Founding of New South Wales Founding of New South Wales

The Founding of New South Wales

During the 17th and 18th centuries, crime in the UK was prevalent among "the lower orders." There was a great disparity of wealth; the poor had little reason to be honest. They had lost their security on the land and they had little or none in the new industrial world. The principle of laissez-faire was so well entrenched that no government would intervene to raise wages or set a living standard. The poor-laws could only patch the situation, and by doing so, made it possible for starvation wages to continue. Vagabonds could be whipped, and anyone reduced to complete poverty was a vagabond. Efforts of workmen to better their condition were regarded as seditious and treated as such. The Church was at a low ebb and took no responsibility for social injustices and distress. The laws, particularly those protecting property, were harsh.

The transportation of criminals or political offenders was no new thing. Banishment of the politically dangerous was an old and useful expedient practiced at all times when simpler methods appeared unwise or impracticable. In 1597, during the reign of Elizabeth I, an Act of Parliament setting up laws for the relief of the poor--or perhaps more rightly for the relief of society from the poor--enumerated punishments for "Rogues, Vagabonds and Sturdy Beggars." The Privy Council was given the right of banishing the Rogues "beyond the seas." When Virginia was colonized in 1606, there was a ready market for labor, and it was only practical to ship off felons to the plantations. It was not so much a punishment as a conditional reprieve. The East India Company accepted such cargo as well. Under the Stuarts, shipments of convicted persons and prisoners of war to Virginia and elsewhere were frequent and normal. It continued until the loss of the American colonies, and by that time had been systematized into a profitable trade. Contractors carried away the troublesome and the unwanted without cost to the Government and sold their services to the planters. With the cessation of this traffic, English prisons, not built to accommodate large numbers, overflowed and hulks moored in the Thames and the Severn were used as prisons, which quickly filled beyond capacity as well.

The coast of Queensland was explored in 1770 by Capt. James Cook, who proclaimed British sovereignty over the east coast of Australia. Six years after James Cook landed at Botany Bay and gave the territory its English name of "New South Wales," the American colonies declared their independence and war with Britain began. Access to America for the transportation of convicts ceased, and overcrowding in British jails soon raised official concerns.

In 1779, Joseph Banks, the botanist who had travelled with Cook to New South Wales, suggested Australia as an alternative place for transportation. The proposal was repeated later by James Matra, who had also sailed on the Endeavour. The advantages of trade with Asia and the Pacific were also raised, alongside the opportunity New South Wales offered as a new home for the American Loyalists who had supported Britain in the War of Independence. Eventually the Government settled (although not without criticism) on Botany Bay as the site for a colony. Secretary of State, Lord Sydney, chose Captain Arthur Phillip of the Royal Navy to lead the fleet there and to be the first governor.

Prior to his departure for New South Wales, Captain Phillip received his Instructions (composed by Lord Sydney) from King George III, "with the advice of his Privy Council." The first Instructions included Phillip's Commission as Captain-General and Governor-in-Chief of New South Wales. An amended Commission, dated 25 April 1787, designated the territory of New South Wales as including 'all the islands adjacent in the Pacific Ocean' and running westward to the 135th meridian, that is, about mid-way through the continent.

The Instructions advised Phillip about managing the convicts, granting and cultivating the land, and exploring the country. The Aborigines' lives and livelihoods were to be protected and friendly relations with them encouraged, but the Instructions make no mention of protecting or even recognising their lands. It was assumed that Australia was terra nullius, i.e., land belonging to no one. This assumption shaped land law and occupation for more than 200 years.

Although they were instructed to establish themselves at Botany Bay, Phillip was separately authorised to choose any other appropriate neighboring territory. The First Fleet set out from Portsmouth on 13 May 1787 and arrived at Botany Bay on 18 January 1788. They quickly found the location unsuitable (fresh water was inadequate and the anchorages were too open in the wide bays); they moved on to the waters of Port Jackson. The First Fleet settled at Sydney Cove on the day known as 'Australia Day,' 26 January 1788. 1,035 persons disembarked, 850 of whom were convicts, thus making Sydney, the first Australian settlement, a prison farm. The colony was formally proclaimed on 7 February 1788, and subsequent fleets arrived in 1790 and 1791.

