Decorated initial B

eginning in the eighteenth century, Great Britain’s judicial system reserved the life sentence for criminals it deemed incapable of reform; all others received sentences of either seven or fourteen years. Life sentences took the form of permanent exile from the homeland. David Paroissien explains that “prisoners sentenced to transportation for life were read the following verdict: 'It is therefore ordered and adjudged by this court Court, that you be transported upon the seas, beyond the seas, to such a place as His Majesty, by the advice of His Privy Council, shall think fit to direct and appoint, for the term of your natural life’” (quoted by Hughes 129; from Paroissien, p. 335).

The problem that confronted eighteenth-century lawmakers was what to do about the proliferation in crimes against property that occurred when the industrial revolution led to immigration to the cities and increasing unemployment among unskilled labour. Whereas under the Stuarts in the seventeenth century approximately fifty crimes merited capital punishment, under the Waltham Black Act of 1722, designed to curtail wide-spread poaching, the number of such crimes had proliferated four-fold. Although the "bloody code" of British justice had over two hundred capital crimes, many English justices regarded transportation as a humane option through which the criminal could serve the Empire with his labour. However, after the outbreak of the American revolution, the system halted transportation to North America until another suitable alternative presented itself: Australia, some 16,000 miles from the mother country. Eventually, between the arrival 736 convicts Port Jackson (Sydney harbour) on 20 January 1788 (after a voyage 252 days from Portsmouth) and the elimination of the penalty in 1853, approximately 136,000 male and 25,000 female convicts (some as young as nine years old) were sent to Australia aboard convict transports. However, since juries tended to balk at delivering a guilty verdict for a trivial crime against property, they would often re-define the nature of the offence so that the defendant would face a lesser penalty. Moreover, since reformers had effectively inveighed against the disgusting spectacle of public hanging, by 1823 the government had repealed most of the provisions regarding capital crimes. "After 1838, no one was hanged except for murder or, until 1861, attempted murder" (Richardson, p. 640).

Transporting criminals to Australia was much cheaper than covering the costs of their incarceration in the British Isles; all the government had to pay was the cost of the journey. Escape was unlikely, premature return penalised by a death sentence, and transportation avoided the necessity of a public hanging, which could provide the occasion for insurrection. A convicted felon's sentence would usually begin in a goal or hulk on the shores of the lower Thames, or near one of the Channel ports. Conditions aboard these vessels were appalling as poor hygiene frequently led to outbreaks of typhus and cholera. A prisoner convicted of a serious offence would arrive at the hulk or holding facility with "caption papers" stating the nature of the offence, the date upon which the prisoner was convicted, and the length of sentence to be served. The convict might be placed on a crew engaged in road repair or other public works projects such as river dredging. "Individuals convicted of 'Grand Larceny, or any other Crime, except Petty Larceny', were kept aboard and employed 'in Hard Labour in the raising of Sand, Soil, and Gravel from, and cleansing the River Thames, or any other River Navigable for Ships of Burthen' (19 Geo. III, c. 74)" (Paroissien, p. 45). The authorities would then transfer the prisoner to a convict ship for the eight-month journey.

Australian transportation failed for several reasons. First of all, the reformers John Howard, Sir William Blackstone, and Hepworth Dixon attacked sentences of transportation for relatively minor offences as essentially unjust, since the system treated first-time offenders and career criminals in precisely the same way. Secondly, colonists down under became alarmed about the arrival of so many criminals in their communities. Then, too, "English writers questioned whether life on this new frontier, with all its opportunities for wealth, could really be construed as punishment" (Richardson, p. 640). Consequently, the government halted penal transportation to New South Wales in 1840. Not long after the authorities had established Van Dieman's Land (Tasmania) as the chief destination for transported felons, transportation to that island ceased in 1846. In 1853, the legal system substituted shorter sentences of imprisonment for transportation, which it largely abolished in 1857, except for hardened offenders whose crimes rendered them beyond redemption, so that, in 1856 the government was able to abolish the use of hulks as temporary facilities to hold prisoners destined to serve their sentences abroad.

Traditional methods of curtailing crime, including capital punishment and penal transportation, failed because of the sheer volume of crimes against property. "Capital punishment was seen as the principal deterrent against crime; public executions displayed the power of the state, punished the felon, and cautioned the public" (Richardson 638).

Related material


"Introduction — Nineteenth-Century Prison Ships." The National Archives.

Paroissien, David. The Companion to 'Great Expectations'. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 2000.

Richardson, Betty. "Prisons and Prison Reform." Victorian Britain, An Encyclopedia, ed. Sally Mitchell. New York and London: Garland, 1988. Pp. 638-41.

"Sentencing to Departure - Prison Hulks & Convict Gaols." Victorian Crime and Punishment.

Williams, Tony. "Over the Seas and Far Away, or the English Gulag — Transportation and the Hulks." The Dickens Magazine. 1. 1 (2000): 8-9.

Last modified 26 August 2017