‘Convicts of the Port Phillip District’ by Keith M Clarke

One of Port Phillip’s claims was that, unlike Van Diemen’s Land and New South Wales,  it was not a penal colony.  It was opened up during the 1830s when emigration schemes were hitting their strides and there was much to be gained by distancing Port Phillip  from the degradation and corruption that was perceived to flow from contact with convicts.

But it was not as clear cut as this.  Right from the start, there were convicts in Port Phillip.  The earlier abandoned attempts at settlement at Sorrento and Western Port involved convicts, and had they been more successful, there would have been a permanent convict presence in the area.  As it turned out, Melbourne was established by, or at the behest of,  private pastoral and agricultural interests.  When these pastoralists, their sons and their agents moved in, especially from the Middle District around Sydney, they were able to bring their assigned servants with them.  John Hirst, in his book Convict Society and its Enemies notes the slippage in terminology that avoided the use of the term “convict” and instead used “assigned servant”.  He suggests that all sides were comfortable with this linguistic subterfuge:  emancipists and expirees were keen to expunge the moral connotations of ‘convict’, and for those who availed themselves of labour from the assignment system, the use of the term “servant” framed the contract as the more acceptable master-and-servant relationship that underpinned all labour exchange at the time.

Once they were here as assigned servants, there was no formal supervision at the local level.  In theory, assigned servants could only be transferred between owners with the permission of Governor Gipps, but this does not seem to have been strictly enforced. An advertisement for land of the Plenty River in May 1841 included “five government men” in the purchase, and according to Judge Willis,  at the height of the economic depression in 1842 there were two hundred assigned servants wandering at large because their masters could no longer afford to keep them.

Then there were convicts sent down from Sydney.  Some of these were highly qualified “specials”, who were sent to fulfill particular roles.  For example Phillip Harvey, who had been transported after pleading guilty to a charge of forging and altering two Bills of Exchange, was sent down from Sydney after being instructed by Mr Dunlop the Astronomer on the keeping of meteorological journals.  Another convict worked as a writing clerk at the Police Office and Judge Willis strenuously protested him being left in charge of prisoners on remand because he was  “not fit to have charge of free persons, who coming out to this colony were entitled to all the privileges of British subjects.”   The distinction between government and domestic employment was not clearcut: a letter to the Port Phillip Herald complained that Dr Shaw of Geelong had been using men assigned to the customs service to fetch wood and move furniture.

Then there were the public works gangs sent down to work on roads and other constructions.  They were a highly visible presence, although they do not seem to have worked in irons.  Just as one could imagine today, the “shockjocks” of the press at the time became highly exercised at the sight of convict gangs fiddling around on their spades in fine weather, and when unemployment rose in 1842, it was felt that government work should be provided to emigrants rather than convict work-gangs.

Added to this were convicts who had gained tickets-of-leave (for example, the Port Phillip Herald of 12 April 1842 has an advertisement of a ticket-of-leave belonging to Martin Brennan that had been found), and those whose sentences had expired.  A large number of people coming across from Van Diemens Land fell into this category.

So, we should perhaps raise a sceptical eyebrow at all the “free” rhetoric coming from the Port Phillip boosters.

A book that deals with the convict presence in Port Phillip in more detail is Keith M Clarke’s Convicts of the Port Phillip District.  Self-published in 1999, it is a large, illustrated paperback book of 370 pages, much of which is made up of appendices giving names, shipping details, and sentencing data and comments for the different waves of convict settlement (Sorrento, Western Port, Port Phillip and later the exiles sent between 1844-1849).

It is from this book (p.100)  that we learn that, of the population of 12, 994 in Port Phillip during the 1841 Census, there were 2,762 who had been transported to the colonies- i.e. 21% of the Port Phillip population at the time.   Although the numbers are rubbery, there were 338 holding tickets-of-leave, 185 on Government Service, 637 on private assignment and 1455 “other free” men and 147 “other free” women.  “Other free” was a catch-all category that included emancipists, those free by servitude, and those holding conditional pardons.

We can also see from his compilation of Supreme Court data that many of these assigned servants were under the control of prominent Port Phillip personalities that we have met before: William Verner (Judge Willis’ good friend), Porter, Carrington, Thomas Wills, Dr Thomson, Ebden, Lonsdale,  Peter Snodgrass.  It is significant that Judge Willis himself did not have assigned servants, and in this he was true to his word in 1839:

For my own part, I have ever  considered the provisions of His Majesty’s order in Council, in 1831, for reconstructing the Supreme Courts of Judicature in certain crown colonies, when negro slavery unhappily existed, to be most wise in prohibiting the Judges from being owners of, or in any wise interested in slaves, or their labour. Believing the same principle to be as applicable to the bondsmen of Australia, as to the negroes of Guiana, Trinidad, and St Lucia, I have abstained, and ever will abstain, so long as I remain on this bench, from being the assignee of convict service. I will never permit the possibility of insinuation that my private interest can in anywise interfere with the honest discharge of my judicial duties.  I will always endeavour to keep myself beyond all reach of vulgar suspicion.

A large part of this book involves a retelling of the different settlements in Port Phillip, albeit with particular attention to convicts.  It is a largely narrative approach, and while the bibliography cites the body of academic work on this era, it does not engage with the literature in an academic sense.   It starts with a description of the parish system in England and the changes to Poor Law legislation during the Industrial Revolution.  The second chapter describes changes to the penal code in England during these years and the global nature of transportation to penal settlements worldwide.  The third chapter involves the establishment of the Botany Bay scheme and explorations of the Port Phillip Area.  Chapter 4 involves Sorrento (Sullivans Bay); Chapter 5 Westernport, and in Chapter 6 the coming of sealers, the Hentys, Batman and Fawkner.  Chapter 7 describes the appointment of William Lonsdale and the convict workforce under his supervision.  Chapter 8 covers the La Trobe years, including the pressure to accept exiles under the revamped transportation-that-dare-not-speak-its-name system.

The heart of the book is the 200 pages of appendices with names and details.  These are set out in spreadsheet format and give you the little jolt of recognition that these are real individuals, who each have their own life story.  In this regard, the book would be a useful addition to a family history resource centre, where family historians would no doubt fill in the gaps between the statistics.


Keith M Clarke Convicts of the Port Phillip District, Waramanga, KM & G Clarke, 1999.

J. B. Hirst Convict Society and its enemies

2 responses to “‘Convicts of the Port Phillip District’ by Keith M Clarke

  1. Pingback: Janet McCalman on the Founders and Survivors Project | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

  2. Pingback: This Week in the Port Phillip District 1841: January 1-8 1841 | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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