Ancestry.co.uk has just put the Middlesex Convict Transportation Contracts online for the first time, to help you trace the villains and rascals in your family. I thought I would take the opportunity to tell you about my own history with these fascinating records.
Back in the summer of 2001 I began my career at London Metropolitan Archives, as a catalogue editor on the Middlesex Sessions project. The following 9 months brought me into contact with a varied array of 18th and 19thcentury documents. These ranged from the somewhat mundane Building Surveyors returns, to the extremely interesting Sessions papers, featuring examinations of prisoners and witnesses at trials taking place at the Middlesex Sessions House in Clerkenwell. It was therefore no surprise that upon moving to public services, readers’ enquiries about Sessions records would be heading my way.
While cataloguing the Sessions papers I discovered an incredible amount of pickpocketing of silk handkerchiefs, which at the time I remembered thinking was all a bit Oliver Twist. When following up on these cases, what really did shock me was the number of times that these youngsters were sentenced to transportation. This was usually for a minimum term of 7 years, but could be anything up to transportation for life. The more I studied this, the more I came to see that theft of personal possessions and property was regarded, and treated, very harshly by the justice system of the time. In fact given the overcrowded conditions of the prisons, had transportation not been an option, the likely sentence could well have been death.
The original transportation contracts and certificates, which Ancestry.co.uk has now put online, consist of bonds made between the Clerk of the Peace and shipmasters, for the transportation of prisoners. All documents show the length of sentence, some name each individual prisoner, while others simply list the total number of people being transported.
The majority of the documents relate to transportation to the American Colonies in the 18th century. However, the final document in the collection is actually the contract made with William Richards Junior who was charged with organizing the first fleet to Australia. Unfortunately only a few of the first fleet convicts are actually mentioned by name.
Although it is a relatively small series of records, transportation contracts are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to tracing your criminal ancestors at London Metropolitan Archives. Whether a contract or certificate survives or not, there is still likely to be documentation surviving that is worth investigating. We hold records of trials and convictions at the City of London Sessions of the Peace, Middlesex Sessions of the Peace and Westminster Sessions of the Peace covering the whole of the period that transportation was in operation, plus the Gaol Delivery Sessions held at the Old Bailey for both London and Middlesex up to 1834, when this became the Central Criminal Court
For anybody interested in researching their criminal ancestors we would advise you to look at our information leaflets particularly no 39. A brief guide to the Middlesex Sessions records and no 42. My ancestor was a convict, which will give much more detailed information about these collections and how to use them.
See all the LMA collections at Ancestry.co.uk (www.ancestry.co.uk/lma)
Andrew’s Biography: Andrew is a Senior Information Officer at The London Metropolitan Archives where he has worked in the public rooms for the past 10 years advising readers and answering their enquiries on a daily basis. He specialises in Genealogy and the Middlesex Quarter Sessions
Kelly Godfrey is Senior Manager, Digital Marketing for Ancestry.co.uk. Based in Ancestry's London office in Hammersmith, Kelly regularly tweets and posts on Ancestry's Facebook page as well as here on the blog.