- EducationDay in the life of a convict
- Part 1: 1788–1815The convicts’ colony
- Part 2: 1815–1822For the civic good
- Part 3: 1822–1826Back to business
- Part 4: 1826–1837A world of pain
- Part 5: 1837–1848The turning tide
A farmer’s boy from Westmeath, Ireland, Peter Killeen (also Killern and Killyan) grew up in extreme poverty and found a way of making a living through theft. He was transported to New South Wales in 1826 and inspected at the Hyde Park Barracks. Killeen was unfortunate: at a time when eight out of ten convicts were sent out to work in more desirable jobs as settlers’ servants, he was kept at the barracks to labour in government gangs.
Killeen apparently wasn’t a very careful pickpocket – he had 26 previous convictions when he was charged in 1826 and sentenced to seven years’ transportation. Killeen was one of 200 Irish prisoners loaded onto the Boyne in Cork harbour, sailing for New South Wales on 29 June 1826. After a speedy voyage of four months, his ship pulled into Sydney, and the men were landed and taken directly to the Hyde Park Barracks, where they were lined up in the yard, and inspected by Governor Darling.
One hundred and ninety-nine male prisoners; per ship Boyne, were landed in the forenoon of Wednesday last.- They were marched off to the Hyde Park Barracks, where they were inspected as usual by his Excellency the Governor
The Monitor, 17 November 1826, p2
First assigned to work for David Maguire, Killeen was returned to the barracks to labour in a government gang. Perhaps it was Killeen’s lack of a special skill or maybe a mischievous look in his eye that kept him at the barracks when so many others were being assigned for distribution around the colony. By night, Killeen shared the sleeping wards with nearly 1000 men, awoke to the sound of the yard bell each day, and left at sunrise to toil in one of the many government gangs, probably doing unskilled labour such as road work.
At this time, as a young man with only a seven-year sentence, Killeen had a real chance to make good, serve his time and return home. But he was troublesome and seems to have been a compulsive thief, perhaps despite his best intentions. In 1828 Killeen ran away and was next charged with robbery and banished away up the coast to the new penal settlement at Moreton Bay. Shipped back to Sydney in 1832, he had served his seven years, and was granted his Certificate of Freedom. But he didn’t stop there – three months later he was back in court for theft and ordered to work again on the roads, his feet dragging along under the weight of leg-irons.
While back in Sydney to give evidence at a court case, Killeen was held in the Phoenix hulk, a prison ship floating on Sydney Harbour, and then back in the wards he knew so well at the Hyde Park Barracks. In 1833 he was freed, but was soon hauled back into court for bushranging, and sentenced to seven years on Norfolk Island, known for its brutal treatment of prisoners. By now Killeen had become a career criminal. After another Certificate of Freedom in 1841, and then another theft, he was sent south to the end-of-the-line prison – Port Arthur, Van Diemen’s Land, where he rotted for 15 years. Killeen’s perpetual larceny continued throughout the 1870s and 80s, right up until his death at age 83 from ‘senile decay’ in 1889, in Hobart Gaol.