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Crime and Punishment

The changing nature of crime and punishment in the nineteenth century profoundly shaped the establishment and development of Australia. Britain’s urban environment was changing in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As urban centres grew and industrialisation increased, changes in wealth distribution and social structures required new policing and legal institutions. Wars and political unrest had also left Britain with a military force and infrastructure unsure of its place in a time of peace. Britain’s justice system became increasingly punitive, with large number of convicts, often convicted of minor crimes, requiring confinement. The Transportation Act (1717) had formalised transportation as a form of punishment, and by 1800 it was an integral part of British systems of punishment. When the American colonies repudiated British rule in 1776, other British colonies became places of convict transportation.

Around 162,000 convicted men and women were punished by transportation to Australia. As a collection of penal colonies, the Australian continent was a ground for experimentation in the treatment of convicted criminals and the development and implementation of new systems of law.

Published accounts of Australia’s convict history vary greatly in their conclusions about the nature of the convicts sent to Australia and the effect of the criminal justice system on the development of individuals and community. Which version of the convict story is told depends on the emphasis authors have placed on primary or secondary sources, quantitative or qualitative data.

Australia’s convict records are inscribed in the UNESCO Memory of the World Australian Register as four entries: Convict Records: Archives of Transportation and the Convict System, 1788-1842 (New South Wales); Records of the Tasmanian Convict Department 1803-1893; The Convict Records of Queensland 1825-1842; and the Convict Records of Western Australia 1838-1910.The inscription of The Convict Records of Australia in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register in 2007 underscored the importance of the original convict records in telling the story of Australia.

Port Jackson (Sydney) in New South Wales (NSW) was the first convict site, with 775 arriving on the First Fleet in January 1788. These convicts, with their variety of skills, trades, and as a source of free labour, were essential in building the new colony. Officially a penal colony until 1823, transportation to NSW continued until 1842 by which time about 80,000 English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish convicts had been transported there. A small number of convict exiles, granted conditional pardons on arrival in Australia, continued to arrive in NSW in the 1840s, with the last convict ship arriving in Moreton Bay (at that time still part of NSW) in April 1850.

Convicts were administered in NSW centrally by the Colonial Secretary with the support of a Principal Superintendent of Convicts. Local superintendents and commandants in convict establishments and settlements maintained records on convicts within their jurisdictions, reporting back to central government. Records were also created by the Benches of Magistrates. The Convict Branch of the Police took over management of the remaining ‘imperial convicts’ when the NSW convict establishment was disbanded in 1855.

The earliest Australian convict records include documentation of supplies of basics from the public store (victuals), registration of assignment to a free settler or a public department, records of police patrols and military musters, records of passes for permitted convict movement, and court records; and recorded the basic details of transportees along with the assigned place where they served out their sentences. The type of records kept on convicts changed over time as administrators discovered the benefits of detailed information on their appearance, skill sets, conduct, and movements.

Convict indents are a core element of the New South Wales (NSW) convict record collection. Indents are indenture documents, legal agreements for a group of convicts to be transported. They were created per ship and list the particulars of the convicts being transported. Initially indents were quite basic, recording name, date and place of trial and sentence. As the system developed, further details were added, including a physical description, native place, age and crime. As the primary record for each convict, additional information about a convict’s time in the colony (numbers of tickets of leave, pardons or certificates of freedom as well as details of any further crimes committed) can also be seen on many indents.

Unfortunately, in the belief that they no longer were of value to the government, many of NSW’s convict records were destroyed in 1863 and 1870. While this destruction leads to gaps in information, there is a wealth of other records preserved in State Records NSW’s custody. The convict records that comprise the collection inscribed in the UNESCO Memory of the World Australian Register include indents, a small number of assignment records, ticket of leave records, certificate of freedom and pardon holders’ records, convict marriage and death registers, and correspondence relating to convicts as part of the Colonial Secretary’s papers. In addition there are muster, census and convict bank account records.

