Skip to main content

Convicts: Settlement

John was born and raised in Australia. Subsequently, he is interested in all things Australian: language, sport and culture.

The First Fleet Enters Botany bay

The First Fleet Enters Botany bay

The First Settlement

As well as being a place to transport British convicts, historians now believe that another major reason for the decision to establish a colony in Australia was to expand its empire and open up new trade areas in the Southeast Asia region. Britain was also seeking sources to supply flax and timber for the navy. Botany Bay was seen as an ideal place to grow flax, as was nearby Norfolk Island, which also had an abundance of large pine trees to provide good timber for masts and spars.

After landing at Botany Bay, however, Captain Phillip soon decided that this was an unsuitable site for a new settlement due to no permanent fresh water supply. A more suitable site was soon found at Port Jackson, some 12 kilometres (7.5 miles) north, which had a freshwater stream. Phillip named this site Sydney Cove after the British Home Secretary, Sir Thomas Townshend, 1st Viscount Sydney.

On January 26, 1788, the First Fleet sailed into Sydney Cove and hoisted the British flag. A small party led by lieutenant Philip Gidley King was then sent to occupy Norfolk Island on February 13.

The British Flag Is Raised

The British Flag Is Raised

Setting Up the Colony: Early Problems

Captain Phillip was now responsible for setting up a colony in an unknown country, and the problems facing him were considerable. Not the smallest of these was the supply of food. The first crops, brought from Britain as seed and planted in 1788, had failed. Most of the livestock brought with the fleet either died or had escaped into the bush.

Rations were becoming so low by late 1788 that the ship the Sirius was sent to South Africa (the Cape of Good Hope) to source additional supplies. The search also began to find more sustainable agricultural land around Sydney, and an eventual site was located at what is now called Rose Hill.

Food supplies were reduced even more the following year, and by 1790, the colony was facing the threat of starvation. Another ship, the 'Supply', was sent to Batavia (now Jakarta) for urgent supplies, and its return along with the arrival of the Second Fleet saved the situation. By 1791 the colony was out of danger, and with Government-run farms now operating at Rose Hill and Toongabbie, food supply ceased to be a problem.

Phillip had endeavoured to cement friendly relations between the settlers and the local Aboriginal people but with little success. A violent clash occurred in 1788, and more were to occur spasmodically over the next four years.

Aboriginal Uprising

Aboriginal Uprising

The Life of Convicts in Australia


Convicts were assigned to work in various jobs within the colonies. The type of work depended on whether they were assigned to work for free settlers or in government service. Naturally, work assignments also differed between men and women. Any male convicts who had committed further serious crimes since arrival in Australia were sent to places of hard labour at Port Arthur or Macquarie Harbour.

Those convicts assigned to work for settlers would be employed in tasks dependent on their master's occupation. As many of the free settlers were now farmers, most male convicts worked as farm labourers or shepherds, others as seamen or general labourers. Most women worked as domestic servants, but a rare few who had education or skills were given more responsible positions, such as nurses.

Those chosen to work in government service were employed depending on their skills and the main needs of the government at the time. Some worked in skilled jobs such as bricklayers, clerks, and tailors, while others made wheels and barrels or burned lime to make cement. However, the vast majority of males in government service were employed as labourers on public works projects. Those assigned to hard labour, worked in iron gangs, chained, and doing backbreaking work like building roads by hand (cutting down trees, levelling the ground, and paving the surface) or standing all day in waist-deep water to build a wharf.

Regulations governing the work of convicts depended on the master they worked for or the government policy at the time, but as a general rule, until 1819, convicts worked from sunrise to 8 am, then from 9 am to 3 pm. Many had access to small plots of private land where they could grow vegetables and tend in the late afternoon. However, during the 1820s, the rules were toughened, with convicts required to work from sunrise to sunset. Church attendance was also made compulsory.



Standards of dress for convicts were not set until 1810. Until then, convicts were issued a selection of clothing known as 'slops'. One of the officers on the First Fleet named Watkin Tench wrote that "Slops of every kind were issued to women and children before landing at Port Jackson".

