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Prisons Without Walls

Prisons Without Walls

Horizons looked at the establishment of colonial society and the role the convicts played. It explored why convicts were sent to Australia, what life was like for them, and when transportation ended.

This exhibition also looked at how attitudes to our convict past have changed, how the shame of convict blood has been replaced by pride in our reluctant pioneers.

Find out below who some of the convicts were, and about the sometimes bizarre crimes of those times (such as impersonating an Egyptian) that were punishable by death or transportation.

Working lives

Convict labour was essential for building the new settlements, clearing land and growing food. The convicts' work was carefully regulated, their trades and skills were often matched to the tasks at hand.

Many convicts were assigned to work for free settlers, and some were allowed to work for themselves. At the end of their sentence, usually around seven years, they were freed on the condition that they never return home.

Convict jacket, 1860s
Convict jacket, 1860s, National Museum of Australia. Photo: Matt Kelso

Forced labour

Colonial administrators debated the best ways to reform convicts and make them useful. Government gangs employed those unwilling or unsuitable for service with free settlers. Convicts who refused to work in the gangs faced the lash or were banished to the more harsh and remote penal settlements such as Norfolk Island and Port Arthur.

Richard Byrne: A model prisoner

Richard Byrne was jailed in a prison hulk for his suspected involvement in an Irish rebellion against British rule in 1798. He was held without trial for two years but agreed to leave Britain as an emigrant and 'never to return'.

Soon after his arrival in Sydney in 1800, Byrne was convicted of conspiring to seize a ship. His punishment was 500 lashes of the cat-o'-nine-tails and banishment to Norfolk Island. There, another plan for rebellion was discovered, and two of Byrne's fellow conspirators were hanged. Byrne later became something of a model prisoner. He was pardoned in 1805.

John Randall: A game fortune-hunter

John Randall was an African-American born in the United States in 1764. In Manchester, England, he stole a watch-chain and was transported with the First Fleet. In the colony, he married convict Esther Harwood, a former oyster-seller and servant from London.

Randall was employed as a game-hunter before receiving a land grant near Parramatta. He sought and eventually obtained a commission with the New South Wales Corps, which he held for ten years.

Billy Blue: The convict captain

Billy Blue may have been born in Jamaica. At 50, he was caught stealing from a ship in London and transported to Sydney in 1801. Within three years he was living in The Rocks with Elizabeth Williams. He later owned and operated a fleet of 11 ferries on Sydney Harbour.

A well-known character around Sydney, Blue became increasingly eccentric after Elizabeth's death in 1824. He dressed in a parody of a naval uniform and abused those who failed to address him by his nickname, 'Commodore'.

Extreme penalties: Breaking the law

For about 200 crimes, the penalty in late 18th-century Britain was death by hanging. Many convicted of these crimes had their sentence commuted to transportation to Botany Bay.

Some of the crimes were:

  • inciting rioters to pull down a dwelling house
  • returning from transportation or being at large in England before the expiration of the term of transportation
  • stealing horses (geldings or mares)
  • concealing the birth of a bastard, by drowning or secretly burying thereof
  • forging any lottery ticket, or uttering, selling or disposing of any such false ticket
  • cutting down or destroying any trees planted in an avenue or growing in any garden, orchard or plantation
  • abducting an heiress
  • visiting France or any country occupied by France during the course of any war with France
  • opposing the reading of the riot act at any meeting of 12 or more people
  • being a bankrupt and attempting to conceal the fact
  • impersonating an Egyptian
  • committing piracy on the high seas
  • setting fire to one's own house
  • theft of goods valued at 40 shillings or more
  • being a ship's master and concealing that one's ship has come from an infected place or has infection on board.