Skip to main content

Convicts ~ From Punishment to Pardon

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

More Background Details

In previous articles Captain Arthur Phillip had brought the First Fleet to Australia and gone on to become Governor of the new colony. Phillip governed from 1788 until 1794 when he was replaced by Frances Grose as acting governor. Grose had been the commander of the New South Wales Corps who were formed in 1792 to replace the marines (who had accompanied Phillip from England) as administrators. The colony then saw a quick turn over of governors including Patterson, Hunter, King and Bligh.

The New South Wales Corps established an economic monopoly in the colony and became very powerful. They would buy the cargo of any ship that sailed into Sydney and then sell the goods to the free colonists and to the government for huge profits. Grose and Patterson between them granted more than 6000 hectares of land to officers of the corps as well as assigning them convict labour.

Under the corps' administration, spirits (particularly rum) became the colony's currency. It was used pay wages and buy goods with instead of money. The corp had full control over importing and distilling of spirits due to their monopoly. They were ruthless in suppressing any attempted distilling not under their control, and soon earned the name the Rum Corp.

William Bligh: By Alexander Huey - National Library of Australia, Public Domain,

William Bligh: By Alexander Huey - National Library of Australia, Public Domain,

The Rum Rebellion

In an attempt to curb the rum trade and the monopoly of the corps William Bligh was appointed the new governor in 1806. Bligh was already famous as captaining and surviving a mutiny on his ship the Bounty. He was a stern disciplinarian with a quick temper. Immediately on becoming governor, Bligh launched an attack on the rum trade, trying to stop it being used as the means of currency, and also to crack down on the distilling of spirits. This made him an enemy of the corps officers, large landholders, and merchants.

On January 26, 1808, one of the most influential members of the corp, Lieutenant John Macarthur, encouraged the commander of the NSW Corps Captain George Johnston to lead a revolt and arrest Bligh. This became known as the Rum Rebellion. Johnston proclaimed himself lieutenant governor of the colony, but this was short lived, as only one year later, Lachlan Macquarie was sent from Britain with his own regiment of troops to overthrow the New South Wales Corp. Johnson was subsequently found guilty of mutiny and sent to London for court martial.

Lachlan McQuarie: By John Opie? -, Public Domain,

Lachlan McQuarie: By John Opie? -, Public Domain,


Governor Macquarie soon destroyed the trading monopoly held by the NSW Corp and its allies. During his administration he built new buildings, including the first hospital, and significantly improved the appearance of Sydney. Roads and bridges were constructed, and a new currency was introduced. He established the Bank Of New South Wales, and set up charity schools where poor people could get an education.

But Macquarie had a convict policy that had him at odds with both the free settlers and NSW and the British government. he believed that you could encourage reform by rewarding good behaviour. He issued tickets of leave and pardons to convicts, granted land to some and provided government assistance to start off their farms.

The government in Britain was concerned about the cost of public works Macquarie was overseeing and in 1819, sent Commissioner John Thomas Bigge to investigate the colony. With the encouragement of the wealthy land owner John Macarthur,( who had been instrumental in governor Bligh's overthrow) Bigge recommending the overturning of most of governor Macquarie's reforms, and recommended the extension of assignment, the practice of assigning convicts to work for free settlers As a result public works slowed down, and harsher punishments were introduced.

First Settlers: A hut with timber slab walls and a bark roof, Belle Vue Station, Glencoe, NSW

First Settlers: A hut with timber slab walls and a bark roof, Belle Vue Station, Glencoe, NSW

The Convict System

New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land were were classed as penal colonies, however the majority of convicts served the greater part of their sentences outside of prison under a system known as assignment.

The Assignment System

Assignment was introduced as a way of utilizing surplus convict labour, and by the 1820's had become the major system of convict control and management. Convicts were assigned to the wealthier free settlers who put them to work in their farms and businesses. In return the settlers provided food, clothing, and shelter. As well as providing the land and business owners with cheap labour, assignment also saved the British government substantially in the cost of maintaining the colony.

The conditions of assigned convicts varied dramatically depending on the character of the master they worked for, and the nature of his business.Some were treated well and good behaviour encouraged with gifts of tobacco or extra rations. Many more, however, were taken advantage of by cruel masters only intent on getting as much work as possible for as little cost. Convicts had no say in who they were assigned to.

Discipline was at the sole discretion of the masters, who could have their convicts hauled before the courts for the most trivial of offences. In many case the magistrates had assigned convicts themselves, so rarely decided a case against a master.

Throughout the 1830's there had been such an increasing amount of criticism of the assignment system that it was finally abolished in 1839.


Scroll to Continue

A new form of convict management was introduced by the British government in 1842 to replace assignment. The new system was called probation and introduced first into Van Diemen's Land, closely followed by New South Wales. On arrival in the colonies, all male convicts were assigned to probation gangs which were used to build public works such as buildings, roads, and bridges. After two years of good behaviour, convicts could be issued with probation passes, with which they could seek employment with private employers for wages. A percentage of their wages would be withheld and saved for them.

If they continued to display good behaviour, they would be further rewarded by a ticket of leave which allowed them even more freedom. Both the pass and ticket could be withdrawn at any time for misdemeanors, however with continued good behaviour, convicts could finally earn a pardon.


Britain had given the governors of New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land the power to pardon convicts, if they saw fit, before their full sentences were served. There were two types of pardons:

Absolute pardons restored the convict's full right as a British citizen and allowed them to return home to Britain.

Conditional pardons came with the condition that the convict receiving the pardon could not return to Britain until the expiry of the time handed down in their original sentence.

Pardons could be issued for things like good behaviour, or services rendered to the government. The convict, turned famous architect, Francis Greenway earned his pardon this way. Governors also offered pardons as bargains with convicts to persuade them to inform on their fellows in an effort to stop bushranging. Convicts who were given pardons were then called emancipists.

Transportation was finally abolished in New South Wales in 1850, and in Van Diemen's Land in 1852.




Punishments in the colonies included flogging, iron gangs, the treadmill, penal jail, or hanging.


Flogging was an inhumane form of punishment, but the most widely used. It was usually administered with a whip called a cat-o-nine-tails (made of nine pieces of knotted cord). Sentences of 200 lashes were common, but in rare circumstances could be as high as 2000.

Records show that between March 1815 and November 1817, Parramatta magistrates ordered 11321 lashes over 200 offenders. In the one month of September 1833, 247 convicts received a total of 9909 lashes.

An added cruelty that was sometimes added, was that sentences could be spread over a period of time so that the convicts didn't completely lose their capacity to work. Although male convicts received most of the floggings, women also received this punishment.

Iron Gangs

Male convicts who had committed major offences were forced to work in iron gangs, where they were chained at the ankles and then to each other. These gangs worked building roads between Sydney and the surrounding settlements, as well as most of the roads in Van Diemen's Land. This work was hard and exhausting, and rations mostly inadequate.

The convicts working in these gangs wore uniforms of yellow and grey patches, and that along with the chains and harsh discipline made them easily distinguishable from the ordinary convict road gangs also operating at the time.