In 1810, under Governor Lachlan Macquarie's administration, male convicts were made to wear blue cotton or woollen jackets and waistcoats, heavy cotton trousers, coarse linen shirts, woollen stockings and caps. The clothing of female convicts still changed very little.

Typical Convict Clothing

Typical Convict Clothing


In the early years of the colony, up until 1792, food supply had been scarce, but after the renewal of supplies brought with the Second Fleet, it was no longer a real problem.

Once the settlement was fully established, convict rations were carefully regulated. During the 1820s, for instance, the primary ration for male convicts was 3 kilograms of beef or 1.8 kilos of pork, 3 kilos of flour or wheat meal, 1.3 kilos of maize meal, and 0.9 kilos of sugar per week. Female convicts received two-thirds of this ration, and fresh vegetables were supplied occasionally.

Convicts working for private masters did not always receive the amount of rations specified in the regulations as it was at the master's discretion. Those convicts in iron gangs or secondary prisons like Port Arthur and Macquarie Harbour received even less. The standard meal being a coarse porridge called 'skilly'.

'Gin Lane' by William Hogarth 1751

'Gin Lane' by William Hogarth 1751

Women Convicts

Of the total number of convicts transported to Australia, 16 percent were women, with over 24,000 female convicts being sent to the new colonies. Most women gave their previous occupation in the Motherland as domestic servants; however, at least a third had been either prostitutes or thieves.

Nevertheless, most women convicts found themselves assigned to domestic duties on arrival in the colonies. Some were kept in government service, preparing food for male convicts and working on other household tasks. Unlike their male counterparts, women were rarely sent to outlying rural areas. Most remained in the towns and became mistresses of other convicts, officers, or free settlers.

Female factories were set up in New South Wales and Van Dieman's Land (now Tasmania). These factories were, in fact, jails for women convicted of further offences after arrival. They were also used as holding centres for women awaiting assignment to new masters and pregnant convicts. Different kinds of jobs were performed by the women in these factories, including the manufacture of cloth.


The government was constantly concerned with the rate of children being born to convict parents and unmarried mothers (though there was little social stigma at the time). Many convict mothers found it difficult to care for their children, and most refused to name the father of their child, especially those who had been sent to the factories when pregnant.

The earliest orphan school was set up in 1801 by Governor Macquarie. He and Governor Bourke tried to introduce some form of education and religious instruction to the convicts' children. These men also gave grants of land to convict parents to encourage a normal family life. However, these measures only met with limited success.

A significant number of juvenile convicts between 12 and 18 years were sent to Australia on the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Fleets. They were treated the same as adults, and nothing different was done for them until 1835, when a specifically juvenile establishment was set up at Point Puer, close to Port Arthur.

Irish convicts arrive in Australia

Irish convicts arrive in Australia

The Convict
by Melinda Kendall
(published in the Sydney Gazette, 17 May 1836)

Past twelve o’clock and a stormy night,
Hark ! hark! what a hollow groan,
From the cell of the convict took its flight
Twas surely the deepest that grief could start
Twas surely the burst of a broken heart.
To-morrow he dies, and these are the last,
And the saddest hours he will tell
The summons seems borne upon ev’ry blast
And death one each tone of the bell—
For to-morrow he launches his barque alone
On eternity’s tide to a world unknown.
Poor youth! I remember when guileless and gay.
Together we traversed the heath,
Or silently sat at the close of the day,
The wild rose bower beneath—
And shudder’d to hear his sire relate
The bandit’s doom and the felon’s fate.
But the red cross banner and rolling drum,
Soon drew him away from the plain,
And the rustice with grief said he ne’er would come,
To his native valley again!
I remember his mother’s deep drawn sigh
And the tear that fell from his father’s eye.
Oh! had he but sunk upon glory’s bed,
And slept in the tomb of the brave,
Twould have spared his father’s hoary head,
From his mother’s deep dug grave!
Twould have sav’d his love’s last frantic clasp,
And his friend the pang of a parting grasp.
But tomorrow he dies! and his last request,
Comes mournfully sad to me—
A bunch of wild roses to plant on his breast,
Pluc’d fresh from his fav’rite tree!
For they’ll wither like him in their early bloom,
And his cold bosom will be their tomb !


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 John Hansen


John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on December 10, 2014:

Thank you Mary. So glad you found this piece of history to be of interest though quite sad. I also appreciate the vote up.

