The New South Wales Registers of Convicts’ Applications to Marry 1826-1851 contains more than 40,000 convict applications to wed, including numerous multiple applications made by those whose initial applications were refused.
In the early years of the Australian Colony, most marriages followed the publication of banns in a church on three successive Sundays. Convicts did not have the same rights as free citizens and it was mandatory for them to apply for permission to marry. This application was equally required whether two convicts were marrying or a convict was marrying a free citizen.
Once an application was received, a marriage bann – an announcement to the parish church of the convict’s intentions to marry – was read out, including details such as the applicant’s name and age, and also their length of sentence. A bann allowed parish members to object to the marriage, which was often the case, resulting in a declined application.
Over 168,000 convicts were transported to New South Wales between 1788 and 1868. Around 85% of these convicts were men and 15% women. Two thirds were English (along with a small number of Scottish and Welsh) and the other third was Irish.
This unique collection highlights the fact that many in a group of people history often thinks of as being little more than hardened criminals perhaps wished for nothing more than a partner and a new life to make life as a convict a little more bearable. These records are ‘acts of love’ and provide us with insight into romantic life in convict Australia.
However, while many convict marriages were motivated by love, there were also other reasons why they chose to marry.
Marriage was encouraged by early governors and clergy due to its ‘presumed reformatory and moral advantages’. It helped female convicts attain a respectable status where, upon marriage, they were assigned to their husbands and could live a free life, as long as they behaved themselves.
Land grants were also offered to married convicts, with additional land granted for each child born.
The collection includes original record images and is fully indexed and searchable by name, year of birth, date of application, and co-applicant’s name. The marriage records would usually contain the words ‘by permission’ or ‘by consent’.