The European settlement of Australia began as a penal colony and about 162,000 convicts were shipped there between 1788 and 1870, most of them in the first 60 years. From 1831 to 1840, the free settler arrivals outnumbered convict arrivals and by 1850 there were 156,000 convicts in Australia and 187,000 free settlers. The largest number of free settlers (587,000) arrived in the 1851-1860 period, attracted by the Victorian gold rush.
The convicts and free settlers were mainly from poor backgrounds in the London area or subsistence farmers from England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Transportation to the penal colony was harsh treatment for minor crimes in a country overflowing with poor people who had no other means of survival. While confinement on the hulks and transports was hard it did not compare with the desperate conditions the convicts faced after they arrived. Surprisingly, few resorted to crime to survive in the new colony and there was still a sentimental tie to the “old country”. The early settlers, their families and descendants of the convicts were quick to volunteer to defend the British Empire in the Boer War, World War I and World War II.
Nathaniel Griffiths, my maternal great-great-grandfather, arrived at the goldfields about 1848. He wasn’t a free settler or an adventurer. He was a convict who had served his term in Van Diemen’s Land. Nathaniel, a saw-mill worker, was convicted of “theft simple grand larceny” at the Old Bailey at the age of eighteen and sentenced to be transported to the Colonies for fourteen years. He had been indicted on July 21, 1832 for stealing a pair of trousers from his father, a carpenter in London, and pawning them on that same date. It was a second offense.
Nathaniel was nineteen when he arrived at the penal colony on the Emperor Alexander in 1833 with 207 other convicts after a five-month journey from Sheerness. Before leaving Sheerness, the convicts were imprisoned on a hulk for seven months at Woolwich. One of the convicts, William Derricourt, described life on the hulk (Old Convict Days: William Derricourt, edited by Louis Belke, The New Amsterdam Book Company, New York, 1900):
Before going on board we were stripped to the skin and scrubbed with a hard scrubbing brush, something like a stiff birch broom, and plenty of soap, while the hair was clipped from our heads as close as scissors could go. This scrubbing we endured until we looked like boiled lobsters, and the blood was drawn in many places. We were then supplied with new ‘magpie’ suits – one side black or blue and the other side yellow. Our next experience was being marched off to the blacksmith, who riveted on our ankles rings of iron connected by eight links to a ring in the centre, to which was fastened an up and down strap or cord reaching to the waist-belt. This last supported the links, and kept them from dragging on the ground. Then we had what were called knee garters. A strap passing from them to the basils and buckled in front and behind caused the weight of the irons to traverse on the calk of the leg. In this rig-out we were transferred to the hulk, where we received our numbers, for no names were used…. During all this time I was never for a moment without the leg irons, weighing about twelve pounds (each)…. Our mid-day meal often consisted of broth, beef and potatoes, sometimes of bread or biscuit and cheese and half a pint of ale.
On board the Justitia Hulk there were about 400 of us, and occasionally the ‘Bay Ships’, or transports would come up the river to take off drafts from the different hulks. We always knew the transports by the number of soldiers on their decks. The drafts were, of course, for transportation to the various penal colonies.
Records provided the following information about Nathaniel Griffiths as a convict:
Convict # 928: Griffiths, Nathaniel, Emperor Alexander 12th August 1833. Middlesex G.D. 6th September 1832, 14 years. Transported for stealing a pair of trousers. Gaol Report: convicted before. Hulk Report: Orderly. Single. Stated this offense, pledging a pair of trousers once for a jar of tobacco; 3 months; Single. General conduct: good and obedient.
Nathaniel’s conduct on board the hulk awaiting transportation was orderly and on board the Emperor Alexander was good and obedient. This behavior changed at the penal colony where the records show his reaction to the harsh treatment and penalties:
- December 24th 1836: chain gang; disobedience of orders, 7 days solitary confinement on bread & water. Chain gang; disobedience of orders, 25 lashes.
- January 10th 1837: chain gang; disobedience to go to work, 7 days solitary confinement on bread & water.
- June 10th 1837: not going out to work in showers when ordered & neglect of duty, 1 month hard labour in chains. Launceston chain gang. Returned vide Lieutenant Governor’s Decision 17th June 1837.
- April 14th 1838: disobedience of orders, admonished.
- September 5 1840: Drunk and did not show his pass, fined 5/-.
- August 12th 1841: TL. Misconduct, 3 days hard labor, Tread Wheel.
- Conditional Pardon No. 576 – 1st July 1842. Extended 11 November 1845.
Nathaniel worked in the convict chain gangs used to tunnel new coal mines, cut timber in the thick forests, quarry stone, build roads, make bricks and build ships. The guards used flogging, solitary confinement and bread and water diets to try to control misbehavior and convict protests about conditions. In many cases the guards were more brutal than the convicts. Conditional Pardons were usually granted to convicts after 10 years if their sentence was life or after 2/3rd of the sentence for others. Nathaniel received his initial Conditional Pardon in 1842, almost ten years from the date of his sentencing in London. It was extended in 1845 so he spent his whole fourteen year term in the penal colony. Nathaniel left the penal colony in 1848 and traveled to the goldfields where he worked as a sawyer, splitter, miner and farmer. He was married there in 1854 and worked in the area for more than twenty years before moving to live near one of his daughters. He never made his fortune from the goldfields or from farming, and didn’t tell his family he was a convict. Perhaps he was too embarrassed to admit that he had served a fourteen year term in the penal colony for stealing his father’s trousers, twice, all for a jar of tobacco. I know I would have been.