When the first penal colony was founded in Australia in 1788, keeping convicts was profitable as a form of slave labour.
Today, Australia is one if the world's most expensive places to keep prisoners.
What year did keeping a convict in Australia go from being profitable to a drain on the public purse? Approximates are okay.
It's a bit hard to judge "profitability" without having accounting records. Many convicts were assigned as personal servants. But let's assume "profitable" means the master is gaining something of value from the assignment, and therefore the last recorded convict assignment marks the end of its "profitability".
Convicts are convicted criminals who are transported to a distant place. In Australia, this practice took place between 1788 - 1868. Although it appears Western Australia was the last colony to abolish transportation, they never practiced convict assignment, where private individuals can apply to have a convict work for them. One of the last colonies to end the practice was Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania).
Here you can browse records of convict assignment online, on the National Library of Australia or on LINC Tasmania. Convict assignments are recorded on assignment registers or assignment lists, the latest of which goes up to 1859:
The writing is in cursive and difficult to interpret, but the columns are roughly Date (1859), Location (Hobart), Name (Thomas ???)
If you're good at researching this kind of thing, you might be able to pin an exact year. My best guess is somewhere in the 1850s.
The Messed Up History Of Australian Penal Colonies
Australia has a strange and fascinating history, particularly the part that begins in the late 1700s. In 1788, to be precise, the British founded New South Wales . and they founded it as a prison colony. Mad Max? That was almost non-fiction.
The area functioned as a prison state for the next eight decades, and over the course of that time, around 160,000 convicts were sent there. The effects have been long-lasting, and according to the BBC, about 20 percent of today's Australians can trace their roots back to a convict marooned there by the British. That includes their former prime minister, Kevin Rudd. His family goes back to his great-great-great-great-great-grandmother, who had been sentenced to life in Australia's penal colonies when she was just 11 years old. The crime? Robbery.
Australia has always had a bit of a conflicted relationship with its convict past. According to The Conversation, it's gone from shoving aside thoughts and memories of their ancestors to talking about them with a sense of pride. Because it wasn't just a case of "we're going to send all these murderers to Australia," it was much more complicated than that. But no matter how you look at it, life in the Australian penal colonies was incredibly messed up.
For almost 80 years, or the founding third of Australia&rsquos urban existence, British Convicts were transported to Australia, a fact that still embarrasses many Australians. As Bill Bryson, an American author wrote:
"I can personally affirm that to stand before an audience of beaming Australians and make even the mildest quip about a convict past is to feel the air conditioning immediately elevated.&rdquo
Because they have been a taboo topic, not much is agreed about any Convict legacy in Australia today. Nevertheless, the legacy could be defined as 1) cultural creations of Convicts 2) reaction against Convicts by non-Convicts 3) symbolic 4) biological.
Cultural legacy of Convicts
A strong legacy of Convicts can be found in myths of Australian culture. In regards to identity, the creation of the larrikin stereotype has very strong Convict fingerprints. As defined by historian Manning Clark,
&ldquoSoaring over them all is the larrikin almost archly self conscious- to smart for his own good, witty rather than humorous, exceeding limits, bending rules and sailing close to the wind, avoiding rather than evading responsibility, playing to an audience, mocking pomposity and smugness, taking the piss out of people, cutting down tall poppies, born of a Wednesday, looking both ways for a Sunday, larger than life, sceptical, iconoclastic, egalitarian yet suffering fools badly, and, above all, defiant."
Aside from the larrikin identity, perhaps another Convict legacy is the absence of conflict between Christian denominations that is common in Europe, as well as the USA and New Zealand to a lesser extent. Most of the Convicts were religious but because they were at the bottom of the social hierarchy, religion offered individual hope for something better rather than be an instrument to wield cultural power (as it was for many free people). Furthermore, irrespective of their religious background, the Convicts shared the stigma of their criminal status together and that criminal stigma dominated over religious stigma. As stated by the colonial Reverend Samuel Marsden,
&ldquoWhen men become convicts, a difference of religious opinions is hardly discernible among them&rdquo
Even though Convict transportation ended in 1868, the Convicts' private approach to religion stunted myths and institutions from being created where religion could be used to wield cultural power. Perhaps a reflection of that stunting has been the way that Samuel Marsden has largely being forgotten in Australian history. Despite being a very prominent figure in colonial society, very few Australians have heard his name. In contrast, Marsden also spent time in New Zealand where he was revered for bringing the Christian flock together. Today, almost all New Zealanders have heard his name and God has become part of the New Zealand national anthem.
Aside from influencing identities, it has also been suggested that the inventive nature of Australian English is a Convict legacy. As argued by Sidney Baker in The Australian Language:
" No other class of society would use slang more readily or adapt it more expertly to their new environment no other class would have a better flair for concocting new terms to fit in with their new conditions in life "
Furthermore, words like have a "fair go" are probably derived from 'fair crack of the whip' which referenced a fair flogging (punishment by whip).
