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Convict Life In Australia

Convict Life In Australia

Chain Gang, Australia
Chain Gang, Australia

After the convicts had been formally handed over into the charge of the governor, the prisoners were often segregated, with the most hardened criminals being sent to special prisons or areas. The rest acted as servants to the settlers or carried out hard labour in gangs.
By day, the prisoners were supervised by a military guard and convict overseers and, at night, they were locked up in small wooden huts behind stockades.

Convict discipline was harsh. For those convicts who committed further offences in the colony, punishments were brutal. There was the cat o'nine tails: fifty lashes was a common punishment. Equally feared was time on the chain gangs where, shackled in ankle irons or chains (weighing ten pounds or more), convicts were employed in the back-breaking work of making new roads.

If convicts continued to cause trouble in Australia, they were sent to more isolated penal colonies or prisons. At remote places such as Norfolk Island, Port Macquarie and Moreton Bay, discipline could be very severe. There they were forced to work from dawn to dusk at backbreaking tasks. If they disobeyed or tried to escape, they were whipped, chained in irons or sometimes executed. At Norfolk Island the 'harshest possible discipline short of death' was imposed. So unpleasant were the conditions, that rebellions and uprisings were a regular ocurrence.

Most convicts were assigned to settlers and 'emancipated' (freed) convicts, after an application for a convict servant or worker was lodged with the Governor. Well behaved convicts could apply or petition the governor to have their families brought out from England and, in some cases, they could be assigned to work for their free settler families.

Female convicts were usually assigned to domestic service. Troublesome female prisoners were sent to the Female Factory, where they made rope and span and carded wool. The accommodation was very basic and barrack like. In time, the work done in the female factories became less difficult with needlework and laundry becoming the main duties.

Many women would marry as quickly as possible. Martin Cash described how this would happen in 1828 in Sydney. .."any man wanting to marry one of the girls would apply. The girls were lined up at the Factory and the man would drop a scarf or handkerchief at the feet of the woman of his choice. If she picked it up, the marriage was virtually immediate."

Large numbers of boy convicts aged between 9 and 18 were sent to Tasmania in the early 1830s. They were often too small for the rough work of land clearance and road building. As their number grew, a separate Boys' Establishment was built at Point Puer.

Conduct registers were kept and convicts that worked hard could obtain their 'ticket of leave' (a document given to convicts when granting them freedom to work and live within a given district of the colony, before their sentence expired or they were pardoned). Under a TOL, church attendance and appearance before a magistrate was compulsory, but they could own property.

Conditional Pardons freed convicts and were granted on the condition that convicts did not return to England or Ireland. Absolute Pardons allowed convicts to return to England as their sentences were totally cleared. Certificates of Freedom were introduced in 1810 and issued to convicts at the completion of their sentence.