ONLINE SOURCES FOR TRACKING DOWN TRANSPORTED KIN
Britain sent more than 150,000 convicts to Australia. Michelle Higgs reveals how to use the varied records of transportation to research your forebears
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 bit.ly/tna
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 findmypast.co.uk and have recently been added to thegenealogist. co.uk 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 bit.ly/tna-ho11 (the download measures 49MB). Transcripts can be searched at the State Library of Queensland website ( bit.ly/queensland-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 discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C1810, while MT32 is on Ancestry ( search. ancestry.co.uk/search/db.aspx? 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 ( bit.ly/ tasmanian-convicts), and for New South Wales convicts try the New South Wales State Archives & Records convict resources ( bit.ly/nsw-convicts). Other useful online sources include Ancestry’s Australian Convict Collection at search. ancestry.co.uk/search/group/auconvicts (for members with a Worldwide subscription); the Digital Panopticon for Old Bailey convicts ( digitalpanopticon.org); and Trove, the National Library of Australia’s website for searching digitised Australian newspapers ( trove.nla.gov.au).
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