Import of convicts was not restricted to men; many women found themselves on the First Fleet as well -- a practice which continued over the next forty years. Women were not held in high regard in 1788, and convict women held even less status. Although many of these convict women, formally domentic servants or shopkeepers, found themselves in this strange environment having merely been accused of stealing from their employers or shops, and now found themselves quite out of their element. On arrival, female convicts were sent directly to the Female Factory. Many women only remained in the Female Factory a day or so before they were assigned to settlers to work as domestic servants or were married off to the locals. The Government actually encouraged marriage for these women as it was seen as a means of rehabilitation. Any man wanting to marry one of the women could apply by going up to the women lined up at the Factory and dropping a scarf or handkerchief at the feet of the woman of his choice. If the woman picked it up, the marriage was brought about with expediency. Women who were previously married sometimes were transported with their children who were either allowed to stay with their mothers or were moved to an orphanage. Although divorce was not available to the common person until the late 1800s, these previously married convicts were permitted to remarry after seven years' separation, as long as their living spouse was abroad. Unfortunately, the system of selection of servants or wives often meant that the gentry and officers would choose the prettier or younger convicts and the older, or less fortunate women were confined to the Female Factory, and many resorted to prostitution merely to survive. Eventually, work in the Female Factory became less burdensome, and needlework and laundry became the order of the day.

A Government Order was issued on 7 November 1798 requesting that "every Officer or other Housekeeper in the Colony who may have women servants in their Family" immediately forward the names of such. The results of the Government order became known as Governor Hunter's Assignment List. This being the Return of Convict Women in the Services of Officers or other Households 1798 (Archives Office of NSW pp.155 - 157, COD 197 ref:SZ767 ).

Some convict women, e.g., Martha Eaton (arrived 1788), would have already served their term by 1798, but were still noted on the report and still considered convicts. Fourteen of the eighty-seven women were recorded as "wife of," while research shows that twenty five were actually married to their employer and nine were in a defacto relationship. In the end, these women became the mothers and pioneers who made the colony survive and expand thorough their own efforts and those of their children.

First Fleet:

From the LONDON GAZETTE," October 1788.
Capt. Arthur Phillip, R.N. was commissioned as the first Governor of New South Wales. He set sail on May 13th, 1787 from Portsmouth with 11 vessels [Alexander, Lady Penrhyn, Charlotte, Scarborough, Friendship, Prince of Wales; supplies, equipment and livestock on Borrowdale, Fishburn, Golden Grove; navy ships, man-o'-war Sirius and armed tender Supply]. The fleet arrived in N.S.W. with 717 convicts of whom 180 were women, guarded by 191 marines under 19 officers.
(Newsaper article transcribed in 1992 by Barbara Turner)
EATON, Mary (alias Shephard)

EATON, Martha
The Charlotte arrived 22 January 1788. Sailed May 13, 1787 from Portsmouth in 252 days; embarked 88 males and 20 females. Among those listed were:
Eaton, Mary from Exeter Devon, England convicted in 1786.
The Lady Penrhyn arrived January 22, 1788 and sailed May 13, 1787 from Portsmouth in 252 days. She embarked 101 females, and among those we find:
EATON, Martha listed as in service to Edward Jones.
The Canada sailed March 23, 1820 and arrived on September 8, 1810; and embarked 122 females among whom was listed:
Eaton, Ann, Nottingham, age 20, convicted in 1809.
Western Australia began its life as a free colony in 1829, but it was not until its 21st birthday in 1850 that the convict labor it sought to bolster its flagging economy finally arrived. The 18-year history of its convict past between 1850 and 1868 is given most attention by historians, but its first taste of convict life was actually in 1827 when a small party of soldiers and convicts arrived from Sydney to establish a British presence in the region amidst fears of French occupation. Some of these New South Wales convicts found themselves further north in the Swan River Settlement in the years that followed. As with Tasmania, New Zealand and Victoria, Western Australia also received a number of convict boys from Parkhurst Prison during the 1840s. They had been rehabilitated in England and arrived as free settlers destined for apprenticeships with local settlers and their convict past is often forgotten.

Rottnest Island to the west of Fremantle, had been used for local colonial offenders since 1838, but 1850 marked a major change in policy when the first 75 convicts arrived from England aboard the Scindian.

In all, around 9,720 British convicts were sent directly to the colony in 43 ships between 1850-1868. Thirty seven of the voyages carried large numbers of prisoners from England, although one voyage actually collected her load in Bermuda. The remaining six ships brought smaller cargoes of military prisoners from among the ranks of British troops serving in India.

At this point, Britain was re-assessing her criminal system and beginning to keep more of her lesser offenders at home. It is not surprising then that we find many of Western Australia's convicts were the hardened criminals who were convicted for more serious crimes than stealing sheep and picking pockets, especially as the Western Australian chapter drew to a close.

Western Australia's convicts were sentenced to terms of 6, 7, 10, 14 and 15 years, and some reports suggest that their literacy rate was around 75% as opposed to 50% for those sent to the eastern states. About a third of the convicts left the Swan River Colony after serving their time, but many were also re-convicted locally for later offences. There are also four instances of prisoners escaping and being sent out again after being recaptured.

Among the First Fleet transports Neptune, Surprize, Scarborough and Lady Juliana we find:
EATON, John of Derby, England serving 7 yr. term
From the "NEW HOLLAND MORNING POST", October 18, 1791
A list of criminals who have come to our shores in recent months via Atlantic, William and Ann, Britannia, Matilda, Salamander, Albemarle, Mary Anne, Admiral Barrington, Active and Gorgon.

