Transportation and Penal Servitude

Quarter Session minutes, part four

Convict chapel in the penitentiary, Hobart, 2013
Anne Langley

Crimes were originally divided into less serious ‘misdemeanours’ and more serious ‘felonies’. Felonies included murder, treason, rape, assault, and stealing anything worth more than a shilling. (This was raised to 4s in the early 19th century.) A guilty verdict for a felony automatically carried the death penalty. However it wasn’t quite as bad as it sounds because only around 10% of those sentenced to death were in fact hung – originally publically – as a deterrent to other criminals; the other 90% were pardoned. Also by the mid-19th century the death penalty was limited to murder and treason.


There were few prison cells before the 19th century, and therefore imprisonment for felons (after an initial spell in custody awaiting trial) was rare. Transportation was introduced to deal with pardoned felons; it was seldom used until the 18th century, when convicts were sent to North America. This ceased to be an option after the start of the American war of Independence (in 1775), and hulks (prison ships) were used for a while until transportation to Australia started in the late 18th Century. People convicted of a second felony were in serious trouble: they could be transported for many years or even life. For example John Jones of Coventry was convicted in 1849 of breaking and entering and stealing; he had a previous conviction for felony and was sentenced to be transported for 10 years. His co-conspirator Edward Phipps (who had a clean record) got just six months in prison with hard labour. Transportation stopped again in the 1850s when the colonies refused to accept further convicts.

Penal Servitude

After transportation ceased, serious (usually repeat) offenders were sentenced to years of ‘Penal Servitude’ instead. This was served at a large, harsher prison (such as Wandsworth or Parkhurst) rather than locally. Some sentences of penal servitude were savage: George Brice stole an overcoat in Yardley and got five years Penal Servitude in 1899 (plus police supervision for a further three years). However he had a previous conviction for felony (under the alias of James Fitzgerald) which is why he received such severe treatment.

References: Warwickshire County Record Office Quarter Session Minutes QS 39/20 (1849) p.64; QS 39/29 (1899) p. 203.