Convicts & Colonies

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Dealing with a glut of convicts was the primary reason for the initial settlement, being seen as a way to ease prison pressures and replace previous transportation to other places such as the United States. Life for convicts was not easy before, during or after their transportation to one of the Australian colonies. In the end it did provide opportunities for those prepared to take them. Note that not all colonies began life as convict settlements. Some were based on commercial ventures. Details are listed below.

While convict ancestry was once considered something to be hidden, it is now often regarded as something about which to be proud.

This page looks at convict life both before coming to Australia and once they arrived. It includes a section on Irish convicts. There is also information on the establishment of the main colonies, the majority of which had convicts at some point during their early years.


Convict Life Before Australia

Prison hulks, gaols, trial information, records held in the British Isles.

General Sites

  • Anti-Transportation Movement
    Article reproduced in The Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General Advertiser [NSW : 1843 - 1893]. This was only one of the parts of this movement in the middle of the 19th century. Includes a clear copy as well as the facsimile. For links to other newspaper articles from around the colonies on the same topic, see the Search results for ‘anti-transportation movement’ at Trove [NLA].
  • A Short History of Convict Australia
    Pilot Guide. Who they were, transportation, convict life, pardon & punishment, escapes.
  • Australia Bound : Convict Voyaging, 1788-1868
    ‘Strikingly little scholarly attention has been paid either to the organisation of the ships prior to departure or to convict and other experiences of the voyages. This research project seeks to begin to fill that gap : its aim is to write an experiential history of convict voyaging’. Download a PDF Copy here.
  • Australian Convict Sites
    Well annotated information and links to sites from most states in Australia.
  • Before Transportation
    ‘From 1788 to 1868 over 160 000 men, women and children from a range of social and ethnic backgrounds were punished with transportation to Australia. On this page you w‚Äčill find links to information on the life of convicts before their arrival in Australia and their journey to Australia’.
  • Convict and Colonial Australia
    Splash ABC. Select specific topics from the wide range, each of which is linked to specific school levels, Examples include :
  • Convict Creations
    What stems from our convict heritage.
  • Convict Crimes
    Article. Discusses these, includes a listing of crimes committed.
  • Convictism in Australia
    Reasons for transportation, transport to various states, cessation of transportation, legacy of the convict era, famous convicts, references, links. Wikipedia.
  • Convict Jacket c.1840s
    Images, information, bibliography, links.
  • Convict Life In Australia
    Covers aspects of convict life especially discipline and punishment.
  • Convict Records
    ‘ allows you to search the British Convict transportation register for convicts transported to Australia between 1787-1867. Information available includes name of convict, known aliases, place convicted, port of departure, date of departure, port of arrival, and the source of the data’.
  • Convicts Sent to Australia
    Originally more of a genealogical site. Contains direct information and annotated links in directories.
  • Convict Transportation Registers Database
    [State Library of Queensland]. ‘The British Convict transportation registers 1787-1867 database has been compiled from the British Home Office [HO] records which are available on microfilm. You can find details for over 123 000 of the estimated 160 000 convicts transported to Australia in the 18th and 19th centuries - names, term of years, transport ships and more’.
  • Descriptions of Convict Life
    A series of vignettes covering a range of aspects of convict life.
  • Indexes to Convict Records NSW
    Covers Certificates of Freedom, Exiles, Pardons, Tickets of Leave, more. Search capability provided.

Irish Convicts

Information, especially from the Irish Archives concerning convicts, allied free settlers, the transportation system.

  • Margaret Catchpole
    ‘Only the most basic details are known about the lives and crimes of many of the convicts sent to Australia’. This is the story of one female convict, Margaret Catchpole.
  • ‘Lags’ and ‘Lashes’
    The Vocabulary of Convict Australia, 1788-1850. ‘Describes the evolution of convict terminology, as revealed through books in the [National] Library’s Collection’. Archived but still available.
  • The Convict Experience
    State Library of NSW. ‘In nineteenth century England, the sentence for a variety of crimes was transportation to Australia, a harsh punishment with many convicts never seeing their homeland again’.
  • The Digital Panopticon
    ‘This website allows you to search millions of records from around fifty datasets, relating to the lives of 90 000 convicts from the Old Bailey. Use our site to search individual convict life archives, explore and visualise data, and to learn more about crime and criminal justice in the past’.
  • The End of Transportation
    Short article on the anti-transportation push, with embedded links, from The Dictionary of Sydney.
  • The Horrors of Convict Life
    British Radical Visions of the Australian Penal Colonies. Effects of penal colonies on convicts. Includes information from John Frost, who had spent time in Van Diemen’s Land as a convict.
  • The Parliamentary Report on Transportation 1838
    Also known as the Molesworth Report. This presentation provides ‘Extracts from the Molesworth Report of 1838 describing conditions for the convicts’. A second brief statement can be found Here.
  • The Rule of Law in A Penal Colony
    Law and Power in Early New South Wales. Selections from the book of this title, by David Neal [Cambridge University Press, 1991]. Google books.
  • Transportation versus Imprisonment
    In Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Britain : Penal Power, Liberty, and the State. Article originally in Law & Society Review. Get a PDF copy [206K] here. Not free but possible to access through other sources.
  • Western Australian Convicts 1850-1868
    How many, why the change in attitude, how used.

