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The Convict Trail Project

Freedom Earned or Won and Lost

Few former convicts ever returned to Britain, even if most dreamed of it throughout their imprisonment. Not only was it expensive to find the fare home but many had settled into life here after their years as a convict and saw opportunities to better themselves which they would not have at home.

For many the strain of parting from loved ones had eased and new relationships formed. Some had been joined by their wives or husbands from home. And for those who might have considered it, the idea of the long voyage home on a tossing ship was just too much to consider.

There were four ways convicts could become free:

• Earn a Ticket of Leave and be given limited freedom but still a prisoner.

• Gain a Pardon, Conditional or Free.

• Serve out the sentence term, and become an Emancipist.

• Escape from custody or assignment.

Each of these ways is given separate consideration.

Convict Escapees in the Colony

In Exploring the Coast in the section Exploring, it was mentioned that, in 1797, Lt. Shortland had been attempting to find runaway convicts who had stolen a boat and made their way north. The outcome was that the convicts were not found, but he discovered that there was coal in the estuary of the river which became the Hunter River.

Within a few days of the landing in Sydney Cove, Captain Phillip was confronted with the situation that convicts were escaping from custody. In that case, a group had evaded their guards and had crossed overland back to Botany Bay where they had hoped to get on board the ships of the French explorer, La Pérouse. They were not allowed on board and had to walk their way back to Sydney Cove. Phillip himself recognised that preventing escapes was well-nigh impossible when the convicts were working in the wooded inland, even under supervision. Some went further inland (west, south or north) and escaped being recaptured but returned when they had found no way out to any place where they could subsist. They often arrived in a very debilitated condition. Others lived with Aboriginal people and more died of starvation and lack of water.

At this point, we commend readers to a book of recent origin, Great Escapes by Convicts in Colonial Australia, by Warwick Hirst (Kangaroo Press, Sydney 1999). He sets out six special cases with comments on others. What is of interest is that the first story is entitled The Girl from Botany Bay, about Mary Broad of Fowey in Cornwall. She married fellow convict William Bryant, also of Cornish descent, after arrival in the Colony. Hirst sets out the desperate conditions of the first years in Sydney with famine apparently approaching rapidly. Eight men including Bryant, accompanied by Mary and her two small children, in a well planned operation stole the Governor’s cutter and silently at night made their way out of Sydney Heads in March 1791. Records of the voyage north were kept by Bryant and James Martin but only the latter’s record exists. Excerpts from Bryant’s record have only come down through some notes taken from it by Captain William Bligh during his stop in Timor where the escapees had eventually landed.

This story of an amazing voyage is mentioned here because, after two days moving 2 degrees north from Sydney Cove, they pulled into a Creek about which Bryant wrote and this is quoted by Hirst: “Walking along the shore towards the entrance of the Creek we found several large pieces of Coal — seeing so many pieces we thought it was not unlikely to find a Mine, and searching about a little, we found a place where we picked up with an ax as good Coals as any in England — took some to the fire and they burned exceedingly well.”

In his Conclusions, Hirst comments that many convicts made no efforts to escape and were moderately content to quietly serve out their time. In many cases they eventually enjoyed a better standard of living than they had left behind. One convict wrote to friends in England, “I did expect to be in servile bondage and to be badly used but I am better off this day than half the people in England and I would not go back to England if anyone would pay my passage.” It is worth the final note, however, as Hirst has done: “Such rewards offered no temptation to the inveterate escapers who continued to bolt, no matter the odds, until they either succeeded or were claimed by the hangman. To them imprisonment was a constant provocation and freedom a passion.”




Download a Map

Convict Trail MapThe NEW and updated map of the Great North Road is available in visitor information centres and is also available for download here.