Australia in the 1820s


Currency lads and lasses


In 1820 there were 36,000 non-Indigenous inhabitants living in New South Wales. Nine thousand had been born in the colony and most were under 12 years of age. The term 'currency lads and lasses' was used to refer to the first generation of children born in the colony to distinguish them from the free settlers who were born in the British Isles. These people were known as 'sterlings'.

Currency lads and lasses were mostly the children of convicts or emancipists and the term suggested inferiority and a distinct identity. These currency lads and lasses were also referred to as 'cornstalks' as they were taller than their British counterparts and had a distinct way of talking.

When reporting on the condition of the colony, Commissioner John Thomas Bigge (1780–1843) found the children of convicts generally industrious and surprisingly free of any criminality. This was seen as evidence of the success of the penal system. He described them as taller and fairer, and stronger and healthier than the free settlers.

The native-born children received some education, as shown by the fact that in Sydney and Parramatta more than 80 per cent of the men and 75 per cent of the women signed their own name on the marriage register. This occurrence was much less in the rural areas where schooling was not as well established and available. The boys usually excelled in sport and contests were organised between 'currency' and 'sterling' boys in foot races and 'knuckle' boxing.


A snapshot of 1828

  • February
    • The Cape Grim massacre took place in Van Diemen's Land.

  • May
    • Thomas Livingstone Mitchell became Surveyor-General following the death of John Oxley.

  • September
    • Australia's first bank robbery took place. The robbers broke into the vault of the Bank of Australia in Sydney.
    • The holey dollar currency was withdrawn from circulation.

  • November
    • Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur declared martial law against Aboriginal peoples in the settled districts of Van Diemen's Land.
    • The first census was held in New South Wales, showing that 24 per cent of the total population was born in the colony. Children under 12 years comprised only 16 per cent of the total European population. The Indigenous population was not included.

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