Bri­tain sent more than 150,000 con­victs to Aus­tralia. Michelle Higgs re­veals how to use the var­ied records of trans­porta­tion to re­search your fore­bears

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS - Michelle Higgs is an au­thor who spe­cialises in social and fam­ily his­tory. Turn to page 71 to read her ar­ti­cle about lock­smiths

About 164,000 con­victs were sent to Van Diemen’s Land, New South Wales and Western Aus­tralia

You can of­ten find out far more about crim­i­nal an­ces­tors than those who were law-abid­ing. This is par­tic­u­larly true of con­victs who were trans­ported to a far-flung pe­nal colony as pu­n­ish­ment for their crimes. Be­fore the War of In­de­pen­dence be­gan in 1775, Bri­tish con­victs were sent to US colonies. Af­ter­wards the des­ti­na­tions in­cluded Ber­muda, Gi­bral­tar and Aus­tralia.

The first fleet of trans­ported con­victs to Aus­tralia ar­rived in Botany Bay, New South Wales, in 1788. Be­tween 1804 and 1853 con­victs could also be trans­ported to the is­land of Van Diemen’s Land, which is now known as Tas­ma­nia. Af­ter 1853 Western Aus­tralia be­came a pe­nal colony and only those sen­tenced to 14 years’ trans­porta­tion or more were ac­tu­ally trans­ported. The last ship car­ry­ing trans­ported con­victs to Aus­tralia left Eng­land in 1867, ar­riv­ing in Jan­uary 1868. Be­tween 1787 and 1867 about 164,000 con­victs were sent to Van Diemen’s Land, New South Wales and Western Aus­tralia.

If your an­ces­tor was sen­tenced to trans­porta­tion, there were three stages he or she had to go through: in­car­cer­a­tion in a prison or prison hulk; the voy­age to the pe­nal colony; and serv­ing out their sen­tence un­der a master. These stages gen­er­ated nu­mer­ous doc­u­ments that are use­ful for ge­neal­ogy.

Start by read­ing The Na­tional Archives’ (TNA’s) guide to re­search­ing peo­ple sen­tenced to trans­porta­tion at

trans­porta­tion be­fore search­ing the ‘Con­vict Hulks, Con­vict Pris­ons and Crim­i­nal Lu­natic Asy­lums: Quar­terly Re­turns of Pris­on­ers’ (HO8), held at Kew; these records are also on find­my­ and have re­cently been added to thege­neal­o­gist. in the col­lec­tion ‘Court & Crim­i­nal Records’ (which in­cludes other use­ful trans­porta­tion records). They list ev­ery con­vict in­clud­ing name, age, con­vic­tion, sen­tence, and health and be­hav­iour dur­ing the quar­ter.

You’ll need to scroll through to the be­gin­ning of each re­turn for the prison or prison hulk’s name and the quar­ter, be­cause they are not writ­ten on each page. Check ev­ery quar­ter af­ter sen­tenc­ing for your fore­bear un­til the trans­porta­tion date; this is recorded in the “Re­marks” col­umn with the ship’s name. You might also see a death date, a dis­charge for a free par­don, or trans­fers to other pris­ons such as Port­land (a pub­lic works prison) and Dart­moor (for in­valids). Not ev­ery­one sen­tenced to trans­porta­tion was trans­ported; el­derly or in­firm con­victs served out their sen­tences on hulks.

The ‘Con­vict Trans­porta­tion Reg­is­ters’ record set at TNA (HO11) is a roll call of con­victs on each voy­age; they are held at TNA but you can down­load the digi­tised records for free from (the down­load mea­sures 49MB). Tran­scripts can be searched at the State Li­brary of Queens­land web­site (­land-con­victs). How­ever, the de­tail is lim­ited: the con­vict’s name, sen­tence, name of ship, de­par­ture date, place of ar­rival and to­tal number of con­victs on board.

Far more il­lu­mi­nat­ing are the med­i­cal jour­nals kept by the sur­geons of each con­vict ship. The orig­i­nals are at TNA in two col­lec­tions, ‘Ad­mi­ralty and Pre­de­ces­sors: Of­fice of the Direc­tor Gen­eral of the Med­i­cal Depart­ment of the Navy’ (ADM101), for 1785–1963, and ‘Ad­mi­ralty Trans­port Depart­ment, Sur­geon Su­per­in­ten­dents’ Jour­nals of Con­vict Ships’ (MT32), for 1858–1867. You can search the online data­base for the ADM101 jour­nals for 1793–1880 at dis­cov­­tion­­tails/r/C1810, while MT32 is on An­ces­try ( search. an­ces­ dbid=2320). They list pa­tients’ names, ages, ill­ness/in­jury and the med­i­cal treat­ment pro­vided. At the back of each jour­nal, the sur­geon sum­marised the voy­age un­der “Gen­eral Re­marks”.

There are var­i­ous doc­u­ments re­lat­ing to con­victs af­ter they ar­rive at their des­ti­na­tion, but there are three main ones to con­sult. Con­duct records de­scribe the con­vict’s be­hav­iour while work­ing for a master in the colony, and whether any of­fences were com­mit­ted. If the con­vict died dur­ing this pe­riod, this was recorded too. In­for­ma­tion is also pro­vided about the con­vict’s his­tory be­fore trans­porta­tion. De­scrip­tion lists pro­vide phys­i­cal de­scrip­tions, in­clud­ing dis­tin­guish­ing fea­tures such as tat­toos and scars. There are also ‘in­dent’ pa­pers com­piled be­fore the con­victs dis­em­barked, in­clud­ing per­sonal in­for­ma­tion and a ‘con­fes­sion’ or state­ment about their of­fence.

Many of these sources are avail­able online. For con­victs sent to Van Diemen’s Land check the Tas­ma­nian Names In­dex ( tas­ma­nian-con­victs), and for New South Wales con­victs try the New South Wales State Archives & Records con­vict re­sources (­victs). Other use­ful online sources in­clude An­ces­try’s Aus­tralian Con­vict Col­lec­tion at search. an­ces­­con­victs (for mem­bers with a World­wide sub­scrip­tion); the Dig­i­tal Panop­ti­con for Old Bai­ley con­victs ( dig­i­tal­panop­ti­; and Trove, the Na­tional Li­brary of Aus­tralia’s web­site for search­ing digi­tised Aus­tralian news­pa­pers (

Us­ing the avail­able sources,

you can build up a pic­ture of your an­ces­tor’s ex­pe­ri­ence from sen­tenc­ing and trans­porta­tion through to re­ceiv­ing a ticket of leave, which re­warded good be­hav­iour with cer­tain free­doms, and be­com­ing an eman­cip­ist – a con­vict whose sen­tence has ex­pired, or been par­doned. For ex­am­ple in June 1848 Henry Webb was con­victed at Abing­don of steal­ing, and was sen­tenced to 10 years’ trans­porta­tion (see above). He was held at Mill­bank, Pen­tonville and the con­vict hulk HMS Justi­tia at Wool­wich be­fore be­ing trans­ported to Van Diemen’s Land on the HMS

Aboukir in De­cem­ber 1851. Dur­ing the voy­age Henry was stabbed by an­other con­vict, and his treat­ment is de­scribed in the sur­geon’s jour­nal. He sur­vived the voy­age only to end up, in the words of the con­duct doc­u­ment, “Found Dead in the Bush at Launce­s­ton 30 July 1853”.

Chapel on board the prison hulk HMS War­rior at Wool­wich

Trans­ported con­victs reach Botany Bay, New South Wales, on board HMS Sup­ply and HMS Sir­ius in 1788

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