Mary Craig from New York on December 10, 2014:

Again you've brought history to life for us Jodah. So much we don't know about our own history (US) never mind Britain or Australia's. A sad but great read.

Voted up, useful, awesome, and interesting.

John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on December 09, 2014:

Thanks for reading this hub word55. Glad you found this interesting.

John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on December 09, 2014:

Thanks for reading this hub word55. Glad you found this interesting.

Al Wordlaw from Chicago on December 09, 2014:

Good going Jodah, great story of living to write about, good poem too, keeping us aware of another aspect of live to be reminded about Thanks for sharing!

John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on June 21, 2014:

Ok no worries Hackslap, thanks for taking the time to read these hubs.

Harry from Sydney, Australia on June 20, 2014:

Yes I did .. but didn't wanna comment until I read part 2 :)

John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on June 20, 2014:

Thank you for reading Hackslap. Glad you enjoy the history lesson. Did you read part one first?

Harry from Sydney, Australia on June 20, 2014:

Fascinating history lesson ..worth the read on a sunny winter's afternoon down here in Sydney... great job!

John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on November 21, 2013:

Thank you Eric, but alas anything I have done made little difference to the lives of the convicts or the way those in authority treated them.

Eric Wayne Flynn from Providence, Rhode Island on November 21, 2013:

I respect the comments of Eric above... At least he has a soul that can look at its self.. If only the rest of the power structure had a bit of what he has. Respect to him and of course you Jodah for doing your part in the matter.

John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on November 20, 2013:

Wow Eric, it's difficult to reply to those comments. Sorry to make you question the good and bad in you, but I guess if my writing can invoke such strong feelings it has succeeded on some level. Thanks for your insightful comments.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on November 20, 2013:

I really cannot put my finger on it. But I think that like the dirt I plant in there is something about the suffering of others that lends to my fertility, at least intellectually.

You have an ability to let me look at those others and see my self more clearly. Perhaps I am convict or convict "owner" I can not yet phathom such notions. But I am brought closer to my humanity by an author of your caliber and for that I both hate and love you.

John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on November 20, 2013:

Thanks again Nell, much appreciated.

Nell Rose from England on November 20, 2013:

This is fascinating Jodah! I am reading every single word! and the photos really bring it to life, I love history an Australian has always been a bit of a gap with me, great read, voted up and shared! nell

John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on November 20, 2013:

Thank you Phyllis,

Just one to

Phyllis Doyle Burns from High desert of Nevada. on November 20, 2013:

Jodah, I really enjoyed this second part also. It is very interesting to follow along on the history of the life of the convicts.

John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on November 20, 2013:

Wow Eric, Thanks for that amazing comment. It is quite humbling to someone with no real training or educational qualifications in the literary field. I know I have problems grammatically but as long as my hubs inform and get the message across that's what's important I think. Yes, the opal is an amazing gem isn't it?

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on November 20, 2013:

Just outstanding --- But I am going to wait for number 3 for something like just before bed to think about. Buddy this is just plain RICH. Like one of your Opals you can lose yourself in..

John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on November 20, 2013:

Thanks again Pamela for your generous comment.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on November 20, 2013:

This is a fascinating hub. I didn't know the prisoners were treated so poorly. This history is so interesting and I enjoyed your poem as well. Awesome hub.

John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on November 13, 2013:

Thanks for taking the time to read this kidscraft,

Yes, it's difficult to imagine young children like that being sent halfway around the world to a strange place, and treated as adults. It must have been so terrifying for them. As Jackie had mentioned in her comment, a lot of people think it was only men sent to the colonies, when that wasn't the case. Glad you like the pictures too.

John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on November 13, 2013:

No need to apologize Jackie, you have to deal with real life matters first. Anyway I'm glad you are enjoying this history lesson and that it's clearing up some misconceptions you may have had. Yes, many of the convicts were from the lower classes, or who had been forced into the cities and were unable to afford employment and food. They often stole to survive....and the penalty, deportation. Hope your chickens appreciate the heat lamp and lay you lots of eggs.

kidscrafts from Ottawa, Canada on November 13, 2013:

Very interesting hub, Jodah! It's sad to think that kids were send so young as convicts! When I see the mug shot of the boy... he was may be 12 years old! I can't imagine a young boy like that travelling such a distance by boat in hard condition and then being treated as an adult! Very sad!