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Covering the early years of each of the colony settlements. Includes documentation and information on influential people.

New South Wales

Captain Arthur Phillip

  • Arthur Phillip
    First Fleet Commander, First Governor. A biography and detail of his time as Governor. Australian Dictionary of Biography.
  • Governor Phillip’s Instructions 25 April 1787
    General information, the transcript in PDF and RTF formats.
  • The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay
    Arthur Phillip. Free ebook of 23 chapters, several appendices. Extends beyond the voyage, to the land they arrived at. ‘Includes the Journals of Lieutenants Shortland, Watts, Ball and Captain Marshall, with an account of their new discoveries’.
  • Castle Hill Convict Rebellion
    The uprising, Battle of Vinegar Hill, aftermath, references. Wikipedia.
  • Cobb & Co Heritage Trail
    ‘Witness the relics of these long gone coaching days - many recognisable, some mere shadows of their former selves’. Education kit. Gallery, links, video.
  • Early Colonial History
    Botany Bay as a Penal Colony. Article looking at the decision to choose Botany Bay for a penal colony.
  • First Fleet Online
    ‘Information about the convicts who were transported to Australia in 1787’. Database of all convicts, source information, diary extracts, stories, letters, investigation suggestions, references, links to specific topics. Their Stories and Rations Timeline are examples of the content.
  • Indexes Online
    State Records Authority of New South Wales. Censuses, convict information, Colonial Secretary Papers, Court & Police Records, shipping records, land records, more. Printed copies are Fee-based.
  • John Thomas Bigge
    English judge, Royal Commissioner. The Bigge Inquiry, his death, links, references. Wikipedia. Lengthy biography in the Australian Dictionary of Biography Online.
  • Lachlan Macquarie
    A pivotal Governor. Biography, his time in the colony, what he did, links to people such as Marsden, Simeon Lord, Dr Redfern and others including Bigge, who reported on the affairs of the colony. Australian Dictionary of Biography.
  • Norfolk Island - The First Settlement
    Establishment of a colony on Norfolk Island. The second settlement is covered through Hell of the Pacific. Norfolk Island became a Secondary Punishment Colony along with Newcastle, Port Macquarie, Moreton Bay and Van Diemen’s Land [Tasmania].
  • Religion, Church & Missions in Australia
    The Early Years. Men of the cloth, individuals such as Johnson, Marsden and Macquarie, places of worship, more, using text and images over several linked pages. State Library of NSW.
  • Rum Rebellion
    Bligh, arrival in Sydney, enmity with Macarthur, overthrow, aftermath, causes, references. Wikipedia.


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South Australia

  • Colonel William Light
    Surveyor-General in the early colony.
  • Edward Gibbon Wakefield
    Immigration promoter and the man behind the push to settle South Australia as a free settlement. Australian Dictionary of Biography.
  • Events and Statistics
    South Australian History 1834-1857. ‘The period from settlement of the Colony to the commencement of responsible Government’. Point form, by years.
  • German Settlers in South Australia
    The first arrived in 1836. German settlers spread across the state but are found in larger groups in areas such as the Barossa.
  • History of Adelaide
    Aboriginal Settlement, early European interest, settlement, the first years, later developments. Wikipedia.
  • Settling South Australia
    ‘Settlement of the Colony of South Australia in 1836 was the result of a vision for a self-supporting free colony’.
  • Sir John Hindmarsh
    First Governor. Australian Dictionary of Biography.
  • South Australian Company
    Information about the company that developed the settlement in South Australia. Links to main people involved. Wikipedia.
  • South Australian History
    Time sections beginning with Pre 1836. Each contains information, links. Access an alphabetical listing of places and people important in South Australia’s development.
  • South Australian History Timeline


  • Black War
    ‘A period of conflict between the British colonists and Tasmanian Aborigines in Van Diemen’s Land [now Tasmania] in the early years of the 19th century’. References, literary references. Wikipedia.
  • Constitution Act 1855 [Tas]
    Full transcript [PDF or RTF], why it is important, how it happened, what it looks like.
  • Convicts on the West Coast of Tasmania
    ‘The use of the West Coast as an outpost to house convicts in isolated penal settlements occurred in the era 1822-1833, and 1846-1847’. Macquarie Harbour. Wikipedia. Further information on the Macquarie Harbour Penal Station can be found here. Wikipedia.
  • David Collins
    Deputy Judge Advocate NSW and Lieutenant-Governor Tas.. Biography, information about his role in NSW and the setting up of the colony in Van Diemen’s Land. Australian Dictionary of Biography.
  • George Augustus Robinson
    Protector of Aboriginals. Biography, information on his role, actions, relationship with Arthur. Australian Dictionary of Biography.
  • History of Tasmania
    Timeline in sections, links. Sections for Indigenous people, pre 1800, 1800-1809, 1810-1819, 1820-1829, 1830-1839, 1840-1849, 1850-1859 and 1860-1869. Wikipedia.
  • Index to Early Land Grants In Van Diemen’s Land to 1824
    ‘A list of land grants in Van Diemen’s Land up until about 1824’. Two major sources.
  • Order in Council
    Separating Van Diemen’s Land From New South Wales. Downloadable file.
  • Sir George Arthur
    Lieutenant-Governor. Biography, information on his time in Tasmania. Australian Dictionary of Biography.
  • The Black Line
    Article, links. The attempt to corral all Aborigines in Tasmania. Wikipedia.
  • Truganini
    Early life, final years & legacy, cultural references, references, links. Wikipedia. Check the entry for Trugernanner [Truganini], Australian Dictionary of Biography.
  • VDL Founders and Survivors Convicts 1802-1853
    The Digital Panopticon. ‘Provides a mass of information on the Old Bailey convicts who were ultimately transported to Van Diemen’s Land [along with those convicted at other courts throughout the British Empire]’.
  • VDL Founders and Survivors Convict Biographies 1812-1853
    ‘Provides extensive biographical details, from a wide variety of surviving sources, on some 30 000 convicts transported to Van Diemen’s Land [now called Tasmania], covering the years 1812-1853’.

