By Jean Balchin 24/01/2018

A great many Australians and New Zealanders can trace their ancestry back to a convict or two, deported by the British government to various penal colonies in Australia between 1788 and 1868. In the early 17th century, the British government began transporting convicts overseas to American colonies. The American Revolution put a stop to all this however, and an alternative site was needed to relieve further overcrowding of British prisons and hulks. Earlier in 1770, the explorer Captain Cook had charted and “claimed possession” of the east coast of Australia for Britain. In order to prevent the French colonial empire from expanding into the region, Britain chose Australia as the site of its new penal colony.

Prison hulks in the River Thames. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1787, the First Fleet of eleven convict ships set sail for Botany Bay, arriving on 20 January 1788 to found Sydney, New South Wales, the first European settlement on the continent. Other penal colonies were established in Tasmania in 1803 and Queensland in 1824, while Western Australia, founded in 1829 as a free colony, received convicts from 1850. South Australia and Victoria remained free colonies however. The last convict ship arrived in Western Australia on 10 January 1868.

Many convicts were transported for petty crimes, such as stealing a loaf of bread or getting involved in a street riot. A significant number of convicts were political prisoners. More serious crimes however, such as murder and rape, were punishable by death, and therefore were not transportable offences. Once they had discharged their “duty” to society, most ex-convicts remained in Australia, joining the free settlers and carving a life for themselves in the outback and crowded towns. Convictism however carried a social stigma, and for many Australians, their convict origins would be a source of shame. Today however, attitudes have become more accepting, and around 20% of modern Australians are descended from transported convicts.

It’s been 230 years since the first convicts disembarked on Australian shores. Much has been written of their hardships, but we don’t know too much about what they did for fun. A QUT research project reveals music and dance were integral to their lives as well as good for their health. Dancing was encouraged by surgeons on convict ships, as it gave the convicts an important social outlet, as well as some healthy exercise. Dancing was not illegal but many associated activities were, such as being in unlicensed premises and the breaking of curfews. ‘Lower order’ dancing by convicts and others featured noisy footwork considered bad form in the polite ballroom atmosphere.

Australian colonial dance expert Heather Clarke is completing her Doctorate on the subject of Social dance and early Australian settlement: An historical examination of the role of social dance for convicts and common people in the period between 1788 and 1840.

Her findings will be exhibited at Redcliffe Museum from August to December this year.

“I have always been puzzled at the lack of research, anywhere in the world, regarding dance for the lower echelons of society. The majority of historical research focuses on elite forms of dance – the court, theatre, and ballet,” Ms Clarke said.

“Yet the joy and social benefits of music and dance are universal, whatever your culture or class. For the so-called ‘lower order’ people or convicts, dance was simply a way to enjoy yourself as opposed to being seen in society.

“My research proves that being a convict in Australia was not all about being flogged and leading a miserable existence in some hellish backwater. Many convicts in colonial Australia were in fact better off than those left behind in England’s nightmarish slums.”

Dances were part of the popular culture at ‘two-penny hop shops’ in The Rocks area of Sydney.

“According to newspaper reports, the music for the dancing was supplied by a convict called Jeremiah Byrne from Norfolk, England who played the flageolet (tin whistle). The tunes quoted in one account (‘Bobbing Joan’, ‘Darby Kelly’, ‘Paddy Ward’s pig,’ and ‘Judy Callaghan) had accompanying dances which had been published in Dublin in the 1810s.

“Most convicts were from Great Britain and many of the dances can be traced to England, Scotland and Ireland while the tunes were often an expression of rebellion.”

Clarke obtained most of her information from police reports of the time and the medical journals of surgeons travelling on the convict ships.

A Selection of Elegant & Fashionable Country Dances, Reels, Waltzes & c. for the Ensuring Season 1808.
Wheatstone Manual, National Library of Australia.

“Surgeon James Mercer was on the convict ship Albion in 1823 and wrote: ‘the afternoon of every day was spent in merriment and many exercises such as singing, dancing’,” she said.

“Surgeon William Leyson travelled on the convict ship Henry Wellesley in 1837 and noted: ‘I consider that tranquillity of mind is most essential to bodily health….they were allowed to amuse themselves by running about, dancing or in any innocent way whenever the duty of the ship would admit of it.’”

Ms Clarke’s research has shed new light on the life of convicts in Australia. Her project has included a series of workshops to bring the dances to life and retell the story of our early popular culture.

“The notion of convicts having a life which included music and dance is strikingly at odds with the prevailing image of convict heritage,” she said.

“Historians were aware that vernacular culture had quickly become established and then flourished in the English penal colony in Australia, but little was known about social dance practices. We now have a comprehensive and readily accessible database.”

Find out more at Ms Clarke’s website on Australian Colonial Dance.