It could also be argued that the bias towards informality in Australian English, such as the use of first names for bosses, may also be a Convict initiative. (Both American and Brtish English tends to use more formality in greetings and respect for titles like Mr, Mrs and Lord.) In regards to values, Australian egalitarianism and the tall poppy syndrome may be defined as Convict legacies. An early example of the egalitarian values can be found in the writings of Convict JF Mortlock:
"Men betraying their companions or accepting authority over them, are often called "dogs", and sometimes have their noses bitten off- the morsel being termed "a mouthful of a dog's nose."
Although it is not possible to find nose biters today, nor authority figures lacking a nose, throughout World War 1 and 2, Australian soldiers were renowned for trying to irritate British officers by turning up uninvited at their drinking establishments.
Finally, some traditions, such as Australia Day were Convict initative. Specifically, in 1808 emancipated Convicts used January 26 as a date to organise great parties to celebrate the land they lived in. In a way, the parties celebrated their survival. Although the more &ldquoreputable&rdquo members of colonial society weren&rsquot too keen on putting the old ball and chain on their legs in tribute to the founding fathers and laying down in a sexual pose in tribute to the mothers, they just couldn't say no to a great party.
As the parties grew in size, emancipists and their children infused them with political edge as they campaigned to have the same rights as free British migrants. In 1818, their cause was embraced by Governor Lachlan Macquarie, who acknowledged the day with its first official celebration of what was then known as Foundation Day. Macquarie declared that the day would be a holiday for all government workers, granting each an extra allowance of "one pound of fresh meat", and that there should be a 30 gun salute at Dawes Point &ndash one for each year that the colony had existed.
Over the following two centuries, colonial, state and federal governments removed any Convict association so how Australia Day started is unknown to most Australians. Neverthless, the fact remains it started with Convicts.
Legacy in reaction to Convicts in Australia
People can have influence, not only by what they do, but also how others react to them irrespective of what they do. In Australia, the reactions to Convicts by non-Convicts significantly shaped the 19th century. Firstly, the dehumanisation of Convicts created a corrupt police force that was devoid of humanity. When the police force treated free migrants on the goldfields the way they had treated Convicts, support grew for symbols of rebellion, such as the plight of bushranger Ned Kelly and the Eureka Stockade . (As a point of contrast, New Zealand was colonised at at same time by people with similar geographic origins but has no equivalent events or mythology.) Secondly, fear that Convicts would pollute Australia&rsquos gene pool resulted in community leaders organising meetings to ban ex-Convicts entering a region and later, proposing that a Federated Australia was the answer to keep out Convicts and other "un-desirables classes" - such as non-whites.
Melbourne Punch, 3rd May1888 - A Federation poster appearing in Punch magazine contained an old man advising a youngster: "Right, my boy, your worthy of your sire. In the old days I stopped the convicts in the bay. And now you must bar out the yellow plague with your arm."
In short, the Immigration Restriction Act (White Australia Policy) originated in prejudice against Convicts that mutated to prejudice against non-white migrants.
Symbolic legacy of Convicts
All over the world, the symbols, events, and stories from the past shape contemporary identities. In Australia however, the Convict chapter has always been problematic for government initiatives aimed at inspiring pride in Australia&rsquos history and culture. For example, in 1938, a re-enactment of the arrival of the first fleet had Arthur Phillip setting flight to a party of Aborigines. Convicts had not been included in the re-enactment. Media reports questioned the omission of Convicts, not necessarily because the journalists were proud of their Convict heritage but because the omission seemed somewhat fake. (Aborigines later protested about the celebration of an invasion.) Likewise, advertisements for the 1988 Bicentenary had lots of celebrities in front of Uluru singing about celebrating a nation but there were no reference to the penal colony in Sydney that marked its founding year. Today, no Australian government has given its approval to renactments of the landing that include Convicts. With a major part of Australian history being a taboo topic, it has been difficult for governments to encourage any kind of identification with the past. As a result, many Australians do not feel an identification with their heritage outside of the more honourable military tradition.
The 1988 Bicentenary advertisement is large on recommendations to celebrate without any reference to people or landscape that the Bicentenry started from.
Noting the sensitivities that some Australians feel about their nation's past, some people from other countries have turned the knife when they have wanted to offend. The English have taken a particularly strong lead here. For example, at cricket contests involving Australia, the Barmy Army often chant:
"We came here with backpacks, you with ball and chain!".
"The Aussies love the English, you might find it quite strange. 'Cos we sent them all down under, with only balls and chains. And when they see the English, they always shout and scream. But when they had the chance to vote they voted for the Queen."
"You all live in a convict colony," *to the tune of Yellow Submarine.
In the 1999 World Cup, Ajuna Rantaunga, the Sri Lankan Cricket Captain, had an indirect dig at Australia&rsquos heritage when he said of Australians:
"We come from 2,500 years of culture and we all know where they come from".