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  • Australian Constitutions Act 1850 [UK]
    Original document. Significance, history, why it happened. The effect on several state including Victoria. Transcripts in PDF and RTF formats. View the actual document online.
  • Edward Henty
    Farmer, grazier, politician, settler. The settlement at Portland. Australian Dictionary of Biography.
  • Foundation of Melbourne
    Exploration, settlement, Batman’s Treaty, Tasmanian settlement, establishment of Melbourne, the true founder. Wikipedia.
  • History of Melbourne
    Extends beyond the colonial period. There is a substantial section on the Early Years, with embedded links. Wikipedia.
  • History of Melbourne [2]
    Early years as well as later developments.
  • John Batman
    Grazier, squatter, purchaser, pioneer of Melbourne. Australian Dictionary of Biography.
  • John Helder Wedge
    Explorer, grazier, public servant, politician, surveyor during the early years of Melbourne. Australian Dictionary of Biography.
  • John Pascoe Fawkner
    Landowner, politician, prisoner, publican, newspaper owner. Early Port Phillip settler. Australian Dictionary of Biography.
  • Melbourne’s Heritage
    From the City of Melbourne.
  • Port Phillip, Victoria
    Summary of the early establishment, links to related information, maps, images.
  • Timeline of Melbourne History
    Covering to the present, but quite a listing for the colonial period. Wikipedia.
  • William Buckley
    Convict, escapee, “wild white man”, indigenous culture recorder, public servant. Lived with the Aborigines in the Port Phillip district after escaping as a convict. Australian Dictionary of Biography.
  • William Buckley …
    Article with links to further information.
  • William Buckley
    Information about James [sic] Buckley who lived for thirty years among the Wallawarro or Watourong tribes at Geelong Port Phillip. Also check the links in the menu on the left for further information.

Western Australia

  • Colonial Office Circular, 5 December 1828
    Circular describing the intention to establish a free colony on the west coast of Australia. Wikipedia.
  • Colonial Secretary’s Office Records
    ‘The Colonial Secretary’s Office records represent one of the most diverse and comprehensive historical resources available for the early years of the Swan River Colony. These records comprise of inward correspondence from both settlers and officials to the Colonial Secretary’s Office, as well as the relevant outward correspondence, and cover the period 1828-1973’.
  • Convict Database
    ‘Search the Convict Database to discover the men who were transported to the Swan River Colony, Western Australia from 1850 to 1868’. Alphabetical listing by surname.
  • Convict Era of Western Australia
    Convicts at King Georges Sound, Free Settlement period, agitation for convicts, the convict era, end to transportation, later years, references, links. Wikipedia.
  • Convict Records
    State Records Office. Information, embedded links to aspects such as downloadable indexes and contact details for those seeking further information.
  • History of Perth, Western Australia
    Aboriginal history, early European exploration, Swan River Colony, the early years, Convicts, sections on the later nineteenth century, the twentieth century. Wikipedia.
  • Land Grants in the Swan River Colony
    Land grants, improvement conditions, other land grants, changes to conditions, effects on the indigenous people. Wikipedia.
  • Sir James Stirling
    Founder of Western Australia. Australian Dictionary of Biography.
  • Swan River Colony
    European exploration, background to the settlement, settlement events, references, links. Wikipedia.
  • The Centre for WA History
    Linked to the University of Western Australia. They produce the Studies in Western Australian Journal. Volumes include Volume 24, Building a Colony : The Convict Legacy [2006], Volume 17, Historical Traces [1997] and >Volume 4, Convictism in Western Australia [1981]. Procedures for accessing these are found on this this page.
  • The Convict Era
    Article on the convict period in Western Australia, after it had been established as a free colony. Check a link to a Convict Profile, showing crime, ages, occupations, more.
  • Western Australia Documents
    Access documents. Each has a transcript in PDF or RTF formats. Range from “Instructions to the Admiralty to take formal possession of the western portion of the continent 5 November 1828 [UK]” to a 1978 document. The majority are from the early colonial period.

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