my history from school days.

    Now of course Australians are very proud to count convicts amongst their ancestors nowadays, a sort of reverse pride and the documentation is very complete so that it is easy to find out.

    Of course, we used to think that someone got transported for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family. Not really a criminal but the reality was that these people were often thieves on a constant basis, as life forced them to be to survive in the horrible conditions in England at the timme. And since you could be hanged for an enormous variety of crimes we consider today petty today it was not too difficult to be sentenced to death.

    Later convicts included "gentlemen" who got transported for their part in the Irish rebellions. Some later went on to have careers as Premiers in Australia and Canada.

    I just notice your link on someone's blog and had to visit another seventy plus blogger.

    I have no literary aspirations but just call my blog Nobody Important, writing about places I've been/go, things I've done/do, although it has evolved in the past two years.

    I'll put you on my bloglines feed.


  29. Thanks for the visit JMB - we septigenarians must stick together.

  30. Interesting stuff !! I have 2 convicts on the first fleet which I have researched very well with the help of others however I have been told I have a connection with Norfolk Island, now I assume it was a convict lady , I have been trying to get a list of convicts sent to Norfolk Is. from Australia but it seems to be hard to get, do you have any suggestions as to where I could get that ? Delma McDonald in Australia

  31. Hi Delma - thanks for the comment. How about making contact with the family history convicts list A lot of knowledgeable and helpful people belong and you never know what they'll come up with ...


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