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Use Convict Records To Trace Your Ancestor Online

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Discover the Secrets of the Convicts of Australia and Tasmania

The convicts of Australia and Tasmania were sent to the colonies from Britain in the 1800s and late 1700s. Not all were hardened criminals -- a look at the convict records shows up what seem like some very minor offences by today's standards.

While you might be less than thrilled to find that your ancestors were among the convicts of Australia and Tasmania, you are in luck when it comes to convict records. Many of these are now accessible online for free, which means you can find out things you'll never know about the more law-abiding members of your family tree. Of all my ancestors, it is the rascals that I know the most about.

In this guide to convict records I will tell you how to find out if your ancestor was transported to Tasmania (from where many went on to make lives for themselves in Australia following their release). If he or she was, you have more luck than your unfortunate ancestor, as I then explain how you can find out details about them, including their crime, duration of sentence, any family they left behind, how they behaved and what punishments they received while in Australia, and even a detailed account of their appearance.

Images used courtesy of morgueFile.com.

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Step 1: The Sentence

Was your ancestor sentenced to transportation?

The first thing to do, if you suspect that an English or Welsh ancestor was transported, is to check the England & Wales Criminal Registers. Ancestry have these from 1791 to 1892, which includes the decades in which transportation was most common (similar genealogy services may also provide access to these registers).

You'll need to enter in your ancestor's full name. If you have it, entering an approximate date of birth and town or county of residence will help to pinpoint him or her in a search. I did this for my ancestor, John, who appeared as the first entry in the search results.

By clicking on View Record, I was able to see a page with further information without having to pay a fee. This page showed:

  • Name
  • Date of Trial
  • Trial Year
  • Location of Trial
  • Sentence
  • Crime
  • Date of Execution or Release

Information in the last two fields is only available to paying members who may view the original record.

If you do have a subscription, you will be able to view an image of the original page in the registers. My ancestor was arrested in 1829 and sentenced in 1830. His record was one of 17 on a page. The page columns were:

  • Name
  • When Tried
  • Crimes
  • Sentences: Death; Transportation; Imprisonment
  • Acquittals
  • Commuted Sentence or Execution

On the page I viewed, every single one of the men was sentenced to Transportation. My ancestor and his friends each received a 7 year sentence for stealing a bolt of cloth. Others on the page received 14 years and life.

However, a sentence of transportation in those days was a one-way journey for almost all who made it, regardless of their actual sentence.

Step 2: Transportation to Australia and Tasmania - By convict ship to Van Diemen's Land

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Can you imagine how it must have been, leaving your loved ones and everything you had ever known, knowing you would never see them again? This was the sentence given to men, women and even children. Some were hardened criminals, others just poor and hungry. One young lad stole a piece of cheese and was shipped to the other side of the world as a punishment. There must have been many like him.

During the time of my ancestor (1830s), the convicts were transported not to Australia itself but to Tasmania, which in those days was called Van Diemen's Land.

The Archives Office of Tasmania has put together a fantastic site to assist family historians in their search for convict ancestors. As soon as you have confirmed that your family member was transported, pay a visit to their Index to Tasmanian Convicts. Simply enter in your ancestor's name and the search results will display:

  • Database Number
  • Family Name
  • Given Names
  • Date of Arrival
  • Ship Name (and voyage number)
  • Date of Departure
  • Port of Departure
  • Remarks

In this way, I discovered my great x4 grandfather John was put aboard a ship named 'Manlius' on 6 April 1830 in London, and arrived in Tasmania on 12 August 1830. That's 129 days at sea, on board a ship where disease spread easily, and at the mercy of the weather and the waves. The convicts had little exercise and spent much time chained below decks. Food was probably also scarce.

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Step 3: Convict Description Records

What your ancestor looked like

Now comes the exciting part. Click on the blue hyperlink in the Database Number field. This will take you to page titled Convict Details. Here you may see a number of records for your ancestor. On the second from bottom line, you'll see Description List with one or more hyperlinked references.

When I click on the first of these, I am taken to the reference for Description Lists of Male Convicts. In my ancestor's case, he is included in CON18, which covers all male convicts on 5 transportation voyages on ships beginning with M. Your ancestor may well be in a different series, depending on when he or she sailed and the name of the ship. Click to view the record.

This will take you to a photographed copy of the original leather-bound record book in which the details of your ancestor and many others were recorded. Quite amazing, isn't it?

