Prison and Penal Reform in the 1800s
What was it like on board a prison ship bound for Australia?
Just how far was transportation a solution to the problem of rising crime in Britain in the 1800s?In the 1800s crime courts were looking for a punishment which was not as extreme as hanging, but tougher than a fine. Transportation had been used as a form of punishment since 1717
With many prisons full – sending criminals to Australia seemed an option. Over 80 years more than 165,000 convicts were transported to Australia. At first convicts were kept on old warships where one in three died because of terrible conditions. Many were sent to America and later to Australia. Seven out of eight of these people sent to Australia were males; some were as young as nine or ten; some were over eighty.
From England the transportation ships sometimes stopped off at Gibralter, the West Indies, South America or the Cape of Good Hope, to pick up fresh water and food supplies, before they ended up at any one of the Australian penal settlements.
Once in Australia, convicts lived in barracks and worked in gangs, building roads and bridges or working on farms or quarries. Some were sent out to work for farmers. If they behaved themselves, their sentence could be reduced by a 'ticket of leave.' The majority of convicts decided to stay in Australia at the end of their sentences, recognising that they could make a better life there than returning to Britain and, probably, poverty and crime.
Why did they not send rich criminals to Australia?
Find Australia on the map - how long would it take to travel there today by plane or ship?
How long do you think it would have taken to get there in the 1800s?
Look at our fact sheet about transportation to Australia
See how far Australia is from Britain»