Irish Convicts Transported to Australia
After the end of the American War of Independence, Britain had to find
new territory to send its convicts. New South Wales (N.S.W) was selected as a
suitable penal colony. Legislation permitting transportation from Britain to
N.S.W. was passed in 1784, and the Irish Act followed in 1786.
The Irish Statute provided for"removal to some of His Majesty's
plantations in America, or to such place out of Europe". Whereas the
British Act did not name the destination, merely saying "beyond the sea,
either within His Majesty's dominions or elsewhere outside His Majesty's
Dominion's". This difference in the Acts appears to have allowed for
transportation to Australia from England, to start in 1787, while there
were problems with the Irish Act. Further legislation passed in
1790, designed "to render the transportation of such felons and vagabonds
more easy and effectual", rectified matters.
The first shipload of of Irish convicts, left for N.S.W.
in April 1791.
Between 1791 and 1853 approximately 26,500 Irish people were
transported to N.S.W., many for trivial offences. The last ship to carry
convicts direct from Ireland to Australia, was the Phoebe Dunbar, which
sailed from Kingstown (now known as Dun Laoghaire) near Dublin, and
arrived in Western Australia on August 30, 1853. However, in 1868, sixty
three Irish Fenians, who had been convicted in Ireland, but incarcerated
in England, were transported from England. They arrived in Western
Australia, on 9 January, 1868 on the Hougoumont, the last convict ship
to sail from England to Australia.
To mark the Australian Bi-Centenary in 1988,the Taoiseach presented
micro-films of the most important National Archives of Ireland's
records, relating to the transportation of Irish people, to the
Australian Government and the people of Australia, from the Government
and people of Ireland. A computerised index to the records was prepared,
and is available for use at various locations in Australia.
When a transportation sentence was handed down, the prisoner was
normally returned to the local gaol. Southern prisoners were housed in
the city gaol at Cork. This gaol was constantly overcrowded,and in a
shocking state of decay. Prsoners brought to Dublin were mostly placed in
Newgate and Kilmainham gaols. Newgate gaol was in a deplorable condition.
From 1817, a holding prison was provided in Cork to house the
convicts. In 1836 a depot was provided, in Dublin, for female convicts,
who had not been segregated prior to this. Temporary depots were
opened, prior to the opening of Mountjoy Convict Prison, at Smithfield
(Dublin) and Spike Island in Cork Harbour, for the male convicts.
These convicts often had to wait for periods of up to two years, before they
were actually transported to Australia.
Some idea of the accomodation provided for the convicts on board the ships,
may be gained from accounts of other convict transports. The first is by
Peter Cunningham (Surgeon Superintendent) and date from the 1820's.
"Two rows of sleeping-births, one above the other, extend on each side
of the between-decks, each berth being 6 feet square,and calculated to hold
four convicts, everyone thus possessing 18 inches of space to sleep in--and
ample space too! The hospital is in the fore-part of the ship, with a
bulkhead across, separating it from the prison, having two doors with locks
to keep out intruders; while a separate prison is built for the boys, to cut
off all intercourse between them and the men. Strong wooden stanchions,
thickly studded with nails, are fixed round the fore and main
hatchways, between decks, in each of which is a door with three padlocks, to
let the convicts out and in, and secure them at night. The convicts by these
means have no access to the hold through the prison, a ladder being placed
in each hatchway for them to go up and down by, which is pulled up at
Commodore Charles Wilkes of the United States Navy was shown over a convict
ship in 1839. He wrote:
"Between decks a strong grated barricade, spiked with iron, is built across
the ship at the steerage bulkhead. This gives the officers a free view of
all that goes on among the prisoners. Bunks for sleeping are placed one each
side all the way to the bows. Each of these will accomodate five persons.
There is no outlet but through a door in the steerage bulkhead, and this is
always guarded by a sentry. Light and air are admitted through the hatches,
which are strongly grated... The quarter deck is barricaded near the
mainmast, abaft which the arms of the guard are kept".
John Boyle's description of the Hougoumont, the last transport to sail for
Western Australia in 1868:
"The smells were, of course, among the notable feature of life on board. The
combination of animal and human excrement, foul water from the bottom of the
ship below pump wells which never came out, the remains of old cargoes and
the perpetually rotten wooden structure of the vessel herself must between
them have produced a dreadful stench, unrelieved by any kind of ventilation
system in the ship. People were accustomed to this ashore in towns and
villages which stank like an Oriental slum today".
