Evidence Type: Newspaper Report
26 December 1839
TREATMENT AND CONDUCT OF CONVICTS IN NEW SOUTH WALES
The following extract from a letter received by a respectable tradesman at Windsor, from his son, who holds a Government situation at Sydney, and dated in February last, contains some interesting information respected the present treatment, &c., of male and female convicts in that Colony:—
“We have now been three months in New South Wales, and from what I see of this town I have no reason to complain. In this letter I shall first give you a description of the way in which the convicts are used, and how they live. Upon the arrival of a convict ship in this country, the convicts (men) are brought to Hyde Park Barracks, and the carpenters, masons, and bricklayers, &c., are selected from them, and given under the charge of overseers to work at the different public buildings, such as the dock-yard, military barracks, new gaols or bridges, in or near Sydney, and also, at the convict buildings. The labourers (who know no trade) are employed to break stones in a large yard near the sea-side, and also to repair the roads; but those who shew an inclination to learn a trade are allowed to do so; for instance, the noted SULLIVAN, who robbed the London Custom House, has learnt the business of a mason, and is now a very good hand. The works are now divided into two branches—military and convict. Mr A —— and I have the charge of the whole of the convict buildings in the Colony, and Mr BROWN and Mr REES those of the Military. We have under us several free and prisoner overseers. After the mechanics have been six months in the colony they receive a command, if they deserve it, “for indulgence.” This indulgence is tea, sugar, and tobacco. Labourers get nothing of the kind allowed them, but are often sent into different road parties, or assigned out after the six months. The food of the convicts is very bad. They get only two meals a day. They are called up every morning, at four o’clock, and breakfast at five. Their breakfast consists of only boiled maize (maize is Indian wheat), and as this is boiled only in water, it is horrid food, but very wholesome. Very few like it, and although only half a pint if allowed to each man, there is always a great deal left. The convicts leave the barracks at a quarter to six o’clock for their respective places of work, under the superintendence of the overseer, and at 11 o’clock, they get their dinner. Each man is allowed one pound of meat, per day (before cooked,) and when they have got it dressed, it amounts to little more than half that weight, deducting the bones. They also get one pound of coarse bread and a little salt. This, I assure you, is all these poor wretches get, and they have to work hard. In their barracks, at night, they are very much crowded. Up to this time they have had hammocks to sleep on; but now I have orders to fix wood beds, like guard beds, for them. They get only one blanket, no other bedclothes. Their dress is a coarse woollen specked or white canvass jacket, and canvass trousers, checked shirt, and woollen cap, upon all of which is branded, in large letters, the building to which they belong. They are well looked after, and severely punished when they do wrong. For insulting me, or refusing to obey the orders I give my overseers, or refusing to work, a man would get fifty lashes, and if an old offender, twelve months in irons. I assure you, this is quite necessary, for if they were not severely punished, we could do nothing with them. After a man gets recommended by us, he soon gets assigned; that is, if a person holding land apply for a man, he is allowed to go, and then the master takes the whole charge of him. If men have the luck to get assigned to good masters, they mostly do well; but in many instances, the settlers, when they first come, live hard to save all they can, and they work their servants well; but the assigned convicts dread to return to Hyde Park, or the stockades under Government, and they put up with a great deal before they will return. Besides, they have in view what is termed a ticket-of-leave. A convict, if he be transported for seven years, if he behave well, and does not get punished for four years, is allowed a ticket of freedom to work in any district he applies for; but he is not allowed to leave the district, or keep a public-house. He may go into any trade he likes, but must come to muster every three months, or when called on by the Magistrates. Prisoners for life have to serve eight years to get the ticket-of-leave; those for 14 years have to serve six. Many of the merchants, shipowners, and tradesmen of Sydney are only ticket-of-leave men; and there are also in every public office clerks, who were transported, but who got places by good behaviour. It is very bad to see how the convicts go on, generally speaking, although severely punished when they act wrong, and encouraged when they behave well. Very few deserve any favour. They rob each other, and were it not for the dread they have of flogging, many would do worse than they do. I was never an advocate for the lash until I came here; and here I would avoid it if I could, but I think it saves many men from the gallows. Give these fellows a week’s solitary confinement, and before they out a week they get into trouble again; but give them 25 lashes, and they remember them for months. The dread they have of a flogging not only keeps them, but their companions, out of trouble.
The female prisoners are kept at Parramatta. They are better fed than the men, and as they are not so severely punished, they are much worse characters. They are assigned out to private service, but their conduct is such that few persons can keep them long. You will see, from the Sydney paper I lately sent you, the complaints made by the free inhabitants of these wretched women. There is not one good out of twenty; and they get worse in the factory, instead of better. They are well fed; but the men get little food and being hardly-worked, it breaks that bad spirit these characters so often possess, and then by dealing out indulgence, by degrees, to deserving men, it works that reformation in them that by the time they get their tickets-of-leave, they become industrious, good people, such as any person need not be ashamed of, were it not known what they had before been. For very serious offences both prisoners and free persons are transported to an island about 1,000 miles from here, called Norfolk Island. For this island I have to draw all stores. Moreton Bay is another penal settlement: this is 460 miles from Sydney, and is also considered under my charge. We get all our work done by prisoners at the convict buildings. I have some very clever men under my charge, and some are rich; but they are all treated alike. Captain MACLEAN, the principal Superintendent, is a strict, fair, but good officer, and he suffers no distinction. Money will not procure any indulgence in the barracks.”
See Original: “Treatment and Conduct of Convicts in New South Wales,” The Australian (Sydney, NSW : 1824 – 1848), Thursday 26 December 1839, p.2