These record books list the convicts alphabetically for each ship, along with a full physical description. Be prepared to spend some time locating your own ancestor (convicts are listed 2 to a page). From this you can learn the following about your convict ancestor:

  • Name
  • Convict Number
  • Place of birth
  • Trade
  • Height without shoes
  • Age
  • Complexion
  • Head (shape)
  • Whiskers (color)
  • Visage (shape)
  • Eyebrows (color)
  • Eyes (color)
  • Nose (shape)
  • Mouth (shape)
  • Chin (shape)
  • plus any other remarks (some records even have drawings/descriptions of the men's tattoos!)

This incredible detail will let you build up a picture of your ancestor even though you will never see a photograph of him or her. Maybe now you are beginning to feel quite fortunate to have a convict ancestor after all!

Step 4: Convict Conduct Records

What became of your ancestor?

This may be the final stage of your research, but can be the most revealing. On the Archives Office of Tasmania website, return to the Convict Details page for your ancestor. About halfway down the record, you'll see a link for Conduct Record.

Prepare yourself - you may be about to find out all about your ancestor's behavior in Tasmania and Australia. Bear in mind these were brutal times and convicts who did not obey were harshly punished. Remember also that the convicts had possibly spent months in prison in Britain with other criminals and then four more months cooped up together on the ship, and by now drinking and violent behavior may have become their way of life.

Take some time to locate your ancestor. Unless you are lucky, you might have to scroll through a lot of pages. Your efforts will be rewarded!

The convicts are listed 2 to a page and the records are handwritten so it may be a little difficult to read until you get used to the writing. You can zoom right in, which will help. For my own ancestor, John, the record was arranged as follows:

  • Left column: Convict Number
  • Box: Surname, forename, Ship and date of arrival, Place and date of sentence
  • Red ink (page header): Sentence and crime; Gaol (jail) report; Health report; Single/Married; Nature of offence and any previous crimes; Number of children; Name of wife.
  • Black ink (main part of page ): Report of conduct, including any incidents and the nature of punishment given.

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Step 5: Taking it further

Did your ancestor build a new life?

Did your ancestor do anything newsworthy - good or bad - while in Australia or Tasmania? If so, you may be able to find out yet more about your ancestor.

A relative pointed me in the direction of the National Library of Australia digitisation of early Australian newspapers. I knew from his conduct record that our ancestor had had a brush with the law, but by entering his name in the National Library of Australia newspaper search I was able to access a scan of the full report. The journalist had written a very entertaining anecdote about my ancestor barricading himself in his lodgings and then escaping through the floor into the creek!

If you find anything interesting about your ancestors in the early newspapers, let me know!

Harsh Reality of Life for the Convicts of Tasmania - Your Tasmanian or Australian Convict Ancestors probably lived like this

Discover the Port Arthur Heritage Site with the ruins of cell blocks. See the cramped and squalid conditions, and a reconstruction of the harsh treatment of the inmates.

Did your ancestors really deserve this?

Convict Bricks of Tasmania - Tasmania Travel Guide

A brief but informative section of a travel guide to Tasmania by overlander.tv

I'd love to hear about your own convict ancestors. Do you know why they were transported and what they did after being released? Did this guide to convict records help you find out anything new?

 Last updated on August 17, 2014

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Are any convicts of Australia or Tasmania hiding in your family tree? - Share your stories here 45 comments

Margot_C 17 months ago

Fascinating! I don't have any convict ancestors to my knowledge, but this is a new twist to genealogy research that I'd never heard of before.


PostcardPassion 2 years ago

This is a brilliant lens and I shall have to look into this research angle a little further. There must be some 'black sheep' in my family


Gypzeerose profile image

Gypzeerose 2 years ago Level 4 Commenter

Very fascinating - new information to me. I have pinned this to my history board, and sent it out google plus - I know that genealogy is so important for so many people that I want to do anything I can to help. I liked the family trees that you found for us on zazzle. Squid Angel Blessed - good job!


GonnaFly profile image

GonnaFly 2 years ago from Australia

I'll have to do some research. When I was teaching information technology to highschool students in Tasmania, we used a database of convicts and learned to do all sorts of queries on that database. Most fascinating.


ozylizzy profile image

ozylizzy 2 years ago

Great Lens, I have added a link to it from my page http://www.squidoo.com/australia-tasmania :)


anonymous 3 years ago

How wonderful to have the opportunity to discover possible ancestry. It is always amazing to find how people were actually able to survive in such circumstances as this, of course there were many who didn't even make it there.


capriliz lm profile image

capriliz lm 3 years ago

I will be using your "how to" when I begin my family history research. Thanks for such a thorough explanation. ~Blessed~


Wednesday-Elf profile image

Wednesday-Elf 3 years ago from Savannah, Georgia Level 6 Commenter

This lens has been featured on and lensrolled to my "SquidAngel Blessings by an Elf" lens. :-)


indigoj profile image

indigoj 3 years ago from UK Hub Author

@MelRootsNWrites: It certainly sounds possible, although on the other hand some hardy souls did decide to emigrate of their own free will so he may have simply been seeking his fortune in Australia. With the convicts, sometimes they left families behind as well as beginning new families in Australia.


