Transportation to Australia
by Don Cochrane
Thursday 26th September 2013
Chairman, John Kyte introduced the first lecture evening of the Vale of Evesham Historical Society at the beginning of their winter season of talks on Thursday 26th September at the new venue, the Friends’ Meeting House, Cowl Street. To a packed gathering of members and guests, he explained a new archaeological group had been formed and it was hoped that, under the guidance of the Worcestershire CC Archaeological Department, local digs may be started which would be of interest to not only new members but maybe younger people.
John then introduced the night’s subject, Transportation of Criminals to Australia, and the speaker, Don Cochrane, warned that the X-rated talk was based on some of the experiences of his great great grandfather.
Transportation to Australia lasted from 1787 until 1868 and was started largely as the result of the success of the American War of Independence, which prevented sending any more prisoners to America, plus the need to populate Australia to prevent the French from doing so. The ruling classes were also in great fear of a revolution, as had happened in France, and it seemed a good idea to rid the country of “trouble-makers”.
Although the treatment of prisoners in this way seems harsh by today’s standards, day to day life was very hard for large part of the population, with a very distinct upper class and the rest, many of whom were illiterate and lived in near poverty.Only 1 person in 30 could vote and women could not vote at all.All deportees were at least second offenders. Prisoners were first housed in the hulls of old sailing ships moored in estuaries, and known as “hulks”, but these became overcrowded and unsanitary.
So, in 1787 under the direction of the King, George III and Prime Minister Pitt, the “First Fleet” set sail for Australia under the leadership of Captain (later Admiral) Arthur Phillip. The journey of 16,000 miles, via Rio de Janerio, Cape Town to Port Jackson (now Sydney) took 253 days arriving on 26 January 1788. This route was taken to make the most of the favourable winds for the sailing ships. There were 11 ships in total, two RN escorts, three supply ships and 6 transports carrying 600 male and 226 female convicts. 11 children were born on the journey. It is now a matter of some pride for Australians citizens if they can trace their forbearers back to those hardy First Fleet “passengers”. On arrival the native population of Australia was reckoned to be one person to every 10 square miles so they offered little trouble to the new arrivals.
Eight out of ten of the convicts were labourers and their sentences were typically 7 years for theft, 14 years for receiving stolen goods. There was no welfare state at that time, so unless you could work you starved or went to the Workhouse. So for the theft of a loaf of bread a first offender might get 3 months hard labour and a second offender 7 years transportation. Many offences would attract a death penalty e.g. stealing a sheep or hare, so to have a sentence commuted to transportation would be quite a relief.
Don then told the gathering of the many examples of such sentences meted out by the Worcestershire courts, including his great great grandfather who had been involved in the robbery of £24 from a local lady in Lye. He and two accomplices were sentenced each to 15 years transportation. They left on a ship called the Mayday and arrived in Tasmania in August 1845. During the journey there were three deaths and a child was born but then died. They were given limited deck exercise and the water supply was rancid. On arrival the prisoners were harshly treated spending their whole time in leg irons and with brutal punishments such as lashing with the cat-o-nine-tails for even minor rule breaking. Even so there was light at the end of a very dark tunnel for those prisoners who behaved. At mid-sentence they could be granted Tickets of Leave and have permission to work. At the end of the sentence there were chances of being given a grant of land on which to settle.
The last transportation ship left the UK in 1868 bound for Fremantle in Western Australia. Thus ended a brutal system, which nevertheless contributed to the foundation of a thriving and independent country on the other side of the world.