Social Mobility

Threaded through discussions of transported convicts is the narrative that they fared better in the colonies than if they had remained in the UK. This belief is reflected in the letters sent home by convicts expressing a belief in their second chance. Such letters conveyed how, if they were industrious and sober, they would prosper. Indeed, historians Portia Robinson and John Hirst argued that the colonies offered greater opportunity for self-advancement and freedom than back home. Similarly, Robinson suggested there was upward mobility for convict women through employment and marriage. And, those who did not succeed, were ‘incorrigibles’ who chose not take advantage of available opportunities. This argument positioned Britain as creating criminals through social circumstances, whereas in the penal colonies it was character which caused failure (Daniels 1998). Indeed, ‘The “workingman’s paradise’ has been one of the dominant and most persistent national images of Australia’ (Garton 1989, 242).

The depressions of the 1890s and 1930s are often presented as aberrations in the prosperous Australian history (Garton 1989). Australian historiography, up until late-1980s, followed this narrative that nineteenth-century workers enjoyed advantages in wages, hours, housing and food, which were not shared by those in America or Britain. O’Brien (1988) redressed this historiographical imbalance by arguing that there were different experiences according to age and gender, and that they were as important in determining self-sufficiency as class. Garton (1990) added that those who were too ill or old, or who simply could not find work, were being ignored in the workers’ paradise narrative. Nevertheless, an enduring belief that social mobility was a ‘social norm’; where class structures and a lack of social capital are less rigid than in other comparable nations remains (Argy 2006). However, there has been an increasing global interest amongst academics and the public on this issue (Hill 2019). Indeed, stalled social mobility has been declared a global issue (De Bellaigue et al 2019). Of course, such discussions around stalled mobility imply that there was a period when individuals were not stalled.

Clark et al (2017) tracked the status of Australian surnames between 1870-2017 in order to look at long run social mobility. This is instead of measuring social mobility between parent and child, which generally shows more movement. They found that the status persistence was strong throughout Australia, and long-run social mobility rates are low. They argue that despite Australia being an immigrant society and, ‘without some of the entrenched social institutions and rigidities of England’, that social mobility rates were still just as slow (Clark et al 2017, 3). This implies a very static society, and ‘while the ruling class and the underclass are not permanent, they are extremely long-lasting’ (Leigh 2014). While their focus begun in 1870, they do marginally consider how convicts and emancipists fit into this.

In order to measure the lower-class members and their rates of upward mobility, Clark and colleagues included all those who were transported from the UK to Van Diemen’s’ Land during its time as a penal colony (1804-1853), as well as those sentenced under the convict system (total 76 000). They unexpectedly found more upwards movement when compared with the general population.[1] In an attempt to understand this, they point to studies which have explored the human capital of transported convicts.[2] For example, they argue that Nicholas and Shergold (1988) and Meinzer (2015) point to a positive selection in this regard. However, Piper (2003, 38-39) has already challenged the argument of Nicholas and Shergold – stating that ‘…overall there is little evidence that convict workers were conscripted on a systematic basis’. In addition to this rebuttal, Meinzer’s (2015) position is far more nuanced. Meinzer (2015) specifically investigated Western Australian convicts and pointed to the traditional belief that convicts sent there were positively selected from British prisoners. However, Meinzer argued that the data did not support this. Through comparing heights of WA convicts and prisoners back home, it was found that the physically fit were not chosen for transportation and that trades and occupations did not generally align with colonial needs. While it could be demonstrated that WA convicts were slightly more literate than those back home, this was coincident on their generally younger age and urban background (as was the case with NSW convicts). Therefore, if their human capital was greater than those back home, it was coincident on the demographics of those who commit more crime. Meaning, those transported may have had more human capital but they were not expressly chosen for transportation because of it. Clark et al (2017) also argue that there was little convict stigma through the examples of what are, arguably, exceptional cases of social mobility.

