House of Commons Parliamentary Papers

The Colonies of Australia were often discussed in the British Parliament, and much of the relevant correspondence and reports were printed and distributed for the information of the Members. The success of the colonies, convicts, immigration, churches; all were subjects of interest to the  Parliament. Although rarely mentioning individuals by name these reports can be very useful to historians.

The Parliamentary Papers for the British House of Commons have been digitised and categorised for the use of researchers. The website is http://parlipapers.chadwyck.co.uk but you need to have a login and password to enter it.

Fortunately, if you have a Library Card from the National Library of Australia you can access the site for free. Just go to the Library’s homepage and click on eResources in the top right hand corner. Here you can enter your Library Card number and your family name. If you don’t have a Library Card you can request one, and it will be posted within a couple of weeks.

Once you’ve logged in using your Library Card go down to Find a resource and type in ‘House of Commons’. Accept the terms and conditions. If you then Browse Subject Catalogue you need to get down to The dominions and colonies:

Parliamentary Papers for Australia and New Zealand

I suggest you have a good look around in here, depending on your interest. If we open the Australian settlementswe can see:

Australian settlements

Here is a partial list of results for Convicts:

1834 (82) Secondary punishment. (Australia.) Correspondence, on the subject of secondary punishment.

1834 (614) Secondary punishment. (Australia.) Further correspondence on the subject of secondary punishment.

1841 Session 1 (412) Secondary punishment. (New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land.) Return to an address of the Honourable the House of Commons, dated 7 June 1841;–for, copies or extracts of any correspondence between the Secretary of State and the Governor of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land, on the subject of secondary punishment.

1851 (130) Convict discipline and transportation. Copies of all petitions on the subject of convict discipline and transportation, which have been presented to the House of Commons from any part of Australia or Van Diemen’s Land since the year 1838, with the number of signatures attached to each petition.

1851 (280) Convict discipline and transportation. Copies of all petitions on the subject of convict discipline and transportation, which have been presented to Her Majesty, from any part of Australia or Van Diemen’s Land, since the year 1838, with the number of signatures attached to each petition.

1854 [1795] Convict discipline and transportation. Australian colonies. Further correspondence on the subject of convict discipline and transportation (in continuation of papers presented July 18, 1853.)

1854-55 [1916] [1988] Australian colonies. Convict discipline and transportation. Further correspondence on the subject of convict discipline and transportation. (In continuation of papers presented May 1854.)

1856 [2101] Australian colonies. Convict discipline and transportation. Further correspondence on the subject of convict discipline and transportation. (In continuation of papers presented August 1855.)

1857 Session 1 [2197] Australian colonies. Convict discipline and transportation. Further correspondence on the subject of convict discipline and transportation. (In continuation of papers presented 2 June 1856.)

1860 (454) Convicts (Western Australia, &c.). Returns of the total cost to the Imperial Treasury of the convict establishments in Western Australia, including the expense of transporting convicts thereto, and the military charges thereat; the estimated European population in each of the Australian colonies, &c.; also, copies of the acts now in force in the several Australian colonies and the Cape of Good Hope for preventing the introduction of persons convicted of felony.

1861 [2796] Australian colonies. Convict discipline and transportation. Further correspondence on the subject of convict discipline and transportation.

1863 (505) Transportation (Australia). Copies of memorials received by the Secretary of State for the Colonies since 1 January 1863, in favour of or against transportation to any part of Australia; of addresses to Her Majesty from the legislative bodies in Australia on the same subject; of minutes or addresses by executive councils in Australia on the same subject, which have been transmitted to the Secretary of State; and, of the resolution adopted by the conference of delegates from New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, and Tasmania, which recently met at Melbourne.

1864 [3357] Transportation. Copies or extracts of despatches lately received from the governors of the Australian colonies. With petitions against the continuance of transportation.

1865 [3424] Correspondence relative to the discontinuance of transportation.

Here is a partial list for New South Wales settlements:

1810 (45) A return of the number of persons, male or female, who have been transported as criminals to New South Wales since the first establishment of the colony: specifying, the term for which each person was transported;–the date and place of conviction;–and the time of embarkation to New South Wales: (except 607 persons, who were transported as criminals to New South Wales in the spring of 1787.)

1810-11 (38) A return of the number of persons, male or female, who have been transported as criminals to New South Wales since the month of August 1809; specifying the term for which each person was transported;–the date and place of conviction; and the time of embarkation.

1812 (97) A return of the number of persons, male and female, who have been transported as criminals to New South Wales, since the month of July 1810; specifying, the term for which each person was transported; the date and place of conviction; and, the time of embarkation.

1814-15 (354) An account of the number of persons, male and female,–(distinguishing and stating the ages of those under 21 years of age,)–who have been transported as criminals to New South Wales, in the years 1812, 1813, 1814, and 1815. 1.

1816 (314) An account of the number of convicts who have died in their passage to New South Wales, since the year 1810; distinguishing the names of the ships in which the deaths have occurred.

1816 (315) An account of the number of convicts landed in New South Wales, since the year 1810; distinguishing the ships in which they were conveyed from this country: so far as the same has been received. 2.

1816 (366) An account of the expense of victualling the several ships taking convicts to the settlement of New South Wales and its dependencies; and also of the provisions provided and sent by this department thither, in each of the years, from the year 1811, to the 11th April 1816.

1816 (431) An account of the annual expense of the transportation of convicts to New South Wales and its dependencies, and of the total annual expense of those settlements, since the year 1811; according to the form of the appendix to the report of the committee of finance, presented to the House of Commons, 26th June 1798. Whitehall Treasury Chambers 7th June 1816.

1816 (450) Papers relating to His Majesty’s settlements at New South Wales: 1811-1814.

