Having a convict in your ancestry in Australia is a mark of honour for a lot of Australians. But how do you start researching if you have a convict in your tree?
A (very!) brief history of convicts in Australia
After those upstart Americans threw out the Brits in 1776, the British Government needed to find somewhere to send their criminals who were busily overcrowding prisons and the prison hulks. Also to preempt the French who were scouting out Australia for a possible colony, the site discovered by Captain James Cook in what is now Sydney, was chosen to be a new penal settlement.
In 1787, eleven convict ships sailed for Botany Bay, arriving on the 20th of January 1788. A few days later, after realizing that Botany Bay wasn’t suitable for a settlement, the First Fleet moved up to Port Jackson and settled in what is now the Sydney CBD.
Convict transportation continued in Australia until the last ship arrived in Western Australia in January 1868. It is estimated that around 162,000 convicts were transported to Australia from all over the world. Convicts arrived from other British colonies such as Canada, India, South Africa and the West Indies.
On the East Coast, convicts ceased to be sent around 1840. Western Australia however required additional labour to prevent the colony from failing so requested convicts. The first shipment arrived in 1850.
The convicts sent between 1788 and 1840 were sent for fixed terms, after which they were free to settle in Australia or if they had the funds (which most did not), they could return to the UK. Most were sent for 7 or 14 years and had committed poverty driven petty crimes however some political prisoners rom various unrests and rebellions were also sent.
The British government and the leaders of the Swan River Colony (as WA was then known) negotiated that the convicts sent were towards the end of their sentences, no life prisoners, and that no political or women prisoners were sent. However some Irish political prisoners were sent towards the end of transportation in 1860’s.
While in the colony the male convicts worked on infrastructure projects like roads, buildings and other projects. Most of the historic limestone buildings in Fremantle were built by convict labour. The most famous being Fremantle jail – the convicts had to live somewhere!
Male convicts were also loaned out to farmers and other small businesses as unpaid labour. Female convicts were used as domestic servants and in some manufacturing industries like clothing manufacture.
Once a convict had proved he or she was trustworthy, they were often given a ticket of leave (TOL) that gave them permission to pursue new life in the colony. TOL convicts could work for themselves, often in a specified area, reported into authorities and attended divine worship every Sunday if possible. The modern day equivalent would be the parole system.
Certificates of freedom were given to convicts once they had completed their sentence and were free to travel anywhere they liked, even back to the UK but they had to pay for their own voyage so very few actually did. Conditional pardons were given to those convicts with life sentences. They had the same privileges as a certificate of freedom but could not return to the UK.
The TOL and certificates had to be carried on the former convicts person so very few survive today.
The British Government ceased transportation in 1868 but by then WA had only received one ship a year since 1866.
Where to start looking for my convict ancestor?
The first place you should look, if you know the name of your convict ancestor is good old Google! You should try to use its capabilities to restrict its search by putting inverted commas around the name. For example “William Dalby Hipwell” instead of William Dalby Hipwell. Google will then look for the phrase as a whole rather than each name individually. Putting the dates you know and the ship he/she came in on will help narrow down the search. I always put convict and Australia in there too just to help it out.
Another first step is the excellent resources, www.convictrecords.com.au and http://www.historyaustralia.org.au. These sites tell you the ship your convict arrived, when they arrived, sometimes what their crime was and where they were convicted, and what their original sentence was.
To search UK criminal courts for any records of the trials, the best place to start is the Old Bailey website. (https://www.oldbaileyonline.org) If your convict was tried outside of London you could try looking for old newspaper article on their trial through www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk.
For convicts who arrived in what is now NSW, try the records kept at the State Archives https://www.records.nsw.gov.au/archives/collections-and-research/guides-and-indexes/convicts/indexes. Many of the records have been digitized.
If you can’t find your NSW convict on there, it is possible they were sent to Queensland that was part of NSW then. Try the Queensland state records: https://www.qld.gov.au/recreation/arts/heritage/archives
Convicts were sent to Tasmania, or Van Diemen’s Land, from 1805. The records of the convicts sent there can be found here: http://portal.archives.tas.gov.au/menu.aspx?search=11
West Australian convicts are listed in the great Fremantle prison database. It lists each and every convict that arrived in WA, when they arrived and all the details you could want. http://fremantleprison.com.au/history-heritage/history/convict-database/
The State Records Office also has a great list of records http://www.sro.wa.gov.au/archive-collection/collection/convict-records. I have spent many hours at the SRO looking for my William Hipwell. The staff there are fabulous and will do anything to help you find what you are looking for.
Trove is my go to site for public Australian records. It’s an amazing free resource set up the National Archives of Australia. It has newspapers dating back to the first newspaper in the Colony in 1803 and Government Gazettes that often published the names of men and women given TOL and certificates of freedom. www.trove.nla.gov.au
As usual Cyndi’s List has an amazing list of convict resources http://www.cyndislist.com/australia/convicts
Don’t forget to try all different variants of spelling the surnames of the people you are looking for. Convicts were often illiterate or not very literate so their spelling of their own name may have been incorrect or the person writing it for them may have written it down incorrectly.
Each convict was given a number upon arrival in Australia. Most of the time they kept this number though on some rare occasions it did change. Use this number to check you have the right convict, especially if their name has been changed.
If you are interested here is a link to my report on William Dalby Hipwell, a young lad who was transported to Western Australia in 1857 upon the Clara. He had been convicted of larceny as a servant as he was found guilty of stealing a hat from his employer. William was an apprenticed hatmaker who had been in a few scrapes with the law before the offence that saw him being transported. https://www.brickwallsresearch.com/news/2017/8/25/william-dalby-hipwell