Research Guide: Convict Banking
Approximately 80,000 convicts arrived in New South Wales (NSW) between 1788 and 1842. Many arrived in the colony with money and property that they were able to retain and use for their own comfort during their sentence. This changed following Commissioner John Bigge’s report The State of the Colony of New South Wales, published in 1822. In this report Bigge recommended that convicts’ property be taken away from them upon their arrival in the colony and that their money should be deposited into a savings bank account on their behalf. The money would remain in this account until the convict could provide proof of their reformation, such as a pardon, or on completion of their sentence.
While the recommendations were implemented under Governor Brisbane, who was in charge of the colony of NSW when Bigge’s report was published, it was his successor Governor Darling who proved more zealous in his adoption of these recommendations. The New South Wales Savings Bank flourished as a result of this. Between 1825 and 1826 its deposits doubled and this success led to its establishment as a public entity under an Act of Parliament in 1832 as the Savings Bank of New South Wales. Subsequent amalgamations have led to the Savings Bank of New South Wales records becoming part of the Reserve Bank of Australia Archives, including many of the ledgers and journals pertaining to convicts’ interactions with that Bank.
The majority of the records containing details of convict banking are contained within the Savings Bank of New South Wales series. These records include ledgers containing the names of the convicts, the date when the account was opened and any transactions that occurred. Convicts are also mentioned in journals and working papers of the Bank.
The Bigge report
In 1819 Lord Bathurst, Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, issued a royal commission to investigate the administration and management of the colonies. Bathurst was concerned that the more humanitarian policies that Governor Macquarie had introduced during his time as governor of the colony of NSW had reduced the hardships of transportation. The aim of the investigation was therefore to determine whether the treatment of convicts had become too lenient and to determine recommendations to ensure transportation was an effective deterrent to prospective felons. Thomas Bigge was selected as commissioner for the enquiry into the colony of NSW, arriving in Sydney in 1819. The result of his investigation was 3 reports: The State of the Colony of New South Wales (1822), The Judicial Establishments of New South Wales and of Van Diemen’s Land (1823), and The State of Agriculture and Trade in the Colony of New South Wales (1823).
One of Bigge’s recommendations in his 1822 report addressed concerns around convicts’ property. Previously convicts had been able to retain any property including money that they had with them on arrival in the colony. The establishment of the New South Wales Savings Bank in 1819 had led to attempts to encourage convicts to deposit their money in this Bank. In the 1819 pamphlet ‘Address to convicts on their arrival’, Barron Field, Judge of the Supreme Court, recommended this course of action to arriving convicts by explaining the interest that could be earned by placing their money into the hands of a savings bank. Bigge’s report led to this practice being enforced due to his recommendation that convicts’ money be taken from them and deposited in a savings account on their behalf.
Governor Macquarie had been succeeded as Governor of NSW by Sir Thomas Brisbane in December 1821 and it was therefore Brisbane who was instructed to implement the recommendations outlined in Bigge’s report. While Brisbane did implement the recommendations as instructed, it was General Sir Ralph Darling who succeeded Brisbane as governor in 1825 who adopted them most enthusiastically. The measures Darling implemented to confiscate the convicts’ money were so successful that the New South Wales Savings Bank, commonly known as ‘Campbell’s Bank’, flourished due to the number of deposits of convicts’ money it received. By 1832, the sum of deposits held by Campbell’s Bank led the new governor, General Sir Richard Bourke, to require Campbell to transfer all convicts’ deposits to the newly established Savings Bank of New South Wales. This placed the money under public rather than private control.
Treatment of convicts’ money
Bigge considered it desirable for convicts to arrive in NSW without their money or any means to access it. This would avoid any disappointment or anger upon their arrival as well as prevent them from gambling with it during the voyage. The money was therefore recorded and entrusted to the Surgeon-Superintendents of the ships on which the convicts were transported and then deposited directly into the Savings Bank on their arrival in NSW.
Convicts were unable to access their money once it had been deposited; however, additional deposits could be made by their friends and relations or by the convicts themselves if they earned money for additional work or duties. The only way a convict could access their money was by providing proof of reformation, such as a pardon, or on completion of their sentence. Upon providing this proof a warrant would be issued that could be presented to the Savings Bank to enable the convict to withdraw their money.
