Convict Tickets of Leave in NSW 1788 to 1850

A decline in liberty: the trend over the period 1788 to 1850

While NSW remained essentially a penal colony, i.e. an open prison, the convicts lived in relative freedom. Everyone not a gentleman or official needed a pass or certificate of freedom to go from one settlement to another, and to move about after curfew (Note 1). Free persons and ticket of leave holders were required by Order to produce their certificates to prospective employers (Note 2). For such an order to be necessary indicates that prisoners were under little supervision. The convicts lived out of barracks, and came to work in the mornings when the bell rang (Note 3). Even after the Barracks were completed, well behaved convicts, and those with families, were still permitted to live out of barracks and lodge in the town (Note 4).

Convicts had their "own time" in which to do as they pleased, taking on extra work if they chose (Note 5). These practices continued at least until 1827 for well behaved mechanics, who were allowed Friday and Saturday to earn money for lodgings and provide for their families (Note 6).

Some time after 1810 the requirement that the free people have passes to move around seems to have been dropped (Note 7), although in practice an ex-convict could still be challenged and might be detained if a certificate of freedom or emancipation were not produced. A Government Order in 1817 restricted the issue of passes to convicts, including ticket of leave holders, except for actual duty or in a real emergency. The object of the order was to reduce crime on the roads, indicating that passes were being given freely to convicts and ticket holders (Note 8). However, Bigge reported that ticket of leave holders could work in any district they chose (Note 9).

Convicts seem to have been put under increasing restrictions over the remainder of the transportation period, being subject to curfew (Note 10), and confined to the master's property, without a pass (Note 11). However, in practice some convicts continued to have a degree of freedom. Harris points out that there was no restraint on the personal liberty of convicts beyond that of fear of the consequences if they left the farm or neglected their work (Note 12). In 1827 Darling complained that some masters were prepared to connive at the absence of troublemakers, to get rid of the expense of their maintenance (Note 13). The settlers wanted cheap labour but generally did not want to be policemen (Note 14).

Ticket of leave holders still required passes or passports to travel from one district to another, but not for travel within the district stated on their ticket (Note 15). They were able to go into business or farming, or choose their own employer. However, their district of residence was no longer their own choice, but that of the Bench of Magistrates recommending the indulgence (Note 16).

The incentive of a ticket of leave to encourage good conduct and maintain control of assigned servants is obvious. It is difficult to guess at the extent of the role the threat of punishment had to play. Notwithstanding Hurst's thesis (Note 17), there seems to have been a real terror in places like Moreton Bay and Norfolk Island which can not be completely discounted (Note 18).

While most people in the colony were convicts, it suited to allow convicts to protect their property, otherwise anarchy would reign. The authorities had enough trouble trying to police the Rocks (Note 19). The free were outnumbered and definitely feared an uprising, especially by the Irish. Their fears were confirmed by the Castle Hill uprising in 1804 (Note 20) and at Norfolk Island in 1834 (Note 21).

Gradually there was a change in the nature of colonial society. The free immigrants and free born gradually made up a greater proportion of the population, and the wealthy emancipists were encroaching on the prerogatives of the exclusives and more recent gentlemen immigrants. The distinctions of caste became more important. The free settlers made up only a small proportion of the population during our period (Note 22), but had patronage from home, and influence on the Legislative Council (Note 23) in the colony. At the same time there was a growing awareness in England that exile to Botany Bay was not deterring crime, and even may have increased it, because of the perceived relative luxury of life in NSW.

So how do you increase deterrence without increasing the costs ? Life can be made a lot harder for the convicts under sentence. Their freedom can be curtailed by taking away their own time and increasing restrictions on their movements. The local practice of overlooking convict attaint, and its civil consequences, can be challenged. The period of labour required before they receive tickets of leave can be lengthened and the system tightened. Further encroachments can be minimised by taking away opportunities for ex-convicts.

At the end of their sentences, land grants can be denied. The ex-convicts can be kept in their place as a labouring class, and perhaps more importantly from the local gentry's point of view, thereby help to increase their profits. Bigge specifically remarked, perhaps with surprise, that a ticket of leave holder had actually purchased 200 acres of land (Note 24). Not surprisingly, a sample of the 1828 Census shows that there were proportionally fewer ticket of leave holders on the land than in 1806 (Note 25).

The toughening of the ticket system was evidently part of a wider pattern of trying to increase severity while minimising expenditure. Paradoxically, the ticket of leave seems to have become more important, as an incentive and as a method of control, as the convict system became tighter (Note 26).

The prospect of obtaining tickets was particularly important for the longer term prisoners, especially the lifers, and for the long-term control of those prisoners. Unless committing a crime locally a seven year man might get a flogging or two, but still could expect to be free by servitude after some six years in the colony. Only a very small proportion of convicts ended up at places of secondary punishment.

Until the 1820s a convict without patronage (Note 27) could not rely on obtaining a conditional pardon, but knew that with good behaviour, a ticket might be granted after a known period of service. Later, the ticket was a necessary prerequisite to emancipation for a lifer, although in practice only a minority received that indulgence (Note 28).

As the waiting period became longer, the ticket seems to have become more certain, notwithstanding the abuses of the system by some employers. This was especially so for the longer term convicts (See Figures 6 & 7, and Note 29).

There was also the possibility of reward. These incentives were designed to promote specific behaviour patterns, such as docile obedience, and the reward system formalised a mechanism used from the beginning for dividing and conquering the convict population.

