Fear, panic and persecution: The Argus and Victorian anti-convict legislation in the 1850s

Stefan Petrow

In the late 1960s Henry Reynolds explored the effects on Tasmania of the ‘hated stain’ of convictism and in particular how ex-convicts were responsible for the ‘residuum of crime, disease, [immorality] and poverty’ that loomed large in the island colony (called Van Diemen’s Land until 1855) for at least a generation after the end of convict transportation in 1853. Other Australian colonies feared that Vandiemonian convicts would escape to, and spread crime and immorality in, their ‘pure’ communities. As the closest colony and with the magnetic incentive of rich goldfields, Victoria was the most fearful and in the 1850s a moral panic arose over an upsurge in violent crime and robberies in Melbourne and the goldfields attributed largely to Vandiemonian convicts. Between 1850 and 1853 6256 convicts received conditional pardons and many other convicts absconded illegally and headed for Victoria. This panic resulted in the enactment of draconian legislation, beginning with the Convicts Prevention Act 1852. This Act provided for the arrest of any Vandiemonian convict found living in Victoria whether conditionally pardoned or not and including those who had not committed any crime, the confiscation of property, a sentence of working in irons on Victorian roads from one to three years, or their return to Van Diemen’s Land. This paper will focus on the role of Melbourne’s Argus newspaper in leading the campaign for the enactment of this punitive legislation, which remained in operation despite being disallowed by the Colonial Office for being ‘arbitrary and oppressive’ in disregarding individual liberty and overriding the Prerogative of the Crown by refusing to accept the legality of a conditional pardon.


Stefan Petrow is an Associate Professor in the School of Humanities at the University of Tasmania, where he teaches Australian, European and Tasmanian history. Stefan is a graduate of the Universities of Tasmania and Cambridge, where he received his PhD in 1988. He has publishedPolicing Morals: The Metropolitan Police and the Home Office 1870-1914 (1994) and a number of articles on the history of policing in Tasmania. His fifth and latest book (written with Carey Denholm) is Dr. Edward Swarbreck Hall: Colonial Medical Scientist and Moral Activist (2016). He is completing a book called Tasmanian Anzacs: Tasmanian Soldiers and World War One and future research will focus on solitary confinement in nineteenth-century Tasmania.


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