The majority of convicts who arrived in NSW originated from Britain and Ireland. A notable exception to this were 58 French Canadians who were transported to NSW in 1840. These men had been sentenced to transportation for their part in the 1837–38 Rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada (now Ontario and Quebec, respectively) which protested against the British government’s administration of the colony. These men served out their sentences in Sydney and most eventually returned to Canada. The banking records of 8 of these men can be found in 5-1-1-7 and are identifiable by the designation ‘Canadian Prisoner’ before their names.
In addition to the convict banking records, the Reserve Bank Archives also hold records relating to the financial affairs of freed convicts or emancipists. Many of these freed convicts had money and property when they arrived in Australia or became wealthy as free citizens. The most famous of these freed convicts to appear in the records held by the RBA Archives is Mary Reibey. Born in Lancashire, England, Mary was sentenced to 7 years transportation at the age of 13 for stealing a horse, a crime she committed and was tried for while disguised as a boy and going by the name James Burrow. Mary married Thomas Reibey 2 years after her arrival in NSW and after his early death continued his trading business becoming a prosperous businesswoman and trader. Her banking records can be found in Savings Bank of New South Wales records 5-1S-1-1, 5-1-1-1 and 5-1-5-1.
This information is drawn from records held by the Reserve Bank of Australia and the following external sources:
Bennett JM (1966), ‘Bigge, John Thomas (1780–1843)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, pp 99–100.
Butlin SJ (1968), Foundations of the Australian Monetary System 1788–1851, Sydney University Press, Sydney.
Field B (1819), Regulations of the New South Wales Saving Bank: a depositary for the savings of the poor. To which is prefixed a plain address to the convicts on their arrival and to the small settlers, mechanics, servants and labourers of the colony / by the President, G. Howe Government Printer, Sydney.
High Commission of Canada in Australia (2011), ‘History of Canada-Australia Relations’. Available at < https://www.canadainternational.gc.ca/australia-australie/bilateral_relations_bilaterales/history-histoire.aspx?lang=eng&_ga=2.215098135.1421528893.1519265063-1183849225.1519265063 >.
Records relating to convict banking can be found in the Savings Bank of New South Wales series. The majority of these records must be manually searched as they are handwritten and have not yet been transcribed. However, some records, in particular the ledgers, contain indexes of names at the beginning or the end of the volume to assist in navigating the record. Convicts can be identified in these records by the designation ‘Prisoner’, which always appears next to their names.
Savings Bank of New South Wales - Sydney (Head Office) - Receipts for Payments Registers - Register - 1835-1837
Savings Bank of New South Wales - Sydney (Head Office) - Ledgers - No. 1 Accounts 1-553 - Depositors, General, Mortgages, Prisoners, Ships (Indexed) - 1832-1842
Savings Bank of New South Wales - Sydney (Head Office) - Ledgers - No. 2 Accounts 554-1260 - Depositors, General, Mortgages, Prisoners, Ships - 1834-1842
Savings Bank of New South Wales - Sydney (Head Office) - Ledgers - No. 3 Accounts 1261-1894 - Depositors, Mortgages, Prisoners, Ships - 1836-1844
Savings Bank of New South Wales - Sydney (Head Office) - Ledgers - No. 4 Accounts - 1895-2575 - Depositors, Mortgages, Prisoners, Ships - 1837-1844
Savings Bank of New South Wales - Sydney (Head Office) - Ledgers - No. 5 Accounts - 2576-3348 - Depositors, Mortgages, Prisoners, Ships - 1838-1844
Savings Bank of New South Wales - Sydney (Head Office) - Ledgers - No. 6 Accounts - 3349-4084 - Depositors, Mortgages, Prisoners, Ships - 1839-1844
Savings Bank of New South Wales - Sydney (Head Office) - Ledgers - No. 7 Accounts - General, Mortgages, Prisoners, Ships - 1839-1866
Savings Bank of New South Wales - Sydney (Head Office) - Ledgers - No. 8 Accounts - 4085-4853 - Depositors, Prisoners, Ships - 1839-1844
Savings Bank of New South Wales - Sydney (Head Office) - Ledgers - No. 13 - Ships, Prisoners (Indexed) - 1867-1871
Savings Bank of New South Wales - Sydney (Head Office) - Ledgers - No. 9 Accounts 2921-3828 Depositors (Continuation) (1839-1848) 4784-5551 Depositors (1840-1848) Prisoners (1849-1853), Intestate Estates, etc. (1840-1856) - 1839 - 1856