The Probation System was introduced in Van Diemen's Land for female convicts in 1843–1844, a few years after it was introduced for men. Instead of being assigned on arrival to work for settlers, a female convict served a term of probation (the length depending on her sentence), during which she was given moral and religious instruction, and taught domestic skills as required for cooks, laundresses, and servants. At first convicts spent the probation term on the hulk Anson and, after its disbandment, at the New Town farm station.
After serving her term of probation and in theory at least being ‘reformed’, a female convict worked for a master or mistress as a passholder. After a period she could apply for a ticket of leave, then a conditional pardon.
The Probation System was an experiment in penal discipline unique to Van Diemen's Land (VDL). Introduced in 1839, it was modified substantially after 1846 before it was abandoned in 1853.
The predecessor of the Probation System was the Assignment System which provided for the assignment of convicts to individual masters but had been subject to constant criticism – for the harshness or leniency of the system; its ineffectiveness as a deterrent to crime or as a method of reform; its similarity to slavery; and its inconsistency in that the fortunes of the convicts were determined, not by their crimes or their behaviour in the colony, but by their usefulness to their masters.
The Probation System was the brainchild of Lord Stanley from his desk in Whitehall, London in an attempt quell the continual criticism of assignment and reduce the ever increasing costs of sending convicts from Britain. It is suggested that his plan was primarily designed to serve the imperial interests of Britain and secondarily to address the issue of convict discipline. In removing the last vestiges of cheap labour from free settlers, Stanley’s plan gave no consideration to the effects on the local economy. And one does wonder why Lord Stanley appointed Sir John Eardley-Wilmot as Lt Governor to administer the scheme in VDL when Stanley himself described Eardley-Wilmot as ‘a muddle-brained blockhead’; and many of the subsequent administrative failures of the system were blamed on Eardley-Wilmot.
The Probation System shared a theoretical base with the penitentiary system. The key principles were that both punishment and reform could be achieved by separate confinement and a regime of hard labour, religious instruction and education. [*]For male convicts the program involved working in gangs in ‘unsettled districts’ establishing infrastructure on Crown land to increase the value of the land; logging; and developing food farms; all in conjunction with compulsory religious instruction.
The same principles of punishment and reform applied to female convicts except they were not required to work in gangs. Furthermore, Stanley’s plan to establish purpose-built penitentiaries for women never materialised.
Female convicts served a term of probation during which they were given moral and religious instruction, and taught domestic skills as required for cooks, laundresses and servants. The length of time in the program depended on the convict’s original sentence and her behaviour in the program (but usually a mandatory minimum period of 6 months). The probationary period could be extended for bad behaviour during this period with or without other punishments (e.g. hard labour, solitary confinement etc.). (See punishments / probation and probation extended)
While most female convicts spent their probation term on the hulk Anson and later the New Town farm station, some went elsewhere. For example, those who arrived on board the Margaret in July 1843 were sent ‘to a house in Liverpool street (the nursery) opposite the hospital, where they would be classed, and undergo a probationary term of imprisonment prior to being allowed the privilege, for such it may be considered, of being sent to private service.’ There were several places the women were held once their probation period was completed and they were waiting assignment, such as the Hiring Depot at Brickfields, Hobart; Hiring Depot at Launceston; and others were also held at Dynnyrne Nursery if they were 'enceinte'.
When the convict’s term of probation was completed they received a ‘probation pass’ which meant they could work for an approved settler or the local government of Van Diemen’s Land. The Crown (the UK government) made no contribution to these wages. After a specified period convicts could apply for a ticket of leave and then a conditional pardon.
In practice, the probation system was a disastrous failure, undermined by poor planning and administration, inadequate funding, huge numbers, and an unforeseen economic depression in VDL. With little demand for the labour of the passholders, the system was overwhelmed. For the prisoners it brought increased misery. For the colonists it brought the worst of both worlds – large numbers of convicts whose presence among them was no longer a benefit but an increasing burden. Far from being reformatory, the system bred idleness, disorder and vice. Worst of all, it seemed to be the direct cause of an epidemic of homosexuality. The entire system became an increasing burden on the colony as London sought to transfer more and more of the costs of transportation to the colony. It was abandoned altogether following the abolition of transportation to the colony in 1853.
