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Contrary to what has often been assumed, many convicts carried cash or small valuables, such as brass buckles, which could be readily turned into cash. Some of the better-off convicts carried significant amounts of money.

It was usual for the convicts’ valuables to be kept by the Master or the Surgeon and returned to them on arrival at NSW. In some cases they were also allowed access to this money in outports, to purchase additional provisions.

First Fleet


5 May 1787 – Duncan Campbell to Captain John Marshall on the Scarborough. He didn’t know him but he asked a liberty. He asked him to receive from the bearer, Mr Burn, four guineas sent through Duncan Campbell from the Duke of Montague for the use of Charles Peat, a convict on his ship. He asked him to lay out for such necessaries as his occasions may require, provided his man’s conduct meets with your approbation. (Duncan Campbell Letterbooks, Reel 3, Vol.5, p.297)

Hunter told the 1812 Select Committee: ‘. . . if they had money with them they could purchase what they wanted, when in a port where it was to be had’. (John Hunter, Evidence to ‘Report from the Select Committee on Transportation’, Ordered to be Printed 10 July 1812, House of Commons Papers: Reports of Committees, (341) 1812, Appendix 1, p.18)

At Rio de Janeiro, several of the convicts on the Charlotte used counterfeit dollars manufactured from old buckles and pewter spoons to purchase foodstuffs. The fact that the convicts were able to carry out this fraud means that they were permitted to buy from the bum boats and that it was not unusual for them to have access to cash. (David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales [1798], Sydney: A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1975, 1:lxxiv; John White, Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales [1790], Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1962, pp.70-71. Nagle placed these events at Tenerife, but the evidence points to it having happened at Rio de Janeiro – John C. Dann (ed.), The Nagle Journal, New York: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988, p.87)

Second Fleet


When the convicts were searched in mid-December, money was recorded and placed in the care of Surgeon Gray. Beale claimed that he had frequently heard the convicts complain at Portsmouth and the Cape that they could not get their money from Gray to spend on necessaries. (Beale Examination, TS11/381, 3)

Charles King said that some of the convicts left their belongings with members of the crew and otherwise ‘hid & concealed’ the same about the ship. (‘Examinations and Depositions of the several Sailors. . . of the Ship Neptune’, NA TS11/381, p.45)

Metcalfe v Gray
(Magistrates Court?, 1790)

In 1790, following the arrival of the Second Fleet, one of the seamen from the Neptune, William Churchill said he had the ship’s surgeon, William Gray, summoned before David Collins for the buckles that he had seen taken from a package delivered on board for a convict, John Metcalfe by his father. Metcalfe told Churchill that Gray appeared in court wearing the same buckles and that they were taken from him in the courtroom and given to Metcalfe. It is evident that the action was either launched in Metcalfe’s name, or he gave evidence in court which was accepted. (Churchill Examination, TS11/381, 15)


The following is a list of money placed in the hands of Trail when he was still on board the Surprize, prior to sailing, and later claimed by the convicts. (It is found at Colonial Secretary’s Papers, 1788-1825, NRS7, Main Series of Letters Received, NSW State Archives 4/1719)

An Exact Account of the Convicts Money Deposited in the Hands of Captain Trail, formerly of the Surprize
Thomas Smith
William Johnson
John Johnson
Robert Low
Thomas Phillips
William Warton
John Allington
Lot Broydon
Thomas Morrison
Thomas Scott
9.4 DD
William Sulley
John Battie
William Winship
Samuel Chapman ...6
Samuel Baines
Sick ...9
Thomas Owens
Charles Stokes
Richard Porter
Daniel Chambers
William Archer
Joseph Inch
Daniel Hands
Charles Holton
Samuel Potter
James Wood
Joseph Currey
William Bruce
Samuel Jackson
John Langford
John Bolgin
David Davies
DD 0.6
Philip Bono
Peter Herbert
John Harrington
John Soame
 NB. To this paper is annexed the wills of a few deceased convicts, who also deposited their cash in the hands of Capt’n Trail, & signed by the convicts themselves who departed this life since we left England
 - Claim £1.7.6
 Richard Hicks – 18.6
 2 - 0 a [illegible]
 one arm

Third Fleet

Mary Talbot on the Mary Ann wrote from St Iago: ‘I have been greatly distressed for want of money, because I came away without being able to see my husband’. (The Times, 18 October 1791)

By implication, this tells us that it was normal for the convicts to have money, and that it made their voyage a great deal more pleasant.


