Convicts: Life in the colony

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Key to library resources

Access anywhere with a library card In the Library (or anywhere with a Library card for NSW residents)
Available to access in the library Only in the Library
Publicly available online Publicly available

Settlements that were once part of NSW

Moreton Bay (Queensland)

Norfolk Island

Port Phillip (Victoria)

Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania)


Australian Encyclopaedia, 6th Ed (1996), Australian Geographic Pty Ltd, NSW.
Clark, K M 1999, Convicts of the Port Phillip District, Waramanga, ACT, KM & G Clarke, ACT.
O'Keeffe, M 2001, Convicts at Moreton Bay 1824-1859, Royal Historical Society of Queensland, Brisbane.

Records about other settlements

Use the Guide to New South Wales State Archives relating to convicts and convict administration to find a summary of the records held at State Archives & Records NSW for the penal settlements of  Moreton Bay, Norfolk Island and Port Phillip.

Moreton Bay

The colony of Moreton Bay was established in 1824. It was originally a place of secondary punishment for re-offending convicts but at any time the convict population might consist of first time colonial offenders and even convicts sentenced to Moreton Bay from England (O'Keeffe, 2001, pp. 6-7). Approximately 2,200 convicts were sent to Moreton Bay (including approximately 135 women). When transportation was briefly resumed in 1849-1859, two ships transported over 500 men to the area and another 120 who were from Sydney were given a Ticket of Leave for the Moreton Bay area (O'Keeffe, 2001, pp. 23-25).

Moreton Bay was part of NSW until 1859 so while there are records that specifically concern Moreton Bay, it is worth checking the NSW records in this guide. Also keep in mind that some convicts spent time in NSW before being transported to Moreton Bay.

On store? Off store?

'On Store' means the convict received food and clothing rations from the government and so 'Off Store' means that they didn't receive rations from the government. This is also called victualling in many of the convict records.

Norfolk Island

Norfolk Island was established as a penal colony in 1788 and was administered by NSW. By 1804 the settlement was ordered to be closed and most of the convicts were transferred to Van Diemen's Land. In 1808 most of the free settlers were also transferred and by 1814 the island was abandoned altogether.

In an attempt to deter further crime in NSW, the island was re-established in 1825 as a place of secondary punishment for the worst convicts. From 1825 until 1855, an average of 1500-2000 convicts lived on the island under the severest conditions (Australian Encyclopaedia, Vol 6, p. 2261). In 1844, it was annexed to Tasmania. Between 1854 and 1856 convicts were removed from the island and descendents of the Bounty mutineers arrived from Pitcairn Island.

While there are many records that specifically concern Norfolk Island, it is worth checking the New South Wales and Tasmanian records as well.

Port Phillip

In 1803 the 'Calcutta' arrived with 300 convicts to settle the Port Phillip area. The settlement was abandoned in 1804 and the 'Calcutta' sailed on to Tasmania. There were several attempts to establish convict colonies at Western Port (Phillip Island) in the 1820s but were abandoned due to poor soil and lack of water.

It was not until 1836, that a permanent settlement was established in what is now known as Melbourne. Convicts in the Port Phillip district were sent there from Sydney or arrived from Tasmania as assigned servants of free settlers or in surveying parties (State Archives & Records NSW, 2006, p. 201).

In 1845 the transportation of 'exiles' direct from Great Britain began. 'Exiles' was the name used to describe better behaved convicts (from Parkhurst and Pentonville prisons in the UK) who were given pardons on condition they did not return to Britain until the completion of their sentences (Clarke, 1999, pp. 96-97). Transportation to Port Phillip ceased in 1849.

Public Record Office Victoria

The Public Record Office Victoria also has convict records for Port Phillip. They include court and police records, records about the exiles, Victorian hulk records. Some of the records have also been digitised.


Van Diemen's Land

Van Diemen's Land was settled as a penal colony in 1803 and become a separate colony from New South Wales in 1825. But it wasn't until 1856 that Van Diemen's Land became known as Tasmaina.

Tasmanian papers

The Tasmanian papers are held at the Mitchell Library. These are a collection of government records for Tasmania relating to convicts. There is not an overall index to the Tasmanian papers but there is a guide to the contents of the papers. It lists the contents by microfilm reel, not by name or subject. There is also an appendix which is a list of convict ships arriving in Van Diemen’s Land 1812-53 (in date order) with the corresponding reel number.

There is no overall index to the Tas papers but there are various indexes on CD-ROM and microfiche to different parts of the papers: 

  • Index to Tasmanian convicts, 1821-1854
  • Index to more Tasmanian convicts, 1814-1845
  • Tasmanian colonial index, 1816-1889

However the Tasmanian papers have now been digitised in full and can be found on the State Library's website. 

There is also a Guide to the Tasmanian papers at the Special Collections desk in the Mitchell Library.