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Transportation of Convicts

Convict was the special name given to those sentenced to "transportation across the seas," otherwise know as being sentenced to "penal servitude."


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The penal servitude act of 1853 finally saw the beginning of the end of transportation to the colonies. It began in the 1600's, initially to the Americas and West Indies. This ended quite abruptly with the American War of Independence in 1776.

In the National Archives in Kew, England are two sources:

The Patent Rolls for 1645-1717 and the State Papers Domestic 1661-1772, list names and the parish convicts came from for those transported. The parish being important for the researcher to go back further within the parish registers.

Also, for an alphabetical list of men and women transported to the American colonies from 1614 to 1775, a book by Peter Wilson Coldham The Complete Book of Emigrants in Bondage. This book is actually advised as a good place to start in the National Archives guide for research into convict ancestors.

After 1776, with the option of sending convicts to America ended and, faced with an ongoing swell in numbers of convicts, a stopgap solution was to store the Felons on Hulks.

Hulks were the disused hulls of service ships . . . floating prisons, anchored along London's River Thames at Woolwich and Chatham, plus docked along Britain's coastal waters at Plymouth, Portsmouth, and Sheerness. The convicts were sentenced to "hard labour" by day, toiling ashore. The initial conditions were harsh and unsanitary, thus causing quite high mortality rates. Depending on the size of the vessel, between 250 and 300 souls were imprisoned aboard. A mighty shock for most of the convicts charged mainly with petty larceny, receivers of stolen goods, pickpockets, etc.

Transportation to Australia began in 1787. This being the solution to the overcrowded Hulks. The first fleet sailed to the new penal colony in 1787 on May 13th. In itself quite a large spectacle to see set sail: six transportation ships, two warships, and three store ships. The journey took nine months, and during that time forty-eight prisoners died, which is not surprising out of the 717 convicts. The sentence was for seven years, mainly, with some 14 years or life. The Hulks continued to be used as interim storage for the convicts whilst they waited for their ship to come in to take them across the oceans.

If you have found your Australian ancestor to be a convict, then apart from the documented sources in Australia, the National Archives Kew, England hold documents to put the proverbial " meat on the bones" of your ancestor. They can contain occupation, physical description (scars, hair colour eye colour etc); health; attitude, behaviour, character, and marital status.

In order to search the records with ease in the National Archives Kew, England, you do really need to have some idea when the ancestor arrived in the penal colony. The 1828 New South Wales census is a good place to start. The Convict Indents Index compiled by the G S of Victoria is a good tool, but sometimes slightly off beam. It indexes the convicts who landed in New South Wales and van Diemens Land. This was on microfiche but now can be found on CD-ROM (copies in the National Archives Kew, England and in Australia).

This initial study done, you are now armed with the date of arrival and the ship arrived on. You are now in a position to follow backwards through the documents held at Kew.

1. Criminal Registers. Firstly, the Criminal Registers need to be searched. There is one for London and Middlesex, and another for the rest of the country (these date from 1791 and the reference to find them in HO26 and HO 27). These give date of trial, offence committed, and sentence.

2. Transportation Registers. The convict transportation registers that date from 1787 to 1871 are arranged by port of departure. These registers list the names of the convicts and the place and date of the trial and conviction ( Ho 11 and HO 21).

Note: These are listed by the ship the convict went out on, not by his name.

3. Trial records. These cannot be found in one place, unfortunatly. We have Assizes and Quarter Sessions. For Assizes the records, if survived, will be held at the local Archives. If the trial was the Quarter Sessions then the records are to be searched at Kew .The trial records you may find, though, can be a bit disappointing. The Petitions for Clemency are often overlooked and these can give more personal information about your ancestor than the trial records, which most people seem to go for. The Clemency appeals are to be found depending on date: 1819-1839 in HO 17, and 1839 to 1854 in HO 18. As you would imagine, to appeal for clemency a certain amount of detail has to be given about the prisoner in order to sway the judge in her or his favour; therefore, these really are a quite under-used source and worth searching.

4. Medical Journals. The Medical Journals are listed by the ship the on which the convict went overseas. The references for these are ADM101 and date from 1817 to 1853. They can be searched via ship name, which is in alphabetical order. It gives details and, in some case, quite lengthy details of the illnesses occurred by the individuals, crew, and convicts. And whether or not your forbearer was ill or not, it gives an interesting insight into life aboard the vessel for so many weeks. The medical journals were written by the surgeon on board. He writes a varied account of the medical conditions, treatments, and also the general health of all on ship. These vary form surgeon to surgeon; some give quite candid views on the journey itself . It is very worthwhile to have a copy of one of these documents, to cover that period of your ancestors life.

For further information, the National archives at Kew has a website:

The website catalogue has research guides you can print off, and lists a bibliography for further reading.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2006.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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