Francis Greenway (1777-1837), by unknown artist

Due to the commonality of convictism, it is logical that this shared status would have led to less stigmatisation. Indeed, female juvenile convicts were able to marry while under full servitude, which suggests that if there was any stigma it was not so great that it deterred husbands. However, it must not be ignored that there were very few females in the colony (Watkins 2018). Ultimately, the levels of stigmatisation are difficult to measure. In certain circumstances it may not have been a hindrance to fitting into society. As in the cases put forward by Clark et al (2017); a farmer James Ruse, designer Francis Greenway, businessman Solomon Wiseman, Laurence Halloran who founded elite school Sydney Grammar, first postmaster Isaac Nichols, and a Tasmanian newspaper founder John Davies. While there were exceptions, it must be noted that other factors aided many convict success stories. Such factors include their education and skills before transportation. For example, Francis Greenway, who went on to work for the Governor as Australia’s first government architect, trained as an architect before transportation. Nevertheless, Clark et al (2017, 27) argued that convict analysis has provided insights into the upward mobility of this particular group. I for one think this is very interesting and want to look into this further. Yet, even if we accept that convicts were the exception to the pattern of Australian social immobility, it is known that former convicts dominated the charitable system (Piper 2003). As such, this concentration on the upwardly mobile emancipist, overlooks the ‘refuse’ of the convict system. In doing so, a false picture of former convicts having a fresh start in the colonies is created, and (at times) the harms of the Australian penal system are down-played.

It cannot be ignored that social mobility is morally, geographically and culturally fluid, depending on political, economic and intellectual context (De Bellaigue et al 2019). Breen (1991) argues that Launceston’s economic and class structures were so closely related that occupational groupings can be used to indicate class divisions. However, it has been alternatively argued that individual experience of social mobility, or lack thereof, can vary, and is rarely simply up or down in one direction – but is jagged (De Bellaigue et al 2019). Additionally, an important aspect for convicts was their lack of social and family networks in the colonies. If families are in any way central to social mobility through intergenerational transfer of economic assets and social capital, or even just stability, this would certainly have hindered convicts who were transported away from family and friends. Indeed, it is possible to uncover the discernible jags in the lives of pauper-emancipists mobility; instead of focusing on a beginning to end measures. A case study which represents a jagged life-course described by Savage and Flemmen (2019), is that of John Porter:

Case Study

John was born in ≈1823 and was single when he was transported aged 21 in 1843, from Middlesex. John, his parents and two sisters, were all living in London. John was convicted at the Old Bailey for stealing a gown and a work box. This was not his first conviction. He had previously been imprisoned for 3 months for stealing boots and for 4 months for stealing a stove.

The transport

On the voyage, John was described by the ship surgeon superintendent as orderly, having no previous offence or employment. Indeed, as well as having previous offences described elsewhere, it was also noted in his conduct record that he was a ‘Type Founder’. It may have been that while he was trained as such, he was out of work. Such contradictions are not unusual. His description list described him as being 5’4.75” and being ‘Freckled. Crucifix on inside left arm long scar between forefinger and thumb left hand J heart L on right arm’.

Colonial Offences

While under sentence, John committed a number of offences. His first recorded offence was a status one. When at Seven Mile Creek he absented himself from the station without leave. This was ≈5 months after arrival. His punishment was 10 days solitary confinement. Still at Seven Mile Creek and on probation, he misconducting himself by having a pipe in his possession the following month. This resulted in 7 days’ solitary confinement. Now at Hamilton, he was insubordinate ‘with others in endev to occasion a riot, also breaking out of conf at night’ in the first December of his arrival. This, being a more serious offence, resulted in 18 months hard labour in chains. It was further recommended that he be sent to the penitentiary. By September 1846, John was stationed at Salt Water River and was absent from work without leave resulting in 7 days’ solitary confinement.  Next, he was given hard labour for 3 months for having a pair of drawers in his possession. Perhaps shockingly to us, in April the following year, John was given 7 days’ solitary confinement for ‘Misconduct in having his face disfigured under suspicion of fighting’. The next offence was not a status offence. John was given 6 months’ imprisonment with hard labour in chains for larceny under the value of £5. In February the next year he refused to work, which resulting in 6 months’ imprisonment with hard labour. In 1849, he was absent without leave, leading to 3 months’ imprisonment with hard labour. The last recorded offence was not until 30 years later; while in Launceston in 1879 he was given one-month imprisonment for neglecting to comply with an order to maintain his wife.

Social Life

His conduct record would suggest that he did marry. The connection is uncertain, but a John Porter who was described as a ‘Free’ labourer did marry, in 1853, aged 31. This is the correct age and John Porter was free at the time this marriage took place. Mary Kennedy was a prisoner and 26-year-old spinster at the time of the marriage. She was transported on the Duke of Cornwall.

