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 http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/search/ 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!

Sources

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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