Newcastle: Colony’s first place of secondary punishment?

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.

4 thoughts on “Newcastle: Colony’s first place of secondary punishment?

  1. Many thanks to Dr Brian Walsh for shedding light on this question. I am happy to identify myself as the volunteer ‘tour guide’ who stated in April this year (on a National Trust Heritage Festival – ‘Footsteps of Macquarie’ walking tour), that Norfolk Island also performed a role as a settlement for secondary punishment in the period until its initial closure in 1814. I recall that this surprised some tour attendees. I did not state that Norfolk Island (first settlement period) was established, at the outset, primarily as a place of secondary punishment.

    My own longstanding view that Newcastle was the earliest place of secondary punishment in Australia was altered a few days before the tour when I read, as preparation, the same sections of the Bigge Report and Turner’s accompanying interpretation thereof, quoted by Dr Walsh (his footnotes 4 & 5).

    I am grateful that Dr Walsh has tracked down the sources that informed my opinions.

    A few days after the tour, I purchased Grace Karskens’ brilliant work The Colony in preparation for her presentation to the Heritage Festival forum. This work was recently awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize for Literature (non-fiction).

    For the purposes of encouraging further debate, I quote from page 86 of The Colony, ”…in the same year, 1792, the New Ground at Toongabbie also became the colony’s de facto place of secondary punishment, the first of a series that would eventually leapfrog up the coast to Coal River (Newcastle), then Port Macquarie and finally Moreton Bay (Brisbane).” Her footnote 9 provides the basis of her statement, however, I have not gone to the extent of checking the two source documents. Karskens could have added Macquarie Harbour and Norfolk Island to the list of places of secondary punishment.

    It is unclear to me whether Dr Karskens is implying there were other places of secondary punishment in the ‘series’ prior to the ‘leapfrog’ to Coal River. Her use of the word ‘de facto’ and her comment on page 93 that the public farms such as Toongabbie ‘were not established as prisons of deliberate punishment and torment, certainly not in the ways that later places of secondary punishment, like Norfolk Island, were’, should leave little doubt that Coal River was the first place of settlement in Australia established primarily for the purposes of secondary punishment. Or does it? This traditionalist view could potentially be challenged on economic and geo-strategic grounds. Bigge, in the paragraph immediately following the one quoted by Dr Walsh in his footnote (4) states that ‘by the tenor of instructions given by Governor Macquarie to Major Morriset, ‘…it would appear that the exclusive supply of the same [coal and timber] articles to government was considered to be the principal object of the establishment, and the punishment of the convicts sent thither, to be a subordinate one’. The hasty 1803 convict settlements at Port Dalrymple (northern TAS), Sorrento (Port Phillip, VIC) and Risdon Cove (predecessor of Hobart, TAS) are generally regarded as attempts to thwart French geo-strategic interests. Perhaps this was also a factor in the settlement of resource-endowed Hunter’s River? Rather than disappear down a rabbit hole, I look forward to Dr Walsh’s views on this matter in another Coal River blogpiece. My own view is that secondary offenders provided a convenient and cheap labour source to exploit the strategic resources of the Hunter Valley.

    Reverting back to the initial question of Norfolk Island as a place of secondary punishment (the first period of its settlement), I also read James Semple Kerr’s Design for Convicts to gather information on the Newcastle Gaol in preparation for the walking tour.

    This source muddies the waters somewhat! On page 16, Kerr, quoting from Collins, notes that Bare Island (Pinchgut) was used from May 1788 as a place of punishment for secondary offenders. Nepean Island off Norfolk Island was used in 1791 as a place of confinement,and was still in use in 1806. Coal Island (Nobbys) was also used by LT Menzies in 1804 as a place of confinement. These places of confinement or exile provided an initial solution in the absence of purpose-built goals. There is a need to be careful in distinguishing ‘places’ (locations) of secondary punishment, from ‘settlements’ where secondary punishment occured.

    At the foot of page 16, Kerr states ‘sometime in 1789 Phillip started to retransport mainland offenders to Norfolk Island as a matter of policy, thus starting its long and horrible tradition as an ultra penal settlement’. Kerr’s ‘matter of policy’ seems to contradict the views of Nobbs and Walsh that the use of Norfolk Island for secondary offenders was ‘unofficial’. It would be interesting to see if there are any sentencing records for offences committed in the colony that indicate ‘transportation to Norfolk Island’ as a punishment. If so, wouldn’t this indicate that Norfolk Island indeed had an official role as a place of secondary punishment?