Before embarking, the convicts had been washed and fitted out with the
regulation dress for the voyage,which consisted of jackets and waiscoats of
blue cloth or kersey, duck trousers, check or coarse linen shirts, yarn
stockings and woollen caps.
Peter Cunningham summed up the clothing and food provided for the convicts
" Each is allowed a pair of shoes, three shirts, two pairs of trousers,and
other warm clothing on his embarkation, besides a bed, pillow, and
blanket---while Bibles, Testaments, prayer-books, and psalters are
distributed among the messes.
The rations are both good and abundant, three-quartes of a pound of biscuit
being the daily allowance of bread,while each day the convict sits down to
dinner of either beef, pork, or plum-pudding, having pea soup four times a
week, and a pot of gruel every morning, with sugar and butter in it. Vinegar
is issued to the messes weekly; and as soon as the ship has been three weeks
at sea, each man is served with one ounce of lime juice and the same of
sugar daily, to guard against scurvy: while two gallons of good spanish red
wine, and one hundred and forty gallons of water are put on board for
issuing to each likewise---three to four gills of wine weekly, and three
quarts of water daily, being the general allowance.
During the early years of transportation to Australia, all free men were
allowed to choose their servants from amongst the Convicts. Convicts were
never sold or traded, as they had been in the American system. Governor
King favoured the Assignment System. Those wishing to have convicts
assigned to them, had to apply, giving details of the number of Convicts
they already had. They also had to state how much land they had under
cultivation. The Convicts lived in slab huts with bark roofs. Two suits of
clothes were allowed each year, plus a blanket, bedding, a knife, and a
pot. These were all provided by the master. In New South Wales in 1791,
only three years after the Colony started, convicts made up 82% of the
As soon as a ship arrived, it notified the port if there were male or
female convicts on board. The port authorities inspected the ship, and
the convicts. The Convicts were brought up on deck, and inspected by the
colonial secretary. Within a few days the Convicts were interviewed,
asking about their qualifications and previous work history. The Convicts
were usually assigned soon after this. The more dangerous of the
prisoners were usually sent to road gangs. There was a demand for farm
workers, and mechanics.
The assignment system had many critics, these
people felt it was corrupt, and too severe. A convict was fortunate to
fall into the hands of a good master. If he was a labourer from Ireland,
he was often better clothed and fed than the poor back home. But as
Governor Arthur pointed out a Convict had no freedom. Convicts who
misbehaved, were taken before a magistrate, who could order them
whipped, and or sent to a road gang. They were completely at the mercy of
their masters, and in many cases were treated as slaves. Governor Arthur
believed there were seven classes of Convict:
"the first and most desirable class of convict is the one holding a ticket of leave:
then the Convicts who are in assigned service;
convicts who are on the public works;
convicts who are in road parties out of chains;
convicts who are ordered to the penal settlement;
and those who are in the penal settlement in chains".
A ticket of leave prisoner is similar to a prisoner on probation. A man
sent out for seven years was eligible for a ticket of leave after 4
years if his conduct had been good. He was allowed to work for himself,
but could not move out of the district without permission.
The largest of the road gangs had approximately 300 men, and were guarded by a
sergeant and 12 soldiers.
One problem the authorities had was the need for an efficient police
force. Usually trusted convicts were employed as policemen, as it was
found that the free settlers and ex-soldiers were not as responsible as
a good ex-convict.
It was stated by Peter Cunningham that
"The Irish Convicts are more
happy and contented with their situation on board ship than the English,
although more loth to leave their country even improved as the situation
of the great body of them is by thus being removed, numbers telling me
that they had never been half so well off in their lives before........
They laid particular importance to the fact of having a blanket and bed
'to my own self entirely', which seemed a novelty to them".
New South Wales alone was favoured for the reception of the Irish. It
was noted by J.D.Lang that the Irish were sent almost exclusively to New
South Wales. He went on to observe that no less than one-third of the
total population of the colony of N.S.W. in 1837 was composed of Irish
Catholics, of whom nineteen-twentieths were convicts or emancipated
convicts. It must be noted that the present State of Queensland was in
those early years part of New South Wales. To this day there is still a
large number of people of Irish Descent in Australia, particularly in
N.S.W. and Queensland.
