This evangelical pamphlet tells the story of William Dale, a good and diligent child who ‘backslid from the paths of religion and honesty’. Eventually he was convicted of stealing from ‘a Merchant’s house in the city’ and sentenced to a period in a penal colony in Botany Bay, Australia (now part of Sydney Harbour). The practice of sending criminals abroad was known as ‘transportation’. It had started in the 1750s and had always been controversial. While some argued that a transported convict had more rights and liberty than an equivalent convict in an English jail, the penal colonies themselves were often places of murderous violence and summary justice. Transportation was also used predominantly on the poor: an uneducated housebreaker was far more likely to be sentenced to the boat than a middle-class murderer. Transportation from England was officially ended in 1853. The catalyst for the change was explosive economic growth in Australia, and in particular the New South Wales gold rushes of the 1840s. European migrants to Australia now began to object to the settlement of convicts in their newly prosperous communities, and fought vigorous and successful anti-transport campaigns.
Charles Dickens and transportation
A number of Dickens’s villains are subject to transport: John Edmunds fromThe Pickwick Papers (1837), Mr Squeers from Nicholas Nickleby (1839) and Uriah Heep from David Copperfield (1850). The most famous of all Dickens’s transported convicts is Abel Magwitch from Great Expectations (published in 1860, but set more than a decade before). From the 1840s onwards, transported convicts were allowed to earn money lawfully while serving their sentence, and it is here that Magwitch earned the money that drives the novel’s plot:
I've been a sheep-farmer, stock breeder, other trades besides, away in the new world. [...] I've done wonderfully well. There's others went out alonger me as has done well too, but no man has done nigh as well as me. I'm famous for it.