The History of Australia - Tourism Australia

What Year was Australia Founded?

Activities / January 3, 2024

This week archives revealed two million of us are descended from the convicts deported to Australia. Here we tell the shocking stories of depravity and despair on the very first convoy that took them to the new world

Poor Elizabeth Beckford. She was 70 years old and her crime was stealing 12lb of Gloucester cheese.

For that she could have hanged. Hundreds did in those violent, vengeful days, dancing "the Tyburn frisk" in the words of those who crammed around the gallows to watch this favourite spectator sport of the 18th century. But the state, in its mercy, saved her life - and gave her a punishment that some would see as worse than death.

She was an unwilling passenger on a fleet of 11 ships that set out from England in 1787, the first of the convoys of the criminal underclass - as the ruling elite of Georgian England saw them - sent in chains to colonise new and dangerous shores on the other side of the world.

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Those 736 sad souls on that pioneering voyage would establish a new world. Though she didn't know it - and the thought would have given her no consolation as she lay crammed with others in cell-like spaces below decks - Elizabeth was a founder member of a new country, Australia.

On Thursday, more than 200 years later, those who made those dreadful voyages - 163, 000 in all over the years to come - are feted. Twenty-first century Australians celebrate their convict past, taking their lead from premier John Howard, a descendant of transported folk on both sides of his family.

The shipping and court registers of the banished have long lain in the National Archive in London. Now, in the knowledge that two million of us in Britain probably have blood links with Australia's criminal forebears, they have been put online for the hundreds of thousands of amateur genealogists in this country, eager to find out more about their roots.

The history they hide may not be pleasant. Elizabeth, incredibly, was not the oldest on that first ark of despair. Dorothy Handland, a dealer in rags and old clothes, was 82. How she was expected to contribute to empire-building in a virgin land whose hardships could only be guessed at is a mystery as great as the place she was being sent to.

But nonetheless she was among the waggon-loads of prisoners dragged down to the docks in Portsmouth from the sunless ship hulks at Woolwich where they had been held because the prisons were all full. They were dressed in rags, their faces pale from imprisonment, louse-ridden and thin as rakes from the slops they had been forced to live on.