Australia Research Guide | Convicts
From the arrival of the First Fleet at Botany Bay in January 1788 to the last shipment of convicts to Western Australia in 1868, over 162,000 convicts were transported to Australia.
The First Fleet of eleven convict ships set sail for Botany Bay in 1787, arriving on 20 January 1788 to establish Sydney, New South Wales, the continent’s first European colony. Later, other penal colonies were also founded in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) in 1803 and Queensland in 1824, with Western Australia receiving convicts as early as 1826. Between 1844 and 1849, 1,727 ex-prisoners who had served their sentences were also sent directly to Victoria from the United Kingdom. They were known as “Exiles” or the “Pentonvillians” as most of them came from Pentonville Probationary Prison in England.
The majority of convicts were transported for petty crimes and one in every seven were women. After being emancipated, the majority of ex-convicts remained in Australia and joined the free settlers, with some ascending to positions of prominence in Australian society. However, convictism had a social stigma, and being of convict descent created a sense of shame in some. But by the 20th century, attitudes had shifted, and discovering a convict in one’s ancestors today is regarded as a reason for celebration by many Australians. Nearly 20% of current Australians, as well as 2 million Britons, are descended from transported prisoners. As a result, records regarding convicts are some of the most sought after by people researching their family history in Australia.
The location of surviving convict ancestors’ records in Australia is primarily determined by where they were transported. Convict transportation records are the best option for establishing where a convict ancestor was first transported in Australia.
Good Behaviour, Tickets of Leave, Certificates of Freedom and Pardons
Convicts seldom completed their whole sentence in Australia if they were well-behaved after arrival.
A convict was generally eligible for a Ticket of Leave (ToL) after four years for a seven-year sentence, six years for a fourteen-year term, and ten years for a life sentence. These tickets enabled convicts to live freely and work for their own money while restricting their travel to a specific region for the balance of their sentences. Prior to 1828, bench magistrates issued Tickets of Leave and accepted marriage applications for prisoners. The prisoner received the genuine Ticket of Leave and the Government kept the Ticket of Leave butts. Once issued, the ticket might be revoked for misconduct.
Convicts who had completed their sentence or who had received a Pardon were issued with a Certificate of Freedom (CF). These were usually issued to criminals who had received sentences ranging from 7 to 14 years.
Conditional or Absolute Pardons were typically awarded to criminals serving life sentences, thereby reducing their term by allowing them freedom. Conditional Pardons (CP) mandated that the ex-convict never return to the British Isles, or else their Pardon would be null and void. Absolute Pardons (AP) permitted ex-convicts to return to the United Kingdom if they so desired.
Ticket of leave butts, Certificate of Freedom butts and Pardons all listed the convict’s name, ship, and date of arrival, native place, trade or calling, date and place of trial and sentence, a physical description, and the district to which they were confined.
To determine whether you have convict ancestors, you will need to trace your family history back to your family’s arrival in Australia.
Some indicators that an ancestor was a convict include:
The record of a convict’s arrival in Australia is a good starting point for convict research. Each of the three colonies that received convicts had its own set of records. The information contained on the arrival record will allow you to research the convict’s crime, trial, and sentencing, as well as follow their life as a convict in Australia.
The types of records collected on convicts evolved throughout time as authorities realised the value of comprehensive information on their appearance, skill sets, behaviour, and movements. Although some records have been lost or destroyed, there are still numerous records on criminals that may be found:
New South Wales – NSW convict records include indents, a small number of assignment records, ticket of leave records, certificate of freedom and pardon holders’ records, convict marriage and death registers, and correspondence relating to convicts as part of the Colonial Secretary’s papers. In addition, there are musters, census and convict bank account records.
Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) – Van Diemen’s Land established a comprehensive recordkeeping system including conduct registers, detailed physical description lists, registrations of the settlers that convicts were assigned to, as well as registers of permissions to marry. Additionally, there are muster records that included convicts.
Moreton Bay (Queensland) – Queensland’s convict records include letter books, operational records and plans of the depots that made up the colony, a register of all prisoners, and details of the distribution of convict labour and punishments.
Western Australia – The Western Australian Convict Records include plans and operational records for Fremantle Prison and the convict establishment, convict lists and conduct registers, correspondence from the Comptroller-General and Colonial Secretary, staff and medical records, and extensive police and court records.
Victoria – Immigration records for the “Exiles” transported to Victoria between 1844 and 1849 can be found under the Assisted Immigration Records held by the Public Records Office Victoria (PROV).
Pictured: The Quay, Hobart Town, Tasmania, John J. Crew (Engraver)