This blog is now fortnightly

To avoid any more disappointment, yours and mine, I think the time has come to make this blog a fortnightly thing. On Fridays. I realise that Friday is tomorrow, so it will be next Friday, not this one.

Sorry for any inconvenience.

Cheers, Carole

Convicts in NSW – an overview of available records Part 2 – Freedom!

ball_and_chain 300x225Continuing my brief description of the records available for the majority of convicts in NSW. As mentioned last week, most convicts were sentenced for transportation for 7 years, 14 years or for life. I have also come across convicts transported for 10 years, mostly from Ireland. A ticket of leave allowed the convict to be self-supporting but restricted movement. For real freedom, the convict had to finish the original sentence or receive a pardon.

A Certificate of freedom was granted to a convict who had served his full sentence. He would make a declaration to the local magistrate who would check the indents, or send to Sydney if he didn’t have a copy of the printed indents, and then issue the certificate. The convict was required to produce the certificate to prove that he wasn’t a runaway.

The indexes to records of surviving certificates of freedom are available on the State Records New South Wales website, and the surviving registers and butts have been microfilmed.

Conditional Pardons were the most usual freedom granted to convicts under a life sentence and were also granted to convicts with a shorter sentence before that sentence had expired. The ‘condition’ was that they remain in the Colony until their full term had been served, and after 1846 that they not return to Great Britain and Ireland or the Colony in which they had been tried for later crimes.

An index to conditional pardons for 1826-1870 is available on State Records New South Wales website. Surviving registers of conditional pardons , copies of conditional pardons and registers of recommendations for conditional pardons have been microfilmed. Some applications for conditional pardons have also survived for years between 1826 and 1845 and have also been microfilmed.

Absolute Pardons represented unconditional freedom, to remain in the Colony, travel elsewhere, or return to Great Britain or Ireland. A small proportion of convicts received and abolute pardon, and most of these chose not to return to their homeland.

Colonial Pardons were granted by the Governor for offences committed in the Colony.

Pardons were more usually granted to convicts with a life sentence. Convicts with a shorter sentence were able to achieve their freedom once their terms had expired, but a life convict was a convict for life unless he earned his freedom. Pardons were usually granted for good behaviour, specialist skills or for fulfilling special responsibilities.

After the “Rum Rebellion” Governor Macquarie assumed control of the Colony in 1809 and required the surrender of all pardons issued during that time. These pardons were then examinied and re-issued if found to have merit.


Most of the freedoms gained by convicts had to be requested, in writing. Letters of application were written by well-educated convicts, or by a clerk at the local court, for which a fee was charged. Reasons for requests included the granting or reinstatement of a ticket of leave or pardon; to live out of the barracks; to have Fridays off to support a family; for information of progress of an earlier application; and for “indulgences” such as to marry, spend bank money or to be assigned elsewhere for family reasons. Many of these letters survive and should be searched in the first instance in the “Colonial Secretary’s Papers”. An index for 1788-1825 is available on the State Records New South Wales website.

Although a convict may have been granted a certificate of freedom or absolute pardon allowing him/her to return to the homeland, most chose not to do so. Life was better here in the Colony than back home, and many sought to bring their families out here. In addition, to return meant paying for the passage, which was expensive.

Next week I will cover records about family and other matters.


State Records New South Wales, Guide to New South Wales State Archives relating to Convicts and Convict Administration. Sydney: State Records Authority of New South Wales, 2006.

State Records New South Wales, Archives in Brief Nos. 2, 34. Sydney: State Records Authority of New South Wales, 2004-5.

Cora Num, Convict Records in Australia. ACT: Cora Num, 2003.

Convicts in NSW – an overview of available records Part 1

ball_and_chain 300x225Many of us are thrilled these days to find that we have a convict amongst our ancestors. How do you find out more about him or her? The administration of the convict system required a lot of paperwork and a great deal of it survives. We can follow the career of a convict and look at the records that were produced at each stage of his/her career.

Trial records for trials in England. If your convict was tried in Middlesex, at the Old Bailey in London, the trial record may be available online at which gives images of the actual record of the trial proceedings. The records of Quarter Sessions courts are held by County Record Offices in England, although the Society of Australian Genealogists may have a copy. Criminal Registers for Middlesex from 1791 and other counties from 1805 give a small amount of information about the trial and have been microfilmed and are available in Sydney.

Convict indents are the lists of convicts delivered to the Colony by the transport ships, and were the official record of the convicts’ arrival. Early lists of arrivals gave the bare minimum of information – name, when and where convicted, and the sentence, usually transportation for 7 or 14 years or for life. Later lists included more information such as age, and later still included occupation, native place, and a physical description. By 1826 the offence, former convictions, religion, marital status, number of children and education were also included.

Early indents were handwritten and bound into volumes and so are now called “bound indents”. Later they were printed and distributed to magistrates and officials to enable them to identify individual convicts – “printed indents”. Magistrates were then in a position to grant tickets of leave and other indulgences.

Convicts may also appear on musters and other lists such as those of embarkation in England or Ireland, or of transportation between colonies.

Assignment once a convict arrived in Sydney he/she was either employed on public works or, more commonly, assigned to a private settler to work and to be fed and clothed. Men were usually employed as field labourers or tradesmen; women as domestic servants or at the Female Factory manufacturing wool and linen. Most of the records of assignment have been lost; lists of “convicts sent to various districts after being disembarked” exist for the years 1814-1826. Musters and censuses can also be used to determine the whereabouts of convicts.

There are records of convicts in iron’d gangs and road parties for a few years in the 1830s and early 1840s. Some convicts were granted exemption from government service and others absconded or ran away, and some of these records still exist. Bound indents for 1826-1832 record “how disposed of” and usually gives assignment after arrival.

Ticket of Leave was the first step towards the convicts’ freedom, allowing the convict to work for himself as long as he stayed in the district for which it was granted. In general, a convict was granted a ticket of leave after 4 years of a 7 year sentence; 6-8 years of a 14 year sentence, or 8-12 years of a life sentence. Some applications for tickets of leave survive; registers for tickets of leave issued for 1810-1814 and 1824-1833; and the ticket of leave butts from 1827-1875 – these are the stubs after the actual ticket of leave was removed and given to the convict. An excellent index to tickets of leave for 1810-1875 is available at the website of the Society of Australian Genealogists.

A ticket of leaver could apply for a “passport” which allowed him to travel to a district other than the one for which his ticket of leave was issued for work purposes. The passport was usually issued for a period of twelve months, after which time it could be renewed. The butts of ticket of leave passorts are available for the years 1835-1869 and show the name, ship and year of arrival, date and place of trial, sentence, ticket of leave number, and what the holder is allowed to do.

Actual freedom for the convict was granted at a later stage, and will be covered in Part 2. Part 3 will cover other records that may be available for convicts, such as requests for permission to marry. Most of the records relating to convicts have been microfilmed and many if not most records have been indexed, allowing quick identification of the records available to individual convicts. The State Records NSW website has many online indexes related to convicts, and the microfilms are available at the State Records NSW Reading Rooms and many libraries. Although indexes can give you a thrill when you find your convict ancestor, the thrill of seeing the actual record about your ancestor is so much greater!


State Records New South Wales, Guide to New South Wales State Archives relating to Convicts and Convict Administration. Sydney: State Records Authority of New South Wales, 2006.

Cora Num, Convict Records in Australia. ACT: Cora Num, 2003.

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