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At Sea - the Voyage and Conditions on Board

At Sea - the Voyage and Conditions on Board

Convicts on the Ship
Convicts on the Ship

In the early days of transportation, conditions on board ship were terrible and many died on the journey, which took between four and six months. Towards the mid 19th century, things had improved and examination of the transportation records indicates that the number who perished on the voyage was low.

Many of the convicts who were sent to New South Wales in the early years were already disease ridden and many died from typhoid and cholera in the dreadful conditions on the ships. Those that survived were severely weakened by scurvy, dysentery and fever. In later years conditions were much improved and surprisingly few convicts died on the voyage.

There were many cases of sea sickness and stomach upsets, and occasionally measles. However the ships were kept reasonably clean and the ships' surgeons did their jobs well enough.

Convicts were taken aboard in chains and shackles. Once aboard these were unlocked. A hatch was opened and the convicts went below to the prison deck and the hatch was locked. Sometimes, however, they were kept in chains and behind bars even on board.

The convict quarters had ventilators to let in light and air. The Port end would be reasonably light but the bows dark and gloomy. On some ships, in the early days, convicts were kept below most of the time. In many cases they were restrained in chains and were only allowed on deck for fresh air and exercise.

The cramped, unhygienic conditions on the convict ships were very difficult. As the 19th century progressed, the conditions began to improve. By the 1840s, the routine was more enlightened. Surgeons were no longer in the pay of the ship's master and their sole responsibility was the well being of the convicts. Daily life even included a Religious Instructor who could both educate the convicts and look after their spiritual needs. Importantly, a bonus was paid to the ship charterers for the safe landing of the prisoners.

The filthy conditions gave way to a more ordered layout, as described by John Acton Wroth, a literate young man who was transported in the 1840's. He describes an area with bunks along either side of the deck, each separated from its neighbour by a ten inch high board. Four berths of the lower and upper tiers formed a mess, constructed so that four men could sit round a table. Those men occupying mid ship slept in hammocks, slung up each night over the tables. Younger men had these. Each bed had a mattress, pillow and two blankets. The hammock had two blankets only.

Convicts were divided into messes of 8 men. They were provided with cooking and eating utensils, tin pint mugs, spoons and one wooden 8 pint tin called a hub. A Knife and fork was issued each meal and collected afterwards. The hospital on board was just 15ft by 10ft 8in by 6ft high, with three iron bedsteads placed on bunks.

In the early days discipline was brutal, with regular use of the lash. In later days, if the convicts misbehaved they would get 'boxed' - put in a small confined space in the bows, in which a man could neither lie down nor stand.

Pensioner Guards

On the upper deck were the wives and children of the 'pensioner guards'. In 1850, as a part of its emigration policy, the Home Government in England began to send out military pensioners to Australia to guard the prisoners on the voyage. This continued until 1864.

After the voyage, the pensioners were not retained as permanent convict guards and, in many cases, their families travelled with them. They sought work among the free settlers in the colony, but were always on hand to help in case of an outbreak among the prisoners.