Convicts: Life in the colony

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Work assignments


The labour system

Convicts were the strength of the labour system in NSW. Early convict labour was mainly used by the government to cultivate land, construct roads, bridges and buildings.

As the colony grew convicts were assigned to private masters either Army officers or settlers. They needed to provide proof that there was enough work and that food and clothing would be provided before a convict was assigned to them.


Searching Ancestry


The type of work assigned to a convict would match the work they were employed to do before being transported.

There was plenty of work for builders and farm workers but not for weavers and tailors who were usually assigned as unskilled labourers or domestic servants.

Convicts with important skills such as an architect were highly sought after. Francis Greenway, Australia's first trained architect, is one example.

Newspapers on Trove

You can search early Australian newspapers on Trove.

Search newspapers for information about your convict's assignment such as who employed them and the convict assignment system.


Digital order number: a928947

What is a colonial convict?

If you were born in the colony or came to the colony as a free settler and committed an offence you would be known as a colonial convict. Also, convicts who had re-offended after serving their sentence would be listed as a colonial convict.


Digital order number: 823723 (album ID)

Gangs and parties

Male convicts could be assigned to Iron Gangs, Road Parties (also known as Road Gangs) or Bridge Parties.

Iron Gangs consisted of colonial convicts. Many were forced to wear leg-irons to prevent them from escaping. After completing their time in the gang, they could then be assigned to the Road Parties - without the leg-irons.

Convicts who were just arrived in the colony (or soon after) could be assigned to the Road Parties. They carried out public works.

After 1828 men from these gangs could be assigned to Bridge Parties because of their skills. These parties constructed the bridges along the Great North Road.

The Female Factory Parramatta

The factory was originally built in 1804 and was replaced with more substantial barracks in 1821.

The factory was a workhouse, gaol and holding area for female convicts and their children who had recently arrived in the colony. Convicts were assigned to activities such as spinning and carding, and even hard labour such as breaking rocks.

Search the Index to the Colonial Secretary's papers to find records about the factory and its history before 1826. Enter 'Parramatta' and 'Female Factory' to limit your search.

What is a Ticket of Leave?

Tickets of Leave were granted to convicts for good behaviour and gave them certains rights such as acquiring property or working for themselves. The ticket could be cancelled if they didn't adhere to the conditions of the ticket such as attending church services.

What is a Ticket of Leave passport?

Ticket of Leave Passports allowed a convict to travel out of an area to another specified location. This might be for work, to visit family or to visit markets. Only convicts who had a Ticket of Leave could be granted a Ticket of Leave Passport.

What is a Ticket of Exemption?

Tickets of Exemption (from government labour) were granted to allow a convict to be assigned to their spouse or another family member.

Indexes at State Archives & Records NSW