Do You Have a Criminal Past? Finding Your Ancestors in the Australian Convict Lists
Transportation. It sounds more like a method of time travel than a punishment.
However, that is precisely the sentence that more than 160,000 so-called criminals from England, Ireland, and Scotland received in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
And what happened to you if you got transported? You packed your bags for a six-month sea voyage to Australia, where you were usually banished for seven years, but sometimes for five years, fourteen years, or even for life.
TRANSPORTATION AND WHAT COULD GET YOU TRANSPORTED
Transportation began as a method of punishment in England in the late 1700s. Originally, convicts were sent to America; however, after the American Revolution in 1776, prisoners were no longer sent there. Recently discovered Australia then became the new penal colony. The first prisoners—and first settlers—were sent there in 1788.
You could get transported for many serious offenses—including manslaughter, embezzling, grand larceny, arson, and counterfeiting. However, you could also get transported for committing crimes we would consider misdemeanors today—and for some things we might not consider crimes at all. You could get transported for:
- Secret marriages
- Petty thefts (under one shilling)
- Stealing a shroud out of a grave
- Carrying too many passengers on the River Thames (if you were a Waterman and if any of the passengers drowned)
- Stealing linen; mail; timber; precious metals; ore; valuable plants; horse, cattle, or sheep; bonds, bills, or bank notes; etc.
- Sending threatening letters
- Stealing fish from a pond or river, fishing in enclosed ponds, or buying stolen fish
MY GREAT-GRANDFATHER WAS A CRIMINAL?
By the time transportation ended in the mid-1800s, about 40 percent of Australia’s English-speaking population was made up of transported convicts. Were your ancestors among them?
Marie Carrick didn’t think so. Her parents told her she was Irish and she celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with pride for decades.
That is, until her son started doing some family history research and discovered that their ancestor, William Hubbard, invented their Irish ancestry. He was actually an English-born convict sentenced with transportation to Australia after stealing a sheet.
Another Ancestry.com.au member discovered that her ancestor, James Ruse, was convicted of burglary in 1782 and was sent to Australia aboard the First Fleet ship Scarborough.
Ruse made a deal with the governor and got one and a half acres of already cleared ground and some help in clearing five more acres. The governor told him that if he successfully cultivated the land he would be given thirty acres. Ruse succeeded and became famous for being the colony’s first farmer.
If you want to find out whether you have a criminal past, your chances are now easier than ever. Ancestry just made the largest online collection of convict transportation lists available. What’s more, they are the only online collection indexed by name. Before this, you had to know approximately when your ancestors were transported or what ship they were aboard.
There is not one index to all the Australian convict transportation registers; instead, you will need to search these four registers. They cover the major fleets that men and women were transported on.
Australian Convict Transportation Registers—First Fleet, 1787–1788
Australian Convict Transportation Registers—Second Fleet, 1789–1790
Australian Convict Transportation Registers—Third Fleet, 1791
Australian Convict Transportation Registers—Other Fleets and Ships, 1791–1868
These records contain most, but not all, of the transported criminals. So, if you don’t find your ancestors there, try one of four more collections that are coming online with the transportation registers. They consist of the following types of records:
- Census records taken in the colonies.
- Convict muster rolls and lists, which were inventories taken to count and keep track of convicts and ex-convicts.
- Convict pardons, which granted freedom to convicts with life sentences—a conditional pardon meant they were free but had to stay in Australia; an absolute pardon meant they were free and could return to the UK.
- Tickets of leave, which were issued to prisoners for good behavior. They granted prisoners license to work for their own wages and to live anywhere they wanted within a certain district.
1828 New South Wales, Australia, Census
New South Wales and Tasmania, Australia, Settler and Convict Lists, 1787–1834
New South Wales and Tasmania, Australia, Convict Musters, 1806–1849
New South Wales and Tasmania, Australia, Convict Pardons and Tickets of Leave, 1834–1859
If you have more questions about a databases, just check out the “About” section at the bottom of each database’s homepage.