Prison Island: Australia and Britain’s shared past


19 April 2022
Port Arthur village & historic site, Tasmania
You can visit both Australia and Tasmania to see their history as penal colonies first-hand. The required Australia visa is easily applied for online.

Great Britain has historically had close ties with Australia. Unsurprising, considering that for a while, it functioned as a penal colony for British and Irish convicts. In this article, we’ll explore this particular aspect of this relationship further.

Early colonisation

In 1788, the first fleet of British ships landed at Sydney, Australia. Thomas Townshend, a member of the House of Commons who would become 1s Viscount Sydney, made the decision to create a British colony in Australia. This was done for various reasons.

One, it would serve as an alternative to the process of transporting convicts to North America, as the American colonies gained their independence. Transportation was often an alternative to the death penalty, which was used for quite a number of crimes in those days, even minor ones.

Secondly, Australia was considered an important base to curb French expansion in the Pacific. In the span of just over 150 years, more than 50,000 convicts were transported from Great Britain to Australia. Penal servitude sentences ranged from seven to fourteen years. Occasionally, they would receive life sentences.

Convicts were also used as free labour for the first settlers, and, indeed, eventually became settlers themselves. While convicts were made to work based on previous experience, allowing for easier labour, punishments were exceptionally harsh: floggings were commonplace, and other, more severe punishments, were also not unheard of. 

Some convicts ended up becoming some of the most important people in Australian history.

James Ruse

At 23 years of age, James Ruse was convicted of burglary. His sentence was seven years of transportation to Australia. The trip alone shortened his sentence by 18 months. Ruse was, for all intents and purposes, a pioneer in the field of farming. His efforts led to the first successful corn harvest in New South Wales, during a time when food was scarce. His reward was the first ever land grant in the region. Ruse continued to expand his lands throughout the years.

Mary Wade

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At just 13 years of age, Mary Wade was sentenced to transportation to Australia. Her crime was stealing clothes, for which she was initially convicted of death by hanging. This was later commuted to transportation. Mary Wade was said to have 21 children and as a result, it is estimated she has over 300 descendants. One of the more famous ones is former Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd.

John Kelly

John Kelly received a sentence of 7 years of transportation for the crime of stealing a pair of pigs. Kelly settled in Australia after his sentence. While the man himself might not have been very noteworthy, his son was the notorious outlaw Ned Kelly. After John Kelly’s early death, his son Ned took to other means to acquire money, and eventually became the head of a massive gang. Kelly was known for wearing bulletproof armour. 

Frank the Poet

Francis MacNamara, more commonly known as Frank the Poet, was convicted of larceny and sentenced to seven years transportation. He is known for the famous poem A Convict’s Tour to Hell, but the popular Moreton Bay folk ballad is also attributed to him. MacNamara’s death was widely publicised in the papers at the time.

Visiting Australia: all you need is a visa nowadays

In 1868, transportation to Australia was officially abolished. Australia’s history as a penal colony has led to a lot of shared ties between the UK, Ireland and Australia. Even today, many Australians can trace their heritage back to the UK or Ireland.

You can still visit places that were key to the transportation era, such as the (in)famous Port Arthur in Tasmania, or the Ned Kelly Museum in Glenrowan, Victoria. Even though Australia is on the other side of the world, travelling there doesn’t take much preparation in terms of paperwork. The mandatory Australia visa can be applied for online. Tourists can choose between the 651 eVisitor visa or the 601 ETA Australia. Both are almost exactly the same, save that the ETA is available to more nationalities, while the eVisitor visa is cheaper and approved faster. The visas are also valid for trips to nearby Tasmania.

You also don’t have to worry about time. Per trip, you can stay in Australia for up to three months on either of the abovementioned visas. The overall validity of these visas is 12 months.