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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 night"..


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 as follows:
" 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 population.

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 following scale:
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 laid down.

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 with prisoners.

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 property."

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 1802.

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 hospital"


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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