A Myriad of Ramblings

Were Australian convicts a criminal class or victims of circumstance?
February 25, 2007, 5:22 am
Filed under: My Ramblings

 A vast number of Australians view our European beginnings as a penal colony as uniquely our own. Yet a larger international flow of forced migration was occurring from Britain with a staggering 250,000 convicts alone being shipped after 1820 throughout the British colonies.[1] Therefore we can assume that convicts were being used as a free forced labour through the world during the 19th century. Which brings us to the question of what kind of people were convicts. Many Australian historians believe that convicts were a result of a criminal class emerging in Victorian England.[2] However, others such as George Arnold Wood and Stephen Nicholas believe that convicts were ordinary working class people who brought skills with them to the new colony for a better life.[3] However this encourages us to ask did British policy dictate which convicts were sent out to NSW in the best interests of the new colony or was it to remove from British society a criminal class?


I was lucky to be given the opportunity to do a study based on evidence from a cross section of convicts from the First Fleet kept at the NSW State Archives. I concluded from this evidence that the majority of convicts were victims of social times and that they were from the working class with useful skills. The crimes encountered in this study were petty non-violent crimes. What is also important is that most did not reoffend at the completion of serving their sentence. In fact once they had served their sentence they were rewarded for good behaviour with offers of conditional pardons, tickets of leave and certificates of freedom. Therefore when given certain social, economical and political environments they can have a negative impact on the way people live forcing them to into situations they would not normally find themselves such as a life of crime.[4]


This supports Nicholas’ statement that the convicts were working class people forced into petty crime due to circumstances beyond their control and that they were not a new criminal class. What is also important to note is that Nicholas has based his research on the Convict Index and compared the statistics with those of the English working class of the same time.[5] Other historians such as Manning Clarke, L.L. Robson and A.G.L. Shaw base many of their findings on their own class factors and those of social standing of the day which detracts from their argument.[6] [7]

In August 2006 I undertook a study whereby I selected 10 convicts from The Clyde which sailed from England on the 27th August 1832 under Captain Daniel Nisbett.[8] The convicts were selected at random and their personal details gave an overview of a cross section of transportees for that time. While some of the comparisons are not exact, they are very similar with the findings of Stephen Nicholas.There are some similarities between both Nicholas and Robson’s findings of the characteristics of convicts. Both found that most convicts were single, were male and in their 20s, two thirds were Protestant, one third Catholic and that most came from cities or industrialised towns.[9] They also came to the conclusion that the majority were convicted of theft.[10] My studies are also similar in that the majority were male and in their 20’s, 80% were single, most came from cities and towns that were affected in some way by industrialisation being located either near rivers, railroads or ports. [11] [12] [13] We could also draw from their personal information they were healthy as they would not have lasted the voyage.

In looking at the crimes of the convicts we can see what kind of criminal they were. For example Eris O’Brien claims that as most of those transported had been sentenced to hang and had their sentences converted, they had been guilty of more serious crimes.[14] Nicholas on the other hand found that most first offenders were guilty of petty crimes and had been employed as free workers prior to conviction and their crimes were work related.[15] In my study, all offences were petty theft that resulted within the work place as a crime of opportunity regardless of how many times they had offended.[16] However, three convicts out of four first offenders – Welch, Abnett and Dollamore – had stolen grain, rabbits and fowl which suggest they stole out of hunger and not for greed.[17] This is quite obvious in the case of Thomas Welch who was a father of 13 children and aged 52 at the time of his crime which was to steal grain.[18] Not only was this a time of industrialisation but also when enclosures were common and the Poor Laws had an effect on society with job losses and work related injuries.[19] For example a convict, Thomas Summers aged 14, was disabled in his left arm which may have been from working on a machine.[20] 

Many of the convicts had been employed in England even though Schedvin states that they were a criminal sub-culture which looked for easy ways to make money and were idle as well as self indulgent.[21] Nicholas argues that the convicts in NSW were on par with the skilled free English working class in Britain which included building and farming skills.[22]   My studies confirm this with 20% holding building skill occupations, 30% agricultural skilled workers, 20% with navigational skills as boatmen and 30% unskilled labourers.[23]

While it has been suggested that that many convicts were unemployed at the time of sentencing and wrote down their last occupation as their present one, it would mean they would be unfamiliar with their skills. Notwithstanding, it would be fair to say that we can still claim that these convicts had been employed at some point and were not idle. 90% of those convicts I examined remained in the area of their birth with the exception of one, a man called WilliamWisey whom was born in St. Helena but sentenced in Kent.[24] Therefore the majority of convicts were from the working class and many of them were literate. While he argues that literary evidence from Convict Indents could be misrepresented with only rudimentary ability, Nicholas also points out in Unshackling the Past that convicts held a higher literary rate of 75% as compared to 58% of the English working class.[25] [26] The evidence I found suggested that 60% of the convict population were literate which while below Nicholas’ figures shows that over half of the convicts were literate.[27]

