Was Newcastle the Colony’s first place of secondary punishment?
by Dr Brian Walsh
In 1804, following the uprising at Castle Hill, a permanent settlement was established at Newcastle to house convicts who re-offended in the Colony. Until it closed in 1822 the Newcastle settlement functioned principally as a place of secondary punishment for convicts sentenced by the courts for offences while serving their original (primary) sentence in the Colony.
Today many believe Newcastle was the Colony’s only settlement during that period specifically established and maintained for the secondary punishment of convicts. However, a Newcastle tour guide recently remarked that Norfolk Island also undertook that role during this period, and suggested it was incorrect to claim the role solely for Newcastle.
The purpose of this blog post is to examine these two conflicting positions.
Norfolk Island was settled twice. It was first settled in 1788 as a general convict settlement that was simply an extension of the Sydney settlement, and it performed that role until its closure in 1814. (1) The Island was settled again in 1825, this time specifically as a place of secondary punishment for convicts. The main question is the nature and intent of the Island’s first settlement, 1788-1814.
According to Nobbs’ detailed history of Norfolk Island,
The first convict settlement was not originally seen as a place of secondary punishment and did not essentially function as one. (2)
At first glance this would seem to end the argument, but there is a grey area. Nobbs also notes that by 1789 Governor Phillip may have been banishing the most troublesome convicts to the escape-proof Island, presumably on an unofficial basis rather than through sentence to secondary transportation by the courts. In addition, during periods of concern about the Irish convicts, such as in 1800, some were re-transported from Port Jackson to Norfolk Island (again presumably unofficially rather than through the courts).
In 1803 Lord Hobart directed that the population of Norfolk Island be reduced (it had a population of 960 in 1801). The first substantial evacuations occurred in 1805 and by 1808 only 255 people remained. This fell to 117 in 1810 and only 43 people in 1813. The settlement was closed the following year.
Academic research supports the view that the first settlement of Norfolk Island was not for secondary punishment. In their seminal article on convict punishment and penal labour, Evans and Thorpe outlined the chronology of the establishment of places of secondary punishment, and the first settlement of Norfolk Island is notably absent. They wrote
Fundamental to the inculcation of “good behaviour” among convict workers in the “core” regions of Sydney and Parramatta was a network of exile, punishment and terror centres in the “peripheral” locations… The Process started within the nineteen counties themselves and indeed preceded Bigge’s reports by nearly twenty years, when Irish convicts who took part in the Castle Hill uprising were sent to dig coal at Newcastle in 1804. (3)
There is therefore little doubt that up to 1822, Newcastle was the Colony’s first and only convict settlement specifically established and run as a place of secondary punishment. It would also seem that for a while, particularly up to about 1800, Norfolk Island played a minor, unofficial role as a place of secondary punishment although this was not its prime or intended purpose.
Why then, does the view persist that Norfolk Island was a place of secondary punishment in its first settlement? It probably stems from an entry in Commissioner Bigge’s 1822 report that reads:
Upon the evacuation of Norfolk Island which, at an early period of the colony, was the first place to which convicts were sent by way of punishment for offences committed in the colony, the importance of Hunter’s River, as a place of secondary punishment, became more fully known. Previous to that time it had been resorted to as an establishment for procuring a supply of coals and timber for the demand of government and of individuals...(4)
This was later taken up in respected secondary sources. For example, based on the Bigge report, Turner wrote
Norfolk Island continued to serve as a penal settlement until 1813 and the population of Newcastle hovered around 100 until 1812. From then on there was regular growth...(5)
On balance, unless further evidence is found to the contrary, it seems reasonable to claim that Newcastle was the Colony’s first convict settlement set up and run specifically as a place of secondary punishment. At the same time it is appropriate to acknowledge Norfolk Island’s apparently minor and possibly unofficial role as a place of secondary punishment during its first settlement.
Further research and discussion would of course be welcome, so that these conclusions can be reviewed and refined.
Dr Brian Walsh
10 November 2010
(1) Guide to New South Wales State Archives relating to Convicts and Convict Administration, Sydney: State Records NSW, 2006, p178.
(2) Nobbs, Raymond. Norfolk Island and its First Settlement 1788-1814. Sydney: Library of Australian History, 1988, p97.
(3) Evans, Raymond and William Thorpe. ‘Power, Punishment and Penal Labour: Convict Workers and Moreton Bay’. Australian Historical Studies 25 no. 98 (1992): 90-111, quote is from p102, emphasis added.
(4) Bigge, John Thomas. Report on the Commissioner of Inquiry into the State of the Colony of New South Wales. London: 1822, facsimile, Adelaide: Libraries Board of South Australia, 1966, p114.
(5) Turner, JW, ed. Newcastle as a Convict Settlement: The Evidence before J.T. Bigge in 1819-1821. Newcastle, NSW: Newcastle Public Library, 1973, p10.