The probation system, instituted in 1840, replaced the assignment
system, and provided for the settlement of prisoners at a number of
probation stations, particularly in Van Diemen's Land (now known as the
State of Tasmania). The probation system consisted of five stages, of
which the first was dentention at Norfolk Island. No one other than
Convicts, penal officials and the military detachment were allowed to
live on Norfolk Island. The convicts were employed doing hard labour for
usually 2 to 4 years, depending on their sentence and behaviour. The next
stage of probation was the probation gang. The term to be spent to be
spent in this gang depended on the original sentence, according to the
7 to 10 years transportation, 2 years probation;
10 to 14 years, two and a half years probation;
14 to 20 years, 3 years probation;
20 years or more, 3 years probation;
transportation for life, 4 years probation.
Once convicts had passed through the probation gang, they proceeded to
the third stage of punishment, during which they became eligible for a
pass which enabled them to work privately for wages. The 4th stage was
ticket of leave. This was only after they had served half of their
original sentence. The fifth stage was a pardon, either conditional or
absolute. These could be granted by the Queen, or by the Governor.
This probation system did not work, as more workers were needed for
agricultural purposes, as opposed to road gangs or tree-felling. The
government also could not afford to employ the convicts on the terms
Transported Convicts made up most of the population of Australia in its
early years. As late as 1841, approximately one fifth of the population
of N.S.W. was described as "bnd", while twenty years previously the
proportation of transported convicts had been only slightly less than
described as 'free'. Tasmania (Van Diemen's Land) was even more saturated
The importance of the Convicts to Australia's development cannot be
taken lightly. Convicts and their children numerically dominated the
country from the first settlement in 1788 to the 1820's. They formed the
great labour force, which laid the foundations of Australia prior to the
Gold Rushes of the 1850's.
One observer noted the difference between the Convict National groups.
Scottish Convicts were considered the worst and Irish the best in Van
Diemen's Land and N.S.W. He thought that this was because English law
was more severe for minor crimes: "A man is vanished from Scotland for a
great crime, from England for a small on, and from Ireland, for hardly
no crime at all."
The Irish were older than the English by about two years on the average.
They included more married men, than did the English, and had been in
less trouble with the police prior to transportation. They were sent to
Australia for shorter periods, and had not moved from their counties of
birth as often as the English.
No one who has read the report of the Devon Commission, just prior to the
famine of the 1840's, could fail to agree with the statement that it was
impossible to describe adequately the wretched state of the Irish
Peasant. The report noted that: "In many districts their only food is
the potato, their only beverage water, that a bed or a blanket is a rare
luxury, and that their pig and manure heap constitute their only
Bigge, in his report, thought that they arrived in a healthy state.....
that they were obedient 'en route', and the separation from their native
land made a deep impression on their minds.
In Ireland theft of pigs and cattle was by far the most common
offence. Sheep stealing in 1819 prevailed to such an extent that estates
were almost laid to waste. Such are some cases of transportation caused
by the theft of an animal, that the offence usually carried a life
sentence. The animal thieves were often over forty years of age, but few
had been in trouble with the police before. The Lord
Lieutenant of Ireland stated in 1850:
"It is to be observed also, that
his Excellency would wish to call attention of Earl Grey particularly to
the fact that the general character of the Irish convicts differs widely
from that of other convicts. Their crimes for the most part are not the
result of habitual profligacy and vicious contamination. They are not
hardened offenders......nor are they usually found associated in gangs
under experienced leaders for the commission of great and well-planned
crimes. The offences of the Irish convicts are usually thefts to which
they are often driven by distress."
Treason and sedition also brought a handful of Irish to Australia. A
typical charge was that brought against John Moroney, tried in Co.
Tipperay in 1815 for being 'a seditious and disorderly person'.
In 1798 the most recent Irish revolt against the British overlords had
been supressed at the Battle of Vinegar Hill. Shiploads of these defeated
rebels had been sent to Australia, where their hatred of their British
masters continued. Governor King, a staunch loyalist and supporter of
the Protestant establishment, heard rumours of Irish plots in 1800 and
In March 1804, the long expected revolt of the Irish convicts took
place. Over 300 had armed themselves and gathered at Castle Hill, with
intention of marching to Windsor, calling on other convicts to join in.
They planned to march on Parramatta, and then onto Sydney gathering
recruits along the way. They were betrayed by one of their own, and the
alarm was raised in Parramatta. An
informer, an Irish traitor by the name of Keogh, told the authorities.
Governor King ordered Major George Johnston and a detachment of the
N.S.W. corps in pursuit. The rebels were overtaken at Vinegar Hill, near
Windsor. Johnston asked the leaders to "Parley" with him. Their reply
was "Death or Liberty".
