To the residents of the Port Phillip District in 1844 it was a matter of pride that the area was convict free and whilst they turned a blind eye to the 900 convicts who were already assigned to government public works or who worked as servants, they certainly weren't going to tolerate the arrival of convicts on immigrant ships.
In the late 1830's, there was a shortage of workers in Van Diemen's Land, and at the same time a recession in England which produced an increase in prisoner numbers there. A scheme was planned to train approprate prisoners for skills required in the colonies. In exchange for transportation these men would be given a royal pardon on arrival in Australia. One condition of the pardon was that the men had to remain in the colony for the duration of the unexpired part of their sentence. By the time the scheme was organised, Van Diemen's Land no longer had a labour shortage and the convicts were brought to the Port Phillip District.
Between 1844 and 1849, nine ships arrived in the Port Phillip District carrying convicts amongst the passengers. The "Royal George" arrived on 16 November 1844 carrying 21 convicts, and the last of the nine ships, the "Eden" arrived on 21 February 1849 with 199 convicts.
Known as exiles, these convicts numbered approximately 1,723 men. They were a special category of prisoner who had been convicted of an offence in Britain and were serving their sentence in an English prison, usually Pentonville, Parkhurst or Millbank. None had sentences longer than 10 years and they were seen to be well behaved in the early stages of their imprisonment with a potential for reform.
They had to undergo a period of solitary confinement to reflect on their misdeeds, and they had to show remorse for their crimes and acquire a degree of religious understanding. They were trained as tailors, carpenters and for some strange reason many became rug makers. One convict who was originally a lawyer was trained as a shoe maker. Any person could be dropped from the scheme if he did not fulfil the necessary requirements and before embarking from England there was still the chance for the prisoner to change his mind. All the exiles were men and although the scheme favoured older men, there were none over the age of 40 years and the youngest was 11 years on arrival.
On board ship the exiles were treated as convicts but just prior to disembarking the pardons were issued. Assistance was provided in the form of accomodation, food and sponsored employment. However, although it was not compulsory for the exiles to accept this help, if a man chose to fend for himself he automatically relinquished his right to government aid.
Public protest against these convicts increased with time and the arrival of each vessel. Strong letters were sent to the editors of the newspapers and the scheme was described as an 'act of wanton injustice'. Following the arrival of the "Eden" in 1849, there was a street march in which 10,000 people protested. Four more ships which later arrived were turned away. Superintendent Charles La Trobe understood the concerns of the population and after refusing the disembarkation of the first of these four ships, he eventually paid the ship's captain 500 pounds to sail away, and the ship went to Sydney. The last of these four ships went to Moreton Bay. Unfortunately for these convicts, they never received their promised pardon. Another plan was to create a new colony near Bateman's Bay if the exiles were not accepted anywhere, but this never came to fruition.
Whilst most of the exiles did quite well in Victoria there were a few who returned to a life of crime. To find out more about the exiles, our speaker, Scott Brown suggested the Victorian Public Record Office where Shipping Indexes (VPRS 14), Police Files and Correspondence to the Superintendent give a lot of information.
Contributed by Jan Hanslow (PPPG Member No. 1057)
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