What was convict assignment?

Painting of landscape scene.

Convicts had been assigned in the past, but mainly to military officers who owned land. In this painting you can see some convicts doing hard physical work while the military officers (seen in red) have a conversation.

‘Assignment’ meant that a convict worked for a private landowner. This was usually on a farm, far away from Sydney.

Some convicts had been assigned in the past, but Governor Macquarie had kept a lot of them to work for the government in town.

After Macquarie left the colony in 1822 convict assignment became much more common. The 'system' also became much more organised.

 The aims of assignment were to:

  • reduce the number of convicts the government had to look after
  • provide farmers with cheap labour
  • clear convicts out of the town of Sydney

By 1836, nearly 70 per cent of all the convicts in NSW were working as ‘assigned convicts’.

The new assignment system also changed the role of the barracks.

Now, instead of male convicts living there for long periods of time, it became a place for them to wait.

Some men only waited a few hours to be assigned. Others waited for days or weeks.

Badly behaved convicts were not assigned. Instead, they usually ended up working for the government as part of an ‘iron-gang’. This meant hard work in terrible conditions.

Illustration of group of men on chain gang.

Convict men working in as part of an ‘iron-gang’. Guarded by soldiers they are carrying the tools they need for the day’s work. They are also wearing leg-chains. 

Long chain with shorter sections at regular intervals, with leg rings at each section end.

Men working in iron-gangs were made to wear leg irons and then chained together using a ‘gang chain’ like this one. Six convicts could be tied together using this gang chain.

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John Macarthur had a lot of convicts assigned to work for him and his family at Elizabeth Farm (seen in this painting from 1824). He treated them well and a few stayed on as paid workers after their sentence had finished.

How did the system work?

The application process changed over time. But by the 1830s it was very strict. Private landowners had to apply to the government, telling them:

  • How much land they had
  • How much of that land was being farmed
  • If they already had convicts assigned to them (and if so how many)

There were also different types of convicts they could apply for, such as:

  • labourers (unskilled convicts)
  • mechanics (skilled convicts, such as a carpenter or a stonemason)
  • domestic servants

Private land owners did not have to pay their assigned convicts for the work they did. But they did have to provide them with food, clothes and a place to live.

It’s important to remember that assigned convicts were not slaves. The private land owner (their ‘master’) did not own them.

Some assigned convicts complained to the government about how their private master treated them. Others ran away and became bushrangers.

However, other assigned convicts were well looked after by their master. Some even stayed on as a paid worker once they had finished their sentence.

What work did they do?

Convict men mostly worked outdoors as labourers on farms. They did jobs like:

  • clearing land
  • harvesting crops
  • looking after vegetable gardens
  • feeding and caring for animals

Other convicts, including female convicts, were assigned to work indoors as ‘domestic servants’.

This type of work included:

  • washing clothes
  • cleaning
  • cooking
  • Woman dressed as convict washing clothes in sandstone courtyard with laundry hanging up around her.

    Domestic servants had to do the washing.

  • Cutlery and condiments laid out on cloth.

    Cleaning cutlery and setting the table was another job.

  • Fruit and vegetables arranged on wooden table.

    Fruit and vegetables had to be picked from the gardens.

  • Farm labourers would have used different tools, including rakes.

  • Goat eating in pen strewn with straw.

    Looking after the farm animals was another job for assigned convicts.

Convict ‘mechanics’

If a convict had a skill (such as a baker, a blacksmith or a painter) they were called a ‘mechanic’.

These men could be assigned to work for a settler who had the same skill, to help them run their business.

Watch these videos to see some of the skills that convicts had. Each skill takes many years to learn, so a convict who had one was really valuable to the colony.

View of vegetable garden with house in background.

Joseph’s experience as a market gardener would have helped him do his work as an assigned convict. 

One man’s story: Joseph Mason

Joseph Mason was a market gardener from Hampshire, England. Both Joseph and his brother Robert were transported to NSW 'for life'.

They arrived in Sydney in June 1831 and were taken straight to the Hyde Park Barracks.

Joseph waited there for five days. He was then sent to a farm in Parramatta owned by Hannibal Macarthur.

Hannibal was a nephew of John Macarthur, a well-known and powerful person in the colony.

Watercolour of river bank with large tree in centre of painting.

Joseph travelled up the Parramatta River (seen here) from Sydney. This painting was done from Hannibal Macarthur’s farm and it is looking to the west. Parramatta is in the distance and the wharf you can see is where Joseph probably got off the boat.

To get to Parramatta (25 kilometres from Sydney) Joseph was taken by boat up the Parramatta River. He left King’s Wharf (known today as Circular Quay) early in the morning and arrived in Parramatta after dark.

On the farm he lived in a simple wooden hut, which he shared with other assigned convicts. He also kept a diary, which is how we know about his experience.

The men all had to cook their own food and Joseph said they had no reason to complain as they were given enough to eat.

Joseph’s jobs included:

  • working in the vegetable garden
  • cutting and burning grass
  • harvesting hay and wheat
  • planting seed

While working on the farm, Joseph heard stories of frontier conflict and violence towards Aboriginal people. He wrote in his diary that the expansion of new farms, particularly letting lots of cattle into new areas to graze the land, was one reason for this. 

Clipping from old newspaper with circled section.

When Joseph saw his name in the Sydney Gazette newspaper in December 1836 he knew he was a free man.

 

Five years after he arrived, Joseph received an absolute pardon. This meant he was free to travel back to England.