Saturday, May 30, 2015

Banished: A Short History of Penal Transportation

By Catherine Curzon

Over the last couple of months, I have probed into the Neck Verse and some corporal and capital punishments handed down to criminals who stood before the judges of the Old Bailey. This month, I take a stop by the colonies to learn more about transportation; timely indeed, given the recent outcry over the cancellation of BBC TV's drama of the penal colonies, Banished.

A View of Botany Bay, 1789
With prisons creaking under the weight of the sheer number of convicts held there and the scaffolds working overtime, the powers that be in 17th century English law asked themselves whether it might be better to find some way not only to punish, but to rehabilitate. If that rehabilitation might also have the side effect of removing the offender from the country on a permanent basis too, then all the better. Eventually it was decided that transportation would achieve both of these aims admirably, whilst also allowing the state to point to the leniency shown to the offender who had, at least, been allowed to keep their life even if they were destined to leave behind all that they knew. Not only that, but the convicts were responsible for paying their own way to the penal colony or the costs were met by those who owned the transportation ships.

The passing of the 1718 Transportation Act ruled that those who did not succeed in claiming benefit of clergy should instead be transported to America to face hard labour, specifying that they would face death should they return. Not all of those who faced transportation were convicted of the most violent or serious offences, and not all were adults, with men, women and children subject to the same punishment. However, not all transportation was for life and some were allowed to return home after a set period of time, though they were required to make the arrangements to return and to foot the bill from their own pocket. If they could not afford it, then they were destined to forever remain in the land to which they had been sent. In fact, many convicts had already started a new life and had no wish to return, starting families and even winning employment as a jailer once they had served their sentences. Two years after the passing of the act, the government ruled that merchants who agreed to transport convicts would have their costs met by parliament.

The First Fleet entering Port Jackson on 26 January 1788
For nearly six decades this arrangement persisted until the American Revolution stopped the ships in their tracks and those who faced transportation saw their sentences amended to hard labour. Eventually, of course, transportation resumed and with the sailing of the First Fleet in 1787, transportation to Australia began, perhaps the most famed destination for felons. This remained the case until the passing of the Penal Servitude Act in 1857, in which transportation was finally ended for good.

Old Bailey Proceedings Online (
Brooke, Alan and Brandon, David, Tyburn: London's Fatal Tree (The History Press, 2013)
Cawthorne, Nigel, Public Executions: From Ancient Rome to the Present Day, Arcturus Publishing (2006)
Gatrell, Vic, The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770-1868 (OUP, Oxford, 1996)
Grovier, Kelly, The Gaol (John Murray, London, 2009)
Webb, Simon, Execution: A History of Capital Punishment in Britain (The History Press, 2011)


Glorious Georgian ginbag, gossip and gadabout Catherine Curzon, aka Madame Gilflurt, is the author of A Covent Garden Gilflurt’s Guide to Life. When not setting quill to paper, she can usually be found gadding about the tea shops and gaming rooms of the capital or hosting intimate gatherings at her tottering abode. In addition to her blog and Facebook, Madame G is also quite the charmer on Twitter. Her first book, Life in the Georgian Court, is available now, and she is also working on An Evening with Jane Austen, starring Adrian Lukis and Caroline Langrishe.


  1. These days, people who have convict ancestors here brag about it. In fact, at least one Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, is descended from two convicts. His ancestress, a girl called Mary Wade, was sent here for stealing another child's clothes in the toilets. She said that next time she would have also dunked the victim! But she became a pillar of society and had around 21 children with her convict husband.

  2. Georgia was a penal colony. It didn't appear to work very well, as Oglethorpe only brought thirteen convicts across, as I recall. Thanks for sharing.

    1. 13?! That's a very small penal colony indeed!

    2. Oglethorpe Probably killed the rest while attacking the Catholic settlers

  3. I love reading about the 17th century. Thanks for this. Tweeted.


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