Australia Convict Records

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Convicts first arrived in Australia in 1788, when the British government established a penal colony at Port Jackson, Sydney Bay. Records about convicts transported to Australia are numerous and play a major role in Australian family history research.

Online Resources[edit | edit source]

Australia Records[edit | edit source]

Historical Background[edit | edit source]

  • Penal transportation or transportation was the relocation of convicted criminals, or other persons regarded as undesirable, to a distant place, often a colony, for a specified term; later, specifically established penal colonies became their destination. While the prisoners may have been released once the sentences were served, they generally did not have the resources to return home.
  • In 1787, the First Fleet, a group of convict ships departed from England to establish the first colonial settlement in Australia, as a penal colony. The First Fleet included boats containing food and animals from London.
  • The ships and boats of the fleet would explore the coast of Australia by sailing all around it looking for suitable farming land and resources. The fleet arrived at Botany Bay, Sydney on 18 January 1788, then moved to Sydney Cove (modern-day Circular Quay) and established the first permanent European settlement in Australia. This marked the beginning of the European colonization of Australia.
  • Norfolk Island, east of the Australian mainland, was a convict penal settlement from 1788 to 1794, and again from 1824 to 1847.
  • In 1803, Van Diemen's Land (modern-day Tasmania) was also settled as a penal colony, followed by the Moreton Bay Settlement (modern Brisbane, Queensland) in 1824.
  • The Swan River Colony (Western Australia) accepted transportation from England and Ireland in 1851, to resolve a long-standing labour shortage.
  • Two penal settlements were established near modern day Melbourne in Victoria but both were abandoned shortly after. Later, a free settlement was established and this settlement later accepted some convict transportation.
  • Convicts were generally treated harshly, forced to work against their will, often doing hard physical labour and dangerous jobs. In some cases they were cuffed and chained in work gangs.
  • The majority of convicts were men, although a significant portion were women. Some were as young as 10 when convicted and transported to Australia.
  • Most were guilty of relatively minor crimes like theft of food/clothes/small items, but some were convicted of serious crimes like rape or murder. *Convict status was not inherited by children, and convicts were generally freed after serving their sentence, although many died during transportation and during their sentence.
  • Convict assignment (sending convicts to work for private individuals) occurred in all penal colonies aside from Western Australia, and can be compared with the practice of convict leasing in the United States.
  • Transportation from Great Britain and Ireland ended at different times in different colonies, with the last being in 1868, although it had become uncommon several years earlier thanks to the loosening of laws in Britain, changing sentiment in Australia, and groups such as the Anti-Transportation League.
  • In 2015, an estimated 20% of the Australian population had convict ancestry. In 2013, an estimated 30% of the Australian population (about 7 million) had Irish ancestry - the highest percentage outside of Ireland - thanks partially to historical convict transportation.[1]

Types of Convict Records[edit | edit source]

Tickets of Leave Butts[edit | edit source]

  • Tickets of leave were issued to convicts having served about half of their sentences with good behavior.
  • These tickets allowed convicts to seek employment as they wished but limited their movement to a certain district for the remainder of their sentences.
  • Prior to 1828, bench magistrates granted tickets of leave and approved applications for convicts to marry.
  • The actual ticket of leave was issued to the convict; the government retained the ticket of leave butts.
  • Ticket of leave butts listed the convict’s name, ship, and date of arrival, native place, trade or calling, date and place of trial and sentence, a physical description, and the district to which he or she was confined.

Certificates of Freedom[edit | edit source]

  • A certificate of freedom was a document stating that a convict's sentence had been served and was usually given to convicts with a 7, 10 or 14 year sentence or when they received a pardon.
  • Convicts with a life sentence could receive a Pardon, but not a Certificate of Freedom.
  • The Certificate of Freedom number was sometimes annotated on the indent or noted on a Ticket of Leave Butt.
  • The government retained certificates of freedom butts, which were similar to ticket of leave butts.

Pardons[edit | edit source]

  • Both conditional and absolute pardons were generally granted to convicts with life sentences.
  • Conditional pardons required that the ex-convict never return to the British Isles or his or her pardon would be void.
  • Absolute pardons allowed an ex-convict to return to the British Isles if he or she wished.
  • Pardon records contain information similar to tickets of leave: the convict’s name, ship, and date of arrival, native place, trade or calling, date and place of trial and sentence, a physical description, and the district to which he or she was confined.

Convict indents[edit | edit source]

  • Convict indents were lists that were made when convicts arrived on transport ships.
  • Information given in indents is similar to that in tickets of leave but also includes a convict’s marital status and number of children and whether the convict was literate.
New South Wales holds more convict records than any other state. Of the approximately 150,000 convicts transported to Australia from Great Britain between 1788 and 1850, nearly 90,000 of them went to the region of New South Wales, which then covered a substantial portion of Australia.
Tasmania received more than 60,000 convicts from Great Britain in addition to convicts from other colonies. The ticket of leave butts and certificate of freedom butts for the over 67,000 convicts sent to Tasmania have not survived. The main records for Tasmanian convicts are the convict conduct registers. Information contained in these registers are similar to the tickets of leave and certificates of freedom. Description lists are also available for Tasmanian convicts and give detailed descriptions of the convicts.

FamilySearch Library[edit | edit source]

Australia - Correctional institutions Australia - Correctional institutions - History Australia - Correctional institutions - Indexes Australia - Court records

FamilySearch Library[edit | edit source]

Additional sources are listed in the FamilySearch Catalog:

For Further Reading[edit | edit source]

The following books are good sources for further information about convicts and the English penal and transportation systems:

  • Bateson, Charles. The Convict Ships. 2nd ed. Glasgow, Scotland: Brown, Son & Ferguson, 1969. (FHL book 994 H2b.)
  • Cobley, John F. C. C. The Crimes of the First Fleet Convicts. Sydney, Australia: Angus & Robertson, 1970. (FHL book 994 P2c.)
  • Hughes, Robert. The Fatal Shore. New York, NY, USA: Alfred A. Knoft, 1987. (FHL book 994 H2hr.)

References[edit | edit source]

  1. "Penal transportation", in Wikipedia,, accessed 20 March 2022.