National Archives




End of transportation

When the last shipment of convicts disembarked in Western Australia in 1868, the total number of transported convicts stood at around 162,000 men and women. They were transported here on 806 ships.


The transportation of convicts to Australia ended at a time when the colonies’ population stood at around one million, compared to 30,000 in 1821. By the mid–1800s there were enough people here to take on the work, and enough people who needed the work. The colonies could therefore sustain themselves and continue to grow. The convicts had served their purpose.


Who were the convicts?

While the vast majority of the convicts to Australia were English and Welsh (70%), Irish (24%) or Scottish (5%), the convict population had a multicultural flavour. Some convicts had been sent from various British outposts such as India and Canada. There were also Maoris from New Zealand, Chinese from Hong Kong and slaves from the Caribbean.

A large number of soldiers were transported for crimes such as mutiny, desertion and insubordination. Australia’s first bushranger – John Caesar – sentenced at Maidstone, Kent in 1785 was born in the West Indies.

Most of the convicts were thieves who had been convicted in the great cities of England. Only those sentenced in Ireland were likely to have been convicted of rural crimes. Transportation was an integral part of the English and Irish systems of punishment. It was a way to deal with increased poverty and the severity of the sentences for larceny. Simple larceny, or robbery, could mean transportation for seven years. Compound larceny – stealing goods worth more than a shilling (about $50 in today’s money) – meant death by hanging.


Van Diemen’s Land


The colony of Van Diemen’s Land was established in its own right in 1827 and officially became known as Tasmania in 1856. In the 50 years from 1803–1853 around 75,000 convicts were transported to Tasmania. By 1835 there were over 800 convicts working in chain-gangs at the infamous Port Arthur penal station, which operated between 1830 and 1877.


Western Australia

The Colony of Western Australia (also known as Swan River Colony) was established as a free colony on 2 May 1829 when Captain Fremantle formally took possession of the land of Western Australia in the name of the King of England. In May 1849 the British authorised the conversion of Western Australia to a penal colony. From 1849 to 1868 over 9000 convicts were from England. On January 9, 1868, Australia’s last convict ship, the Hougoumont unloaded the final 269 convicts.



In 1851 Victoria (Port Phillip District) separated from New South Wales. Apart from the early attempts at settlement, the only convicts sent directly to Victoria from Britain were about 1,750 convicts known as the ‘Exiles’. They arrived between 1844 and 1849. They were also referred to as the ‘Pentonvillians’ because most of them came from Pentonville Probationary Prison in England.



In 1859 Queensland separated from New South Wales. In 1824, the penal colony at Redcliffe was established by Lieutenant John Oxley. Known as the Moreton Bay Settlement, it later moved to the site now called Brisbane.


The main inhabitants of ‘Brisbane Town’, as it was known, were the convicts of the Moreton Bay Penal Station until it was closed in 1839. Around 2,280 convicts were sent to the settlement in those fifteen years.


Way of life for British settlers


It was a struggle for the settlers to survive in the first years of the British colony in Australia. They had come from a developed country with buildings, roads, shops and hospitals and arrived in a country that was entirely unfamiliar to them. Not only did they have to contend with strange plants and animals but the soil was also very poor and the climate much warmer and drier. The early settlers were also wary of the Indigenous peoples. The colony almost failed in the early years, as the harvests failed, but gradually the colony began to expand.



The life of a convict was very harsh. Many of the convicts sent to New South Wales were serving a 7 or 14-year sentence for crimes such as robbery. They were forced to work 10 hours each day, from sunrise to sunset. They were sometimes tied in chains and were fed meagre rations. As punishment they were flogged, and perhaps confined to dark cells. Some convicts worked for the governor, while others worked for freed convicts and free settlers. The male convicts built roads, bridges, buildings, and cultivated crops while the female convicts often wove wool or washed laundry.

Convicts gained their freedom after they had completed their sentence. Sometimes they were granted pardons if they were well behaved. These convicts became known as emancipists. Most ex-convicts and emancipists were allowed to go home, but had to pay their own fare. If they stayed in Australia they were often given grants of land in the hope that they would grow their own food and stop relying on the government. Many emancipists provided a valuable contribution to the growth and expansion of the colony in New South Wales.


id=”free”Free settlers

In the early years of the colony, very few settlers came to Australia. Free settlers had to fund their own transport and were usually quite wealthy. The few who made the journey to Australia did so mostly to make their fortune. They were often given large land grants and convicts to work for them. Some free settlers were not farmers, but doctors and military officers looking for a better way of life in Australia.


Even with land grants and convict labour, the life of a free settler was often very harsh. Farmers and pastoralists in particular had to endure droughts and floods, as well as resistance from the Indigenous peoples. Their shelters were often very basic to begin with and food was scarce until the crops could be harvested. Few farms succeeded in the early years of the colony. It was not until the 1820s and 1830s, when New South Wales was settled further inland, that farmers began to flourish. The following chapter looks at the expansion into inland Australia.


It was a struggle for the settlers to survive in the first years of the British colony in Australia. They had come from a developed country with buildings, roads, shops and hospitals and arrived in a country that was entirely unfamiliar to them. Not only did they have to contend with strange plants and animals but the soil was also very poor and the climate much warmer and drier. The early settlers were also wary of the Indigenous peoples. The colony almost failed in the early years, as the harvests failed, but gradually the colony began to expand.

