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Letter from Sir Robert Peel on the subject of convicts

Date: 1820-1830
Overall: 225 x 188 mm
Medium: Ink on paper
Credit Line: ANMM Collection
Object Name: Letter
Object No: 00051352

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    With money, political connections and ambition Sir Thomas Peel became British Home Secretary in 1822. As Home Secretary he established the Metropolitan Police Force, developed the Peelian Principles which stipulated the ethical requirements the police must follow in order to be effective in fighting crime and, under the Peel Acts reformed criminal law by repealing a large number of criminal statutes, and reducing the number of crimes punishable by death. These changes were even felt in the isolated colony of New South Wales where the convicts Lowe and Henshall had their death sentences commuted to transportation at Peel's instigation.

    SignificanceHistoric material relating to convict transportation to Australia is rare. This letter written by Sir Robert Peel, English Home Secretary from 1822-1827 and 1828 - 1830, reflects the changing attitudes towards crime and punishment in the 19th century.

    HistoryExtreme poverty was a fact of life for many in 18th and 19th century British society. In desperation, many resorted to crimes such as poaching, theft, robbery with violence and forging coins as the means to survive in a society without any social welfare system. This was countered by the development of a complicated criminal and punishment code aimed at protecting private property. Punishments were harsh with even minor crimes, such as stealing goods worth more than one shilling, cutting down a tree in an orchard, stealing livestock or forming a workers union, attracting the extreme penalty of 'death by hanging'.

    Until the early 19th century prisons were administered locally and were not the responsibility or property of central government, with the exception of King's Bench, Marshalsea, Fleet Prisons and Newgate Gaol which were all Crown prisons attached to the central courts. Prisons were used for the correction of vagrants and those convicted of lesser offences, for the coercion of debtors and for the custody of those awaiting trial or the execution of sentence - they were not places of rehabilitation.

    For nearly all other crimes the punishments consisted of a fine, capital punishment or transportation overseas. From the early 1600s European societies have used the transportation of criminals overseas as a form of punishment. At the beginning of the 18th century, when the death penalty came to be regarded as too severe for certain capital offences such as theft and larceny, transportation to the British colonies in North America was used as a large-scale criminal deterrent.

    The British Transportation Act of 1718 effectively established transportation to the colonies as a punishment for crime. British courts sentenced criminals on conditional pardons or those on reprieved death sentences to transportation. Prisoners were committed under bond to ship masters who were responsible for the convict's passage overseas in exchange for selling their convict labour in the distant colony.

    The loss of the American colonies in the War of Independence put an end to the mass export of British and Irish convicts to America. Many of the convicts in England's overcrowded jails were sent instead to the hulks (decommissioned naval ships) on the River Thames and at Portsmouth, Plymouth and Cork (Ireland) where they were employed on river cleaning, stone collecting, timber cutting and dockyard work while serving out their sentence

    In 1784, under the Transportation and Penitentiaries Act, felons and other offenders in the hulks could be exiled to colonies overseas which included Gibraltar, Bermuda and in 1788, the colony of New South Wales.

    Between 1788 and 1868 over 160,000 men, women and children were transported to the Australian colonies of New South Wales, Van Diemen's Land and Western Australia by the British and Irish Governments as punishment for criminal acts. Although many of the convicted prisoners were habitual or professional criminals with multiple offences recorded against them, a small number were political prisoners, social reformers, or one-off offenders.

    Sir Robert Peel (5 February 1788 - 2 July 1850) was a British conservative politician and statesman who was Chief Secretary in Ireland from 1812-13, British Home Secretary between 1822-1827 and 1828 - 1830 and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom between 1834-1835 and 1841-1846. Best known for creating the first modern Police Force 'The Peelers', instituting modern policing methods 'The Peelian Principles', repealing the Corn Laws, introducing the Factory Acts to protect women and child workers and being the principle founder of the modern Conservative Party, Peel was also instrumental in carrying out a major review of British Criminal Law and reducing the number of crimes punishable by death.

    An arch conservative from a rich industrialist background Peel entered parliament at the age of 21 by standing for election as MP in the Irish borough of Cashel, Tipperary. Supported by his father, Robert Peel, 1st Baronet of Drayton Manor, and the Chief Secretary of Ireland, Sir Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, Peel easily won the support of the 24 voters on the electoral role and was elected unopposed in 1810.

    With money, political connections and ambition Peel entered the Tory cabinet in 1822 as Home Secretary responsible for the internal affairs of England and Wales and for immigration and citizenship for Great Britain and, at the time, Ireland. As Home Secretary he established the Metropolitan Police Force and developed the Peelian Principles which stipulated the ethical requirements the police must follow in order to be effective in fighting crime. Under the Peel Acts he also reformed criminal law by repealing a large number of criminal statutes, reducing the number of crimes punishable by death, reformed the jail system, introduced payment for jailers and wardens and established an education program for inmates.

    More effective policing, Peel's changes to the Penal Code and the reduction in the number of prisoners sentenced to death directly resulted in an increase in the number of prisoners sentenced to periods of transportation to Australia, Bermuda and Gibraltar with the number of male transportees to the Australian colonies increasing from 15, 392 (1811-1820) to 28,753 (1821-1830) and the number of women transportees increasing from 1933 (1811-1820) to 4,111 (1821-1830). (Bateson, 1974:p379)

    Although a social reformist Peel was a strident opponent of Catholic Emancipation and he resigned from the position of Home Secretary following the appointment of George Canning as Prime Minister. Peel resigned from his seat the following year in protest over the passing of the Emancipation Bill, but almost immediately took up another seat at Westbury. By that time the Tory Party had lost power and the more liberal minded Whigs Party supported by the growing middle classes were in office. Peel and the Tory party remained in opposition until 1834 when they were again put into power this time under the Prime Ministership of Robert Peel.

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