"Criminals incapable of reform?" Re-assessing the population of Cockatoo Island Prison (Sydney), 1839-69

Lead Research Organisation: University of Liverpool
Department Name: Sch of Sociology and Social Policy


Significant attention has been paid to the more than 160,000 British and Irish convicts who were transported Australia as colonists between 1787 and 1868. Much less has been said about those punished within the criminal justice system that arose in the wake of New South Wales' transition from 'penal' to 'free' colony (Finnane, 1997: x-xi). Cockatoo Island prison opened in 1839, a year before convict transportation to New South Wales ceased, and was intended to punish the most recidivist and violent of the transported convicts. This archetype has prevailed in historical discourses, and they have been described as 'criminal lunatics... [and] criminals incapable of reform' (Parker, 1977: 61); 'the most desperate and abandoned characters' (O'Carrigan, 1994: 64); and people of 'doubtful character' (NSW Government Architect's Office, 2009: 29). Yet, this was far from the truth. My analysis of 1666 prisoners arriving between 1839-52 show they were overwhelming non-violent offenders, tried for minor property crimes at lower courts. They were also far more diverse population than commonly recognised, including Indigenous Australian, Chinese and black convicts alongside majority British and Irish men (Harman, 2012).

This project will make publicly availably extremely detailed records relating to Cockatoo Island's prisoners to show people firsthand exactly who made up the inmate population. The digital version of the original registers will include information on convicts' criminal record, but also their job, whether they were married or had children, and even what they looked like. It will also be a name-searchable database so family historians can search for their ancestors, who may have been incarcerated on the island. As it stands, they will be able find information online about ancestors who were transported as long as they remained in the 'convict system', but they may seem to disappear as soon as they are awarded their ticket-of-leave and become 'free'. However, many former convicts, and free immigrants, to New South Wales were convicted locally, and these records can give us information about their lives within the colony.

The type of data included in these registers will also allow researchers to investigate questions including:
(1) were convicts more likely to offend again than free immigrants?
(2) Were the children of convicts more likely to offend than others?
(3) Did the influx of mostly Chinese migrants during the gold rush actually lead to a crime-wave, as reported in the press?
(4) Were laws introduced between 1830 and 1853, actually effective at prosecuting bushrangers (highwaymen)?
(5) Was the criminal-judicial system in Australia more rehabilitative, despite developing out of a harsher convict transportation system?

Alongside the dataset, the website will include 'life-biographies' of individual convicts to show you how this dataset can be used to piece together a life-story. It also to warns against understanding a real-life person only through the records of their conviction. There many of fascinating stories to tell, including those 'John Perry' ('Black Perry') the prizewinning boxer; the love story of the 'Two Fredericks'; and Tan, the Chinese gold-digger who resisted his incarceration. In addition, there will be teaching resources for secondary school children and undergraduate university students who want to engage directly with historical materials, without having to leave their classroom.

Overall, this website invites anyone with an interest in the history of crime and punishment, and any visitors to the UNESCO world heritage site 'Cockatoo Island', to try searching for a name in the database or read about a featured convict's life story. It asks them, though, to think about how and why these people's lives intersected with the state, leading to their incarceration, and how history has erased much of their lives outside of it.


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