In modern Australia the popular image of the transported convict is of someone in prison garb and chains, breaking rocks in a road gang. But many convicts were assigned to land owners or businesses to work as labourers or, in the case of female convicts, as servants. And while they may have been used as slave labour, they were at least assured of food, clothing and a bed at night. That was more than many of them had back in their home country.
Here's an extract from a House of Commons committee report of 1838. It gives some interesting insights into the conditions in England and Ireland at the time, and attitudes towards transportation. (I've modified the formatting slightly to make it easier to read.)
309 Chairman Have you had any opportunity of ascertaining the apprehension which is produced in this country by the punishment of transportation, distinguishing England from Ireland? -
The Very Rev. W Ullathorne, D.D. ( a Roman Catholic Bishop who was in New South Wales 1833-1836) I have had considerable opportunities of late. One of the duties which I have imposed upon myself in this country has been to expose to the poor the corporeal and moral horrors of transportation; for that purpose, for the last three months, I have been employed in preaching in the manufacturing districts in the north of England. I have found, generally, that there was a great deal of delusion existing amongst the population; and I have been informed by the clergy, that that delusion exists to a considerable extent; and when I explained the real facts of transportation, a very great sensation of horror prevailed amongst the people.
I had much communication with the relations of persons transported; they came to me frequently after my sermons, for the purpose of obtaining information with regard to the lot of their friends, or requesting me to take letters to them; and I found that, generally speaking, they had no idea of the fate of the convicts, or the immoralities and the punishment to which they were liable. And in this country even, clergymen have informed me that they have actually in some cases been consulted by persons in a state of starvation, as to whether they might do something or other for the purpose of being transported or not; and I have found that this delusion has been kept up a good deal by letters from the colony.
I have seen letters written by prisoners soon after arrival to their wives, in which they represent themselves as very comfortable, and give extravagant accounts of their condition, the sole object appearing, from their letters, to be to induce the wife to go out; and I believe the object of the prisoner was that, if the wife did come out, he would contrive to be assigned to her.
I have visited Ireland lately; I was there but a fortnight, but during that time I preached once in Dublin, and I found that the same delusion existed there. I have been told by the clergy, that were I to explain those things generally to the people it would be of the greatest benefit; and I was particularly struck by the observations of one clergyman, a parish priest; he has the largest parish in Dublin; he told me, and he told me with tears in his eyes at the time, that in his parish, which was within the liberties of Dublin, he had not less than 36,000 souls; that the number of sick calls in a day which had to be attended by his curates was not less than 45; and in case of severe weather for a few days, there were 6,000 of his parishioners who did not know where to get anything whatsoever, and who, generally speaking, had nothing between their bones and the floor on which they lay but the rags that scarcely covered them in the street; and he said to me "If you will explain the horrors of transportation to my people, you will do more good in one day than I can do in a year"
310 To restrain them in time?
Yes, and to acquaint them with the real result; but generally speaking they have an idea that to be transported is to better their circumstances very much. I was much struck with a remark made by a person when I was preaching in Wigan. This person was a respectable innkeeper; it was stated to him that I was going to preach upon this subject and he said, "What is the use of it? People had far better be transported than remain here; for there they will have abundance to eat and drink and plenty of clothing, and here they are in a state of starvation"; and such is the general idea and I believe it has led many to desire transportation.House of Commons papers, vol 22, Reports from Committees, seventeen volumes _16_ Transportation, page 32, viewed at Google Books