Included in this listing is:
EATON, William of Middlesex, England serving 7 yr. term
William EATON was born February 3,1769 at Bethnal Green, UK and died May 31, 1858 at Richmond, NSW.

William was arrested May 14, 1788 on a charge of having stolen a cheshire cheese valued at 20/-; the cheese was the property of Strother Allen. William was tried at the Old Bailey before the first Middlesex jury in June 1788. At his trial his accuser had claimed William had dropped the cheese in front of him and as a result he had taken him soon afterwards. The transcript of the trial does not make it clear as to whether this incident took place at William's place of employment or in a shop. The defendant denied the charge and produced eight witnesses, all of whom vouched for his good character. It was all to no avail as William Eaton was found guilty of theft and sentenced on June 22, 1788 to 7 years transportation beyond the seas. He arrived in Australia on the Admiral Barrington October 16, 1792.
Amongst the names of 3,217 men, women and children who served on the convict gangs and were issued with rations in Sydney on Saturday September 8, 1821 we also find:
Eaton, Patrick
The Dudbrook was employed as a convict transport and left Plymouth, England on November 22, 1852 bound for the Swan River Colony. She carried the eighth of 37 shipments of male convicts destined for Western Australia. The voyage took 77 days and the Dudbrook arrived in Fremantle on February 2, 1853 with 103 passengers and 228 convicts. Among the 229 convict numbers assigned to this voyage, we find:
Eaton, Benjamin of Northampton was 38 years old, serving a 15 year term, convicted March 28, 1851
The Clyde was employed as a convict transport for Western Australia and left Portland, England on March 15, 1863 bound for the Swan River Colony. She carried the twenty eighth of 37 shipments of male convicts destined for Western Australia. The voyage took 75 days and the Clyde arrived in Fremantle on May 29, 1863 with 150 passengers and 320 convicts. Amongst those listed were:
Eaton, John from Worcester, England was 34 years old as of date of conviction, December 31, 1861, serving a 10 year term for sheep stealing

Eaton, William from Central Criminal Court was 43 at time of conviction, October 27, 1851 serving a life sentence for rape.
The Pyrenees was employed twice as a convict transport for Western Australia and left Torbay, England on February 2, 1853 bound for the Swan River Colony. On this voyage she carried the ninth of 37 shipments of male convicts destined for Western Australia. The voyage took 87 days and the Pyrenees arrived in Fremantle on April 30, 1853 with 94 passengers and 293 convicts. Amongst these are listed:
Eaton, Christopher of Salford, 21 years old as of his conviction May 21, 1849 serving a 10-year sentence for larceny

Eaton, John from the Central Criminal Court, 37 years old as of April 9, 1849 when he was sentenced to 10 years for burglary.
The Hougoumont was employed as a convict transport for Western Australia and left London, England on October 12, 1867 bound for the Swan River Colony. She carried the last of 37 shipments of male convicts destined for Western Australia. The voyage took 89 days and the Hougoumont arrived in Fremantle on January 9, 1868 with 108 passengers and 279. Here we find listed:
Eaton, William John, 28, of Pontrefract, convicted April 9, 1866 of larceny, serving a 10-year term.
From Sydney newspaper articles during 1829, a list was created by the Government of those men and women who were convicts and who had absconded.
Eaton, John from ship Albion, 23 years of age, Index 5
Although the first unwilling migrants were the convicts who were expected to supply all the labor necessary for the foundation of the colony, Governor Phillip knew that they alone could not sustain a growing society. As his convicts served their terms or found redemption, they became husbands and wives and, in turn, families, and were instrumental in the development of a new nation. They joined forces with the newly recruited free laborers and brought about a measure of respectability to the struggling settlement. As time progressed, the new settlers were given land grants first at Liberty Plains (the Strathfield-Homebush district), but soon sights were set beyond.
"The desire to be possessed of a portion of this solid Globe is showing in all men; and the additional importance, which is given to a man in New South Wales as elsewhere by being ranked as a landed Proprietor, is found quite sufficient to ensure the sale of land faster than in all probability it could be sold, if the price to be paid for it were not produced on the land itself."
GOVERNOR GIPPS to Lord John Russell, 19th December 1840.
"Gov. Phillip, acting on his instructions, sent his right-hand man, Lieutenant Philip Gidley King, to Norfolk Island, about a thousand miles east of Sydney. King took with him a surgeon and his mate, four other free men, two Marines, and fifteen well-behaved convicts, six of them women. Also of the party were six ewes, two boars, three sows, a goat, four hens, one cock, three ducks and a drake...