The Charitable System

In the same year he was imprisoned for not supporting his wife, he entered the Brickfield Invalid Depot in June 1879 and left in August when he was discharged by order of the Administrator of Charitable Grants. Next, he entered the New Town Pauper Establishment in March 1890 but left by the end of the month and went ‘to service’ ‘by approval.’ However, he re-entered twice between 1893 and 1895. Next (in June 1897) he entered the Launceston Invalid Depot, but was discharged at his own request in September. He then re-entered at some point and was released in May 1899. He died of ‘senility’ at the Launceston Invalid Dept in May 1899. Interestingly, he is described in these records at a ‘Compositor’.


Nineteenth-Century Typesetting

A compositor was a typesetter, which is written on his transportation records. This was a skilled trade. As Maxwell-Stewart (2016) has argued, the employment listed on the Conduct Records is reasonably reliable. Moreover, what this record linkage of John’s life certainly demonstrates is the jagged nature of his social mobility. He trained in a skilled trade, he was possibly unemployed in his early twenties and committed a number of thefts, upon his marriage in his 30s he is described as a labourer (this record is uncertain), and then there is a gap in the records. We cannot now what his employment was in the period of his freedom before he entered the charitable institution. His death record suggests that he worked as a compositor during that period. What we do know, is that even if he did work in that time in the skilled trade, he was unable to support himself and his wife in later old age. As such, his life trajectory certainty pointed down at the end. He was repeatedly discharged on agreement with the authorities from the pauper system, suggesting he had some means of supporting himself for short periods. This is likely to have been seasonal work. Yet, he kept having to re-enter the charitable system.

I am looking forward to uncovered more details of others like John Porter, to see if there are any patterns and what conclusions, if any, can be drawn. When I develop this work, I will be thinking about individuals like John Porter, but also the group as a collective. I will be exploring how this group fed into the narratives (and counter-narratives) surrounding social mobility, and Australia as a working man’s paradise.

Reference List

Argy, F. (2006) ‘Equality of Opportunity in Australia Myth and Reality’, The Australian Institute. Available at: Accessed on: 26/11/2019

Clark, G., Leigh, A. & Pottenger, M. (2017) ‘Immobile Australia: Surnames Show Strong Status Persistence, 1870–2017’, In IZA Institute of Labor Economics Discussion Paper Series No. 11021

Daniels, Kay. (1998) Convict Women (Sydney: Allen & Unwin Pty Ltd)

De Bellaigue, C., Mills, M. & Worth, E. (2019) ‘Rags to Riches: New Histories of Social Mobility in Modern Britain – Introduction’, Cultural and Social History, 16(1) pp.1-11.

Garton, S. (1989) ‘Poverty in Paradise’ In Australian Studies: A Survey (ed.) Walter, J. (Oxford: Oxford University Press) pp.242-270

Hill, A. (2019) ‘“Downward mobility” a reality for many British youngsters today’, The Guardian 11/21/2019.

Leigh, A. (2014) ‘The remarkable persistence of power and privilege’, Inside Story, Accessed on: 14/11/2019. Available at:

Maxwell-Stewart, H. (2016) ‘The State, Convicts and Longitudinal Analysis’, Australian Historical Studies 47(3) pp.414-429.

Meinzer, N. (2015) ‘The Western Australian Convicts’, Australian Economic History Review, 55(2) pp.163-186

Nicholas, S. & Shergold, P R. (1988) ‘Unshackling the past’, In Convict Workers – Reinterpreting Australia’s past (ed.) Nicholas, S. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp.3-13.

O’Brien, A. (1988) ‘Poverty’s Prison: The Poor in New South Wales 1880 – 1918’, (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press)

Piper, A. (2003) Beyond the Convict System: The Aged Poor and Institutionalisation in Colonial Tasmania, (PhD Thesis, University of Tasmania)

Renwick, C. (2019) ‘Movement, space and social mobility in early and mid-twentieth-century Britain’, Cultural and Social History, 16(1) pp.13-28.

Savage, M. & Flemmen, M. (2019) ‘Life Narratives and Personal Identity: The End of Liner Social Mobility?’ Cultural and Social History, 16(1) pp.85-101

Watkins, E D. (2018) ‘Juvenile convicts and their colonial familial lives’, The History of the Family, 23(2) 307-328

[1] They used the rare-surname approach, which is not without its controversy.

[2] Human capital: the skills, knowledge, and experience possessed by an individual or population, viewed in terms of their value or cost to a country.

Published by Dr Emma D Watkins

Emma, a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Birmingham, was awarded a fully funded PhD at University of Liverpool. This led to the monograph: Life Courses of Young Convicts Transported to Van Diemen's Land. Emma is an historical criminologist who uses digital technologies with historical documentation and criminological methodologies.

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