What Became of Van Diemen’s Land’s Youngest Convict Lads?

One of the highlights of our visit to Tasmania was our venture into the convict punishment precinct of Port Arthur, stretched out as it is on the Tasman Peninsula at the very southern end of Aus’. A penal settlement, isolated by the cold antarctic winds and separated from the main Tasmanian island by the savage dog line across the isthmus of the peninsula which kept the convicts in, and the good society of Van Diemen’s Land out. The Dog Line was accompanied by a guards hut where guards and their families lived and this was as close as polite society came.

Port Arthur is joined to the rest of Aus’ by a narrow isthmus of land, it was a true outpost of colonial society and all humanity.  It was this striking geological feature that turned the peninsula into a world of hell for the Australian male convict. Hell and hard labour, including the dreaded coal mines of the peninsula. Designed as a place for secondary punishments Port Arthur also included Point Puer, a gaol built exclusively for the young boys. One designed also to spare these kids the worst vices of the penal system after the children were transported across the seas to a distant and strange land, removed from all family and society.  

Hobart at the time was awash with convict kids, boys mostly, urchins of the streets who no settler to this land wanted to deal with. Girls were quickly bonded into servitude however the young boys posed a problem. Too young to be put to productive hard work, when stronger more mature convict labour was readily available, they were seen as something of a nuisance to feed and to deal with. So the powers that be created Point Puer on an isolated peninsula, at the tip of yet another isolated peninsula, far from humanity and society.

This is where they sent the convict boys from 1834 until its closure in 1849. The first of the boys arrived in late 1833 and were immediately set to task to build their own prison. Point Puer was a world first as a ‘reforming institution’ for boys in the British Empire predating any other. 

Criminal responsibility then began at the tender age of 7yrs and children as young as 10yrs old could be transported legally, although they were required to have a history of at least three convictions, and it should be remembered that many of these child convicts had no idea of their true age.

During the half a century and more of transportation from the Britain to our Australian shores, some 2300 children were sent to Point Puer, for often very menial crimes. Crimes more related to survival than criminal intent. These children and youths were homeless, penniless and barely literate, and commonly they were still that when they were set free pouring into Hobart Town and the surrounding countryside years later. 

Point Puer was opened in 1834 and for two of my ancestors, fatherless brothers, Robert and Peter CHARLES this became their home. Barely in their teens they are noted as being just 4 foot in height at the time of their transportation. Point Puer penal settlement was where they grew to manhood, incarcerated there for some years, from the time of their arrival to the shores of Van Diemen’s Land. They had been delivered as hardened boy convicts from Edinburgh in 1838, aged just 13 & 14yrs when they arrived after much more than a year in the hulks and on convict transporters. In 1841 they were eventually then sent on to New Farm (in Hobart Town) to initially work in the gardens. They were deemed to have grown strong enough and were considered trained sufficiently. 

These kids were commonly the urchins of Britain’s cobbled streets, unwanted by the powers that be and disposed of in the cruelest way that you could treat a child, some as young as 9yrs old which is the age Robert Charles was when he was first convicted for stealing food and thrown into solitary in Edinburgh gaol on more than one occasion. Robert had protested that he was ‘not yet 10yrs of age’ when he was sentenced to transportation, however the court knew that he was noted as 9yrs old when first convicted a year or two earlier so he was packed off to the hulks off London’s River Thames, and then onto the dangerous passage across the oceans to Van Diemen’s Land found at the end of existence.

Having grown to young men in the hardened male world that was the lot of the Australian convict, these lads were generally set free by servitude in their late teens and early twenties. You can have no difficulty in imagining what they then got up to then. Thus is born the early legend of the Australian Bushranger. Bands of disenfranchised men trying to survive in the bush, many becoming mates and others becoming adversaries in what was a savage form of society.

It was these Bushrangers, our ancestors, who then ran with the numerous other emancipated convicts of Van Diemen’s Land who having gained their liberty, found themselves friendless in society which was struggling to maintain the ‘class’ distinctions of the mother Country. Ranging through the Bush was a means of survival in a world awash with the available “free” convict labour. The men, when boys, had learnt to make their own clothing while at Point Puer, generally from sheepskin, clothing complimented by an annual issue of 2 jackets, 2 trousers and 2 striped cotton shirts along with a waistcoat and cap. I imagine having been freed by servitude, this clothing was likely the first thing they ditched, being the garb of the convict. Having served their term as a convict these clothing items, along with any food rations, were issued no more.

Two years later, in the middle of the Tasman winter, Peter and Robert were caught stealing sheep from Richmond, north of Hobart, though what they intended to do with the three sheep they stole is open to conjecture. They went on to etch their names on gaol shutter in Richmond lockup where they were held awaiting trial, before they were duly packed off the the notorious convict outpost of Norfolk Island in 1845. Robert (younger of the two) was convicted of stealing the sheep, while Peter was convicted of receiving these same three sheep.

Richmond Gaol

Tracing this etchings with my fingers along the small scars in a wooden shutter, done at the time with tack and some type of hammer, remains a poignant bit of colonial graffiti that stays with me constantly. A stark and true reminder of my families history, a history which I love.

Following is a link to the record of the brothers and their activities while incarcerated at Norfolk Island, along with a government record of conditions on the island.

To return to this page just click the ‘back’ button on your browser.

Robert, from who I am descended can often be viewed as the most troublesome of the two brothers, even though he is the younger. Both the brothers remarkably found love and marriage later in Hobart but that is another story. This, after their return to Hobart when Norfolk Island was again disbanded for its brutality.  Robert again ended up at Port Arthur after a tragic sequence of events and the death of his first born and namesake. He worked a term in the coal mines before the judiciary eventually decided that he had been punished enough and granted him a full pardon after a public outcry about his treatment at the hands of the authorities.

Robert and his growing family went on to settle in Sydney Town but the law was not yet shot with him. Peter settled happily in Hobart and raised a flourishing family, the descendants of who still traipse around Hobart. He was guided by the influence of the church and undoubtably a good woman, as were they both in their own fashion. Their story lives on with much yet to be told, but I hope that the telling never fades into the mists of history and time.

You can read more about Jan’s travels around Australia and Australian Lore in her books ‘Discovering Australia & Her Lore’ Available at Amazon.com & Amazon.com.au

Jan also writes about Australian Lore in her Aboriginal series The Dreaming also available at Amazon


1 thought on “What Became of Van Diemen’s Land’s Youngest Convict Lads?

  1. Although Robert and Peter had a sad and cruel life by the powers that be, to see Robert’s very neat etching of his name on the wooden window shutter was the physical evidence that showed he was in that room. Gives you a warm feeling that you are looking at each other ♥️

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