TIMELINE of EVENTS
OCTOBER 1837 - 1839: Lt. Governor of VDL Sir John Franklin, in response to a direction from London that he consider a replacement for the assignment system, proposed a system of probationary gangs. The general concept was approved by London and implemented in early 1939.
JULY 1841: In anticipation of the outcome of ongoing discussions in London about the shortcomings of the assignment system, Lt. Governor Franklin issued regulations, drawn up by Comptroller General Mathew Forster, outlining the major features of the new probation system. These largely reflected those as described by Lord Stanley in his later despatch in 1842.
NOVEMBER 1842: A letter from Lord Stanley to Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Franklin, written in November 1842 and subsequently printed in the Launeston Examiner on 21 February 1844, outlined the vision held by Her Majesty's government in London for the implementation of the probation system in relation to female convicts.
APRIL 1843: In the same way that the newspapers had frequently criticised the Assignment System, they similarly criticised the Probation System. The following article appeared in the Cornwall Chronicle in April 1843. The writer obviously opposed the Franklin administration and suggested giving female convicts their freedom on arrival!
FEMALE PROBATION.—It is asserted by the Panier Carrier, that the female prisoners in this colony, and those to arrive, are to be probationized!! At the recommendation of His Excellency. Now we have had some little experience with the class of women who, for the most part, comprise the prisoner population, having commanded a ship which conveyed into the sister colony a couple of hundred of them, and we are puzzled to know by what means His Excellency purposes to carry out his plan of probationism. Men may be made to submit to this new fangled system, but Sir John Franklin will find that females are not to be drilled into discipline, and coerced with the cat and irons. A probationary system for female prisoners is, in our opinion, a more Utopoian measure than Captain Maconcochie's at Norfolk Island. How are women to be probationized?—that is the question. If they cannot be managed in comparative liberty? We tell His Excellency the general opinion is, that the best means he can adopt to probationize the female prisoners would be to turn them adrift—by doing so he would save a considerable expense to the country, and assist in a trifling degree to equalize the sexes.—His Excellency would check the evils which exist in the Factory to a degree almost beyond credibility, and be discharging one of the first and chiefest duties of a Governor. The probationizing of women is humbug—the suggestion is worthy of Sir John Franklin's administration.
AUGUST 1843: Sir John Eardley-Wilmot was appointed as Lt Governor of VDL to oversee the Probation System and to replace the outgoing Sir John Franklin.
OCTOBER 1843: The Regulations of the First Stage of Convict Probation in Van Diemen’s Land in relation to work gangs (for male convicts), were drawn up by the Comptroller General Mathew Forster, as outlined by Lord Stanley, with the object being
‘to teach the convicts habitually to regard the coercive labour they are subjected to as the desert and consequence of guilt; and that a new course of life can alone lead to their being released from it. The discipline must be rigorous and uncompromising, but at the same time tempered with judicious advice, and instruction religious and moral …’
These regulations were essentially the same as those initially drawn up by Forster and issued under Franklin in July 1841, with the addition of an outline of the principle of the system and other administrative issues.
DECEMBER 1843: The Regulations of the Second Stage of Convict Probation in Van Diemen’s Land in relation to ‘service for wages’ (again for male convicts), entitled convicts who had completed their term of probation in probation gangs to a probation pass to enter ‘into the services of the free inhabitants of the colony’ and were arranged in three classes from lower to higher depending on their conduct – the highest being for the best conduct. This period also saw the implementation of the Regulations for the Religious and Moral Instruction of Convicts in Van Diemen’s Land for male convicts in probation gangs.
JULY 1844: The Regulations for hiring Probation Pass holders in Van Diemen’s Land were issued on 1 July 1844. These regulations replaced the previous set of regulations in December 1843 and applied once convicts (male and female) had completed their term of probation and were granted a probation pass. They removed the pass holders’ rights to terminate their contracts and the employers’ rights of summary dismissal under the earlier regulations. These regulations stipulated there were to be three classes of Passholders – those of the 3rd or highest Class; 2nd Class; and those of the 1st or lowest, Class.
