When 20-year-old John Guard got nicked for stealing a quilt in 1813, he became one of 165,000 mostly illiterate English convicts whose punishment was a one-way ticket to Australia.
He was a young man in an era of Britain’s colonial and naval superiority, when the industrial revolution had displaced a great many workers and artisans. The underbelly of England, so meticulously chronicled in the writings of Charles Dickens, was a place of sweat-shops and child labour, grinding poverty and filthy living conditions, leading to an explosion in petty crime. By the 1770s, 222 felonies—many of them trivial—carried a death penalty. But lawmakers became increasingly uncomfortable with the gallows and began to seek more “humane” alternatives—they settled on sending felons to penal colonies like New South Wales.
However, overcrowding in prisons meant that those awaiting dispatch were regularly consigned to hulks—dank floating dungeons. One inmate described his lot: “We Rise at 5 in the Morning, Breackfast at Six. All our Boats is Manned and all away by Seven. Our gang Convicts Twenty men are Guard by 7 Soldiers... We are Emploid in Drawing Large Stones and Unloading Vessels. Our Food is very Bad. We neer have any Fire. Our Shirts is very Damp so is our Rugan and Blankets. we are Allowed only 1d of soap Per week to wash our Stocking Hanchife and Skin. they allow no Coffee no Tea no Sugar no Butter no Greens no Potates. We get but Little Water and that we Pay one Penny Per Week. Six in my mess washed our SElves this morning only one Qt water. that is all Alowed us.. I have Six Pound of Iron on my Leg.”
Guard, who had been sentenced to seven years in the colony, spent the first part of his sentence waiting for transportation in the Newgate hulk on the River Thames. Eighteen months later he boarded the Indefatigable, a square-rigged three-master of 549 tonnes, joining another 199 convicts chained below decks. Conditions were harrowing. Fleas, lice, vermin, a pitiful lack of food and diseases like typhus, typhoid, cholera and diarrhoea made these interminable voyages perilous, as a number of accounts attest. In 1799, an outbreak of typhoid killed 95 of 300 convicts on the Hillsborough. Chaplain Richard Johnson recalled boarding the Surprize in Sydney, and seeing convicts, “without either bed or bedding, unable to turn or help themselves... the smell was so offensive that I could scarcely bear it... Upon their being brought up to the clean air some fainted, some died upon the deck, and others in the boat before they reached the shore... Some creeped upon their hands and knees, and some were carried upon the back of others.” Captain William Hill wrote later, “The slave trade is merciful compared with what I have seen on this fleet...”
But only two lives were lost on this particular voyage and Guard soon found himself assigned to Windsor, 50 km north-west of Sydney, which many regarded as the end of civilization. Wearing the distinctive chequered yellow and dark grey convict uniform, he broke rocks, felled trees and hoisted timber in the hottest place he didn’t know existed, for six days a week. Fortunately, this God-fearing colony observed His word from Exodus; “the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD the God: in it thou shalt not do any work.” For his labours, he would be lucky to receive the weekly minimum rations of 1.8 kg of salt pork with 9.5 kg of wheat with vegetables.
Punishment was severe. Insolence, disobedience, even murmuring could attract 300 lashes. As in England, convicts were flogged in public. Joseph Holt describes such a flogging in 1804; “The day was windy, and I protest, that although I was at least fifteen yards to leeward from the sufferers, the blood, skin, and flesh blew in my face as the executioners shook it off from the cats.” Serious offences, such as attempting escape, were punishable by hanging. Despite that, by the time Guard was released in 1820, around 10 per cent of his fellow convicts had already absconded.
Now Guard had to earn a living. Those who had been emancipated were encouraged to cultivate their own 30 acres, gifted by the government, but like many of them, Guard declined the offer. Such a small block of land was seen as uneconomical as much of the 90 tonnes of merino wool Australia exported to England in 1821–an export market responsible for most of Australia’s prosperity at the time–was grown on considerably larger estates. He could have returned to stone cutting, his occupation in England; but no, Guard fancied trying his luck on sealing and whaling vessels at Port Jackson.