Many British criminals were transported to the former colonies. Initially, convicts were transported to North America. Unfortunately, very few detailed records survive from that era. If you think that one of your family may have been transported to an American colony, you could consult Peter Wilson Coldham’s book: The Complete Book of Emigrants in Bondage 1614-1775, which gives a list of names.
Following the War of Independence, transportation to the USA was no longer possible, but the British were still keen to rid themselves of an element of society that they felt was so undesirable. Another solution was soon found: convicts were sent instead to the Australian colonies from 1787.
There are many digitised records available and if someone in your family was transported to New South Wales or Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), then you may well be able to find out why they were sent and what happened to them.
Sources include Quarter Session records (see our feature in Our Really Useful Information Leaflet on how to locate these records). There are also shipping records and transportation registers still in existence. These records detail who travelled on which ship and what happened to them while they were convicts in Australia. The National Archives Guide on Criminal Transportees gives an overview of what is available and how to access these records, many of which are digitised.
To give you an idea of what is possible, here’s how I researched a distant cousin of my own who was transported to Van Dieman’s land in 1845:
I uncovered that my relative, Christopher DESBOROUGH, was transported when I found his name searching the England and Wales Criminal Registers 1791-1892 database on Ancestry.co.uk (£), which revealed he was convicted of receiving stolen goods at Spalding Quarter Sessions in January 1845. As he had a previous offence, the register noted he was sentenced to 10 years’ transportation. I searched the British Newspaper online archive and found reports of his court appearances, the first for stealing coal and the second for receiving a stolen pair of shoes. Because of these offences Christopher was sent to Australia, leaving behind a wife and two small children.
I then searched the Convict Transportation Register, which has been indexed by the State Library of Queensland. It gives detailed information including the name of the convict, their place of trial, term of years, name of ship, date of departure and place of arrival.
From this I found out that my cousin had sailed aboard the ship ‘Theresa’ on 28 March 1845 to Van Diemen’s Land.
I also consulted Surgeons at Sea, An Index to the Filmed Surgeons’ Journals on the Convict Ships to Australia, published by Newcastle Family History Society Inc, New South Wales. An impressive undertaking, this CD comprises an index to 670 surviving surgeons' journals kept on the convict ships. They date from 1817 to the end of transportation. Although my ancestor was too well behaved and healthy to appear in the surgeon’s log on his voyage to Van Diemen’s land, many do. The resource told me about the conditions on his ship. I was surprised to learn that the convicts were relatively well-looked after on board by the mid-1800s and very few were lost to disease. In fact, conditions on ship were often much better than those they had left behind at home. (See our review for more on this resource)
Once they arrived in the colonies the convicts were put to work. I found a copy of Christopher’s detailed convict record on the Archives Office of Tasmania website. This revealed that he arrived in Van Diemen’s Land on 14 July 1845 and described his appearance, also noting he was a Protestant and could not read. It goes on to list where he was sent to work over the next 5 years, and lists the times he absconded and how he was punished.
It was likely after 5 years of hard labour he received a pardon, but I have not yet been able to find records to confirm this. How did he end his life? Like most transportees he would not have been able to afford the journey home. I did find the record of a Christopher DESBURY who died in Tasmania in 1884, of about the right age, on FamilySearch. This could well be him. He would have been 78. There is no record of a marriage while in Tasmania. I can also find no reference to him on Trove, the National Library of Australia’s archive site.
If he had returned home he would have found only one of his children still alive. His wife did remarry, but not until he had been gone for 19 years. Perhaps she waited, hoping that, against the odds, he would one day return?