In short, the regulations set out requirements for consent of the Lieutenant Governor; the terms and conditions of employment contracts between probation passholders and masters; payment of wages; supply of certain provisions and minimum daily rations; medical care; attendance at Divine Service; termination of employment.
OCTOBER 1844: After the submission of a damming report by two visiting magistrates, Messrs Carter and Watchorn, on the conditions in the Brickfields Hiring Depot in North Hobart (housing female probationers), the magistrates were reminded by the Lieutenant Governor that
‘the Factory at the Brickfields tho' used heretofore as a Prison or House of Correction & therefore under the Visiting Magistrates according to the Act, … is no longer used as a Gaol or House of Correction … but is a mere Building used for the convenience of the Anson & part of that Penitentiary, in order to receive the inmates of the Anson when discharged from or changing their service, until again hired instead of the inconvenience of sending such persons on board the "Anson" again …’
Nonetheless, this report may have prompted the need for the regulations that followed in 1845.
JULY 1845: Further regulations - Regulations of the Probationary Establishment for Female Convicts in Van Diemen’s Land - were issued on 1 July 1845. Contrary to the 1844 regulations in relation to probationary passholders who had completed their mandatory period of probation, women undergoing the probation program were classified in reverse:
11.—There will be three classes— the first will be composed of the best conducted women who have been longest in the Establishment, and who are therefore nearest to emergence; the second of those, who, although generally well conducted, [but] not so regular as the women of the first class, and have not been so long in the Establishment; and the third will consist of the disobedient and intractable. The Superintendent is hereby ordered to follow this plan, and not on any account to classify by ships’ companies.
These regulations covered minimum terms of probation; the objects and principles of ‘punishment and reformation’; employment and services rendered; literacy education; waking hours; roles of Superintendent and Matron; religious instruction; medical care; visiting magistrates; food, clothing and bedding; communication and consent of the Lieutenant Governor.
While the probation program classifications were consistent with the existing crime class classifications, the reverse passholder classifications must have provided some degree of confusion for those operating within the system.
While on probation a woman’s daily ration was:
- One pound (440g) bread or the equivalent in flour
- Half pound (220g) meat
- Half pound (220g) vegetables
- Half ounce (13g) salt
- Quarter pint (250 ml) oatmeal (porridge)
Daily ration for women in solitary confinement
- One and half pounds of bread
- Half ounce (13g) soap
Every six months each woman received:
- 1 jacket
- 1 cap
- 1 petticoat
- 1 apron
- 1 shift (a simple under-petticoat worn next to the skin)
- 1 pair stockings
- 1 pair shoes
- 1 handkerchief
- 1 hammock
- 1 flock mattress
- 1 flock pillow
- 1 blanket
- 1 rug
APRIL 1846: Sir Eardley-Wilmot was dismissed from his role as Lt. Governor and recalled to London for his abject failure to successfully administer the Probation System and Charles Joseph La Trobe from Port Phillip was appointed as caretaker governor. La Trobe’s subsequent report on the operation of the system in May 1847 (which included the female houses of correction, hiring depots and nurseries) confirmed the widely held view that the probation experiment had failed miserably.
AUGUST - SEPT 1847: Following the deepening crisis in the scheme, the newly appointed Comptroller General, Dr J. S Hampton, rewrote all the probation regulations with a view to tightening discipline – the classification of passholders was abandoned; the employers’ right of dismissal was reinstated; a complaints mechanism for passholders was established; and employment contracts could be annulled by a magistrate. In September 1847 new regulations for the probation gangs (male convicts) were also issued.
JUNE 1848: Despite the implementation of the 1844 regulations governing the hiring of probationary passholders, it was suggested the assignment of women from Brickfields Hiring Depot was subject to extensive bribery and corruption.
NOVEMBER 1850: The Regulations for the Hiring of Probationary Ticket of-Leave Holders were updated in November 1850. This followed an update in female convicts' Ticket-of-Leave regulations for period of service, earlier the same year.
