Image Convicts at work, Norfolk Island, 1840s

TLF ID R3177

This is a hand-coloured wood engraving, measuring 10.3 cm x 24 cm, used to illustrate a newspaper article published on 12 June 1847. It shows a group of convicts undertaking hard physical work, making a bridge over a shallow stream. Uniformed and armed guards are evident, although the convicts appear to be working under their own guidance. Crossing the bridge are two loaded carts being pulled by teams of eight convicts in place of horses. The engraving is titled: 'NORFOLK ISLAND - THE CONVICT SYSTEM'.

Educational details

Educational value
  • This asset shows convicts on Norfolk Island, a penal colony where, between 1825 and 1855, the worst convicts from New South Wales and Tasmania were sent to experience what was officially described as 'a place of extremist punishment, short of death' - sadistic commandants such as Joseph Foveaux (1765-1846), James 'Lasher' Morisset (1782-1852) and John Price (1808-57) imposed unspeakable punishments upon their charges.
  • It illustrates that convicts undertook hard physical work on Norfolk Island - Norfolk Island had the reputation of being a harsh penal colony, as demonstrated by the fact that men, instead of horses, are being used to pull wagons; this reflects the administration's attitude towards the convicts and illustrates the fact that men were more plentiful on Norfolk Island than horses; it was also a result of the island needing to be largely self-contained.
  • It shows work being done on Norfolk Island during the second settlement; this dated from 1825 to 1855, when the island was used as a convict settlement only - an earlier settlement (1788-1814) had consisted of convicts and free settlers attempting to produce food for the near-starving Sydney convict settlement.
  • It shows the formal uniforms of red tunics, white trousers and bandoliers worn by the guards, who appear to be Royal Marines - these uniforms, together with their rifles and bayonets, emphasise the fundamental differences between the guards and their convict charges.
  • It shows the convicts dressed in short, coloured jackets and breeches - while the actual colours shown may be the result of artistic licence, different colours were in fact used to distinguish different groups of convicts; New South Wales convicts, for example, wore yellow uniforms (they were known as 'canaries') and black-and-white uniforms ('magpies'); the bright colours and distinctive designs were intended to humiliate them and make them conspicuous.
  • It demonstrates the limitations of having to rely on paintings, drawing and engravings from newspapers of the time, as they reflect the artist's view to a greater extent than the more objective camera lens.
  • It shows how news stories were illustrated by engravings and prints in the 1850s, before the widespread use of photography, which was invented in the early 19th century but was not in common use in newspapers until the end of that century.
Year level

4; 5; 6; 7; 8; 9; 10; 11; 12

Learning area
  • History
  • Studies of society and environment

Other details

  • Contributor
  • Name: National Library of Australia
  • Organization: National Library of Australia
  • Description: Content provider
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  • Name: Education Services Australia
  • Organization: Education Services Australia
  • Description: Data manager
  • Copyright Holder
  • Name: National Library of Australia
  • Organization: National Library of Australia
  • Publisher
  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organization: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Description: Publisher
  • Address: VIC, AUSTRALIA
  • URL:
  • Resource metadata contributed by
  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organisation: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Address: AUSTRALIA
  • URL:
Access profile
  • Colour independence
  • Device independence
  • Hearing independence
Learning Resource Type
  • Image
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