Ancestry UK


Transportation to America

The shipping of felons to Britain's overseas colonies began in 1615 during the reign of James I and continued, on and off, for the next two hundred and fifty years. The principle was introduced in the 1597 Vagabonds Act, which provided that 'rogues, vagabonds, and sturdie beggars' could be 'banished out of this realme, and... conveied unto such parts beyond the seas.'

Initially, the transportation of convicted lawbreakers was on a voluntary basis, with only a few hundred offenders taking this route up to 1650. The most common destinations were the American settlements of Virginia and Maryland where the new arrivals were sold as labourers to plantation owners at dockside auctions. The second half of the century saw its use increase with around five thousand convicts being despatched there and by 1775 the total had grown to more than thirty thousand, with two-thirds of all felons convicted at the Old Bailey being sent to the colonies and sold as servants.

Among the beneficiaries of the transportation policy were the merchants contracted to ship the convicts to their new homes. It was profitable business as the outgoings were relatively small and the returns high. While their total expenditure was around £5 1s. per convict, merchants received a fee of £5 per head for transporting the convicts plus whatever they could get for them at the quayside auction on arrival at their destination port. Typical prices were £15 to £25 for males with useful trade skills, £10 for common thieves, and £8 for female convicts. The old and the infirm, though, had to be given away. On top of this, the return voyage to Britain, with a cargo of tobacco or grain on board, could generate a further healthy profit.

For the American recipients of this human traffic, the deliveries proved increasingly unwelcome. In 1751, Benjamin Franklin proposed that the Colonies should repay the kindness of Mother England by exporting rattlesnakes to the British Isles, and releasing them in St James' Park. Attempts by the colonies to curtail transportation, such as charging a duty on each convict landed, all proved unsuccessful and the convict ships continued to arrive until the outbreak of the War of Independence in 1775.

The war with America brought an abrupt halt to the steady stream of convict ships that had been heading to its shores. What did not abate, however, was the flow of convicts sentenced to transportation by the courts and a crisis in prison overcrowding soon began to loom. The immediate, and supposedly short-term, solution was to turn two of the hulks of old battleships berthed on the Thames at Woolwich into floating prisons for a hundred inmates. The scheme was gradually expanded, with several dozen prison ships eventually moored on the Thames and on the south coast of England, and run by private contractors. See the separate page for more details on the prison hulks. Another proposed alternative to transportation was the building of two large 'Penitentiary Houses', one for men and one for women, near to the capital. However, the scheme failed to get off the ground.

Transportation to Australia

Britain's war with America ended in 1783 and resulted in the permanent loss of the American colonies as a destination for Britain's convict ships. Although Africa was briefly considered as a destination, the place that soon emerged to take on the role was Australia, claimed for Britain by Captain James Cook in 1770. It was decided to found a British prison colony at Botany Bay, where Cook had made his first landfall.

The first Australian convict convoy, the so-called First Fleet, comprised the flagship HMS Sirius, an armed tender, three store ships, and six convict transports. As with the hulks on the Thames, the convicts' accommodation was provided by private contractors. The fleet set sail from Portsmouth on 13 May 1787 carrying 565 male and 192 female convicts, 13 children of convicts, 206 marines with 46 members of their families, 20 officials, 210 seamen of the Royal Navy, and 233 merchant seamen. Commanding the fleet was Captain Arthur Phillip, RN, who was to become the governor not just of the new penal colony, but also of the whole territory of New South Wales in which the prison was to be Britain's first permanent settlement.

As well as its human cargo, the First Fleet carried a vast amount of supplies to help the settlers establish the new colony. Two years' supply of food and drink included 448 barrels of flour, 135 tierces of beef, 165 tierces of pork, 50 puncheons of bread, 110 firkins of butter, 116 casks of dried peas, 5 casks of oatmeal, 5 puncheons of rum, 300 gallons of brandy, 3 hogsheads of vinegar, and 15 tons drinking water. For their shelter and comfort on arrival, the ships carried 800 sets of bedding, 40 tents for female convicts, 26 marquees for married officers, and a portable canvas house for Governor Phillip. Lighting was provided by two-and-a-half tons of candles, plus forty-four tons of tallow with which to make further stocks. Building tools included 700 felling axes, 175 steel hand-saws, 50 pick-axes, 700 shovels, 700 spades, 40 wheel-barrows, 12 brick moulds, 175 hammers, 747,000 nails, and 5,448 squares of glass. To establish agricultural production, a hundred bushels of wheat, barley and corn seeds were supplemented at Rio and Cape Town by fig trees, bamboo and banana plants, sugar cane, and coffee and cocoa seeds. Cape Town also contributed to the fleet's livestock with seven cows, a bull, three mares, a stallion, forty-four sheep, nineteen goats, thirty-two hogs, eighteen turkeys, twenty-nine geese, two hundred fowls and chickens, thirty-five ducks, kittens, puppies, and five rabbits. Fishing equipment comprised 14 fishing nets, 8,000 fish hooks, 48 dozen lines, 18 coils of whale line and 6 harpoons. Finally, to nourish the spirit as well as the body, the inventory included a bible and prayer-book, a box of books, and one piano.