William Johnston and a fellow rebel, Phillip
Cunningham, were gullible enough to trust the English officer. The
convicts tried to run away, but nine were butchered before reaching
Windsor, and Cunningham was hanged on the staircase of the public
store. Those considered to be ringleaders were punished according to
their crime. Three were hanged at at Parramatta, three at Castle Hill,
and two at Sydney. Thirty-five were sent to the penal station at Coal
River, later renamed Newcastle.
The Reverend Samuel Marsden, a magistrate
as well as a religious minister, on this occasion had not scrupled to
break laws himself, including those of God, by ordering floggings to
extract confessions from any suspected persons. Their distress was
described by Josepf Holt, another suspected plotter, who, since he was a
Protestant and a gentleman, was punished only by being forced to watch
the terrific torture of his countrymen.
"There was two floggers, wrote
Holt, "Richard Rice and John Jonson, the Hangman from Sidney. Rice was a
left handed man, and Jonson was right-handed, so they stood at each side
and I never saw two trashers in a barn moove their stroakes more
handeyer than those two man killers did .... as it happened I was to
leew'rd of the floggers and I protest ........ Next was tyed up paddy
galvin, a young boy about twenty years. He was ordered to get 300
lashes. He got one hundred on the back and you cud see his back bone
between his shoulder blades, then the doctor order him to get another
hundred on his bottom. He got it, then the doctor order him to be flog
on the calves of his legs. He never gave so much as whimper. They asked
him where the pikes were hid, he said he did not know, and if he did he
would not tell. "You may as well hang me now," he says for you will never
get any musick from me". So they put him in the cart and sent him to the
Australians generally, and particularly Irish-Australians, remembered the
sort of thing that was done to Paddy Galven and to thousands like
him. "I'll fight but not surrender"said the anonymous, but clearly
Irish-Australian Wild Colonial Boy.
At the end of transportation, the Irish remained part of the working
class in both N.S.W. and Van Diemen's Land. Their skills, or lack there-of,
put them at a disadvantage, for it was skilled tradesman that were
in demand in the new colonies. Tradesmen could command high wages, when
their sentences had expired, or when they obtained their
Ticket-of-Leave. They had generally not been trained back home in Ireland
for anything but farming. The Irish female convicts had similar
problems. They usually worked as domestic servants in the colony. The
more respectable were naturally assigned to the best positions. Although
the Convicts or ex-convicts were generally confined to the working
class, most found secure regular employment.
Some, or in fact quite a lot, of the Convicts were able to obtain land
in the two colonies. Bardnand Ward, who arrived on the "Kangaroo" in
1816, had by 1825, four bullocks, 50 sheep, 40 bushels of wheat, and
some 35 pounds in cash. This qualified him for a grant of 50
acres. Patrick McCabe transported for fourteen years in 1817, had more
difficulty in securing a grant of land. His first application in 1829
was rejected, although he had leased 40 acres stocked with sheep and had
quite a large sum of money saved. Two years later he successfully
applied again, and was granted 320 acres. During the interim period he
had purchased 60 acres, 45 under cultivation, he had 86 pounds and notes
worth 40 pounds each. He had also married in the intervening
period. Perhaps one of the most successful of the Irish convicts in
Tasmania (Van Diemens's Land) was Richard Dry, convicted in Dublin in
1787, and sentenced to life for political activity. One of his sons
became a Premier of Tasmania, who eventually became the first Australian
Knight of the Garter. Richard Dry was given a grant of 500 acres in 1818,
as a reward for working as a commissariat clerk. Dry and his tenants were
working 300 acres of land, and had almost 4,000 cattle and 7,000 sheep.
By 1827 he had 12,000 acres of land.
This trend followed, with convicts, once they obtained their freedom,
taking up land grants all over N.S.W., Queensland and the other
Australian States. Farming was often the means by which the Irish ex-convict
made a successful career. Charles Conlan, who was transported for life
in 1815 from Aughnacloy, Co. Tyrone, made a lucrative life for himself and
his wife by growing extremely fine oats and hay for the fine carriage
horses that were in the colony. Charles married Elizabeth Hand, a
"Currency Lass", born free in N.S.W. to two more Irish Convicts Patrick
Hand from Co. Armagh and Catherine Hatch from Dublin. Charles and
Elizabeth had a large family all who have been extremely
successful, mainly as graziers. Their descendants, of which I am very
proud to be one, have been successful in most fields in Australia,
including Education, Law, Music, Medicine, Politics, and the Church.
These fine old convicts now have descendants in most Australian
States, and indeed in most countries of the world.
I hope to tell more of how the Irish Convicts succeeded,successfully and
some not so successfully at later date.
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