Use Convict Records To Trace Your Ancestor Online
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.
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:
- Date of Trial
- Trial Year
- Location of Trial
- 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:
- When Tried
- Sentences: Death; Transportation; Imprisonment
- 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
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
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.
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:
- Convict Number
- Place of birth
- Height without shoes
- 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.
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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