Posted by on September 30, 2011 in Australia, Convicts, New records

We have just launched two new historical record collections which offer a peek into daily life aboard Australia-bound English convict ships.

These collections are journals that were penned by ships’ medical officers, who were required to keep a record of all patients, treatments and outcomes during a sea voyage.

UK Royal Navy Medical Journals, 1815-17 and UK Surgeon Superintendents’ Journals of Convict Ships, 1858-1867 include over 43,000 records depicting vivid and often gruesome details of ‘contemporary’ treatments and medical practices, as well as stories of life aboard convict ships, from the perils and prevalence of grog-related accidents to a simple chronicle of the daily routine on a 19th century sailing vessel.

If you are one of the 20% of Aussies (i) claiming convict history, you may well have an ancestor included in these collections. Individual records list the names and ages of passengers, convicts and crew who were sick or may have come to the surgeons’ attention.

Life Onboard a Convict Ship

Interesting stories that can be found in the collections include:

  • The Woodman was a female only convict ship whose passenger list included an unmarried prisoner named Eliza Barry, who was transported to Sydney in 1823. Her name appeared in the medical records (shown below) numerous times, with an initial entry noting she “had suffered much from seasickness after eating heartily of salt beef for dinner, imprudently drank a large draught of vinegar and cold water and was seized with violent torturing colic pain in her stomach.” It is unknown whether she knew she was pregnant at the time, however while on board she gave birth to a boy who the surgeon recorded was the largest he had ever seen.

  • Effective punishments – An entry by James Hamilton, Surgeon Superintendent on board the convict ship Adamant found that “stopping their wine is a capital plan to make them pay attention to cleanliness and has more effect than putting them in irons, patients all better.”
  • A treatment for a tarantula bite or scorpion sting includes pouring rum on the afflicted area.
  • One surgeon hails the benefits of tobacco smoke on a man who had fallen overboard and nearly drowned. The man is admitted to hospital with pneumonia in a later journal.

These journals detail daily life on board these ships and paint a riveting picture of what the journey to Australia must have been like for convicts. These often gruesome accounts are a must read for anyone with a convict connection.

The records are also valuable for those family history researchers who may have reached a dead end as they may include the missing link to passengers who did not recover and never made it to their destination.

You can search these and more Australian convict records online at Ancestry.com.au. Let us know if you make any exciting discoveries!

(i) The Australian Constitution Referendum Study, 1999