In the Simpsons episode Bart versus Australia (1995), writers offended many Australians by portraying the first prime minister of Australia as an unnamed Convict. The episode received 100 letters of complaint from Australians, and writer Mike Reiss even stated he had been condemned by the Australian parliament.
The Simpsons portrayed the first prime minister of Australia as an unnamed Convict. In truth, the first prime minister was a drunk racist but not a Convict. Most Australians don't know his name.
Although most Australians have approached the Convict past as a skeleton in the cupboard that everyone knows is there but they don't want mentioned anyway, at times there has been an attempt to build patriotism around them. For example, in the later 19th century, Marcus Clarke&rsquos For the Term of His Natural Life built a kind of patriotism around criminality in Australia much like Victor Hugo&rsquos Les Misérables built in France. At the beginning of the 20th story, highly successful movies like the Eureka Stockade, The Assigned Servant, The Squatters Daughter, Attack on the Gold Escort, Sentenced for Life and The Mark of the Lash picked up themes of rebellion and injustice and positioned them at the heart of a fledging national identity. In response, the NSW government banned the movies. Communists continued to promote the Convict story in the hope it would encourage a left-wing approach to social life. Perhaps the Communists weren't good at persuasion or the government was too strong with counter propaganda. Either way, present day Australian Communists have largely rejected patriotism as a positive virtue and therefore they are not inclined to find anything positive in Australian history, Convicts included.
Biological legacy of Convicts in Australia
During Australia&rsquos penal era, there was a widespread belief that crime was hereditary however, the theories they were based on have since been universally dismissed. Even if crime was hereditary, the so called criminal gene would have little expression today as it has been diluted. Only around 25 per cent of Australians can claim a Convict ancestor. Admittedly, without immigration, that 25 per cent would eventually reach 100 per cent but it would be further diluted with each generation. To put things into perspective, someone whose grandfather had a Convict grandfather would only be 1/16th Convict. Their children would only be 1/32 Convict if their partner lacked Convict ancestry. In short, genetic ancestry tends to be stronger in mind than in body.
One possible influence might have been in a version of survival of the fittest that resulted in only the strongest Convicts surviving the disease, floggings and hardships, which in turn was concentrated when their descendants bred. This is the same argument used for why black Americans, as the descendants of slaves, dominant Olympic track and field. Such an argument was once proposed by English sports writer Ted Corbett to explain Australian success in cricket:
"We also have to consider the laws of the survival of the fittest and make a comparison with the West Indies, another team who dominated world cricket as the Australians are at this moment.
Australia was born as a prison cell, a dumping ground for criminals and political upstarts left a harsh environment when the First Fleet sailed into Botany Bay in 1788. It was a rubbish heap for tough, rebellious men and their warders and women who were prepared to defy the conventions and fight for their equality.
What better start could there be for a country that was eventually to hold sporting prowess as its greatest achievement.
There is a similarity with the West Indies, manned for hundreds of years by slave men and women who had been force-marched across the African continent before being shipped across the Atlantic. The strongest lasted the distance and, when their descendants were freed, grew into tall, handsome and fearsome competitors with a little hate in their hearts for the men who had made them suffer such indignities. So it was in Australia. "
Activity 1 - Who can be proud of their history?
Choose a cultural group somewhere in the world that has a history to be proud of. What makes the history admirable? How is the legacy expressed in the identities of the present?
Activity 2 - Find something to be proud of in Australia
Australia Day has always been problematic for Australian governments. For almost 150 years, the Convict associations were problematic. In more recent times, the invasion associations have become problematic. As a consequence, Australia Day celebrations have largely been meaningless and devoid of reference to the past.
Fine some event in Australian history that are worthy of respect and subsequently create some rituals and re-enactments that can be unifying.
What was life like on the hulks?
Conditions in these floating gaols were terrible. The hulks were over-crowded and cramped, often there wasn’t even room to stand up! A hulk could be up to 65 metres long. This is the same size as 6 buses placed end to end. On board each hulk there could be up to 300 convicts. There were many diseases on board and convicts died. Between 1776 and 1795 nearly 2000 out of almost 6000 convicts held on hulks, died. The majority died from diseases such as typhoid and cholera.
The convicts were not fed very well. The people in charge wanted to keep costs low. The daily diet was often made up of ox-cheek, either boiled or made into soup, pease (peas), bread or biscuits. The biscuits were often mouldy. Tobacco could be supplied as part of their ration as a reward for a job well done or for good behaviour.
Convicts got up at sunrise and worked hard for up to 10 hours a day. All convicts were sentenced to hard labour as part of their punishment and could be forced to work at just about any manual task such as timber cutting, brick making or stone cutting.
Crime and punishment
Convict discipline was invariably harsh and often quite arbitrary. One of the main forms of punishment was a thrashing with the cat o’ nine tails, a multi-tailed whip that often also contained lead weights. Fifty lashes was a standard punishment, which was enough to strip the skin from someone’s back, but this could be increased to more than 100.
