Were your ancestors transported to Australia as convicts?

We’ve teamed up with Findmypast, who will be offering advice on how to research migration-related aspects of your family tree. In the first in a series of guest posts, Findmypast’s family history experts have created a guide to help you discover if you could be related to someone who was transported to Australia as a convict.


Colour lithograph of the First Fleet entering Port Jackson on January 26 1788, drawn in 1888. Creator: E. Le Bihan. Image provided to Wikimedia Commons by the State Library of New South Wales (SLNSW)

Hundreds of thousands of convicts were transported from Britain and Ireland to Australia between 1787 and 1868. Today, it’s estimated that 20% of the Australian population are descended from people originally transported as convicts, while around 2 million Britons have transported convict ancestry.

Here are some tips and resources to help you discover whether your family tree includes anyone who was transported as part of this mass forced movement of people.

Why were convicts sent to Australia?

During the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, transportation was a common sentence for people convicted of crimes for which the death penalty was deemed too severe a punishment.

From the early 1600s until 1776, most transported convicts were sent to British colonies in North America. With the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War, transportation to North America was halted. With Britain’s prisons becoming increasingly overcrowded and amid growing domestic criticism against widespread use of the death penalty, the British government sought alternative locations to send people convicted of less-severe crimes. Australia was seen as a potential alternative destination. In 1787, the First Fleet set off to establish a new penal colony in New South Wales.

Many people were transported for what we’d consider minor offences today. Petty theft, fraud and violence were all common misdemeanours which could have resulted in a transportation sentence of 7 or 14 years. More serious offences, often tried at London’s Old Bailey, were likely to be met with a transportation life sentence.

Around one in seven convicts transported to Australia were women. They often suffered the toughest time in the Australian colonies.

An 1853 licence granted to Mary Atherton, detailing her conviction and transportation sentence. View the full record at Findmypast.

Start your search in Britain

If convicted in Britain, your ancestor would have appeared in front of their local magistrate to be sentenced. Check court registers and local newspaper reports for details of their crime and sentence to see if the verdict was noted as ‘transportation’ on their record.

An extract from Perthshire Constitutional & Journal, 8 May 1835. View-in-full at Findmypast.

Findmypast’s Crime, Prisons & Punishment Collection includes over 5 million records from 1770–1935. Over 185,000 of them mention transportation.

Many criminals who were sentenced to transportation never actually left Britain. Instead, they served their time on prison ships known as hulks – decommissioned Royal Navy vessels docked in rivers and ports across southern England.

Over a third of transported convicts were sent from Ireland, which was still completely under British rule at the time, so you may want to check Ireland’s historical prison and court registers. Significant numbers of convicts were also transported to Bermuda and Gibraltar.

Take your research Down Under

The First Fleet, which included six convict transport ships carrying almost 800 convicts (almost 200 of whom were women), arrived at Botany Bay, Sydney in 1787. In the years that followed, penal colonies were established in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), Queensland and Western Australia. There are extensive record collections available on Findmypast to help you trace ancestors who were transported to Australia as convicts. Start by searching:

In terms of colonisers, Victoria and South Australia were inhabited by free settlers only – all six colonies had long-established First Australian populations, civilisations and cultures prior to colonisation by the British. Unlike Australia, New Zealand was not a British colony when mass transportation of convicts began in the 1780s and didn’t have any major penal colonies.

Life of a convict

Most convicts transported to Australia were assigned a trade in their penal colony. Their work was unpaid until their sentence was served.

A Ticket of Leave system offered early release for well-behaved convicts. After serving some of their sentence, they could work for themselves in designated areas under the condition that they reported to the local police regularly. In some cases, conditional and absolute pardons were granted.

Once they’d completed their penal servitude, convicts were issued with a Certificate of Freedom and were free to settle in Australia or return home at their own expense.

If you can’t find a trace of your relatives in convict records, try their marriage and death records instead. Convicts were required to apply for permission to marry from each colony’s Governor (prior to Federation in 1901, Australia was divided into six self-governing British colonies), so look out for notations such as ‘married with the permission of the Governor’ or ‘prisoner of the Crown’.

After several rounds of reform and the introduction of new laws and legislation, the transportation system was finally abolished in 1868.

With an estimated fifth of the Australian population descended from those transported as convicts from the UK, and a further 2 million Britons able to trace their ancestry to this population too, could this story of forced emigration be part of your family history?

 

Discover more British emigration stories in Departures, a new podcast from the Migration Museum exploring 400 years of emigration from Britain. The podcast accompanies the Migration Museum’s exhibition Departures, which runs until Summer 2021. Find out more and listen here.