Great choice of pictures and illustration, Jodah!

Thank you for sharing!

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on November 13, 2013:

Sorry to be so late getting to this but weather has turned cold and I have had work to do only getting to stop by here to check for comments on my hubs as I can. Got my three chickens a heat lamp today, hoping it won't upset them. lol Just can't stand to think of them getting cold.

This is great, hope you can give us more than one more, but I won't push my luck. I just thought the prisoners were men and in my mind they were so horrible throwing them out in Australia is all they deserved. They could fight and kill each other. You show a completely different picture with women and children and although they may have been crooks or lower class, this had to be a very terrifying experience to begin with especially. That first little while with hardly any food, too. I guess I just think men always managed to eat but I am sure they needed weapons to kill meat to eat and I assume they were given no guns for provisions or protection? ^

John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on November 13, 2013:

Yes drbj, very much so. Their land was invaded, and if they put up a fight, many were slaughtered.

drbj and sherry from south Florida on November 13, 2013:

Interesting history, Jodah. Seems that the Aboriginal population in Australia may have been treated much like the early Indian nations in America.

John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on November 12, 2013:

Thank you Alicia, glad to fill a niche here. There should be at least one more hub in the series to finish it off, but you never know, I may add to it later describing more about the Aboriginal population and how they were effected by white European settlement.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on November 12, 2013:

This is another interesting and informative installment in your series. Jodah. I've been interested in this period of history and the sad state of the convicts for some time. I'm enjoying reading your hubs about the topic.

John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on November 12, 2013:

Thanks for reading FlourishAnyway and your kind comments. I wrote this article actually at the suggestion of Jackie Lynnley after reading her Cherokee Trail Of Tears. I'd never written a true historical article before, and growing up in this country just took it for granted that everyone already knew our history. I'm glad to be able to make it available to friends from other countries who wouldn't otherwise have had access to this information without actively having gone to the trouble of seeking it out. I must point out that there is also another account of Australia's history that comes from the Aboriginal point of view. Much of which was suppressed in our school history lessons and has only been revealed in recent years. But that's a whole other story.

FlourishAnyway from USA on November 12, 2013:

Such a compelling read. Just looking at the faces of those young children in the historical photos made me see that they suspected the misery and dangers of what they'd be undertaking as a part of their punishment. This is extremely interesting. In the States, we don't get exposure to much history other than our own unless we seek it out.

John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on November 12, 2013:

Well, Im glad the song and Against The Wind brought back those memories for you Mary. I have always been a Jon English fan (have numerous albums..mostly records) and loved of the Against The wind series. I haven't heard the Bob Seger versin of the song, but maybe I'll have a listen just to compare them. I didn't even realise that Against The Wind was shown on USA tv, but I suppose you get most things in time. Thanks for reading.

Mary McShane from Fort Lauderdale, Florida on November 11, 2013:

I remember Against The Wind from late 1970s very well. I was very wrapped up in Mary's story and couldn't wait for each episode. I didn't get to see it until the mid-1980s here in USA because I was traveling a lot with a medical team to other countries, some of whom were so rural they had no TV service. When I got home, I don't believe it became available on our TV stations until early 1980s. You can catch a late night rerun on BBC if you look real hard. The music of Jon English surpasses Bob Seger's rendition of this song by miles. You can hear the words when Jon sings it and the tempo is slowed down so that it is real nice to hear the words. Bob Seger's rendition is very uptight , strained if you will, and does nothing to make the song likable. Good addition of the video. Brought back lots of memories for me :)

John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on November 11, 2013:

You were first to read this one Mary. thanks for you generous comments and the vote up. I just added a video in the last few minutes called 6 Ribbons. I don't know if it was added before you read the hub, but if not you may like to check it out. I think it fits beautifully.

Mary McShane from Fort Lauderdale, Florida on November 11, 2013:

Awesome history recap. Your photos are very well matched to the hub. Can't wait to read your next one. Voted useful, awesome, and interesting. Good hub.