In January 1788, England’s First Fleet arrived at Port Jackson before raising the flag on Gadigal land at Sydney Cove. On board were 751 convicts, the first of a number that would swell to around 165,000 by the time transportation to Australia was abolished 80 years later.

Many transportees had been convicted for theft, largely in England’s large cities, and were routinely sentenced to a period of seven years. Some 70 per cent of them were English, 24 per cent Irish and five per cent Scottish. The fleet consisted of two naval escort ships (Sirius and Supply), six convict ships (Alexander, Charlotte, Friendship, Lady Penryhn, Prince of Wales and Scarborough) and three stores ships (Burrowdale, Fishburn and Golden Grove).

The Convict Past stamp issue, designed by Tim Hancock of Backpack design studio, will be released on 16 January 2018. The stamps feature the penal colonies of New South Wales, Van Diemen’s Land and Swan River. Depicted are the main places of incarcerations at those colonies – Hyde Park Barracks, Port Arthur and Fremantle Prison – along with items that provide insight into convict life and experience.

Learn more about the stamp designs

Convict sites

Initially, convicts were sent to the colony of New South Wales. In fact, Heritage-listed Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney, was the first government-built convict barracks. Opened in 1819, around 30 years after the arrival of the colony’s first convicts, it served as a principal depot for male convicts in NSW until 1848.

Into the 19th century, Norfolk Island, Van Diemen’s Land, Port Macquarie and Moreton Bay also became destinations for those transported for crimes ranging from trivial misdemeanours to “undesirable” political activities.

Known as Van Diemen’s Land until 1856, Tasmania was the place of incarceration for around 40 per cent of Australia’s transported convicts between 1803 and 1877. Around 75,000 convicts had been sent to the colony by the time transportation to Van Diemen’s Land was abolished. The first arrived on the Calcutta, which sailed to Hobart from New South Wales; the Indefatigable brought the first convicts directly from Britain, in 1811; and the St Vincent was the last convict ship to dock in Van Diemen’s Land, in 1853.

The World Heritage–listed Port Arthur penal settlement, established in 1830, not only housed prisoners but also developed into a small township for soldiers, guards, administrators and their families. Originally built as a flour mill and granary, Port Arthur’s penitentiary had the capacity to accommodate around 480 convicts. Fire swept through the building in 1897, at which time it became a ruin. The Separate Prison was built at Port Arthur around 1850, its capacity for solitary confinement marking a shift from physical to psychological punishment.

Queensland’s Moreton Bay Settlement operated from 1824 to 1839, incarcerating around 2,280 individuals over those 15 years. About 1,750 convicts, known as “exiles” or “Pentovillans”, were sent directly from England to Victoria, although Victoria was not established as a convict colony.

The Swan River Colony (Western Australia) was established as a free-settler colony in 1829; 20 years later, in 1849, Britain was asked to sanction transportation of convicts to Swan River. This was at the behest of local authorities, who believed convict labour was necessary to advance the colony. Between 1850, when the colony’s first convict ship arrived, and 1868, around 9,900 convicts, all men, were transported to Swan River.

Designed and erected by Lieutenant Henry Wray and Captain Edmund Henderson, the Convict Establishment, known as Fremantle Prison from 1867, was built in the early 1850s. Between 1852 and 1859, convicts toiled on the construction of a place that would become the site of their own incarceration. It was built using limestone quarried onsite. The first prisoners were held in the main cell block from 1855, five years after the first transportation ship, the Indiaman Scindian, arrived at Fremantle and 13 years before the last transportees arrived on the Houguoumont.

Convict life

From the first days of transportation to the Australian colonies, the forced labour of convicts, often in government chain gangs, was part of the penal system that would deliver a thriving settlement so far from England. As well as instilling discipline in convicts and order in the colony, forced labour would also lead to moral reform and, practically speaking, development of the colonies.

Convicts would labour in the hard physical work of agriculture, road building and lumber jacking etc., but in time were also employed according to the more specialist skills they possessed; for example, stonemasons worked on civic building projects. Perhaps most famously, English-born convict architect Francis Greenway designed many of Sydney’s notable buildings, including the Hyde Park Barracks. Until the barracks was built to confine and manage prisoners, convicts lived with a certain amount of liberty. Governor Macquarie, in particular, recognised the opportunities convict labour offered a public building program that would reflect a thriving colony, including civic institutions such as the barracks, which house the growing number of prisoners. By the 1830s, only six per cent of New South Wales’ prisoners were locked up.

The experience of women

Nearly 25,000 women were exiled to Australia during the transportation era. Around half of these were sent to 'female factories', of which there were around a dozen such places of confinement and industry, essentially operating as textile factories or similar. The most well-known of these were Parramatta’s female factory, designed Francis Greenway, and Hobart’s The Cascades. Free settlers could select domestic help – or even a wife – from these penitentiaries, where life and conditions were harsh and punishments regularly meted out. Children could remain with their mothers until they turned four, after which they were sent to orphanages.

The abolition of convict transport

Transportation was officially abolished in New South Wales in 1850 and in Van Diemen’s Land in 1853. By the time the last convicts arrived in Australia, in 1868, some 806 ships had transported around 165,000 individuals. By this time, the colonies, with a population of around one million, were populous enough to advance life and industry without the forced labour of convicts.

The Hougoumont was the last convict ship to sail to Australia, with 279 prisoners on board. It arrived at the Swan River Colony on 9 January 1868. In contrast to most other ships, the Hougoumont ferried a large number of literate passengers, as 62 of the transportees were political prisoners following the Fenian Rising against British rule in Ireland. Several of the men’s diaries and the seven editions of the handwritten newspaper The Wild Goose, penned during the 89 day journey, are held in the collection of the State Library of New South Wales. An excerpt is shown in the Swan Colony stamp design.


The Convict Past stamp issue is available from 16 January 2018, online, at participating Post Offices and via mail order on 1800 331 794, while stocks last.

View the gallery and technical details from this issue

This content was produced at the time of the stamp issue release date and will not be updated.

Philatelic Team