Using Ancestry: Australian Convict Records, by Sherry Irvine, CG, FSA Scot

Australian Convict.bmpA few weeks ago Ancestry added the Australian Convict Transportation Registers to its online collections. The collection has seven parts drawn from two classes of records (Home Office 10 and 11) at the National Archives (TNA) at Kew, near London, England.

Until the nineteenth century, Britain had no large prisons managed by the national government and most offences carried the death penalty or were commuted to transportation. (See my article, Saving Their Necks: The Origins of Transportation to America)

Up until 1775 Britain shipped felons and criminals to the American colonies. For several years, during the War of Independence and just after, people convicted of crimes were held in Britain in old ships that were no longer seaworthy. Prison hulks were located at Portsmouth, Plymouth, and at Woolwich on the Thames near London.

In 1787 the first shipment of convicts left for New South Wales. Over the next eighty years about 165,000 men and women were transported to penal colonies there and in Tasmania, and to Western Australia. In the 1830s, the peak period, about 4,000 convicts were shipped out every year.

Transportation was abolished in 1857, though for some specific offences it did not disappear until 1868. Most went to New South Wales and Tasmania, but from 1850 to 1868 about 9,500 male convicts were sent to Western Australia.

The titles to the seven parts of the Convict Transportation Registers database tell you what is included. Lists of convicts on each ship are here, starting with the First Fleet and including ships going to Western Australia at the end. There are also various lists of convicts in New South Wales and Tasmania–some lists of those who received pardons and some lists of those who were recorded periodically in musters of convicts in the penal colonies.

I recommend you read the information about each database in full (always click on “more” when you reach the end of the short summary on a database’s main page) to better understand what you are about to examine.

The databases include people who were convicted not only at courts in Britain and Ireland, but in many parts of the British Empire. I found locations in Canada and the West Indies, one reference to Bombay and several to the island of St. Helena.

Each individual ship register entry indicates the name, place of conviction, date of conviction and length of sentence. The table of search results gives the important facts, including the date the ship left England. A few entries may have a notation that the convict died. If you work your way back to the first page of each ship’s list you will see the name of the vessel, the date it departed, and the number of convicts onboard (sometimes only a number in brackets, sometimes with a note).

Records of musters show names, year of arrival, sentence and employment; they may also indicate age. Records of pardons may contain interesting details, including the reasons for the pardon, such as many years in the colony with good behavior, or a specific act of assistance to the authorities.

Searching the Database
Searches in the seven Australian convict databases need to be carried out one database at a time. If you use the search box on the main page for the databases, it searches Australian Convicts Transportation Registers Other Fleets and Ships, 1791-1868. The other databases can be searched individually through the links provided above, or collectively through the website’s advanced search page.

The basic search box has input for the first name and last name and the advanced search box offers several more options. When dealing with a rare name you can simply input that information, but most of you will want to view the advanced search options and at least include a range of years to help limit the scope of the search.

The advanced search tool gives you other ways to explore the data–by place of conviction, for example. You can search the data without any name at all, which means your results consist of every name that fits your search criteria. When searching by place of conviction, be aware that this must be entered as it was given in the registers. Entering “Canada,” for example, will not yield every conviction in what is now Canada; there are separate entries for other colonies, such as Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.

Find Out More
The Convict Transportation Registers database is a wonderful new resource, but the subject has been of interest to Australians, and those with Australian connections, for a long time. Searches online or in books will reveal many interesting websites, other databases, and historical background information. Here are a few titles to expand your research.

Sherry Irvine, CGRS, FSA Scot, is an author, teacher, and lecturer specializing in English, Scottish, and Irish family history. She is the author of “Your English Ancestry” (2d ed., 1998) and “Scottish Ancestry” (2003), and she is a contributor to several publications. Since 1996, she has been a study tour leader, course coordinator, and instructor for the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research at Samford University. Recently she served a two-year term as president of the Association of Professional Genealogists.

Online Classes
Sherry Irvine has teamed up with Helen Osborn for a new series of online courses. For more information, visit:

2 thoughts on “Using Ancestry: Australian Convict Records, by Sherry Irvine, CG, FSA Scot

  1. While you are to be commended for providing convict information researchers need to be aware that for the 1791 to 1801 period offered there are large chunks missing. Examples: The Boddingtons came in 1793 and the database shows nobody on this ship. Likewise the Marquis Cornwallis in 1796 shows no one. The Irish government gave us Irish records as a gift for our bi-centenary. Convict researchers have known these records to be quite thin if not bare for the early period of Irish transportation.

  2. Would you give permission for me to use the image at the top right hand side of your screen for a book about a convict girl travelling to australia?
    It will only be a short edition run of around 200-500 as we are developing a line of Australian dolls and the book accompanies the convict doll.
    Thank you for your help.
    Mary Kamols

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