The founding of Australia as a penal colony for the transportation of convicts from Britain is of course well known. The First Fleet arrived in New South Wales on 26th January 1788 and over the following 80 years approximately 160,000 convicts were transported to various locations in the country to serve their sentence.
In the past, having a convict in your ancestry was not something to be proud of. However, as interest in family history has developed over the last 30 years, it is increasingly being seen as a high point of interest and many researchers now strive to discover any criminal connections of their ancestors. Ancestors who arrived on the First and Second Fleets are especially revered as they represent some of the earliest European settlers in the country.
Convict Transportation Registers 1787 – 1868
The main collection of criminal databases available on the website is comprise of the registers of transportation recorded by the British government. As with many records of the time is cannot be said to be complete but it is the most comprehensive listing of transportees available. The registers have been split into four separate sections – those for the First Fleet of 1787 – 1788, the Second Fleet of 1789 – 1790, the Third Fleet of 1791 and finally those for all remaining ships in the period up to 1868. If you have an idea as to when your convict ancestor may have arrived in Australia you can choose the appropriate section and search for him or her within that database. Alternatively, you can undertake a general search for just the name in the ‘Historical Records’ section. This is useful if you do not know when your convict ancestor may have arrived, as the result screen will display all of the various databases where the name in question appears. You can then check the list to see whether any of the Convict Transportation Registers feature in the list. A general search like this is also useful if you are trying to discover whether any of your ancestors were convicts. Just type their names into the search facilities and see what results occur. You can then check any possibilities to see if their details match with your known ancestors.
Original Images of Documents
Once you have established a list of possible entries for a name, clicking on ‘View Images’ will take you to a digital copy of the original document from The National Archives in London. The information provided will usually includes the name of the convict, when and where their trial took place and the length of their sentence. The name of the vessel on which he or she arrived in Australia will also be recorded. The date and place of the trial is very important as these details provide a link back to further sources in the UK, such as newspaper reports and trial records, that can help establish details of the convict’s origins.
Convict Musters and Convict Lists 1787 – 1849
Other database, such as the collection of Convict Musters 1806 – 1849 and the collection of Convict Lists 1787 – 1834 will provide you with further details about ancestors sent to New South Wales and Tasmania, the two main convict areas. Like the Convict Transportation Registers, they will record the name of the convict, the ship that transported them, and the date and place of their trial but further details such as age and occupation might also be recorded. The musters were an attempt to keep track of the convicts, many of whom were employed around the colony. The musters also included ex-convicts whose sentence had been served and who remained in the colony. The Convict Lists and the Musters often also included the free settlers who had migrated to New South Wales and Tasmania and were living there at the time the record was compiled. Many of the records were written in wide ledger books and due to the way the documents had to be digitised you may find that it is worthwhile looking at the page after the one on which your convict appears as further information about them may have been carried over.
Convict Pardons 1834 – 1859
A further database of interest to the researcher with convict ancestry is the collection of Convict Pardons and Tickets of Leave 1834 – 1859 for New South Wales and Tasmania. A Ticket of Leave could be granted to a convict after a certain proportion of his or her sentence had been served. It allowed the convict to live in the community and work for their own wage whilst the rest of the sentence was served. As with the records mentioned above the information about the convict’s arrival in the colony and their date and place of conviction will be repeated. Useful information to be recorded here sometimes includes the place of birth of the convict, their physical description and the reason why a pardon was granted. However, the majority of the entries are less informative and often comprise a very long list of people pardoned or granted tickets of leave in a particular year. You will therefore need to look at earlier pages to find the beginning of the particular list containing your ancestor to discover the date concerned.
The convict records available on Ancestry.com.au are an extremely important source for early Australian history. The convicts formed the backbone of the fledgling country and gave Australia a unique heritage. By uncovering details of your ancestor’s criminal past, you will be able to discover when and how they first arrived in Australia. You will also find details of where they were tried in Britain and this detail is crucial in establishing a location for them in their home country. Without this locational information it may be impossible to establish details of any earlier family history.
Jeremy Palmer has been a full time professional genealogist since 1992. He was the Registrar at The Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies in Canterbury, England for many years before emigrating to Australia where he now runs his own research business which specialises in tracing the British origins of families in Australia and New Zealand. He also lectures on a wide variety of family history topics for the Society of Australian Genealogists.