MelRootsNWrites profile image

MelRootsNWrites 3 years ago from California Level 3 Commenter

Thank you for all this interesting historical information. My ancestor, John Joseph Jones, was from Wales, ca 1816. He "appears" in Australia married and with two kids in the 1840s. I have wondered how he came to be in Australia. Maybe he was one of the convicts.


indigoj profile image

indigoj 3 years ago from UK Hub Author

@PaulaMorgan: It's remarkable what records have been preserved, I'm especially impressed with the Archives Office of Tasmania and their efforts to digitise everything -- hats off to them for making this information available to people all around the world!


PaulaMorgan profile image

PaulaMorgan 3 years ago from Sydney Australia

This is a fantastic resource for anyone wanting to trace their convict ancestors. I hope to do some of this one day.


Wednesday-Elf profile image

Wednesday-Elf 3 years ago from Savannah, Georgia Level 6 Commenter

@indigoj: Yes - I'd forgotten about the fact that convicts were used as a source of labor - the U.S. has done the same thing (don't know if they still have the 'road gangs' here that were so prominent in (many) years past, but I know convicts are 'put to work' in various capacities.

Isn't it fun having a "discussion" via the guestbook feature in our stories? :-) A lively discussion is very educational at times, as educational as the stories themselves. Can't believe how much I've learned JUST from reading Squidoo Lenses, especially well written ones like this one! Have a good day, my 'Little Pear'.


indigoj profile image

indigoj 3 years ago from UK Hub Author

@Wednesday-Elf: There were indeed prisons but Britain wanted to colonise Australia/Tasmania and transportation proved an easy way to go about it and get the labour to start the construction projects over there. Criminals were expendable resources, no matter how petty the crime (and some seem very minor to us).

Interesting idea about the guards. I recently saw a genealogy show we have here in UK about Jason Donovan and his ancestors. One was a convict, another was the captain of the convict ship and he went on to lead a group of convicts in a road construction project that was an important part of Australian history. Fascinating to see both sides of the story.

Thank you so much for the angel blessing!


Wednesday-Elf profile image

Wednesday-Elf 3 years ago from Savannah, Georgia Level 6 Commenter

Fascinating. I knew that Britain transported many convicts to Australia (didn't know about Tasmania) in the 1700-1800's, but didn't realize you could now 'search' records for information. I've never done any genealogy, but I'm beginning to think it would be fun.

BTW, did Britain not have any prisons to house people convicted of crimes? Is that why they were transported back then? How about doing a follow up story about the people who were sent to Australia to work as 'guards' to these prisoners? I've read some interesting background about the way of life for those guards/soldiers/whatever :-). Definitely add my ~~Blessed by a SquidAngel~~ here!


indigoj profile image

indigoj 3 years ago from UK Hub Author

@mbgphoto: Glad you found it of interest. Thanks so much for the angel blessing.


mbgphoto profile image

mbgphoto 3 years ago from O'Fallon, Missouri, USA Level 4 Commenter

Very interesting lens. Blessed.


indigoj profile image

indigoj 3 years ago from UK Hub Author

@anonymous: Thanks so much, Bev. And you never know who is lurking in your past... there are some sad stories that emerge with this kind of research.


indigoj profile image

indigoj 3 years ago from UK Hub Author

@RuthCoffee: I think we always hope for royalty and tend to end up with criminals... or maybe that's just me! :)


anonymous 3 years ago

It never occurred to me to look for possible ancestors that could have been sent to Australia or Tasmania as convicts, but I can see there might be a distinct possibility there. Fantastic topic! Ringing my little Angel bell to sprinkle a Blessing!


RuthCoffee profile image

RuthCoffee 3 years ago

Very interesting stuff. I have no idea what's hiding in my family tree, but the thought that some of them had run ins with the law doesn't seem far fetched to me.


indigoj profile image

indigoj 4 years ago from UK Hub Author

@LisaDH: It sounds like there's a fascinating story to be rooted out there! Best of luck.


LisaDH profile image

LisaDH 4 years ago Level 1 Commenter

I don't know if I have any Australian or Tasmanian convicts in my family tree, but I do know I have a Texas convict a couple generations back. I've got a newspaper article about the crime, but never thought about looking for official criminal records.


indigoj profile image

indigoj 4 years ago from UK Hub Author

@Bellezza-Decor: Indeed you don't! I'm learning that every family has its surprises! Best of luck with your research.