The bushrangers and incorrigibles are proof that this was not always successful, but in the main an essentially civilian free population, with a small military force, was able by such means to control a large, mostly unconfined subservient group (Note 30). The ticket of leave played a key role, especially in the 1820s and 1830s. Throughout, convicts and ticket of leave holders were used in positions of trust. They administered the system, and policed it as overseers and constables.

By placing territorial limits on tickets, the holders could be retained or directed to outer districts where labour was scarce and free immigrants chose not to go. There seems to have been a conscious effort to control labour in this way (Note 31). In the great majority of cases from 1827 (when these details began to be recorded regularly), convicts were granted tickets for the same district in which they resided and worked as assigned convicts (Note 32). The district did not lose their labour on the granting of tickets. Although the ticket of leave holders would cost more to employ than assigned convicts, they were experienced workers and accordingly more valuable than free immigrants (Note 33).

The next part is the Conclusion


Note 1 At least until 1810 all persons other than settlers required a pass from the magistrates or their masters to go from one settlement to another: e.g. Government Order of 2 October 1795: HRA , I, 1, 678; Order or 6 July 1797: HRA , I, 2, 69; Order of 30 Dec 1800: HRA , I, 3, 44; Order of 4 Aug 1804: HRA , I, 5, 90; D.D. Mann, The Present Picture of New South Wales , London, 1811 (John Ferguson, Sydney, 1979), 25.

Note 2 Employers who employed prisoners without permission were to pay a monetary penalty: Mann, op cit , 18.

Note 3 This was the practice in Sydney before the Hyde Park Barracks were completed in 1819: Druitt to Bigge, in Ritchie, Evidence , I, 9 & 20.

Note 4 D'Arcy Wentworth to Bigge, in Ritchie, Evidence , I, 48.

Note 5 See e.g. Government Order of 15 May 1798: HRA , I, 2, 214; cf. "Some Account of the Manners and Employment of the Convicts in a Letter from John Slater", an extract from a rare chap-book, reproduced in Ingleton, op cit , 81; Bathurst expressed concern to Macquarie that convicts in the new Barracks should be allowed two free days, as per the practice, only for good conduct: despatch of 27 March 1820, HRA , I, 10, 299.

Note 6 Darling to Bathurst, 1 March 1827: HRA , I, 13, 137.

Note 7 By 1819 Police Constables did not have the power of arresting free men after hours, unless guilty of breach of the peace, or some other offence: D'Arcy Wentworth to Bigge, in Ritchie, Evidence , I, 43.

Note 8 W.C. Wentworth, Description of the Colony of New South Wales , London, 1819 (Doubleday Australia, Lane Cove, 1978), 224-5.

Note 9 Bigge Report ,op cit , BPP 1, 130.

Note 10 See evidence of D'Arcy Wentworth to Bigge, in Ritchie, Evidence , I, 43.

Note 11 1827: Cunningham, op cit , 41; 1830s: Thomas Cook, The Exile's Lamentations , Library of Australian History, North Sydney, 1978, 35; 1840s: Francois Prieu, Notes of a Convict of 1838 , (trans. George Mackaness) Australian Historical Monographs, Vol. VI (New Series), 1976, 95.

Note 12 Alexander Harris, Settlers and Convicts , Melbourne University Press, 1953, 66.

Note 13 Darling to Bathurst, HRA , I, 13, 138-9.

Note 14 There were some exceptions such as Mudie, and others in the Hunter Valley: see Dowd & Fink, op cit .

Note 15 See e.g. Government Notice of 13 March 1826: HRA , I, 12, 249; Government Order, 1 Jan 1827: HRA , I, 13, 3-5; Alexander Harris, The Emigrant Family , (London, 1849) Australian National University Press, Canberra, 1967, 34-5.

Note 16 One of Bigge's recommendations that as far as practicable convicts should be sent to the bush, out of temptation's way: HRA , I, 11, 78.

Note 17 J.B. Hirst, Convict Society and its Enemies , George Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1983.

Note 18 See e.g. evidence of Rev. Ullathorne to the Molesworth Committee, BPP 8, 26-8;

Note 19 See Clark, op cit , I, 153.

Note 20 Ibid , 170, et seq .

Note 21 Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore , Collins Harvill, London, 1987, 470-6.

Note 22 13% of the population in 1828, 37 % in 1841, and 41% in 1851: Russel Ward, The Australian Legend , Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1958, 15.

Note 23 Before that, on the Executive Council.

Note 24 Bigge Report, BPP 1, 141.

Note 25 See Appendices 4 and 8.

Note 26 Clearly recognised by those in England. See e.g. Bigge Report , BPP 1, 127; Molesworth Committee Report, in M. Clark, Sources of Australian History , Oxford University Press, London, 1957, 205.

Note 27 The importance of patronage to early NSW is discussed in W. Nichol, "Ideology and the Convict System in New South Wales, 1788-1820" (1986), 22 Historical Studies 1, 12-13.

Note 28 The extant Ticket of Leave Butts did not provide a place to note pardons, but were used as working documents (see Appendix 1) and noted in some cases when pardons were granted. The indents have conditional pardons noted in some cases but the reliability of the notations has not been tested.

Note 29 See also Appendix 9.

Note 30 In 1828 convicts made up 43% of the population, although this was down to 23% by 1841: Ward, op cit , 15, Table 1.

Note 31 Convicts could of course be assigned wherever needed, but those free by servitude could go anywhere they could find a living.

Note 32 Convicts were required to make application to the bench of magistrates of the district in which they resided and worked, and the benches invariably limited the tickets they recommended to their own district: see above.

Note 33 This was remarked upon by the Molesworth Committee, in Clark, Sources , op cit , 205.

The next part is the Conclusion
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