Further evidence of the convicts having access to their cash and trading with merchants based on shore, either operating on board the ship or from bum boats, with the convicts paying cash, can be seen in William Noah’s journal. (William Noah, Voyage to Sydney in the Ship Hillsborough 1798-1799. . ., Sydney: Library of Australian History, 1978, pp.15, 25, 38, 44 & 46)

15 May 1799 (at the Cape) – Watering the ship. A list of money that had been entrusted by the convicts to the Captain in England was sent in. The steward advised the convicts that they could be paid in Cape currency so that they could buy extra provisions. But Noah was cynical: ‘You may well see the policy that completed his artful villainy, many dying that had three or four guineas more or less, [which] went into his own private fund, and for gold that would here fetch £1/4/-, we got their paper [at] £1/1/-, so that he got three shillings by keeping our guineas.’ (Noah, p.46)

16 May 1799 – Mrs Crossley went ashore. The convicts had been paid in $20 notes and she took this money and had it changed into smaller denominations, so that it could be used to pay debts to each other. (Noah, p.46)

17 September 1799 – Letter from an unnamed correspondent at Port Jackson:

It is a melancholy consideration that out of the unfortunate cargo the Hillsborough brought in wretched [exile and durance vile?], no less than one in three died on the passage, scarce two hundred out of three hundred have reached these shores, and those the most miserable objects ever landed. A variety of serious charges are about to be brought in consequence; accusations of starving the convicts, and plundering them of their little merchandize and valuables.

Mann, one of the convicts, it seems, has sustained a loss of two hundred pounds, stolen by prisoners and otherwise, not accounted for by the Master, for which he exhibits his complaint; Jessop alias Clifford died on the passage, and left Mann what he possessed, said to have been something considerable, but is not forthcoming. Redman, who also paid the debt of nature, and who had, it seems, been a merchant of considerable property, and was known to have on board an investment of European goods to the amount of several hundred pounds, his effects stand unaccounted for, but some letters are received recommendatory of him, together with some private correspondence a fellow prisoner has secured, that I am in hopes will develop this business. Crossley (with wife) arrived here with much trade. The Hillsborough was seven months and upwards on her passage from England. . . (Bombay Courier, 22 November 1800)

8 August 1800 – Extract of a letter written around December 1799 was used as the basis of the following account:

The Hillsborough transport ship had arrived at Sydney with the loss of nearly 200 out of 300 of the unfortunate exiles who died on the passage. Crosley and his wife arrived safe and have been sent to Parramatta of which district Barrington is High Constable. Crosley had taken with him an investment of European goods which he sold to very great advantage and was about to purchase a house, for which he offered £300. Redmayne, once a merchant in London had also a great deal of property, but he died on the passage; and the application, or rather misapplication of the property will undergo a strict investigation. (Star, 8 August 1800)

Royal Admiral

11 February 1800– Mr Palmer from Newgate, asked that his wife accompany him on the Royal Admiral and that he bring freight on board, and to leave money with Captain Wilson. The Board advised that he was allowed to take his wife and sufficient necessaries and sea stores for the voyage only. (ADM108/66/229)

Wilson v Palmer

Jane Palmer, wife of Joshua Palmer (who seems to have been a convict), had made some claims against Wilson which he regarded as defamatory. Wilson sued, seeking £250 in damages. The case was originally non-suited for the non-appearance of the plaintiff, but on this date, the matter came before the court again. Palmer asked for time to prepare her defence and the case was adjourned until this date.

Mrs Palmer had bought a passage for herself and her husband on the Royal Admiral. He had asked a price of £200, which Palmer claimed she had given him in banknotes. At the same time she gave him £50 in cash, which he promised to keep for her until their arrival in the colony, along with various other valuables – a pair of patent snuffers, a pair of silver buckles, an iron pot, 2000 needles, one quarter of something of pins and a pair of worsted hose. On arrival she claimed that he refused to deliver these articles, and had said that he wished there were more of them.

Jane Palmer’s letter to the Governor was read, in which she claimed that Wilson refused to deliver up her belongings.

Wilson called the 2nd Officer, Thomas Lloyd. He testified that he had been sent on board the Supply. He said that he had asked them whether they had given these articles to Captain Wilson, which they had denied. They had given the buckles and the snuffer to Mr Collard, the 3rd Officer, the needles, pins and worsted to Mr James Wilson, then 2nd Officer and the iron pot to the carpenter, who came in the name of Mr Skene, the Chief Officer, to request it for the use of the ship.

Joshua Palmer was giving advice to his wife in the conduct of the case, to which Wilson objected. The court ruled that Jane could seek advice from her husband.

William Cox had been present when Lloyd reported to Wilson what the Palmers had said on the Supply, and corroborated his account.

Jane Palmer then commenced the case for the defence, submitted a paper which was read and she asked to be treated as her plea in bar of damages.