Just as dreadful as the cat o' nine tails was a long stint on a chain gang, where convicts were employed to build roads in the colony. The work was backbreaking, and was made difficult and painful as convicts were shackled together around their ankles with irons or chains weighing 4.5kg or more.
During the day, the prisoners were supervised by a military guard assisted by brutal convict overseers , convicts who were given the task of disciplining their fellows.
At night, they were locked up in small wooden huts behind stockades. Worse than the cat or chain gangs was transportation to harsher and more remote penal settlements in Norfolk Island, Port Macquarie and Moreton Bay.
Robert Jones - 'Recollections of 13 years Residence in Norfolk Island and Van Diemans land', dated 1823 [?], and associated papers to 1938
Although there was no direct transportation of convicts to Port Phillip, convicts were brought into the colony by various means at various times. David Collin's party, which settled at Sorrento in 1803, included some 300 male convicts, one of whom achieved notoriety as the Wild White Man, the escaped convict William Buckley (see separate box below).
The contingent which settled at Western Port in 1826 in order to deter French interest in the region included convicts as well as soldiers, and convicts were assigned to the the Police Magistrate for the Port Phillip District, Captain William Lonsdale in order to carry out government work. Convicts were also assigned to the early surveyors to assist them in their work.
Many expirees and some assigned convicts from Van Diemen's Land and New South Wales provided the labour force for the settlers opening up and working the land. The 1840s saw the arrival of the Exiles, or Pentonvillains, sent from Van Diemen's Land to satisfy the growing demand for labour, much to the ire of some free settlers intent on keeping the colony "untainted" by convictism. Others however welcomed the influx as a solution to their labour shortages.
The Library's ergo website provides students with information about formative events in Victoria's history and includes the following useful links relating to convicts in Port Phillip:
It didn’t happen
Search for more information about her life in Australia discovered that contrary to Robert Hughes account, also found in several other well known Australian history books, Dorothy Handland did not hang herself at Sydney Cove in a fit of befuddled despair. In fact she served her seven years at Port Jackson without incident. On 4 June, 1793 she embarked on Kitty for England, and was among those reported on board at Cork on 5 February, 1794.
I also discovered a story about a popular rhyming children’s game of forfeits well known even up to present day in England, “Here Comes an Old Woman from Botany Bay, What have you got to give her today”, in an Australian history journal which suggested that she might have been the subject of this game rhyme.
But I found no record of Dorothy Handland’s life in Australia and that has puzzled me ever since. Let me offer a plausible explanation as to why Dorothy Handland found noone interested in her seven year ordeal in Australia.
From the very onset, convict women had three possible roles open to them: whore, indentured worker, wife/mistress or a combination of these. The construction of these roles began almost from the very beginning ships of the First Fleet started their voyages. Women were seen as whores. According to officer in command of the expedition convict women threw themselves at the sailors and Royal Marines in “promiscuous intercourse” and “their desire to be with the men was so uncontrollable that neither shame nor punishment could deter them”.
Modern recreations do not capture the reality of life for convict women. AAP/Robert McGrath
According to Robert Hughes, on arrival at Botany Bay “the women floundered to and fro, draggled as muddy chickens under a pump, pursued by male convicts intent on raping them… the sailors on Lady Penrhyn applied to her master, Captain William Sever, for an extra ration of rum to make merry with upon the women quitting the ships. Out came the pannikins, down went the rum, and before long the drunken tars went off to join the convicts in pursuits of the women… It was the first bush party in Australia with some swearing, others quarrelling, others singing… as the couples rutted between the rocks, their cloths slimy with red clay, the sexual history of colonial Australia may fairly be said to have begun”.
Owing to industrialisation and the growth of city-slums, as well as the unemployment of soldiers and sailors following the American War of Independence, England was experiencing a high crime rate around 1780. The prisons were overcrowded there was no attempt to segregate the prisoners by their offence, age or sex.
In response to growing crime, the British government began to issue harsh punishments such as public hangings or exile. During the 18th and 19th centuries many prisoners were transported to Australia to carry out their sentence, a relatively small percentage of whom were women (between 1788 and 1852, male convicts outnumbered the female convicts six to one  ). Convict women varied from small children to old women, but the majority were in their twenties or thirties. The British Government called for more women of “marriageable” age to be sent to Australia in order to promote family development for emancipated convicts and free settlers.
Despite the belief that convict women during the transportation period were all prostitutes, no women were transported for that offence. The majority of women sent to Australia were convicted for what would now be considered minor offences (such as petty theft), most did not receive sentences of more than seven years. Many women were driven to prostitution upon their arrival in Australia as means of survival because they were often required to house themselves or buy clothing and bedding on their own.
The First Fleet was the first set of ships to transport convicts to Australia, it sailed in 1787. Ships continued to transport convicts to Western Australia until 1868. The beginning of the transportation years brought ships at inconsistent times and the death rate on these ships remained high in the Second Fleet, 267 out of 1,006 prisoners died at sea. However, at the peak of transportation, the death rate was a little more than one percent. 
