- 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
‘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.
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
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.