George Mealmaker was called. He was asked whether he had dictated the letter from Palmer to the Governor. He said he did not. Palmer produced a letter which the witness admitted was in his own handwriting. The two letters were compared and found to be ‘literally the same except in one or two trifling instances’.

The court adjourned and following deliberation concluded that given his earlier denial, Mealmaker was guilty of wilful and corrupt perjury and was committed for trial.

The court being fully satisfied that the letter on which Mr William Wilson had based his case was executed by Jane Palmer, and that the charges contained therein against the plaintiff were unfounded, false and malicious, and no proof had been produced that the said charges were advanced contrary to the desire or consent of the defendant, they awarded the plaintiff damages of £250. (Court of Civil Judicature, NSW State Archives, 2/8147, Microfilm No.25)

Palmer v Wilson

Jane Palmer came before the court seeking the £50 which she had given to William Wilson on 8 April last for safekeeping during the voyage. Wilson claimed that the £200 was paid for fresh provisions for Joshua Wilson and that afterwards his wife came on board and that the additional £50 was for furnishing her with fresh provisions from his table.

On hearing the case, the court were not of the view that she had proved her claim. Verdict for the defendant. (Court of Civil Judicature, NSW State Archives, 2/8147, Microfilm No.25)


8 January 1801 – The sick appeared better and most of the convicts were in good spirits. They now returned to them their personal belonging, including knives, watches and cash. The artists and tradesmen who had been employed during the voyage were paid. Some of the sailors were refusing to pay one of the tailors. (Price, 139)

Later Period

Parliamentary Inquiry (1812):

John Palmer told the inquiry that if the convicts made complaints upon arrival, ‘it was generally put down, and delivered to the Governor in writing. . . Sometimes their money has been intrusted to the mates, and not returned, and the business has been inquired into before the magistrates, and they have been redressed’. (John Palmer, Evidence to ‘Report from the Select Committee on Transportation’, Ordered to be Printed 10 July 1812, House of Commons Papers: Reports of Committees, (341) 1812, Appendix 1, p.61)

Bigge Report (1822):

It frequently happens that various articles of store, or of wearing apparel furnished by their friends on leaving England, are put on board the ships for the convicts, and according to the evidence of William Hutchinson, the superintendent, they have not been always punctually delivered; and in some cases they have been damaged, or their contents purloined and appropriated by the sailors.

The communication that necessarily takes place between the convicts and the sailors during the passage, and the disposition that is common to both to dissipate their resources for the sake of some temporary enjoyment, to indulge their passion for gambling, or excite it in others, will render the decision of their complaints very difficult to the magistrates at Sydney.

It is not desirable, generally, that the convicts should arrive in New South Wales with money or the means of procuring it; and it is still less desirable that their possession of it should be known, except to the surgeon superintendent, the captain and mate of the ship. But in order to prevent the feeling of disappointment or exasperation that the loss of their property must occasion, and to diminish the temptations to gamble for it during the voyage, it would be advisable that a list of all packages allowed to be put on for the convicts should be made out and attested by the captain and mate of each vessel previous to sailing; that they should be kept in a separate and secure place during the passage; and that the captain and mate should be held responsible for their delivery on the arrival of the ship, at Sydney. This arrangement would doubtless exclude access to the packages during the voyage, and interfere perhaps with the object of sending them on board; but to this it is a sufficient answer, that the possession of property leads only to thefts, and consequently to augmented punishment; and that the encumbrance of packages in the prison deck, if left in the possession of the convicts themselves, would be a great obstruction to ventilation and cleanliness.

Leandre Ducharme (HMS Buffalo, 1838)

This ship carried British and French political prisoners from Quebec. They were allowed to keep their own boxes and trunks in the convict quarters, in which they kept their money and other valuables until an alleged mutiny several weeks into the voyage. But they still had access to their money to buy fresh provisions at Rio de Janeiro:

"As it was decided that we should call at Rio de Janeiro, we asked the captain for permission to buy some sugar and fruits with the same money which by his orders had been taken away from us – for in our present position we longed much for fruit as well as for every other kind of refreshing commodity. The captain sent us word that we could buy these things, and that we had only to make a note of all that we wished and he would procure them for us. This news caused us great satisfaction. . .

". . . A great number of boats loaded with fruits of all kinds came alongside. We bought a quantity for ourselves very cheaply. . ." (Leon (Leandre) Ducharme, ‘Journal of a Political Exile in Australia’, (trans. By George Mackaness), Australian Historical Monographs, Vol. II (New Series), Sydney, 1944, p.24)

John Ward (Canton, 1839)

Ward was a middle class convict who had brought 19/6 on board the York, hulk. It was taken by the captain of the hulk, who told him it would be kept safe until he was on board the ‘bay ship’, and he could spend it was he pleased. (Ward Journal, p.76)