Ralph Clark, an officer on board the Friendship in the First Fleet, kept a journal of his journey to Australia. In his journal, he described the women on board as "abandoned wenches", contrasting their characteristics with the supposed virtues of his wife in England.  At one stage, after several male convicts were caught in the place where the female convicts were lodged, Clark wrote: "I hope this will be a warning to them from coming into the whore camp — I would call it by the Name of Sodem [sic] for ther[e] is more Sin committed in it than in any other part of the world". 
Elizabeth Fry's British Ladies Society cared for women convicts. They had a convict ship sub-committee that persuaded the Navy board to fund "gifts" for the transportees. These items included knives, forks, aprons and sewing materials.  During the 25 years that Fry was involved 12,000 women were transported on 106 ships. The society's plan was to visit every ship on the night before it sailed to calm the women.  William Evans, the surgeon of the "Lady of The Lake" noted the valuable worth of the Ladies Society and he singled out Pryor and Lydia Irving's work for praise. 
Some seamen developed relationships with the women whilst on the voyage. Women used their bodies as a way of bettering their conditions. On the Lady Juliana, a ship in the Second Fleet, female convicts began to pair off with the seamen. John Nicol, a Scottish steward recalled, "Every man on board took a wife from among the convicts, they nothing loath."  These relationships were not always just . Nicol himself expresses his desire to marry and bring back to England his convict "wife", Sarah Whitlam, after her release.
Female factories in Australia housed convict women who were awaiting assignment, pregnant or undergoing punishment. They were called factories because the women were expected to work and because they also employed free working women. Task work was established in female factories in 1849, requiring the occupants to do chores, needle-work and washing. If extra work was done, the convict's sentence might be shortened.  Punishments for misconduct in the factories were often humiliating, a common one was to shave the woman's head.
Conditions in these factories were miserable. In the Parramatta female factory the occupants were not given mattresses or blankets to sleep on and the social conditions inside were indecent.
The Parramatta female factory was the first built in Australia and was located in Parramatta, New South Wales. The factory had room for only a third of the female prisoners the rest had to find lodgings with the local settlers at some cost (usually about four shillings a week).  Many women could only pay for this cost by offering sexual services. Their customers were usually the male convicts who came and left the factory as they pleased.
In 1819 Macquarie had ex-convict Francis Greenway create a new design for the factory. This new design had the inmates divided into three categories: the "general", "merit" and "crime" class.  The "crime" class women had their hair cropped as a mark of disgrace and were the incorrigibles. The "merit" or first class comprised women who had been well behaved for at least six months and women who had recently arrived from England. These girls were eligible to marry and eligible for assignment. The second or "general" class was made up of women who were sentenced for minor offences and could be transferred to the first class after a period of probation. This class consisted of many women who had become pregnant during their assigned service. The factory at Parramatta was a source of wives for settlers and emancipated convicts. With a written permit from the Reverend Samuel Marsden and a written note to the matron, a bachelor could take his pick of a willing "factory lass."
Marriage between male and female convicts and raising a family was encouraged because of the government’s intentions of developing a free colony. It was the objective of the British government to establish a colony in Australia rather than have it remain as a penal settlement. This compelled the government to send more women to Australia as a way of establishing a native population. On the arrival of 'female' ships, colonists would swarm to the dock to bargain for a servant. High-ranking officers had first pick. Some women were taken as mistresses, others as servants. There were no legal ties for these assignments, so a settler could dismiss a convict woman freely. When this did occur, it created a class of woman who often resorted to prostitution in order to feed and house themselves properly.
Male convicts had the chance to select a bride from the female factories by a system called 'convict courtship'. The male convicts came to the female factories to inspect the women, who had to line up for the occasion. If the male convict saw a woman that he liked, he made a motion at her to signal that he wanted to choose her. Most women accepted the offering. This process was often described as similar to the one in which slaves were selected. 
The Reverend Samuel Marsden categorized the women convicts into being married or prostitutes. If a woman were to have a relationship out of wedlock, Marsden considered this whoredom. Many couples lived and cohabited together monogamously without being officially married, yet these women were recorded as being prostitutes. The women were scarred from being convicted and could not redeem their status because it differed so greatly from the British ideal of a woman, who was virtuous, polite and a woman of the family.
Same-sex marriage in colonial days
There is, for example, a secret history of same-sex marriage (or "marriage-like relationships" if you prefer) in Australia that goes back to colonial days. One observer reported in 1846 that on Norfolk Island there were as many as 150 cohabiting male couples, happily describing themselves as married and referred to themselves as "man and wife".
In Sydney, younger convicts had (or perhaps took) names such as Kitty, Nancy and Bet, and lived under the protection of older, more experienced men exactly in line with heterosexual norms of the time.
In the female prison-workhouses in Tasmania, women convicts flirted, and fought for the affections of the prettier girls, who "titivated" themselves to appeal to those they fancied.
Women sent out as servants were known to behave badly, so as to be sent back to the workhouse where their partner was still incarcerated.
