What was it like on a convict ship?

The Maitland convict voyage of 1844 was a turning point in Australia's convict history. The ship was transporting a significant number of 'lifers' directly to Norfolk Island for the first time. They would serve their probation on Norfolk Island before being transferred to Van Diemen’s Land. The Maitland also transported a large contingent of the 51st marines and their commander, who was on his way to take over the governorship of Norfolk Island. The convicts would soon wish they were not heading to Norfolk Island at this time, as the penal settlement was about to enter a harsher regime with the removal of the penal reformer, Superintendent Alexander Maconochie.


Australian Convicts

Voyage of the Maitland 1844

The Maitland embarked 199 convicts in August 1843. The convicts were “embarked from the hulks at Deptford, Woolwich, Chatham, Portsmouth, and Plymouth”. Other passengers on this ship included the incoming superintendent of Norfolk Island, Major Joseph Childs, his servants and their families. There were two assistant superintendents and six overseers of convicts. “Eighty-two rank and file of the 51st regiment” were also on their way to Norfolk Island. The master of the Maitland was George Thompson. The surgeon superintendent was Dr Allan McLaren. After collecting all passengers and convicts the Maitland left Plymouth on the 1st September 1843.

By the 1840s, convict voyages from England to Australia generally took about four months. Ship’s master, George Thompson, planned not to stop en route, if he could help it. However, circumstances on the Maitland determined that they did stop at Cape Town, around the 17th November 1843. Two sick soldiers were offloaded to hospital at Simon’s Bay. The ship was also beset with an outbreak of scurvy and water supplies were low.

What did the Surgeon-Superintendent do on a convict ship?

Prior to putting in at Simon’s Bay, Dr McLaren had been treating nine patients for scurvy, testing three different treatment regimens. McLaren reported that all patients seemed to improve, and he could not favour one treatment over the others. The time in port, where the diet was supplemented with fresh vegetables, did more for the patients than any experimental treatment. A sufferer of scurvy, Thomas Bramich, “an indolent prisoner”, who had somehow conspired to stay below decks for months, “enjoyed the benefit of fresh meat and vegetables for eleven days”. Bramich was well enough to be discharged after the stop at the Cape.

The sickness and death rates were typical of the convict voyages in the latter days of transportation. Dr McLaren described in detail twenty cases of illness in both soldiers and convicts, but overall, he dealt with 165 illnesses and injuries. There were four deaths during the voyage of the Maitland to Norfolk Island; all convicts. George Hughes died of synochus (fever). Cork Lindo, who refused to eat, died of diarrhoea. Henry Smith died of croup. John Herne died of pneumonia, complicated by scurvy, barely a week out from the Maitland’s arrival in Sydney on the 12th January 1844.

In January 1844, the transfer of the management of the Norfolk Island penal settlement from the colony of New South Wales to Van Diemen’s Land was not yet finalised. Accordingly, Mr Thompson felt the need to put in at Sydney for orders. However, for the first time the convicts were not disembarked nor transferred to a smaller inter-colony transport. They continued aboard the Maitland and arrived in Norfolk Island on 7 February 1844. The voyage had lasted 159 days; about a month longer than usual, given the stops at Cape Town and Sydney.

Norfolk Island, the convict system [London: , 1847. Web. 17 May 2019 <http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-135896624>

Norfolk Island, the convict system [London: , 1847. Web. 17 May 2019 <http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-135896624>

In 1842, Lord Stanley had addressed a despatch to the Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, Sir John Franklin. This despatch laid out the plan for the convict system in the latter years of transportation. There would be “five stages through which a convict will have to pass…1. Detention at Norfolk Island. 2. The Probationary Gang. 3. The Probation Passes. 4. Tickets-of-Leave; and, 5. Pardons.” The Maitland voyage was the first to implement this new system in its entirety. In line with Lord Stanley’s despatch, these men were selected to serve detention on Norfolk Island as the first stage of their convict lives, because “detention in Norfolk Island will be the invariable consequence of all sentences of transportation for life”.

Most convicts sent to Australia were serving sentences of seven years. The Maitland’s convicts were predominantly serving sentences of life. The shortest sentence was sixteen years, that of James Stanyer Wilson, convicted at Staffordshire Assizes for burglary. The Maitland men’s crimes included rape, murder, violent robbery, forgery, and fraud. They had been particularly selected for this voyage.

Portrait, Alexander Maconochie RN KH by EV Rippingille, 1836

Portrait, Alexander Maconochie RN KH by EV Rippingille, 1836

Lord Stanley’s despatch had also included the directive that Alexander Maconochie was to be replaced. Maconochie, since 1840, had been trialling prison reform. He had implemented a “Marks System” where good behaviour was rewarded with tally marks that could ultimately shorten a prisoner’s sentence or, in the short term, buy “luxury” items such as pen and paper to record their experiences. Treating the worst of the worst convicts humanely was not much in favour, neither in the colonies of New South Wales or Van Diemen’s Land, nor back in England. He was particularly derided for allowing the prisoners a holiday on Queen Victoria’s birthday.

The Maitland brought a new superintendent to Norfolk Island; a military man, Major Joseph Childs. As Maconochie embarked on the Maitland with hundreds of convicts he had approved to be transferred to Van Diemen’s Land, for the next stage of their convict lives, Childs got straight to work. He re-built the gallows. He ordered the convicts’ vegetable gardens destroyed. Childs was “a dull, vacillating military hack, distinguished only by his severity.”

It is unclear whether the Maitland convicts had any expectations of what their life would be like on Norfolk Island. Dr McLaren opined in his summary of the voyage that the outbreaks of scurvy were related to the “depressing passions” felt by the prisoners leaving their friends forever and the prisoners’ thoughts about the “bad odour Norfolk Island was held in”. If they had heard of Maconochie’s “experiment” in penal reform, they may have fostered some hope that good behaviour would be rewarded. Unfortunately, any hopes the men may have had of humane treatment on Norfolk Island departed on the ship which had brought them.

This Essay was originally written for the Convicts in Context unit of the Diploma of Family History, University of Tasmania. If you would like a copy of the fully footnoted version of this biography, please contact me.