Scientific curiosity played its part in the opening up of the country. Governors might ponder the riddle of the westward-flowing rivers, but the real impetus behind it was the need of sheep for grass and water. With flocks and herds doubling their numbers every three years, if seasons were propitious, the necessity for new pastures was imperative and insatiable. Official parties with definite objectives were sent forth from time to time by the Government, but at the same time unofficial and often unrecorded explorations were being carried out by squatters and their sons or shepherds. There was a natural and inevitable expansion into the bush. Exploration is part of the story of the pastoral age and cannot be separated from it..."(1)
Such was the colonization of New South Wales
"Progress was necessarily rapid. The colony, despite its meager beginnings, belonged to the Western world and to the, in some respects, highly civilized eighteenth century. It had Great Britain to draw on. When it became a contributor it also became a junior partner in the Empire. An asset was discovered in Australia with the development of the wool industry and that asset had to be preserved. It brought its rewards. Progress was imported with capital and settlers. Economic self-interest coalesced with nineteenth-century liberalism to bring on the once backward child at a fast pace. In comparison with European history, development from autocracy to responsible government, from dependence to independence, was rapid in the extreme. Progress was hard, brittle, and involved, not a slowly unwinding evolution. It was forced by circumstance and sometimes against the grain of the land. All institutions had to be consciously founded, there was no local tradition, that amalgam of earth and habit. Progress and development were by necessity experimental and empirical.

... Again, as a Crown Colony, New South Wales was always changing her master. With every new government a new Secretary of State for the Colonies took over. None of them had ever visited Australia, each had his ideas, tinctured generally by what had been done in Canada or South Africa or India or some other place, and each had the power to force their acceptance up to the point where practicability broke down. The Governor was responsible to the Colonial Office and must attempt to implement his master's orders, generally in the face of bitter opposition on the home front. The changing personnel in the Colonial Office, the changing ideals, panaceas and catch-cries of Europe account for the many twists and turns of policy. Chance rather than accident gave the first tentative colony a Governor who had the spiritual tenacity to hold on during the first five critical years of famine and difficulty when most other men would have sailed away to some easier and more fertile Pacific Island, or would perhaps have given up altogether."(1)
Although the colony was founded for and developed by a convict labor populous, Gov. Philip remembered that convicts were human beings and that some at least were capable of redemption. He determined to give them justice, and in the process, a great nation was forged by the industrious labor of these sons of England.
On August 3, 1800, William Eaton of Middlesex, England and former convict, married Jane Lloyd (Ison) at St. Phillips in Sydney. They had 11 children and built up a healthy livelihood.
Once again, our Eaton forefathers helped to mold a great new land and determined to leave a legacy to be proud of. Proof positive, we find a city on the southwestern coast named after our ancestors - Eaton, Western Austrailia.


(1) A History of Australia. Contributors: Marjorie Barnard - author. Publisher: Praeger. Place of Publication: New York. Publication Year: 1963. Page Number: 265
Sources: Excerpts taken from:

  • Extracts from Governor Hunter's Assignment Report Women Convicts 1798. ISBN 0 958786 1 1. © Cathy Dunn September 1995. This index has been published and made available by Cathy Dunn. Her book features variations to the spelling of names found in numerous records, added corrections, notes on the individual women convicts, trial details, arrivals, marriage and children birth dates and locations, along with deaths and details on husbands. The Book can now be bought online at
    Cathy Dunn is Webmistress for the Internet History Site for Milton Ulladulla NSW
  • The Women of Botany Bay, by Portia Robinson. This book contains much more information about individual women and a greater amount of information about convict life for women in New South Wales during the period of 1788-1828.
  • Compiled from the NOMINAL LIST OF ALL PERSONS VICTUALLED FROM HIS MAJESTYS MAGAZINES UNDER CHARGE OF DEPUTY COMMISSARY GENERAL WEMYSS. This victualling list is in the Colonial Secretary's Papers, location 4/5781, pages 55 - 122, and is on microfilm at the Archives Office of NSW. CONVICT GANGS IN 1821: A PRELIMINARY ANALYSIS OF AN 1821 VICTUALLING LIST. Mitchell Library (Macquarie St., Sydney). Archives Authority of NSW (The Rocks, Sydney). Society of Australian Genealogists (Kent St., Sydney). Royal Australian Historical Society (Macquarie St., Sydney).
  • Documenting a Democracy - Australia's story at

    Additional Information can be found at:

  • New South Wales Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages. This Registry records all births, deaths and marriages occurring in New South Wales. The site enables on-line searching of birth indexes for 1788-1905, and death and marriage indexes for 1785-1945.
  • Irish Convicts to Australia 1791 - 1820. This database contains details of Irish convicts who were transported to New South Wales in the period 1791 to 1820. It also includes access to lists of ships carrying Irish convicts and details of Irish rebels transported in the period 1791 to 1806.

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