Life onboard convict ships varied significantly according to the date of transportation, the attitude of the captain, and the surgeon in charge of the prisoners. On some ships, dancing was actively encouraged every day for its health benefits. On the Prince George in 1836, Surgeon Thomas Bell noted:
As soon as they were out of sight of land, each man’s irons were removed and the prison doors kept open from 6am until they were mustered at night…There was dancing in the evening, which was highly conducive to health aboard a convict ship.
Not everyone considered dancing to be a suitable form of recreation for convicts, as surgeon Thomas Braidwood stated:
I do not permit dancing, wrestling, or, indeed, any amusement to take place among the prisoners. Although such exercises may be conducive to health, yet they are, in my opinion, inimical to moral reformation, by recalling those scenes of depravity and crime, of which these amusements had formed a part.
Some of the earliest transports to the colony, notably the 2nd and 3rd Fleets, were terrible voyages with considerable loss of life and appalling conditions. Although regulations were in place regarding the treatment of convicts, these were sometimes ignored due to corruption, drunkenness, and fear of mutiny.
In 1814, after the arrival of the convict ships Surry, General Hewitt and Three Bees with both the crews and the convicts in a deplorable state, Governor Macquarie commissioned the surgeon Dr William Redfern to investigate.
Redfern’s report recommended improvements to the diet, accommodation, hygiene, clothing, and activity for convicts. He strongly advocated the importance of convicts being allowed on deck for daily exercise and fresh air. His report was acted upon immediately when it reached the Commissioners of the Transport Board in London, and the service was transformed: the outcome for convicts on the long voyage was vastly improved. His report was a major contribution to public health and the regime he suggested became the standard for convict and passenger ships to the colony. Read more about William Redfern.
One of Redfern’s key recommendations was the appointment of surgeon-superintendents to oversee the living conditions and well-being of the convicts and crew. Surgeons were required to keep journals detailing the illnesses, treatments, and regimes for maintaining the health of those in their care. Some of these journals give details of the dancing that was encouraged as part of the daily routine to sustain good mental and physical health.
As I consider that tranquility of mind is most essential to bodily health…I therefore caused them all to be let on deck from an early time of the morning until the close of the day…They were allowed to amuse themselves by running about, dancing, or in any innocent way whenever the duty of the ship would admit of it.
From the Medical Journal of William Leyson, Surgeon on the convict ship Henry Wellesley 1837
This resource lists 35 references to dancing on board convict ships and hulks. Given the prevalence of dancing as a key element in the popular culture of the time, it is likely that many more surgeons allowed or encouraged dancing but failed to note it in their journals.
Follow the links to read more about each account. This resource is currently under development – stay tuned for the latest updates.
|Speedy||1799||Unknown||Dancing for two hours on Christmas Day|
|Broxbornebury||1814||Colin McLachlan||Many accounts of convicts dancing to fife and drum.|
|Thomas Raine (Captain)||A regime of “dancing and music for their general good conduct and as an anti-scorbutic”|
|Daphne||1819||Lancelot Armstrong||Music and dancing on deck in the evening|
|Transit from hulk to ship||1819/1827||Peter Cunningham||These fellows will turn the jingling of their chains into music whereto they dance and sing|
|Guildford||1820||Hugh Walker||Dancing to prevent brooding on misfortunes|
|Grenada||1821||Peter Cunningham||Gave permission to dance|
|John Barry||1821||Daniel McNamara||Soldiers were still on deck in numbers at the time, having just finished their usual evening dancing|
|Claudine||1821/1822||Henry Ryan||Almost every day from 6 to 8pm the convicts on deck dancing|
|Albion||1823||James Mercer||Dancing and Singing every afternoon|
|Recovery||1823||Peter Cunningham||Allowed to dance two hours before bed|
|Minerva||1824||Alexander Nisbet||Prevented sickness through cleanliness and dancing|
||1825||James Alexander Mercer||All the convicts were allowed dancing as a form of amusement until 8 o’clock at night|
|Medway||1825||Gilbert King||We had singing and dancing every evening, Sundays excepted|
|unidentified||1827||Peter Cunningham||They danced several times weekly in the evenings|
|Governor Ready||1828||Thomas Braidwood Wilson||Ship’s fiddler onboard, but dancing NOT permitted|
|Hulks Leviathan and York||1833||Select Committee||Dancing and fiddling each night till ten or eleven o’clock|
|Hulk Ganymede||1833||Select Committee||No dancing or fiddling|
|Planter||1832||Alick Osborne||Dancing after shipboard work at 4 o’clock|
|Surry||1834||John Smith||Dancing as much as possible|
|Lady Nugent||1835||Oliver Sproule||Two convict musicians, dancing tolerated every afternoon|
|Henry Porcher||1835||Thomas Galloway||Dancing encouraged; highly advantageous|
|Frances Charlotte||1836||Alexander Nisbett||…as we had a violin-player on board, dancing was permitted after school hours|
|Eden||1836||Gilbert King||Promoted cheerfulness with singing and dancing|
|Moffatt||1836||John Smith||Allowed to dance and play as much as possible|
|Prince George||1836||Thomas Bell||Dancing in the evening, ‘highly conducive to health aboard a convict ship’|
|Henry Wellesley||1837||William Leyson||On deck all day, dancing allowed for tranquility of mind|
|James Pattison||1837||Thomas Robertson||Dancing held in the evening|
|Clyde||1838||John Smith||Encouraged to dance to flute|
|Earl Grey||1838||Alexander Nisbett||All prisoners on deck for singing and dancing; excitement all looked forward to|
|Moffatt||1838||Gilbert King||Dancing and singing allowed every evening|
|Theresa||1839||Edward Hilditch||On deck all day… made to exercise in various ways such as dancing|
|Planter||1839||Thomas Robertson||Dancing generally occupied most of the day|
|Isabella||1840||Henry Mahon||Prison doors thrown open for the day, singing and dancing encouraged|
|Unknown||nd||Mary Haig (convict)||Singing, dancing and telling the histories of their past lives beguiled the time away|
Ancestry.com. UK, Royal Navy Medical Journals, 1817-1857. The National Archives. Kew, Richmond, Surrey.
Bateson, C. (1969). The convict ships: 1787-1868 (Vol. 2nd). Glasgow: Brown, Son & Ferguson.
Brand, I., & Staniforth, M. (1994). Care And Control: Female Convict Transportation Voyages To Van Diemen’s Land, 1818-1853. The Great Circle, 16(1), 23-42.
Brooke, A., & Brandon, D. (2005). Bound for Botany Bay: British convict Voyages to Australia. Surrey, UK: The National Archives.
Ford, E. (1953). The life and work of William Redfern. Australasian Medical Publishing Company Sydney.
Ford, E. (1967). Redfern, William (1774–1833). Australian Dictionary of Biography. Retrieved from http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/redfern-william-2580/text3533
Foxhall, K. (2011). From Convicts to Colonists: the Health of Prisoners and the
Voyage to Australia, 1823 – 1853. Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 39(1). doi:10.1080/03086534.2011.543793
Frost, A. (2012). Botany Bay: the real story (Vol. 2nd). Collingwood, Vic: Black.
Ganerary, L. (2003). The Floating Prison: The remarkable account of nine years’ captivity on the British prison hulks during the Napoleonic Wars. 1806 to 1814. (R. Rose, Trans.). London: Conway Maritime Press.
Johnson, W. B. (1970). The English prison hulks. London: Phillimore.
Redfern, W., & Edited by Watson, F. (1814). Report on Convict Ships. La Trobe University Library: Historical records of Australia. Series I Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/1959.9/519540.
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