Australia: land of sun-drenched sand and surfers. Many of us would love to make the trip Down Under to relax on the coast and enjoy the laid-back vibe. But it wasn’t always so. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, British criminals were sent there for punishment. The first convicts went out in 1787. Over the next 80 years some 162,000 prisoners were transported to New South Wales, Tasmania and Western Australia. The last convict ship, the Hougoumont, sailed to Western Australia in 1868.
For these poor souls, it was no holiday. Many died on the way, and those who made it faced years of hard labour. Their back-breaking work included hewing rock and building roads and they were often flogged. But they had it tough even before they set sail. It could be up to a year after leaving Inveraray that prisoners actually found themselves on board a ship heading south across the equator to Australia. First they were sent by ship to Glasgow. They then crossed to Granton on the Firth of Forth before sailing down the east coast. Some went to Wakefield Prison in Yorkshire, others to Millbank Prison on the Thames. There they spent at least nine months in separate confinement before being sent on to work in the dockyards of Chatham, Portsmouth and Woolwich. Convicts at work in the dockyards were held in old ships or hulks. These were often rotten and severely overcrowded. There was scarcely enough food and the air below decks was foul. Typhus and cholera were rife.
The voyage itself lasted about four months. In the early days of transportation conditions on board were little different to those on slave ships. Out of the 499 convicts who sailed from Portsmouth on board The Neptune in 1790, 158 died at sea. Regulations to improve the situation for prisoners on ships sailing to Australia were gradually tightened up.
Many people were sentenced to transportation by the judge at Inveraray Courthouse. In 1850 David Wallace, a farmer, aged 20, from near Campbeltown was sentenced to 20 years transportation for wilful fire-raising. He was heavily in debt. In just two weeks in November 1849, he insured his farm buildings and stock for the then massive sum of £3,224, married and then set fire to farm buildings and foodstuffs. Thirty cows were burned to death. You can hear the trial of David Walllace in the Courtroom today. When the Judge passes his sentence, listen for the gasps from the public benches and a strangled sob from Mrs Wallace as her husband crumples in his seat, completely overwhelmed by what lay ahead of him. We don’t know his ultimate fate, but Mrs Wallace would be unlikely to see her husband again.
Another Cambeltown man, Donald McCaffer, was tried in April 1851 for breach of the peace, malicious mischief and assault and sentenced to seven years transportation. A month earlier he had been part of a crowd throwing stones at the Roman Catholic priest’s house in Campbeltown shouting: ‘No priest, no pope, no holy water!’ Without provocation he went up to John McMenemy, an Irish fisherman, knocked him down and kicked him in the face.
Women and children were transported too. Janet MacDonald, aged 19, a domestic servant from the Isle of Skye, was sentenced to seven years transportation for stealing clothes. Henry O’Neal, aged 15, meanwhile, was sentenced to seven years transportation for breaking into a house and stealing food.
You can find more prisoners who were transported to Australia by searching the prison records online. And next time you find yourself dreaming about a holiday to Oz, spare a thought for these individuals, and the thousands like them, who were sent to that faraway land to pay for their crimes all those years ago.