A New Beginning

During the last week of January in 1788, a fleet of 11 British ships known as the First Fleet landed on the coast of New South Wales, Australia. The First Fleet brought with it over a thousand people, with the majority being convicts. Among those onboard were 36 children -- 17 the children of convicts and 19 the children of soldiers and government officials. No orders regarding children had been given to Arthur Phillip, who was the commander of the First Fleet and the first governor of New South Wales. The small penal colony at Sydney cove had to cope with them as best as they could.

Convict Children

A portion of the convicts sentenced to transportation to New South Wales were children, mainly boys who had been convicted of minor crimes like theft. One child was Mary Haydock, who at the age of 13 had been sentenced to seven years' transportation for merely possessing a horse that was not her own. The punishment delt out to those guilty of petty crimes were harsh.

The young female convicts of this time were assigned to settlers as servants or worked in Female Factories in Parramatta or Hobart. Some girls were lucky and were sent to serve kind families which regarded the female convict as a member of their own family. Others were less fortunate and were sent to homes that saw them abused and overworked.

During the early 1830's, male convict children were sent to Tasmania's Port Peur, which was situated near the well known and notorious Port Arthur adult's prison. These boys were usually aged 9 to 18, and were considered to be too weak to work for settlers as they were suffering from malnutrition.

The Boy's establishment at Point Peur was built by the young boys themself during 1834. Soon the amount of boys being sent to Point Peur increased and a daily routine was established for boys to follow. At 5am they were to awake and put away the hammocks they had slept on. Next, they would be supervised by overseers while they washed in tanks of cold water outside. The morning continued on with prayers, breakfast and an assembly. They would then proceed to classes at workshops where they were taught a trade. An hour's play was given to them at midday, which was followed by lunch. Half the boys went to school while the other half worked on the prison farms from 2pm until 5:30pm. The boys had yet another hour's play until dinner at 6:30pm, and boys were read to before bed. Lights out was promptly at 9pm.

Boys who misbehaved were placed in solitary confinement, chained or given 30 strokes of the lash. One of the most serious cases of child rebellion was of two 14-year-old boys murdering their disliked overseer by hurling stones. Some boys attempted to escape Point Peur, although most were unsuccessful and drowned at sea.


The children of wealthy settlers wore clothes similiar to that of the wealthy children in England. This posed a problem during the scorching summer heat, as the style of clothing was designed for the colder climate of England. Girls wore coloured frocks with short sleeves and woollen jackets by day, changing into white frocks at dinnertime. Boys were dressed in skirts and dresses until they reached the age of 4. There after they would wear skeleton suits, which consisted of ankle-length trousers made of cotton that buttoned above the waist, a white cotton shirt a sash around the waist and a jacket.

Poor children obviously wore less prestigous clothing. Girls wore cheaper and worn out versions of fashionable girls' clothing, while boys simply wore a smock and trousers. In the case of extreme poverty, children wore whatever they could.

Health and Wellbeing

Due to primitive knowledge regarding medical science during these years, alot of children fell sick and perished before adulthood. Some of the most common and deadly diseases affecting children were tuberculosis, pneumonia, whooping cough, typhoid, influenza and measles. Surgery was painful and there were no effective anaesthetics. Dentistry was a newly developed branch of medical science and extremely painful. Despite these setbacks, Australian children who lived through disease and malnutrition turned out to be much taller and healthier than those in Britain.


There were 2000 children in the colony by 1801. It was decided that a school be built in order to improve children's chances in life. Because of the number of epidemics which swept the colony, a significant amount of children became orphans. One of the earliest schools established in New South Wales was a school for orphaned girls. It was founded by Governer King and his wife in 1801.


Children were entertained by watching sporting events like horse racing, cricket, boxing matches and animal fights. They also took part in popular activities like swimming and boat racing. They attended musical entertainments, various other forms of open air performances and public hangings.


It was believed by society that poor children should work. The most common form of employment for girls was working as a domestic servant for wealthier families. They began their day's work early, before the household had awoken, and continued working until night. Most girls started working as domestic servants from the age of 10 to 12. Other young females took up apprenticeships in the textile industry, or worked in shops and laundries.

Boys became apprenticed in one of a wide selection of trades at the age of 10. In most cases they went to live in the home of the craftsperson to whom they were apprenticed. A craftsperson held the authority to severely punish an apprentice on the grounds of clumsiness, laziness, or anything else they thought suitable.

Children too young to serve apprenticeships or work as a servant helped look after horses, ran errands and opened carriage doors with the expectation of recieving a tip. Some children as young as six were employed to complete minor tasks on farms. However, wealthy children were not expected to work -- instead they recieved an education.

References cited:
Dugan, Michael. 1997. The Convict Years. South Melbourne, Vic.: MacMillan Education Australia.
Australia's Yesterdays, 3rd edition. 1986. Surry Hills, NSW: Reader's Digest

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