Building Australia

How Convicts Created a Nation

The Transportation “Solution”

Hundreds of thousands were mired in poverty. Unemployment and desperation caused crime rates to skyrocket. Prisons had become hopelessly overcrowded. Britain was desperate for a solution. Australia – newly discovered and so far away that this throwaway population could never return – was seen as the perfect answer.

Filching items worth less than a shilling – roughly equivalent to $50.00 today – was enough to get one banished to the ends of the earth, Sue Ballyn reports in ‘Lives in Migration: Rupture and Continuity’. (Those who stole items worth more than a shilling were simply hanged.) Even vagrancy – being homeless and unemployed – was a crime deemed worthy of transportation.

After eight harrowing months at sea, the first shipment of convicts stumbled to shore in Botany Bay only to find the land uninhabitable. Captain Arthur Phillip rerouted the weary travellers to Sydney Cove, where they began to scratch out a new life – and a new colony. Conditions were brutal. Supplies were dangerously low. Worst of all, no one had any idea how to survive in this strange and unforgiving land. European ways of doing things simply didn’t work. Tools designed for soft European woods broke against Australia’s hardwoods. There were no draft animals to do the work. The soil was different. English crops refused to flourish. Hunger became the rule. The isolation was unbearable. Those who escaped often returned in desperation; there was simply no place to go.

And yet, they persevered. Incredibly, just three decades after their arrival, the resilient settlers had progressed from near-starvation to tackling complex building works. By 1819 they were erecting a monumental gothic cathedral. The convicts had survived. They had even flourished. Australia is their legacy.

Construction Projects

The Australian government estimates that around 162,000 men and women were transported to the fledgling colony between 1788 and 1868. Most convicts were set to work as soon as they arrived. Putting a basic infrastructure in place was the first order of business.

Conditions were dreadful. Many men toiled in work gangs in blistering heat from sunrise to sunset – often in leg irons. One convict lamented, “We have to work from 14 to 18 hours a day, sometimes up to our knees in cold water, ’til we are ready to sink with fatigue,” according to

The earliest construction efforts focused on the penal colony in Botany Bay, followed by other penal stations and settlements. First, land had to be cleared to make way for building and farming. The earliest shelters were just tents and lean-tos, so erecting sturdy, permanent housing was crucial. Structures necessary for a well-run society, such as courthouses and hospitals, were also needed, and laying down roads and bridges was a top priority. All of this required exorbitant amounts of stone, so many convicts were forced to quarry and haul rocks in addition to erecting the actual structures.

Governor Phillips believed that the new colony should make the most of whatever skills and talents were available, and encouraged a policy wherein work was assigned according to ability. As the colony developed, skilled labourers were often given jobs suited to their experience, such as carpentry, bricklaying, or smithing. As the population grew, the need for labour continued to increase, and many convicts, particularly women, were hired out as servants. In fact, by the mid-1830s, only about six per cent of convicts were actually behind bars, estimates. The rest were scattered across the colony, working for the government or free settlers.

Francis Greenway

Some of these convicts were able to use their talents to achieve great things. Francis Greenway, one of Australia’s most renowned architects, was one of them. Greenway came from a family of builders and stonemasons, so a career in architecture was a natural fit. His finances floundered early on, however, and in 1809 the Englishman declared bankruptcy at the age of 32. A failed forgery attempt soon followed and he was sentenced to death. As was often the case during this era, the death sentence was commuted to transportation.

When Greenway sailed into Sydney in 1816, the colony was in dire need of a good architect. He was more than happy to fill the post – and acquire a coveted ticket of leave in the process. He set up a thriving practice on George Street, and became the first official Government Architect. In fact, many consider him to be Australia’s first architect of any sector.

Francis Greenway’s Australian career began with the lighthouse at South Head, and more work quickly followed on the heels of this successful project. His buildings include St Luke’s Church at Liverpool, St Matthew’s at Windsor, St James’s Church in King Street, the new Government House, the Female Factory at Parramatta, and several hospitals. Hyde Park Barracks showcases Greenway’s architectural abilities exquisitely, and is often considered one of his best works.

Success was not to last however. The talented architect soon fell out of favour for his exorbitant fees. In 1822, Governor Brisbane fired Greenway after he submitted a bill that was simply too much to swallow. Greenway continued to design structures for the private sector, but he soon faded into obscurity. His buildings, however, continue to garner attention. They stand as a silent testimony to the resilient spirit of Australia’s convict settlers.

The Colony of Australia owed its success to the ceaseless toil and determination of convicts. The infrastructure that these hearty souls laid down was invaluable. And in many cases, Australia returned the favour. Convicts were free from Britain’s ridgid class system. They escaped the social stigma attached to poverty and prison. Once give their ticket of leave they could forge a new life for themselves.

By the time transportation to Australia was officially abolished in the mid-1800s, countless men and women had taken advantage of the upward mobility that this rugged land offered. They had built their own nation – literally.

Home Automation

Call it ‘domotics,’ and you are likely to receive a blank stare, but refer to it as ‘smart home’ or ‘home automation,’ and you will get a nod of acknowledgement. For the past few years, consumers have heard the word ‘smart’ attached to countless products and services, from food and drink to snacks like popcorn and mobile phones, which no one seems to refer to as a ‘cellphone’ anymore. Yet what, exactly, constitutes ‘smart’?

January 27, 2021, 2:09 AM AEDT