When the first penal colony was founded in Australia in 1788, keeping convicts was profitable as a form of slave labour.

Today, Australia is one if the world's most expensive places to keep prisoners.

What year did keeping a convict in Australia go from being profitable to a drain on the public purse? Approximates are okay.

  • 9
    I think it would help if you could demonstrate that "keeping convicts was profitable" in Australia at any point.
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Apr 28, 2018 at 7:13
  • Steve Bird, your question is surprising. I really would not think that point would be strongly contended by any serious historian. Free Settlers - in substantial numbers - voluntarily undertook to receive convicts as what was termed "bondsmen". These free settlers had to feed and house these convicts, but got the advantage of their free labour. I doubt they would of done that - given it was voluntary - if it was not profitable to do so. Commented May 4, 2018 at 1:05
  • You could look in state budgets. I'd guess that incarceration was a cost, not a profit center, as soon as authorities began constructing prisons and employing trained guards.
    – user18968
    Commented May 4, 2018 at 17:17
  • @Miner_Glitch: It may have been profitable for the free settlers, but were there not significant costs being paid by the British and/or Australian governments - arrest, trial, imprisonment, transportation, supervision/enforcement while in Australia? My guess is that it was never profitable, overall.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jun 3, 2018 at 5:37
  • Those costs are related to law enforcement more than the particular choice of punishment, so I would not consider those things to be "incremental" costs in the context of this discussion - they would have been borne then and are still borne today. If we exclude them, keeping a convict in Australia today is still very much an expensive exercise, but was profitable during the early colonial days. Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 4:41

1 Answer 1


It's a bit hard to judge "profitability" without having accounting records. Many convicts were assigned as personal servants. But let's assume "profitable" means the master is gaining something of value from the assignment, and therefore the last recorded convict assignment marks the end of its "profitability".

Convicts are convicted criminals who are transported to a distant place. In Australia, this practice took place between 1788 - 1868. Although it appears Western Australia was the last colony to abolish transportation, they never practiced convict assignment, where private individuals can apply to have a convict work for them. One of the last colonies to end the practice was Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania).

Here you can browse records of convict assignment online, on the National Library of Australia or on LINC Tasmania. Convict assignments are recorded on assignment registers or assignment lists, the latest of which goes up to 1859:

assignment list

The writing is in cursive and difficult to interpret, but the columns are roughly Date (1859), Location (Hobart), Name (Thomas ???)

If you're good at researching this kind of thing, you might be able to pin an exact year. My best guess is somewhere in the 1850s.

  • Your statement that Western Australia "never practiced convict assignment" seems to conflict with the testimony of the last of the expirees, Samuel Speed, who was sent to WA, and stated that he sent to work as a bondsman with several families here: trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/76057749 Commented May 4, 2018 at 7:21
  • Further, the end of "bondsmen"/convict assignment does not necessarily mean that prisoners were no longer profitable - even today, many Australian prisoners are required to work, but the value produced by their labour is far below the cost of keeping them. Commented May 4, 2018 at 7:27

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