English free settlers were people that chose to go to Australia. They were not forced to go there, as the convicts were. The English free settlers went to Australia between the late 18th century and the early 19th century. When the English free settlers got to Australia, they landed in the southern part of the continent. That was the only colony created by the free settlers. The Free Settlers are people who go shopping.

The English free settlers went to Australia to be free. They wanted to make money as well. They also wanted to explore Australia. Most of them were families who wanted a better life with their children. Some people called the English Free settlers “Pilgrims”.


Reasons for settling

Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and English explorers observed the island before 1770, when Captain James Cook explored the east coast and claimed it for Great Britain.

After the loss of the United States, Britain felt a need to find an alternative destination to take the population of its overcrowded prisons (full mainly due to the unemployment created by the Industrial Revolution) and needed somewhere to send their overflow: the newly discovered land was considered the best option.



Population history



Australia’s Environment

Although most of Australia is semi-arid or desert, it includes a diverse range of habitats from alpine heaths to tropical rainforests, and is recognised as a megadiverse country. Fungi typify that diversity; an estimated 250,000 species—of which only 5% have been described—occur in Australia.  Because of the continent’s great age, extremely variable weather patterns, and long-term geographic isolation, much of Australia’s biota is unique. About 85% of flowering plants, 84% of mammals, more than 45% of birds, and 89% of in-shore, temperate-zone fish are endemic.  Australia has the greatest number of reptiles of any country, with 755 species.

Australian forests are mostly made up of evergreen species, particularly eucalyptus trees in the less arid regions; wattles replace them as the dominant species in drier regions and deserts. Among well-known Australian animals are the monotremes (the platypus and echidna); a host of marsupials, including the kangaroo, koala, and wombat, and birds such as the emu and the kookaburra. Australia is home to many dangerous animals including some of the most venomous snakes in the world. The dingo was introduced by Austronesian people who traded with Indigenous Australians around 3000 BCE. Many animal and plant species became extinct soon after first human settlement, including the Australian megafauna; others have disappeared since European settlement, among them the thylacine.


Many of Australia’s ecoregions, and the species within those regions, are threatened by human activities and introduced animal, chromistan, fungal and plant species.  All these factors have led to Australia having the highest mammal extinction rate of any country in the world.


Eureka stockade timeline



Map of early Melbourne



Expedition maps




British Empire Map



Melbourne: A short timeline of European settlement and development 1835 – 1906


John Batman signed a treaty with the Woiworung to ‘buy’ their land. A settlement began at Port Phillip.


Port Phillip officially named Melbourne. The first city land is sold. Robert Hoddle, who planned the layout of the streets, was the auctioneer.


The first horse race meeting was held at Flemington, where races are still held today.


The first town council election.


The first wooden bridge was built across the Yarra.  People had to pay to cross it!


Melbourne is an official city.


Gold is discovered in Ballarat and thousands of people left the city for the goldfields.


The first steam train to operate in Australia ran between Flinders Street Station and Sandridge (now called Port Melbourne).

First electric telegraph line in Australia opened between Melbourne and Williamstown.


Melbourne has gas street lights


The first game of Australian Rules football played.


First Melbourne Cup horse race was run. The winning horse was ‘Archer’.


Melbourne Town Hall opened.

First Australian Rules premiership match played between Melbourne and Carlton.


First Melbourne Royal Show


First tennis match played in Australia at Melbourne Cricket Club


First Australian exhibition ‘expo’ held in Royal Exhibition Building, Carlton


Princes Bridge opened.


First steam driven motor car to be built in Australia by Herbert Thomson


First Australian Parliament opened by the Duke of York at the Royal Exhibition Building, Carlton


First electric tram ran from Brighton to St Kilda


First television station


Colonial Australia primary sources


Circular Quay, Charles Percy Pickering, 1871. Courtesy State Library of New South Wales


The Emigrant, London, c.1850. Courtesy National Library of Australia


A view of part of Parramatta Port Jackson, J.W. Lewin, 1809. Courtesy State Library of New South Wales


Convicts building road over the Blue Mountains, N.S.W. 1833. Charles Rodius. Courtesy National Library of Australia


Image source: Gold mine head and seven miners, Gulgong (1871-1875 / American & Australasian Photographic Company) by State Library of New South Wales / CC BY 2.0


Artefacts from colonial Australiagun

H6741 Revolver, pinfire, Navy, colt, America, c. 1870. (OF). Thuers conversion, 6 chamber revolver, No. 207161. Calibre .36


K1060-2 Tin and contents, ‘Treacle’ tin / treacle, The Colonial Sugar Refining Co Ltd, Australia, date unknown


2010/31/1 Set of gold-digging equipment, weights (8) and wooden storage box, portable balance and wooden storage box, metal / glass / wood, made by L Oertling Ltd / W & T Avery Ltd, London, England, c. 1860


Men’s leather Balmoral boots found in a Masonry building in Fremantle, though to date from circa 1925 Photo: Western Australian Museum


Objects hidden by convicts in Australia Photo: Supplied by Ian Evans They are believed to have been placed there as part of a secret ritual – imported from Britain – to ward off evil spirits.


June Noble’s mother played with this skipping rope, which dates back to the 1920s. June offered it to the collection of the National Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame in Alice Springs. June Noble’s story was part of the Object Stories project, hosted by ABC Open, Radio National and the National Museum of Australia.