So, too, with cross-dressing. When Edward De Lacy Evans was transferred from Bendigo Hospital to Kew Asylum in 1879 it was discovered that he was a woman.
He had lived and dressed and worked and loved for many years as a man. He had married three times — and his third wife had given birth to their daughter in 1877.
Then there was Bill Edwards, of Melbourne, who, in 1905, was discovered to have been born a woman and became known in the sensational media coverage thereafter as Marion-Bill Edwards.
Far from shame, though, s/he embraced infamy and turned it into something very much like celebrity, penning an entirely unreliable memoir entitled The Life and Adventures of Marion-Bill Edwards, the most celebrated man-woman of modern times: exciting incidents, strange sensations.
Ellen Maguire, of Fitzroy, was a notorious prostitute, which was bad enough. When it became known Maguire was a man, John Wilson, whom many young men had paid for sex, he was condemned to death by the courts.
The Most Audacious Australian Prison Break of 1876
The Irish Fenian prisoners known as the Fremantle Six. Photos: Wikipedia
The plot they hatched was as audacious as it was impossible—a 19th-century raid as elaborate and preposterous as any Ocean’s Eleven script. It was driven by two men—a guilt-ridden Irish Catholic nationalist, who’d been convicted and jailed for treason in England before being exiled to America, and a Yankee whaling captain—a Protestant from New Bedford, Massachusetts—with no attachment to the former’s cause, but a firm belief that it was “the right thing to do.” Along with a third man—an Irish secret agent posing as an American millionaire—they devised a plan to sail halfway around the world to Fremantle, Australia, with a heavily armed crew to rescue a half-dozen condemned Irishmen from one of the most remote and impregnable prison fortresses ever built.
To succeed, the plan required precision timing, a months-long con and more than a little luck of the Irish. The slightest slip-up, they knew, could be catastrophic for all involved. By the time the Fremantle Six sailed into New York Harbor in August, 1876, more than a year had passed since the plot had been put into action. Their mythic escape resonated around the world and emboldened the Irish Republican Brotherhood for decades in its struggle for independence from the British Empire.
The tale began with a letter sent in 1874 to John Devoy, a former senior leader with the Irish Republican Brotherhood, known as the Fenians. Devoy, who was born in County Kildare in 1842, had been recruiting thousands of Irish-born soldiers who were serving in British regiments in Ireland, where the Fenians hoped to turn the British army against itself. By 1866, estimates put the number of Fenian recruits at 80,000—but informers alerted the British to an impending rebellion, and Devoy was exposed, convicted of treason and sentenced to 15 years’ labor on the Isle of Portland in England.
Fenian John Devoy. Photo: Wikipedia
After serving nearly five years in prison, Devoy was exiled to America, became a journalist for the New York Herald and soon became active with clan na gael, the secret society of Fenians in the United States.
Devoy was in New York City in 1874 when he received a letter from an inmate named James Wilson. “Remember this is a voice from the tomb,” Wilson wrote, reminding Devoy that his old Irish recruits had been rotting away in prison for the past eight years, and were now at Fremantle, facing “the death of a felon in a British dungeon.”
Among the hundreds of Irish republican prisoners in Australia, Wilson was one of seven high-profile Fenians who had been convicted of treason and sentenced to death by hanging until Queen Victoria commuted their sentences to a life of hard labor. After being branded with the letter “D” for “deserter” on their chests, the Fenians were assigned backbreaking work building roads and quarrying limestone beneath an unforgiving sun. “Most of us are beginning to show symptom of disease,” Wilson wrote. “In fact, we can’t expect to hold out much longer.”
Devoy was also feeling pressure from another Fenian—John Boyle O’Reilly, who had arrived at Fremantle with Wilson and the others, only to be transferred to Bunbury, another prison in Western Australia. O’Reilly grew despondent there and attempted suicide by slitting his wrists, but another convict saved him. A few months later, with help from a local Catholic priest, O’Reilly escaped from Bunbury by rowing out to sea and persuading an American whaling ship to take him on. He sailed to the United States and eventually became a poet, journalist and editor of the Catholic newspaper the Boston Pilot.
But it wasn’t long before O’Reilly began to feel pangs of guilt over his fellow Fenians’ continued imprisonment in Fremantle. He implored his fellow exile John Devoy to rally the clan na gael and mount a rescue attempt.
It was all Devoy needed to hear. Escape was entirely possible, as O’Reilly had proved. And he couldn’t ignore Wilson’s letter, imploring him not to forget the other Fenians that he had recruited. “Most of the evidence on which the men were convicted related to meetings with me,” Devoy later wrote. “I felt that I, more than any other man then living, ought to do my utmost for these Fenian soldiers.”
At a clan na gael meeting in New York, Devoy read Wilson’s “voice from the tomb” letter aloud, with its conclusion, “We think if you forsake us, then we are friendless indeed.”