    Dr Kerr, on page 17, quotes from Colllins, Collier Edition, Account 358 that in October 1797, at the Court of Criminal Judicature, ” … one of the criminals was condemned to suffer death; another to be burned in the hand and imprisoned twelve months; 2 were banished to Norfolk Island…”. Does this sentencing of ‘banishment to Norfolk Island’ in 1797 by the Court of Criminal Judicature indicate that secondary transportation to the island was ‘official policy’ prior to 1824?

    Dr Walsh, quotes (his footnote 3) from Evans and Thorpe, that ‘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…’. I have not read Evans and Thorpe – Dr Walsh, does this network of ‘exile, punishment and terror centres in peripheral locations’, include sites such as Toongabbie and other locations closer to the Sydney Basin than Newcastle?

    Dr Walsh confidently asserts that ”academic research supports the view that the first settlement of Norfolk Island was not for secondary punishment” and that ‘…Evans and Thorpe outlined the chronology of the establishment of places of secondary punishment, and the first settlement of Norfolk Island is notably absent.”

    Is Kerr incorrect in stating that it was policy (as evidenced by Collins) that secondary offenders be transported to Norfolk Island. Could not ‘Norfolk Island (from 1789-1814)’ be included in a list of places of secondary punishment, granted it was not originally established for this purpose?

    Finally, what about the contemporary views of Bigge, an appointed Commissioner? Isn’t he just saying that until 1814 when abandoned, Norfolk Island had a higher profile (or worser reputation) as a place of secondary punishment, after which time Newcastle became the best known (or sole) place of re-transportation of secondary offenders? Its possible that Bigge draws his views from population numbers which were larger in Norfolk Island than in Newcastle. The question for further research is – ‘how many within the Norfolk island convict population (1789-1814) were secondary offenders?

    Of course, I welcome Dr Walsh’s conclusion (his penultimate paragraph) which fully backs up the statement I made on the April 2010 walking tour – that Newcastle was not the only place or settlement of secondary punishment prior to 1822, with Norfolk Island also performing this role. I do however, question Dr Walsh’s use, in his conclusion, of the qualifying words ‘apparently minor and possibly unofficial role’ in acknowledging the role of Norfolk Island as a place of secondary punishment prior to 1822.

    In accordance with Dr Walsh’s invitation to generate debate for the purposes of a refined discussion paper, I respectfully look forward to a revised edition of this informative paper, complete with statistics of the secondary offender population on Norfolk Island (1789-1814) and evidence (or lack thereof) of primary documents that indicate whether secondary transportation to Norfolk Island (pre-1814) was officially sanctioned policy or practice. I am of course also interested in your views regarding the statements made by Karskens and Kerr.

    I would be grateful if you could acknowledge my contribution to this debate in your next paper – if only for the 5 hours just spent in responding !


    Mark Metrikas
    BA, UNSW
    Grad Dip Heritage Studies, UNE
    Deputy Chair
    Hunter Regional Committee of the National Trust

  2. I could have added Darlington and Port Arthur as later sites of secondary punishment.

    Mark Metrikas

  3. Certainly Norfolk Island was not intended primarily as place of ‘secondary punishment’, but it acted as such, and not ‘on an unofficial basis’. The first sentences of transportation to Norfolk Island were issued to non-convicts as early as 1788 and 1792 – both cases were death sentences ordered by David Collins’ Court of Criminal Jurisdiction and commuted by Governor Phillip. In the 1790s the Criminal Court began imposing direct sentences of transportation to Norfolk Island, including, in 1797, the first known cases of convicts being re-transported (or transported a second time – a sentence within a sentence). The ‘sentencing records for offences committed in the colony’ which Mr Metrikas seeks are in State Records NSW – beginning with the minutes and Proceedings of the Court of Criminal Jurisdiction, 1788 to 1794, (SRNSW, 5/1147A). See also the wonderful collection of law reports compiled by Macquarie University

  4. I greatly appreciate this conversation as it has been a question of mine. I hope it can and does continue.
    Kieran Hannon

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