Not long after settlements were established in NSW, the colony was expanded south to the island of Van Diemen’s Land. Van Diemen’s Land received its first shipment of 279 convicts in 1804 by the Calcutta. As Van Diemen’s Land developed as the second primary site for transportation, convicts made up the bulk of its European population. The number of serving convicts in Van Diemen’s Land rose from just over 400 in 1816, to a peak of over 30,000 in 1847. Transportation ceased in 1852 and, by 1862, six years after the island became officially known as ‘Tasmania’, only just over a thousand serving convicts remained. Around 76,000 convicts arrived in Tasmania between 1804 and 1853.

a photograph of exemption from government labor document

After initially adopting the same style of recordkeeping as NSW, in the 1820s Van Diemen’s Land commenced an extensive system of recordkeeping, including lists of the skills and professions of convicts, detailed physical description lists, registrations of the settlers that convicts were assigned to, as well as registers of permissions to marry. Chief among these records are the conduct registers, detailed volumes created from 1825 when Van Diemen’s Land became a colony in its own right with greater control of its own administration. Backdated to include the earliest convict arrivals, these conduct registers are the cornerstone of Tasmania’s convict records.

Moreton Bay, on Queensland’s Brisbane River, acted as a place of secondary punishment for over 2500 convicts from 1824 until 1842. Repeat offenders were sent to Moreton Bay, a place known for harsh treatment. In 1842 the area was opened for free settlement and is now the site of Queensland’s capital, Brisbane. Although covering a period of just 15 years, the convict records of Queensland are a rich historical source, not only of the convict experience but of the establishment of Brisbane and the foundation of what became, in 1859, the colony and later the state of Queensland.

Queensland’s convict records include letter books, operational records and plans of the depots that made up the colony, a register of all prisoners, and details of the distribution of convict labour and punishments.

Western Australia was the last colony to receive convicts, beginning its intake in 1849 at a time when transportation to the eastern colonies had ceased. The Convict Records of Western Australia, held in the State Records Office of Western Australia, span an 18-year period, and include plans and operational records for Fremantle Prison and the convict establishment, convict lists and conduct registers, Comptroller-General and Colonial Secretary’s correspondence, staff and medical records, and extensive police and court records

Much early research into transportation and the convict experience utilised official reports such as Select Committee reports (Transportation, Secondary Punishments, State of Gaols), and Commissioner Bigge’s Reports on Governor Lachlan Macquarie’s administration. Though informative, these documents are a step removed from the convict experience as recorded in the convict records created by the administrators of the time – ledgers of indents, physical descriptions, and sentence and conduct registers. As Australia is a young country in terms of its European settlement, records dating from the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 and covering the first hundred years of colonisation are extremely valuable in documenting how our nation was established. Registration by UNESCO, and a growing interest in genealogy, has brought considerable attention to Australia’s convict records, and this interest continues to grow. As the custodians of these records, state records offices and state libraries have embraced digitisation, greatly expanding access to these fragile archival records to a wide variety of researchers.

As a penal colony, Australia was shaped by the consequences of other countries’ management of crime. With the The Edward (Ned) Kelly and Related Papers as found in the Public Record Office Victoria we turn to home grown criminals – the bushrangers.

Bushrangers were active from the very start of the colony, and continued to operate into the 1870s. At first, many bushrangers were escaped convicts evading recapture by the authorities. Living off the land was a preferred option to harsh punishment under an assigned master or in a prison gang. Later bushrangers also lived off the land, but supplemented their livelihood through robbing settlers or travellers.

With convicts, and the descendants of convicts, comprising a large percentage of the Australian population, sympathy for bushrangers, and antipathy for authority were not uncommon. Bushrangers became legendary figures, and their exploits were embellished through oral and written accounts. Songs and stories evoked the fearless nature of certain bushrangers; however less is remembered of their violent robberies, such as those during the gold rush period.

Ned Kelly (1855-1880), is one of the best-known of Australia’s historical figures. Kelly operated in the time of the outlaw bushranger when, with the passing of the Felons Apprehension Act 1865 (NSW) police had the authority to shoot bushrangers on sight. The story of his life as a bushranger, pursuit by police, violent confrontation at Glenrowan, and eventual execution, are known in general terms by most Australians. The Ned Kelly papers bring documentary evidence to the Ned Kelly legend, and allow researchers to untangle myth from reality. Records within the papers, dated from the 1850s to 1882, include police reports, court records, prison records, and supplementary letters, photographs, and note books.


Australian Government, Ned Kelly,

P R Eldershaw, Guide to the public records of Tasmania, Section three, Convict Department, Archives Office of Tasmania, Hobart, Tasmania, 1965.

Jennifer Harrison, 2012, Moreton Bay convict settlement

Christine Shergold, New South Wales Convict Records - ‘Lost and Saved’,

State Records Authority of New South Wales, Guide to New South Wales State Archives relating to Convicts and Convict Administration, 2006

State Records Authority of New South Wales, Ned Kelly Papers,

State Records Office of Western Australia Convict Records

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