Convict Research

Explore the stories of convict culture in early colonial Australia.

Watercolour depicting a village fete by William Henry Pyne. Great Britain, ca. 1790-1800. Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London.Researching convict dance

 A video about Convict Dance



Database [currently under construction]

 Old Bailey Court Transcripts






Convict Ships




 Colonial Police Reports



Convict Dancing Masters


Convict Musicians


Dance and music



Dance in convict theatres



Museum exhibition:

Dancing in Fetters – the culture of convict dance


A convict tune book.

A collection of 12 tunes  popular with Australian convicts between 1788 and 1840.

This doctoral research project was undertaken at the Queensland University of Technology to research convict culture in the early colony from 1788 to 1840.  


Header credit: Lowest life in London. Tom, Jerry, and Logic among  the unsophisticated sons and daughters of Nature at ‘All Max’ in the East.  Illustration by George Cruikshank (1792 – 1878). ©Trustees of the British Museum

16 Responses to Convict Research

  1. Jeanette Mollenhauer says:

    Dear Heather,
    I’m beginning the final year of a PhD at the Sydney Con.
    I’m looking at traditional dance practices amongst the Irish and Croatian communities in Sydney, which involves some historical investigation.
    I have a book by Anne McMahon called “Convicts at Sea” and Anne has provided me with copies of logs by ships’ doctors which simply record that the convicts danced on deck, from which I conclude that it was either sean nos or ceili dancing since the convicts were mostly from Ireland.
    Anyway, I will be at the Australian Folklore Network conference in March and I see you’re giving a paper (I moved house before Christmas and everything else went by the wayside so I’m not presenting this year).
    I look forward to hearing your paper and meeting a fellow dance researcher- we are rare indeed in Australia.

    • Heather says:

      Hello Jeanette,
      Lovely to hear about your research. As you say, dance historians are very rare animals.
      In the 1980s, when I lived in Sydney, I used to dance with the Dwyer Irish dance studio and the Sydney Irish Ceili Dancers. I’ve danced with various other Irish groups – mostly step-dancing, as I’ve moved about. I expect you know Margaret Winnett (Sydney) and Dr John Cullinane’s work.
      I’ve amassed a fair collection of information about Irish dance in the 1800s. It will be great to discuss your research at the Folklore Conference.
      Thanks for getting in touch,

  2. Pingback: Special Events | Australian Colonial Dance

  3. Tom Miller says:

    Jeanette and Heather,
    best of luck with your fascinating research into dancing.
    Have you had much luck with material from art galleries?

    • Heather says:

      I’ve been able to compile a large collection of pictures of ‘lower order’ dancing. We’re planning to include a database of images as an online resource once permission is obtained from the various libraries, museums and galleries.

  4. I’m not sure there was much dancing or merriment at Moreton Bay under Captain Logan.

    • Heather says:

      I know Captain Logan has been demonized to some extent, and research has shown that he was probably no worse than other officers of the day.
      The convict, John Bushelle taught dancing to the officers and their families during his time in Moreton Bay in the 1830s. Graeme Skinner has more information on the Australharmony site
      Also of interest is the female convict, Hannah Rigby, who remained in Brisbane after the penal settlement had closed – she died of “too much dancing” in 1853. There were probably always places where people could unwind a little, despite the harsh conditions.

  5. Rod Jones says:

    You might also do well to investigate the “Jump Jim Crow” dance craze in Sydney around 1835. Also the growth and influence of the extremely popular Minstrel bands that introduced the banjo to Australia . An excellent reference is Richard Waterhouses “From Minstrel to Vaudeville- The Australian Popular Stage 1788-1914. The role of the extremely popular minstrel bands – they even had Aboriginal Bands- which often concluded their evenings with dancing receives scant mention in books on Colonial dance or music, especially after the 1850’s.

    • Heather says:

      Yes, the Jim Crow phenomenon a fascinating development and Richard’s book is excellent. Ann Albright has a detailed examination the background and rise of the dance in her book Engaging bodies: the politics and poetics of corporeality. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press (2013).
      You are completely correct in noting that dance generally receives scant mention – the evidence is often very scattered and fragmentary. For instance, step-dancing was probably the most popular forms of dancing (particularly for working class men) in the colonial era and into the first two decades of the 20th century – yet is virtually undocumented. There are many areas to explore!

  6. Jane says:

    As a history teacher i would love to include something like this in my classes. Do you know of a youtube clip or link that would step myself and my students through parts of a dance so that we could have a go at being convict dancers ourselves?

  7. You may be interested in my ancestor, William Wood The Younger, transported in 1818/9 to Port Jackson. He was a Welsh Romany/Gypsy from the well known Wood Romany family of musicians and storytellers of North Wales. On his Freedom papers of 1832 it’s noted that he was a “fiddler.” It seems likely given his Romany tradition of fiddle playing for weddings and dances that William would have engaged in this activity in Australia.

    In his book, The Welsh Gypsies, A.O.H. Jarman cites descriptions of Romany customs, including fiddle playing at weddings and dances.

    William’s Gt. Nephew, John Roberts was a renowned triple Harpist in Wales who transposed many of the Wood family’s fiddle tunes to the harp. This music is still played in Wales. The National Library of Wales has an archive of the Wood/Roberts letters, music and the book, Harp, Fiddle and Folktale written by Ernest Roberts about my family’s musical legacy to Wales.

    • Heather says:

      Hello Frances, I’m very interested to know more about William Wood – especially anything you know about his music and dance tradition. I notice on your facebook page a photo of a man putting on clogs and preparing to dance, and a photo of him dancing. Would love to know more.

      I know of another Gypsy who came as a convict to NSW – Gypsy John/Jack Cooper. He was a famous prize fighter who was transported in the 1830s. He came from a step-dancing family who have recently helped to revive the art in Southern England.

    • Christine Yeats says:

      Dear Frances
      I am researching Romani convicts from the UK. Do you know anything more about William’s life in the Australian colonies? Christine

      • Heather says:

        Hi Christine, I’ll be interested to hear more about William as well.
        Another Romani convict of great interest to me is Gypsy John/Jack Cooper. He was a famous boxer who was transported to Van Dieman’s Land on The Arab, to arrive in Australia on 30 June 1834. His brother, Thomas (an itinerant fiddler) was also transported. They came from a family with a strong tradition of step dancing – continued to this day. Please let me know if you’re exploring his story.

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