Moreton Bay convict settlement

This article, by Dr Jennifer Harrison, was originally published on the Queensland State Archives website, June 2012.

Queensland State Archives’ collection includes significant records from the Moreton Bay convict settlement. These convict records have been officially listed on the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisations (UNESCO) Memory of the World register

Between 1824 and 1842, a place of secondary punishment was established at Moreton Bay to house those previously convicted prisoners who committed further crime in the Port Jackson region. During this time, nearly 2,400 men and 145 women lived at depots stretching from Stradbroke Island to Limestone (Ipswich) in the west, including Cowper’s Plains, Eagle Farm and environs of the present city of Brisbane. They were under the control of military commandants with detachments numbering up to 100 soldiers. In order of command these were: Lieutenant Henry Miller of the 40th Regiment, 1824-1825; his successor, Captain Peter Bishop, 1825-1826 from the same regiment; Captain Patrick Logan of the 57th Regiment, 1826-1830; the 17th Regiment’s Captain James Clunie, 1830-1835; Captain Foster Fyans with men from the 4th Regiment, 1835-1837; two from the 28th Regiment, Major Sydney Cotton 1837-1839 and Lieutenant George Gravatt, for three months in 1839; and finally, Lieutenant Owen Gorman of the 80th Regiment from 1839 until 1842.

Plan of Commissariat Officer and Chaplain’s quarters, Moreton Bay, 1838, ITM659617

Initially, each commandant received instructions covering discipline, rations and maintenance, and also orders that he was required to create and maintain a series of descriptive records for regular submission to the Colonial Secretary in Sydney. Captain Patrick Logan, on occasions, was admonished for sending late reports but a private letterbook covered many incidents occurring in his first three years plus reports of Dumeresq, Busby and Deas Thomson of Regulations for Penal Settlements became effective, official paperwork for all stations was prescribed. From this time, survival of Moreton Bay documents, although not complete, is surprisingly extensive and provides a good operational record of the depot and district, particularly until April 1837. 

The Chronological Register, a roll of prisoners despatched to this northern station, identified each person under sentence, with ship of transportation to New South Wales, occupation and full details of original and colonial sentences. This record is generally accurate for those who arrived up to mid-1837, although the names of a few prisoners and some volunteers were missed both before and after this date. In May 1839, the settlement was evacuated with prisoners returning to headquarters although 94 men and five women remained until the end of the year when nearly all who had committed Australian crimes were replaced by ordinary prisoners of the crown and some with tickets-of-leave chose to return. The 1839 newcomers were enumerated towards the end of the Register which also, when the volume is inverted, contains a listing of physical descriptions, native place and religion of 2,154 prisoners. The index at the front of the volume recorded the presence of 2,254 of the 2,408 names the Register contains. 

For one year, from February 1828, the Brisbane Town superintendent of convicts, Peter Beauclerk Spicer was responsible for the compilation of a journal, known colloquially as Spicer’s Diary and officially as the Book of Public Labour Performed by Crown Prisoners. This is a comprehensive description of settlement life (apart from Sundays) with each page indicating that day’s distribution of labour, numbers of hospital patients, buildings in progress and visits to Dunwich to collect new arrivals or despatch convicts to Sydney. A notation of trials and punishments during these months was also made. 

While the Chronological Register also nominates the date and coastal ship of arrival plus the date of departure at Moreton Bay, another record, the Book of Manifests of Cargo and Passengers supplied additional details for four years during the 1830s. Further, between 1829 and 1837, the Monthly Reports of Prisoners Maintained not only indicated the number of people working in each department but also listed prisoners who escaped and returned. In addition to the few baptisms and burials listed by the New South Wales Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages, submitted by the two appointed ministers, the Revd John Vincent in 1829 and the Revd J C S Handt between 1837 and 1844, and during Commandant James Clunie’s administration for five years a Book of Half Yearly Returns of Baptisms and a Book of Half Yearly Returns of Burials were kept. Prisoners serving sentences were not permitted to marry. 

Stealing sugar and tobacco, Book of Trials Held at Moreton Bay 1835-1842, ITM869682

The health of the Brisbane community can be found in the surviving hospital and out-patient records. Cases and treatments are detailed from the end of 1830 until an 1835 fire destroyed some of Dr James Murray’s careful descriptions from January 1833 until a register was resumed by Dr Kinnear Robertson in August 1837. Outpatients are listed for over two years from 1829. From 7 November 1838, a hospital letterbook was maintained and continued into the colonial years; for the convict period some of Dr David Ballow’s correspondence is included. A hospital cash book covered transactions for four years from 1827. 

Fragments of other submissions can be found such as the Daily Register of Numbers of Persons at the settlement; additionally, a monthly overview of this daily register exists for just two months, September and October 1829. These reports became redundant once replaced by the comprehensive Monthly Reports starting in September 1829 which covers more than seven years and lists statistics such as: those allocated to each type of labour; the total population at the settlement; plus those who arrived, died or absconded. After the initial building period, the main employment for most convicts involved agricultural work endeavouring to make the settlement self-sustaining. Details of acres cultivated with crops like maize, wheat, potatoes and arrowroot appear in the Book of Monthly Returns – Land under Cultivation and the Returns of Agricultural Produce

Book of Trials survives from 14 July 1835 until 28 February 1842. This probably was the second or third register in this series but is now the only detailed memorandum of formal appearances before the Commandant describing misbehaviour, abscondings or stealing offences and punishments imposed on the guilty – usually flogging or detention in cells. From May 1839, some of the convicts remaining at Moreton Bay were allocated to parties who surveyed the district. They extended an operation already in progress to map the settlement and draw plans of buildings which civilian Andrew Petrie, Clerk of Government Works, had commenced in 1837. This collection depicted in pen and ink two or three elevations and sections of each building and two coloured plans. Convict George Brown produced some of these late in 1839. 

The fifteen years of the penal settlement at Moreton Bay is well described by these documents in Queensland State Archives’ collection. 

Dr Jennifer Harrison

View and download pages of these records
in our ‘Convict’ album.

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  1. […] Moreton Bay convict settlement – Stories from the archives -. collection includes significant records from the Moreton Bay convict settlement.. until a register was resumed by Dr Kinnear Robertson in August 1837.. more than seven years and lists statistics such as: those allocated to. […]

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