1817 (237) 1. An estimate of the sum which may be wanted to defray the expense attending the confining, maintaining, and employing convicts at home; for the year 1817. 2. An estimate of the sum that may probably be wanted to defray the amount of bills drawn, or to be drawn, from New South Wales; for the year 1817.

1817 (276) Return of the number of persons, male and female;–distinguishing the ages of those under twenty-one years of age; stating their respective ages, who have been transported as criminals to New South Wales, since the 1st January 1812; specifying the term for which each was transported, the date and place of conviction, and the time of embarkation.

1818 (418) Return of the number of persons, who have been sent to New South Wales, under sentence of seven years transportation, from the 1st of January 1816, to the 1st of January 1818; distinguishing each year, also the sex of the prisoners, and classing them according to their respective ages.

1819 (191) An account of the annual expense of the transportation of convicts to New South Wales and its dependencies, and of the total annual expense of those settlements, since the year 1815.

The documents are all downloadable as PDF files, and some of them are quite large. Here is an example from 1816 (450) Papers relating to His Majesty’s settlements at New South Wales: 1811-1814:

Papers related to NSW 1816 page 12

HOUSE OF COMMONS PAPERS; ACCOUNTS AND PAPERS Volume/Page XVIII.299; Papers relating to His Majesty's settlements at New South Wales: 1811-1814, Paper number (450), page 13.

These documents are indispensable to historians and are easily obtainable for Australian residents. Libraries and universities in other countries may have similar arrangements, so it’s worth checking. All colonies are represented.

Convict numbers

ball_and_chain 300x225I’ve been reading a classic book on the transportation of convicts to Australia called Convicts and the Colonies by A.G.L. Shaw (Melbourne University Press, 1977), who was Professor of History at Monash University in Melbourne. I’d like to share some numbers with you.

Numbers of convicts transported

From May 1787 to March 1792 4077 males and 769 females were transported from England, an average total of about 1000 per year. The transportation process was interrupted during the Napoleonic Wars, as convict labour was needed in the dockyards and in the services. Only 5263 males and 1810 females sent between 1793 and 1810, an annual average of only 292 men and 100 women over 18 years.

From 1811 to 1815 tranportation steadily rose but only after the end of the Wars in 1815 did the crime rate increased and the transportation rate likewise was increased. From 1816 to 1825 the annual average was 2600 per year. In 1827 the new Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel, reformed the penal laws and as a result the annual average rose to 4160 per year due to more police and changes in punishments for different crimes.

Sentences

The most popular transportation sentence was for 7 years, applying to over half of all those transported. “A quarter were sentenced for life, but the proportion of lifers alowly declined as time went on. Nearly all the remainder received fourteen years until 1840; after that ten-year sentences became fairly common.” (p. 149)

Before 1818 only a third of those sentenced or respited from a death sentence to transportation were actually put on a transport ship; the rest got no further than the hulks – old, unseaworthy ships acting as prisons. In the 1820s at least two-thirds were actually transported; about three-quarters declining to two-thirds in the 1830s; and back to three-quarters in the early 1840s. “Lifers” were usually sent, as were most prisoners in their twenties. In general the old and the sick were not, although there were exceptions.

Crimes

So many crimes carried a sentence of death or transportation in those days that once one crime was proven at trial there was no real need to prove any others. So although the convict may have been “known” to local authorities and suspected of a great many crimes, only one, perhaps the easiest to prove, was needed to send him or her away. A bad reputation could result in a harsher punishment. Estimates have been made by Shaw and others that show that approximately two-thirds of convicts had had previous convictions. Before 1840 most first-offenders were sent to New South Wales with the more hardened criminals being sent to Van Diemen’s Land.

Most transported convicts came from the cities – London and Middlesex, and the industrial towns in Lancashire. The most common crime by far was larceny. A disproportionate share of first offenders came from these large cities, as an attempt to discourage this type of crime. Many rural offenders were convicted of poaching – not from threat of starvation, but well-equipped organised poaching for profit. They were often guilty, or suspected, of violence or other types of crimes such as “making free with their neighbours’ property” (p. 158). Only about 300 convicted poachers were transported during the whole period of transportation. A third of transported convicts tried in rural counties were born elsewhere, indicating a high level of wandering.

Fewer than a thousand transported convicts from England were political prisoners, including trade unionists and rioting agricultural labourers.

Women

About one-sixth of transported convicts were women. Predominantly single, from the cities, especially London and in Lancashire, and on average three years older than the men. Two-thirds were found “guilty of larceny or stealing wearing apparel” (p. 164). It is difficult to know how many were actually prostitutes, although it must be remembered that contemporary attitudes branded almost any woman a prostitute who did not conform to the strict moral standards of the day.

The Scots

“Per head of population, the Scottish rate of transportation was less than a quarter that of England between 1810 and 1821, and only about two-fifths after 1830; as a result Scottish criminals were far less common in Australia than English or Irish…” (p. 165). 85 per cent were sentenced for theft of some kind, but were, in general, more serious offenders. The Scots were first sent to the hulks at Portsmouth or Woolwich, and from there were sent together with the English to Australia.

The Irish

The Irish convicts are given a whole chapter in Shaw’s book. I will only give a few details. Nearly 30,000 men and 9000 women were transported directly from Ireland, about a quarter of the total numbers. In general they were two years older than British convicts; more were married; less were juveniles; and far more were from the country rather than the cities. Far more were first offenders except for those from Dublin and Cork. Probably one-fifth were nationalists and social rebels fighting against English domination. In addition about 6000 had settled in England and been convicted of similar crimes to the native English offenders – namely larceny.

That’s enough for today. I highly recommend this book to you if you want to know more about the convict system in NSW.

Switch to our desktop site