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.

Correspondence

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.

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.

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.

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