Peter Miller Cunningham’s Two Years in New South Wales provides a highly informative account of the life of convicts in New South Wales — the society Magwitch would have entered upon his release. During the novel’s setting of the early nineteenth century, when Great Expectations (1861) takes place, Australia was a colony populated by British military and naval officers, convicts, bold British emigrants, and the subjugated aboriginal population. Captain James Cook arrived on the east coast of Australia in 1770 and named the area New South Wales. Captain Arthur Phillips founded the first settlement in 1788. New South Wales began as strictly a penal colony and quickly deteriorated into anarchy. The appointment Lachlan Macquarie as governor in 1809 marked a major turning point in the development of New South Wales. Macquarie restored order and commissioned the construction of many new roads and public buildings. The hard labor of convicts provided the labor for this new infrastructure. The men who fulfilled their sentences without much incident found themselves with great opportunity to take advantage of the largely untapped continent upon their liberation.

A surgeon and supervisor on convict ships, Cunningham observed the life of the convict firsthand. On the trip over, convicts were segregated from the other passengers. They received reasonably sized sleeping quarters in addition to rations of clothes, biscuit, lime juice, sugar, beef, pork, and wine. Convicts also received spiritual counseling from a chaplain. Many convicts feigned devotion in the hope that they would receive favorable treatment upon arrival. On the ship, the prisoners divided themselves into factions based on their region of origin. However, these groups did not last upon reaching New South Wales. Many objected to their forced emigration, but a stint in solitary confinement usually brought compliance.

Citizens of New South Wales were somewhat wary of the convicts. They referred to them as canaries during their sentences and called them government-men even after their release. However, convict labor represented the driving force in the rapid expansion of Australia into a vibrant land of opportunity to many. Cunningham describes that sentiment thusly:

It is as pleasing as surprising to look back to the period of the foundation of the colony by Governor Philips, in 1788, a period of only thirty-eight years, and contemplate the wonderful changes that have been wrought by labour of the outcasts thrust by England from her bosom, to expiate their offenses on these remote shores. It could scarcely have been conceived by the first founders that, in transplanting a few incorrigible criminals into the wild woods of Australia, sixteen thousand miles distant from their native homes, the seeds of a mighty empire should have been sown, which even at this day far exceeds, in rapidity of progress toward riches and power, and founded on the American continent . . . It is, besides, extremely curious to trace an intelligent, spirited, and well-principled population to sources so impure as the many criminals who have been outlawed hither . . . and whose offspring still form the majority of our Currency people. [Cunningham, 59-60]

Free citizens viewed convicts as a curiosity but also appreciated the value of the incredibly cheap labor they provided. The majority of convicts accepted their fate because they received rations that exceeded what a poor person could afford in England. Convicts could potentially receive an early release if they passed through three probationary periods. If they misbehaved, they were “flogged and sentenced to a penal settlement, to drag out a period of debased servitude among the vilest of the vile” (Cunningham, 211).

After completing their sentences, ex-convicts found themselves at liberty to take advantage of the many opportunities for profit offered by Australia. When asked how he made his fortune, Magwitch states that he became “a sheep-farmer, stock-breeder, and other trades besides” (Dickens, 244). Sheep farming was indeed a very profitable industry at the time, as was the cultivation of cattle, horses, donkeys, pigs, goats, deer, rabbits, and poultry. Cunningham contends that for a man willing to work hard “will, it is my firm belief, find New South Wales the best of all the newly colonized countries he can possibly fix on, for the purpose of turning that capital, when devoted to agricultural purposes, to a beneficial account.” (Cunningham, 2-3) He argues that New South Wales has more open land, shorter traveling distances, thinner timber, and milder weather than America. Thusly, Australia provides a better opportunity for advancement than any other colony. The mining and trade of coal, granite, and ironstone also constituted a profitable industry at the time. The access to trade with India, China, England, Brazil, and New Zealand combined with the abundance of cheap land and labor made immense profits possible for those willing to apply themselves. Magwitch’s large fortune may be somewhat atypical but is certainly not implausible.

Intetestingly, Cunningham does not mention one of the key points of h Life in Australia provided the possibility for great financial advancement. However, this advancement did not transfer upon returning to England. Ex-convicts faced discrimination that often caused them to return to their old ways. After coming back to England, the ex-convict “becomes in England an outcast from honest society, is looked upon with a suspicious eye, and his misdeeds thrown in his teeth on occasion of every petty dispute . . . no wonder he should seek the society of the dishonest, among whom he is always sure of a cordial welcome” (Cunningham, 208). The inability of ex-convicts from Australia to gain respectability in England makes Magwitch’s return extremely misguided. He succeeds in elevating Pip to gentleman status but cannot join him despite all his hard work. Dickens sees Australia as a valuable land of redemption and opportunity but also recognizes that that same opportunity will not be extended in England no matter how hard an ex-convict works to put his crimes behind him.


Cunningham, Peter Miller. Two Years in New South Wales. 2 ed. London: H. Colburn, 1827. Print.

Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. 1867. Project Gutenberg. 20 Aug. 2008. Web.

New South Wales.” Wikipedia. Web. 17 May 2010.

Great Expectations The British Empire

Last modified 20 May 2010