Why were convicts transported to Australia?

Until 1782, English convicts were transported to America. However, in 1783 the American War of Independence ended. America refused to accept any more convicts so England had to find somewhere else to send their prisoners. Transportation to New South Wales was the solution.

Why so many convicts?

Life in Britain was very hard. As new machines were invented, people were no longer needed to do farming jobs so they moved to the cities. The cities became overcrowded. Many people didn’t have a job and were very poor. People stole things to survive. Minor crimes such as stealing items worth more than 1 shilling (about a day’s wages for a working person), cutting down a tree in an orchard or stealing livestock were punishable by transportation. The prisons quickly became full and prisoners were kept in old, rotting prison ships called hulks. These ships were usually an old naval or merchant ship that could not go to sea anymore but could still float safely in the harbour.

What was life like on the hulks?

Conditions in these floating gaols were terrible. The hulks were over-crowded and cramped, often there wasn’t even room to stand up! A hulk could be up to 65 metres long. This is the same size as 6 buses placed end to end. On board each hulk there could be up to 300 convicts. There were many diseases on board and convicts died. Between 1776 and 1795 nearly 2000 out of almost 6000 convicts held on hulks, died. The majority died from diseases such as typhoid and cholera.

The convicts were not fed very well. The people in charge wanted to keep costs low. The daily diet was often made up of ox-cheek, either boiled or made into soup, pease (peas), bread or biscuits. The biscuits were often mouldy. Tobacco could be supplied as part of their ration as a reward for a job well done or for good behaviour.

Convicts got up at sunrise and worked hard for up to 10 hours a day. All convicts were sentenced to hard labour as part of their punishment and could be forced to work at just about any manual task such as timber cutting, brick making or stone cutting.


Port Cities UK, Prison hulks on the River Thames http://www.portcities.org.uk/london/server/show/ConNarrative.56/chapterI... Last access date: 19/03/2014


New website

Follow the story of Sydney, from a restless convict colony perched uncertainly on Aboriginal land, through to a bustling city and international seaport. Find out how convicts went from being a central part of its social life to a grim reminder of its shameful past.

Related stories


Online Shop

The Unauthorised History of Australia $29.99
The Big Book of Australian History
Notable Book: Children's Book Council of Australia 2014
True Light and Shade
An Aboriginal Perspective of Joseph Lycett Art
1788: Text Classics
Watkin Tench's account of the infant colony


Recently added stories