Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the British correctional system became severely overburdened. The population of England rose dramatically, and London soon became overcrowded. Poverty and social injustice were rife, child labour and long working hours were widespread, and living conditions were squalid and filthy. Many were unemployed, and crime was rampant.
Britain’s police and penitentiary system were practically non-existent. In fact, many government officials saw the concept of a circular prison as a very American concept, so for years, the “Bloody Code” dictated the death penalty for hundreds of crimes – many as insignificant as petty theft or minor property damage.
Fortunately, the Bloody Code was put to rest when lawmakers and judges felt that the death penalty was too harsh for many crimes. The few existing gaols of the day were so overcrowded, however, that the government converted old war ships into floating prisons moored in coastal waters. The prison hulks were horrible floating dungeons, infested with vermin and disease, poorly lit and with little ventilation.
Even by the standards of that day, the prison system soon was considered unacceptable treatment of convicts. With nowhere else to turn, the British government conceived the idea of transportation as a humane alternative to the death penalty and a practical solution to overcrowded prisons.
Initially, convicts were transported to America; however, with the onset of the American Revolution, Britain had to look elsewhere. They found a viable solution in Australia, and the first convict fleet set sail in 1787
On January 18, 1788, the fleet of ships arrived at Botany Bay, a spot that had been selected as appropriate for a penal colony. Upon arrival, however, the fleet found that the harbour was unsafe and lacked a fresh water supply, so they quickly moved on. Several days later, Captain Arthur Philip, the fleet commander, raised the British flag at Sydney Cove. A group of 751 convicts and 252 marines, along with their families, disembarked and there established the colony of New South Wales. This colony eventually became the modern city of Sydney.
Two more fleets followed quickly in 1790 and 1791. Captain Phillip, who became Governor of the colony, put convicts to work according to their particular skills and regardless of their previous crimes. Men laboured as carpenters and brick makers, farmers, shepherds, and cattlemen. Educated convicts were put to work in record-keeping.
Women, on the other hand, were considered best fit to being wives and mothers. When a female convict got married, she was freed from her servitude and released to care for her husband and subsequent children.
If convicts were well-behaved and productive, they could earn a ticket of leave, giving them greater freedom. Once a convict completed his sentence (usually seven years), he was issued a Certificate of Freedom, with which he could either return to England or settle in Australia.
New penal colonies were eventually established in Port Arthur, Tasmania and Norfolk Island. These communities were considered to be places of secondary punishment where convicts suffered harsher labor and solitary confinement.
In 1803, 300 convicts arrived in Sullivan Bay near modern-day Sorrento, Victoria. While this settlement was quickly abandoned due to poor environmental conditions, others were established and between 1844 and 1849, around 1,750 convicts arrived in the region from England.
In 1850, new convicts were beginning to arrive in Western Australia. Between 1850 and 1868, 9,668 convicts were transported to the new colony on 43 convict ships. The initial convicts were sent from the New South Wales colony in 1826 with the mission of establishing a settlement there.
By the 1830’s, opposition was growing toward the transportation of convicts to the colonies. Members of the Independent Congregation Church in England were especially outspoken and influential in ending the transportation of convicts.
By 1840, convict transportation to the New South Wales colony had ceased, and Brisbane had stopped receiving convicts the previous year. For some years Van Diemen’s Land continued to receive prisoners; however, the practice was under steady attack by the anti-transportation movement.
The last convict ship to arrive in Australia arrived on January 10, 1868. Approximately 164,000 convicts on 806 ships were relocated to Australia throughout the 80 years of convict transportation.