Bellezza-Decor profile image

Bellezza-Decor 4 years ago from Canada

Great information. I am going to see if I have any convict ancestors! I am Anglo Saxon, so you never know.


indigoj profile image

indigoj 4 years ago from UK Hub Author

@Blue_Sphinx: A troublemamker in the family is always fun! :) Thanks for visiting.


Blue_Sphinx 4 years ago

Geez, it almost makes me wish I was from Australia... but I'm pretty sure I've tracked my ancestors fairly well back to Quebec, and then Normandy. My Irish ancestors were certainly troublemakers, but I don't think any of them were transported.


indigoj profile image

indigoj 4 years ago from UK Hub Author

@poptastic: Thank you Cynthia, Dom, and all who have stopped by here!


poptastic profile image

poptastic 4 years ago

I don't know how I could have missed this FANTASTIC and INFORMATION-PACKED lens but, well, better late than never. I'm sure this will be of help to a lot of people looking for information about their ancestors - even if they were convicts. (: *blessed by a squid angel*


justholidays profile image

justholidays 4 years ago

Strange, we communicate quite often and as someone passionate about history I never came to this page. It's very well done and interesting and, believe me I'd like to have a convict ancestor so that I could find information very quickly and faster than the information I look for about my own family!

You brought me two hundred years ago in no time and it's hard to come back to the 21st century.

Blessed by a SquidAngel.


pkmcruk profile image

pkmcruk 4 years ago from Cheshire UK Level 3 Commenter

Excellent lens and great to see others creating great Genealogy Lenses! 5 Stars :-)


KathyMcGraw2 profile image

KathyMcGraw2 4 years ago from California Level 2 Commenter

Absolutely fascinating! You would have loved my Grandmother she was a wealth of information on these types of relatives :)


RhondaAlbom profile image

RhondaAlbom 4 years ago from New Zealand Level 2 Commenter

Really interesting lens. Great job. Blessed by a Squidoo angel.


religions7 profile image

religions7 4 years ago

:) great lens. As far as I know there are not convicts in my family history, but then, the Dutch did not transport people to the other side of the world for mere trifles either.


Ramkitten2000 profile image

Ramkitten2000 4 years ago from Flagstaff, Arizona

Wow, that's some punishment for stealing a piece of cheese! This was a really interesting read.


Heather426 profile image

Heather426 4 years ago from Amarillo, Texas Level 1 Commenter

Great job!


Mihaela Vrban profile image

Mihaela Vrban 4 years ago from Croatia

This is really unique topic to write about. And you did a great job creating this lens. Love the layout and theme you picked. Even pictures fit just right! Blessed by an Angel!


Holley Web profile image

Holley Web 4 years ago

Very interesting! I am bookmarking to search a little more. I know my ex's family has to be there somewhere :)


OhMe profile image

OhMe 4 years ago from Pendleton, SC Level 6 Commenter

This is amazing. I spent some time in the Tasmania Site and was fascinated. I did not find any of my relatives, thank goodness. You really have a talent for putting information into the right words and creating excellent lenses. Super! Blessed!


kimmanleyort 4 years ago

A fascinating story and you presented it so well. It must have been very exciting for you to find out so much about your ancestor - convict or not! This is also a great example of a niche lens. Adding it to Finding Your Niche Lensography.


luvmyludwig lm profile image

luvmyludwig lm 4 years ago

This is a very interesting lens and you have done a great job here.


badmintondouble1 profile image

badmintondouble1 4 years ago

Such an original idea! Very clear, structured and well researched - one of the best I have seend!


julieannbrady profile image

julieannbrady 4 years ago from Jacksonville, Florida USA Level 6 Commenter

Do you know, I really never thought in my genealogical research about looking for any ancestors that might have been convicts. What an interesting thought -- I do know that when I mentioned to mom about gypsies in the family tree, she had a lot to say. Unique topic my dear!


kateloving profile image

kateloving 4 years ago from Lancaster PA Level 1 Commenter

Yep, my some of my ancestors came over on the Mayflower--as convicts--went on to fight Indians in the west (the subject of the book, Lonesome Dove--Robert Duvall played my great great--great?? grandfather) and much later, my Grandfather built the first shopping center in the US.

He and my grandmother divorced when my mum was 3, so estrangement did not allow any of us to experience that money, or any real knowledge of that side of the family until I was well into my 40's.

I love the concept here and since it is opening my curiosity about my own family? ####Blessed####


Andy-Po profile image

Andy-Po 4 years ago from London, England Level 1 Commenter

Great lens very interesting.

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