Convicts in Australia


Key points

  • Convicts arrived in Australia in 1788, on the First Fleet.
  • Many convicts were sentenced to deportation for minor crimes as life became very tough in Great Britain.
  • Convicts formed a large percentage of the Australian population for the first few decades of settlement.
  • Governor Lachlan Macquarie encouraged reformed convicts to  participate in society.
  • Many of Australia's early public works were completed by convict labour.
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Convicts in Australia Photograph © Penny Clay, Graphic design by Beau Vandenberg © HHT

Photograph © Penny Clay, graphic design by Beau Vandenberg © HHT

Early settlement

When Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet arrived at Port Jackson in 1788, 751 convicts and their children disembarked, along with 252 marines and their families.  

They made the eight month voyage from England, where the industrial revolution, overcrowding and unemployment had made life for the ordinary person very difficult and lead to poverty and increased crime rates.

People could be deported for crimes such as vagrancy (being homeless and unemployed) or robbery of goods less than a shilling (about $50 today), while stealing goods worth more than a shilling meant death by hanging.

Between 1788 and 1868, 165 000 convicts were transported to Australia and formed the majority of the population for the first few decades of this penal colony.

Under Governor Phillip, convicts were put to work according to their skills, building bridges, roads, hospitals and courthouses.

The first female convicts arrived in Van Dieman's Land in 1803.

Governor Lachlan Macquarie was the first Governor of New South Wales (1810-1821) to envisage the country as more than a penal colony, and encouraged reformed convicts to take up roles of responsibility within the community.  

Good behaviour meant many convicts were granted a Ticket of Leave before their full sentence was served.


Two soldiers in colonial NSW steal a piece of cloth, with the intention of getting caught. [The play button is in middle of the screen.]

Two convicts steal a place in history is an excerpt from the documentary Rites of Passage, the second episode of the two-part series entitled Rogue Nation, produced in 2009. (From National Film and Sound Archive)

Convict databases and registries

Convict life

Finding freedom


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