Devoy put the letter down and in his most persuasive voice, shouted, “These men are our brothers!” Thousands of dollars were quickly raised to mount a rescue. The original plan was to charter a boat and sail for Australia, where more than a dozen armed men would spring the Fenians out of prison. But as the planning progressed, Devoy decided their odds would be better using stealth rather than force.
He convinced George Smith Anthony, a Protestant sea captain with whaling experience, that the rescue mission was one of universal freedom and liberty. Before long, Anthony concluded that the imprisoned Fenians were “not criminals,” and when Devoy offered the captain a “hefty cut” of any whaling profits they would make, Anthony signed on. He was told to set out to sea on the whaler Catalpa as if on a routine whaling voyage, keeping the rescue plans a secret from his crew Devoy had decided that it was the only way to keep the British from discovering the mission. Besides, they were going to need to return with a full load of whale oil to recoup expenses. The cost of the mission was approaching $20,000 (it would later reach $30,000), and one clan na gael member had already mortgaged his house to finance the rescue.
Devoy also knew he needed help on the ground in Australia, so he arranged for John James Breslin—a bushy-bearded Fenian secret agent—to arrive in Fremantle in advance of the Catalpa and pose as an American millionaire named James Collins, and learn what he could about the place they called the “Convict Establishment.”
What Breslin soon saw with his own eyes was that the medieval-looking Establishment was surrounded by unforgiving terrain. To the east there was desert and bare stone as far as the eye could see. To the west, were shark-infested waters. But Breslin also saw that security around the Establishment was fairly lax, no doubt due to the daunting environment. Pretending to be looking for investment opportunities, Breslin arranged several visits to the Establishment, where he asked questions about hiring cheap prison labor. On one such visit, he managed to convey a message to the Fenians: a rescue was in the works avoid trouble and the possibility of solitary confinement so you don’t miss the opportunity there would be only one.
The Catalpa in dock, probably in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Photo: Wikipedia
Nine months passed before the Catalpa made it to Bunbury. Captain Anthony had run into all sorts of problems, from bad weather to faulty navigational devices. A restocking trip to the Azores saw six crew members desert, and Anthony had to replace them before continuing on. He found the waters mostly fished out, so the whaling season was a disaster. Very little money would be recouped on this trip, but financial losses were the least of their worries.
Once Breslin met up with Captain Anthony, they made a plan. The Fenians they had come for had been continually shifted in their assignments, and for Breslin’s plan to work, all six needed to be outside the walls of the Establishment. Anyone stuck inside at the planned time of escape would be left behind. There was no way around it.
To complicate matters, two Irishmen turned up in Fremantle. Breslin immediately suspected that they were British spies, but he recruited them after learning that they had come in response to a letter the Fenians had written home, asking for help. On the day of the escape, they would cut the telegraph from Fremantle to Perth.
On Sunday, April 15, 1876, Breslin got a message to the Fenians: They would make for the Catalpa the next morning. “We have money, arms, and clothes,” he wrote. “Let no man’s heart fail him.”
Anthony ordered his ship to wait miles out at sea—outside Australian waters. He would have a rowboat waiting 20 miles up the coast from the prison. Breslin was to deliver the Fenians there, and the crew would row them to the ship.
On Monday morning, April 16, the newly arrived Irishmen did their part by severing the telegraph wire. Breslin got horses, wagons and guns to a rendezvous point near the prison—and waited. He had no idea which prisoners, if any, would make their way outside the walls that day.
But in the first stroke of good luck that morning, Breslin soon had his answer.
Thomas Darragh was out digging potatoes, unsupervised.
Thomas Hassett and Robert Cranston talked their way outside the walls.
Martin Hogan was painting a superintendent’s house.
And Michael Harrington and James Wilson concocted a tale about being needed for a job at the warden’s house.
Moments later, Breslin saw the six Fenians heading toward him. (It might have been seven, but James Jeffrey Roche “was purposely left behind because of an act of treachery which he had attempted against his fellows ten long years before,” when he sought a lighter sentence in exchange for cooperating with the British, Anthony later wrote. The deal was ultimately rejected, but the Fenians held a grudge.) Once on the carriages, the escapees made a frantic 20-mile horse-drawn dash for the rowboat.
They hadn’t been gone for an hour before the guards became aware that the Irishmen had escaped. Breslin and the Fenians made it to the shore where Anthony was waiting with his crew and the boat. The Catalpa was waiting far out at sea. They’d need to row for hours to reach it. They were about half a mile from shore when Breslin spotted mounted police arriving with a number of trackers. Not long after that, he saw a coast guard cutter and a steamer that had been commandeered by the Royal Navy to intercept the rowboat.