The passage took eight months — five times the duration of the crossing to America — and the fleet reached Botany Bay at the end of January, 1788. Having surveyed the terrain, Governor Phillip decided that the new colony should be established a few miles to the north of Botany Bay at Port Jackson, now part of Sydney Harbour. Despite an outbreak of dysentery while crossing the Indian Ocean, the fleet had suffered only 48 deaths on the voyage, a low rate which owed much to the efforts of the principal surgeon, John White, who insisted on fresh fruit and vegetables being obtained at each port en route, together with cleanliness in the cramped quarters below decks and regular exercise.

The colony had a shaky start, having to contend with illnesses such as scurvy, the failure of crops, limited fresh water supplies, and trees whose hardness made them impossible to cut down. Discipline, too, was a problem — as well as insubordination from the prisoners, many of those that had been engaged as guards for the voyage refused to help keep order once the crossing had been completed. Finally, the native aborigines proved less than friendly–perhaps having a premonition of the devastation that was caused by a smallpox outbreak they suffered in 1789 which killed almost half of their number in the area. By the end of 1789, a second convict fleet carrying much needed supplies had been delayed, and a serious food shortage was facing the colony. The Second Fleet finally arrived at Port Jackson in June 1790 after losing one of its stores ships to an iceberg. Of the thousand or so convicts that set out, more than a quarter perished at sea. A further 150 died not long after coming ashore.

Despite all the setbacks, order was gradually achieved and the colony became established, something was probably owed much to the remarkable personal qualities of Arthur Phillip. Life in Australia took its toll on Phillip, however, and ill health forced him to return home in 1792. Despite his departure, the colony continued to develop and, from 1796, the growth of the community outside the prison was helped by a programme of assisted emigration for free settlers who were given a free passage, a grant of land and eighteen months free rations.

The Evolution of Australian Transportation

In the early years of Australian transportation, convicts could either serve out their sentence in penal colony, join a labour gang on a public works project, or be assigned to work for a free settler who might be anything from a government officer to a farmer or even a freed former prisoner. Assigned convicts typically worked as shepherds, cowherds, field labourers, domestic servants or mechanics, with their masters required provide food, clothing and shelter.

The conditions experienced by convicts under the assignment system could vary enormously, some likened the convict's lot to that of a slave, with harsh punishments for any misdemeanour. The law in New South Wales enabled a magistrate to inflict 50 lashes on a convict for 'drunkenness, disobedience of orders, neglect of work, absconding, abusive language to his master or overseer, or any other disorderly or dishonest conduct.' Alternative punishments for these offences included imprisonment, solitary confinement, and labour in irons on the roads.

In 1840, a stage-based probationary system was introduced where prisoners' conditions and privileges and progression through the system were determined by their behaviour. In most cases, transportees began their sentence with an 18-month period of detention in a British prison. Stage 1 for 'lifers' was then hard labour on Norfolk Island. Stage 2 for lifers (Stage 1 for non-lifers) was working in labour gang in an unpopulated area on the Australian mainland. Advancement to Stage 3 allowed paid work for private employer, while Stage 4 provided for release on licence. Finally, Stage 5 bestowed a conditional or absolute pardon.

As well as Port Jackson, a number of other prison colonies were subsequently set up including ones at Hobart in Van Diemen's Land (renamed Tasmania in 1856), Moreton Bay in Queensland), Port Phillip in Victoria, Swan River in Western Australia, and on tiny Norfolk Island, a thousand miles to the east of the mainland.

The End of Transportation

Despite its great size, there were only so many convicts that Australia was prepared to receive. New South Wales closed its doors to the convict ships after1840, and by 1846 Van Diemen's Land was so overcrowded that transportation there was suspended for two years, finally being halted in 1852. Western Australia continued to accept convicts up until 1867. As the number of destinations dwindled, the British courts gradually moved away from the use of transportation. In its place, increasing use was made of sentences combining a period of confinement followed by several years labour at a public-works prison, such as the one at Portland which opened in 1848.

Transportation finally ended in on 9 January 1868, when the last convict ship, the Hougoumont, embarked 280 prisoners at Freemantle in Western Australia. Over the preceding eighty years, around 160,000 British convicts had been landed on Australian shores. Despite the hardships they often endured while serving out their sentences, many went on to become permanent settlers in the country.


  • Prison Oracle - resources those involved in present-day UK prisons.
  • GOV.UK - UK Government's information on sentencing, probation and support for families.