Children of convicts transported to Australia grew up taller than their peers in the UK

The children of convicts born in the Australian colonies grew up taller than they would have done if their parents had not been sent into exile, our latest study shows.

Male Tasmanian-born prisoners, arrested in the second half of the 19th century, were over four centimetres taller, on average, than transported convicts. And they were nearly two centimetres taller than free migrants who were born in Britain and Ireland. This height advantage provides a vivid illustration of the difference in conditions experienced by old- and new-world working-class people in the late 18th and early 19th century.

The differences in height are the result of a number of different public and personal health factors, including the increased availability of food (protein was comparatively abundant and affordable in the Australian colonies, and the comparatively benign environment (lower population density and cleaner drinking water). These factors, which inhibited childhood growth in the UK, enabled the Australian-born children to be taller than their UK-born parents (80% of height potential is genetic, and 20% is determined by environment).

This is one of a number of surprising findings to come out of the Digital Panopticon project, a survey of tens of thousands of convicts that British courts sent to the Australian penal colonies between 1788 and 1868. The careful piecing together of life histories for transported convicts and convicts who were confined in British prisons, reveals the longer-term impacts of transportation and imprisonment.

Surprisingly good health

It is now possible to prove that while Australian convicts were coerced and subjected to a frightening array of punishments, their health was surprisingly good – at least for those who survived the trip.

After the high rates of mortality on some early convict voyages, the mandatory inclusion of surgeons on subsequent voyages greatly improved the survival rates of those who sailed. It also helped that…

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