The later regulations specified the need for the Lieutenant Governor’s sanction for tickets and location of work; duration of the ticket; payment of wages; bedding, provisions and minimum daily rations of food; medical care; submission of six monthly returns to Comptroller General and Police Magistrate; attendance at Divine Service; bans on certain types of employment; general terms of employment; effect of imprisonment on employment; complaints against employers; relevant law; subsidised family repatriation.
MAY 1853: The last convict transportees arrived in VDL (207 men aboard the St Vincent) and the convict status of VDL was repealed in January 1854. At the same time the Probation System was dismantled and by 1856 the last of the probation stations at Norfolk Island had been closed.
[*] [It should be noted that the Probation System - a system designed to punish and reform convicts transported to VDL - was different to periods of probation that formed part of a sentence for a criminal offence committed in the colony (a secondary offence). Once released from the probation program, if a female convict came before the courts again for any reason, a period of probation might be part of any sentence for the relevant colonial offence. (See punishments / probation as a secondary punishment)]
- Ian Brand, The Convict Probation System: Van Diemen's Land, 1839-1854: A Study of the Probation System of Convict Discipline…, 1990, Blubber Head Press, Hobart (full title: together with C.J. La Trobe's 1847 report on its operation and the 1845 report of James Boyd on the probation station at Darlington, Maria Island / commentary and notes by Ian Brand; edited by M.N. Sprod.)
Includes: Rules and regulations for the first stage of convict probation in Van Diemen’s Land and Regulations of the probationary establishment for female convicts in Van Diemen's Land.)
Alternative citation: Brand, Ian & Boyd, James & Sprod, M. N. (Michael N.) & La Trobe, Charles Joseph, 1801-1875 (1990). The convict probation system: Van Diemen's Land, 1839-1854: a study of the probation system of convict discipline .... Blubber Head Press, Hobart
- The Companion to Tasmanian History Alison Alexander, ‘Convicts and the Colonial Period - Probation System’ Michael Sprod, 2006, Centre for Tasmanian Historical Studies, University of Tasmania
- Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore, A History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia 1877-1868, 2003,Vintage Books, London
 The Companion to Tasmanian History ed. Alison Alexander, ‘Convicts and the Colonial Period - Probation System’ Michael Sprod, 2006, Centre for Tasmanian Historical Studies, University of Tasmania [https://www.utas.edu.au/library/companion_to_tasmanian_history/P/Probation%20system.html]
 Ian Brand, The Convict Probation System: Van Diemen's Land, 1839-1854: A Study of the Probation System of Convict Discipline…, 1990, Blubber Head Press, Hobart p1
 Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore, A History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia 1877-1868, Vintage Books, London, 2003, p 522
 Ibid p523-24
 Above footnote 2, p24
 Above footnote 2, pp 25-29
 Above footnote 1
 Above footnote 3, p523-24
 Above footnote 3, p525
 Above footnote 3, p523-24
 Above footnote 3, p524
 Above footnote 1
 Above footnote 2, back jacket
 Above footnote 1
 Above footnote 2, p1
 The Launceston Examiner, 21 February 1844
 The Cornwall Chronicle, 22 April 1843 p3
 Above footnote 2, Appendix II
 Above footnote 2, Appendices II-V
 Above footnote 2, Appendix III
 Above footnote 2, Appendix IV
 The Courier, 26 July 1844 p3
 Above footnote 2, Appendices II-V
 Regulations for hiring Probation Pass holders in Van Diemen’s Land, M. Forster, Comptroller-General, Convict Department, 1 July 1844, Reg. 7
 7 October 1844 (TAHO, GO33/52 pp.172–194)
 Correspondence between Forster and Visiting Magistrates Messrs Carter and Watchorn, 1844, CO 280/183, PRO, London
 Regulations of the Probationary Establishment for Female Convicts in Van Diemen’s Land, M. Forster, Comptroller-General, Convict Department, 1 July 1845.
 Above footnote 2, front jacket
 Appendices II-V
 Colonial Times and Tasmanian, 6 June 1848 (p.3 c.5).
 Regulations for the Hiring of Probationary Ticket of-Leave Holders, J. S. Hampton, Comptroller General, Comptroller-General Office, 21 November 1850
 Above footnote 2, pp 95-96
Page updated May 2022 (edited and updated by Helen Menard).