 Literacy and education are important from an economist’s point of view. This human capital helps enable economic development within an environment. Some economist claim that a 40% literacy rate is all that is needed for economic survival coupled along with skilled labour.[28] Skilled labour proved to be an important commodity within the new colony. Convicts upon arrival were allocated to a master as free labour.[29] Nicholas states from his findings that many skilled convicts were placed in workshops such as blacksmiths, carpenters etc to help the economy grow which were also in line with what was happening in industrialised Britain.[30] However, many have said that the allocation of convicts was like a lottery draw as the convicts were unskilled. Kent and Townsend in their book The Convicts on the Eleanor dispute this. They claim that convicts with agricultural skills were in high demand as supply was scarce and convicts had to be rationed.[31] Such was the demand for skilled convicts that Governor Macquarie was criticised for retaining too many within government employ which is in keeping with his emancipation policy where Francis Greenway is a shining example.[32] In fact the Bigge Report of 1822/23 reported back to England on the increased demand for labour and the need to have it supplied and soon the rural economy matched British penal policy.[33]This in turn led to better protection of the rights of the convict with a better standard of health care and better accommodation than what they would have had in England.[34] Nicholas states that the convicts worked hard when rewarded with extra rations, clothing, indulgences, training and time for their own personal work rather than corporal punishment.[35] This leads us to an important point – if the convicts’ skills they have are in demand and they are encountering better living conditions, will they return to a life of crime which would be expected if they are from a criminal class or will they rise to the occasion of being an opportunity to succeed as an individual?

The behaviour of convicts after transportation could be taken as a measure of their moral character suggesting that their new environment provide them with opportunity if they chose to take it.[36] My studies also show that while only three convicts in the case study were granted Tickets of Leave, six received Certificates of Freedom out of the seven convicts that were eligible, as three of them had been given life sentences.[37] Out of ten convicts only one – James Abnett – reoffended but was granted a Certificate of Freedom four years later.[38]In perusing the statistical data that is held by State Records NSW regarding convicts and comparing it with Nichols’ data on the English working class, we can conclude that the convicts were indeed victims of the social, economic and political influences of their time. These convicts from the working class had skills that were not needed in an ever growing British industrialised society but were in demand for a growing colonial economy. The calibre of their skills, along with their age, health and literacy levels made them look attractive to a government who wanted to encourage and sustain a strong colonial economy as well as explore its interior to utilise the raw resources to supply mother England. The convicts were not a criminal class which has been proved by one convict of out ten reoffending, an offence that allowed him only four years later to receive a Certificate of Freedom. They were members of a working class caught up in circumstances beyond their control who, when given the right environment worked to their best of their ability, bettering themselves in the process.



Butlin, N.G., Cromwell, C.W. and Suthern, K.L. (eds) General Return of Convicts in NSW 1837. Sydney: ABGR/SAG, 1987.

Garton, S. ‘The Convict Origins Debate: Historians and the Problem of the “Criminal Class”’ in Whitlock, G. and Reekie, G. (eds) Uncertain Beginnings. Brisbane: UQP, 1993.

Kent, D. and Townsend, N. (eds) The Convicts of the Eleanor. Australia: Pluto Press, 2002.

Nicholas, S. and Shergold, P.R. ‘Unshackling the Past’ in Nicholas, S. (ed.) Convict Workers. Melbourne: C.U.P., 1998.

Shead, J. Inland Waterways of England & Wales. http://easyweb.easynet.co.uk/jim.shead/Inland-Waterways-of-England.html. [Access Date: September 2006].

State Records NSW. Index to Convict Indents, 1818-1842. X634 (Fiche 700).

State Records NSW. Index to Certificates of Freedom, 1823-1869, http://www.records.nsw.gov.au.indexes/searchforum.aspx. [Access Date: September 2006].

Abnett, J. The Clyde, CF No. 39/1272 and CF No. 64/1

Dollamore, W. The Clyde, CF No: 39/2179

Mawson, T. The Clyde, CF No: 40/1430

Randall, A. The Clyde, CF No: 47/0387

Summers, T. The Clyde, CF No: 38/0584

Welch, T. The Clyde, CF No: 39/2169

State Records NSW. McIntyre, P., ed. Convict Pardons, Tickets of Leave NSW 1810-1875.

Abnett, J. The Clyde, X634 p. 700 (Fiche 700) 36/1541 925 4/4106

Bridgeland, W.The Clyde, X634 p. 700 (Fiche 700) 40/2568 938 4/4145

Randall, A. The Clyde, X634 p. 700 (Fiche 700) 39/2319 935 4/4135

UK Camping Site, http://homepage.mtlworld,com/mark1968/images%20Camping/map-england.gif. [Access Date: September 2006]. (This map was used to show where the rivers and waterways of England were located to show that crimes were committed due to job reallocation and high unemployment due to industrialisation).


2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Hi, first I want to say great blog. I don’t always agree with your posts but it’s always a great read.
Keep up the nice blogging.

Comment by Lewis Lockerz

Ref James Abnett convict Clyde 1
I am a great niece of the above from Maidstone Kent UK. I have suspected that the reason he was transported for the minor offence of theft of 3 tame rabbits from his brother was that he was being exploited for labour. He is described as 21yars old and a bricklayer with no doubt valuable skills useful to a colony. Ref Ticket of Leave being cancelled due to insubordination – good on him! I must have inherited that particular Abnett gene.

Comment by Pearl Croucher (Abnett)

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