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Convict settlement - Norfolk Island

On 1 August 2010 Kingston and Arthur's Vale Historic Area on Norfolk Island were inscribed onto the World Heritage List as one of 11 Australian Convict Sites.  Places in New South Wales that were included are the Old Government House and Domain, Hyde Park Barracks, Cockatoo Island Convict Site and the Old Great North Road.

Norfolk Island Norfolk Island stamps Patteson Memorial Chapel, Norfolk Island

Brief convict history of Norfolk Island

Governor Phillip's instructions of 25 April 1787 had ordered him to send a detachment to Norfolk Island as soon as circumstances permitted.  On 12 February 1788 Phillip appointed Philip Gidley King Superintendent and Commandant of the Island and on 5 March 1788 King landed there with a group of soldiers and convicts.  Others were sent to relieve the strain on the mainland where food was scarce.

From 1788 to 1814 Norfolk Island existed as an extension of the penal settlement in NSW but by the early 1800s the Island was no longer needed as Van Diemen's Land was available to convicts.  Though the settlers were reluctant to move, the settlement was steadily reduced over the years.  Rough seas and suitable landing sites posed difficulties in supplying provisions and communications.  By 1810 the population had decreased to 117 and in 1813 plans were put in place for the abandonment of the Island.  It was finally deserted in February 1814.

Norfolk Island Map 6321 Norfolk Island Map 6321 Norfolk Island Map 6321 Norfolk Island Map 6211 Norfolk Island Map 6211 Detail Norfolk Island Plan of Prisoner Barracks, 1838

In 1824, as pastoralists were settled across the mainland, the Colonial Office decided to revive the penal settlement on Norfolk Island as a place of banishment for the worst re-offenders. On 6 June 1825 Major Turton, with 34 troops, six women and children, and 57 convicts, reoccupied the Island. By 1829 there were 211 convicts on Norfolk and by 1834 there were close to 700 convicts, all employed by the government which, according to personal accounts of convicts and visitors, inflicted on them harsh punishments verging on the inhumane. It was not until Alexander Maconochie was appointed as Commandant of Norfolk Island in 1840 that the convicts started to be treated more humanely. In February 1844 Maconochie was replaced by Captain Joseph Childs and Norfolk regained its reputation for brutality.  The penal settlement finally closed in 1853.

The Convict Guide has a detailed listing of the convict records relating to Norfolk Island and is available in our reading room.

Norfolk Island - Harsh realities of convict life

Convict life on Norfolk Island was severe and often brutal. Below is a snapshot of just one convict, John Walsh, who spent ten years on Norfolk Island from 1834 to 1844. Click on the images below to view larger versions and read his story.

Arrest of John Walsh Petition from John Walsh Response to petition Snapshot of Walsh's convict history

Walsh had nearly completed his ten year sentence when he was returned to Sydney due to ill health (he suffered from chronic asthma).  There is a note on his Certificate of Freedom (31/282) that Walsh obtained a pass dated 27 August 1844 in Windsor.  The pass may refer to a pass gratas or free pass.  No further reference to John Walsh could be found in the Colonial Secretary's Papers.