The Convict Establishment in Fremantle, Western Australia, Main Cellblock. Photo: Wikipedia
The race was on. The men rowed desperately, with the authorities and the British, armed with carbines, in hot pursuit. To spur on the men, Breslin pulled from his pocket a copy of a letter he had just mailed to the British Governor of Western Australia:
This is to certify that I have this day released
from the clemency of Her Most Gracious Majesty
Victoria, Queen of Great Britain, etc., etc., six Irishmen,
condemned to imprisonment for life by the
enlightened and magnanimous government of Great
Britain for having been guilty of the atrocious and
unpardonable crimes known to the unenlightened
portion of mankind as “love of country” and
“hatred of tyranny” for this act of “Irish assur-
ance” my birth and blood being my full and
sufficient warrant. Allow me to add that in taking
my leave now, I’ve only to say a few cells I’ve emptied
I’ve the honor and pleasure to bid yon good-day,
from all future acquaintance, excuse me, I pray.
In the service of my country,
The Fenians let out a cry and the crew kept rowing for the Catalpa, which they could now see looming in the distance. But the steamer Georgette was bearing down, and the wind was rising—the beginnings of a gale. Darkness fell and waves came crashing down on the overloaded boat as it was blown out to sea. Captain Anthony was the picture of confidence, giving orders to bail, but even he doubted they’d make it through the night.
By morning, the Georgette reappeared and went straight for the Catalpa. The Georgette‘s captain asked if he could come aboard the whaler.
Sam Smith, minding the Catalpa, replied: “Not by a damned sight.”
The Georgette, running low on fuel, then had to return to shore. Anthony saw his chance, and the Fenians made a dash for the whaler, this time with a cutter joining the race. They barely made it to Catalpa before the British, and the ship got under way. Anthony quickly turned it away from Australia, but the luck of the Irish seemed to run out. The wind went dead, the Catalpa was becalmed, and by morning, the Georgette, armed with a 12-pound cannon, pulled alongside. The Fenians, seeing the armed militia aboard the British ship, grabbed rifles and revolvers and prepared for battle.
Captain Anthony told the Fenians the choice was theirs—they could die on his ship or back at Fremantle. Though they were outmanned and outgunned, even the Catalpa’s crew stood with the Fenians and their captain, grabbing harpoons for the fight.
Poet and editor John Boyle O’Reilly escaped from a penal colony in Bunbury, Western Australia, in 1869. Photo: Wikipedia
The Georgette then fired across Catalpa’s bow. “Heave to,” came the command from the British ship.
“What for?” Anthony shouted back.
“You have escaped prisoners aboard that ship.”
“You’re mistaken,” Anthony snapped. “There are no prisoners aboard this ship. They’re all free men.”
The British gave Anthony 15 minutes to come to rest before they’d “blow your masts out.”
The Catalpa was also perilously close to being nudged back into Australian waters, with no wind to prevent that from happening. It was then that Anthony gave his reply, pointing at the Stars and Stripes. “This ship is sailing under the American flag and she is on the high seas. If you fire on me, I warn you that you are firing on the American flag.”
Suddenly, the wind kicked up. Anthony ordered up the mainsail and swung the ship straight for the Georgette. The Catalpa’s “flying jibboom just cleared the steamer’s rigging” as the ship with the Fenians aboard headed out to sea. The Georgette followed for another hour or so, but it was clear the British were reluctant to fire on an American ship sailing in international waters.
Finally, the British commander peeled the steamer back toward the coast. The Fenians were free.
The Catalpa arrived in New York four months later, as a cheering crowd of thousands met the ship for a Fenian procession up Broadway. John Devoy, John Breslin and George Anthony were hailed as heroes, and news of the Fremantle Six prison break quickly spread around the world.
The British press, however, accused the United States government of “fermenting terrorism,” citing Anthony’s refusing to turn over the Fenians, and noted that the captain and his crew were only “laughing at our scrupulous obedience to international law.” But eventually, the British would say that Anthony had “done us a good turn he has rid us of an expensive nuisance. The United States are welcome to any number of disloyal, turbulent, plotting conspirators, to all their silly machinations.”
The Fremantle Six still carried the torment from their ordeals at the Convict Establishment, and despite their escape, the men remained broken, Devoy noted. He’d known them as soldiers, and he was not prepared for the changes that ten years under the “iron discipline of England’s prison system had wrought in some of them.”
Still, the Fenians had reinvigorated the spirits of their fellow Irish nationalists at home and abroad, and the tale of their escape inspired generations to come through both song and story.
So come you screw warders and jailers
Remember Perth regatta day
Take care of the rest of your Fenians
Or the Yankees will steal them away.
Books: Zephaniah Walter Pease, Capt. George S. Anthony, Commander of the Catalpa: The Catalpa Expedition, New Bedford, Mass, G. S. Anthony Publication, 1897. Peter F. Stevens, The Voyage of the Catalpa: A Perilous Journey and Six Irish Rebels’ Escape to Freedom, Carrol & Graf Publishers, 2002. John DeVoy, Edited by Philip Fennell and Marie King, John Devoy’s Catalpa Expedition, New York University Press, 2006. Joseph Cummins, History’s Great Untold Stories: Larger Than Life Characters & Dramatic Events that Changed the World, National Geographic Society, 2006.