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Convicts first arrived in Australia in 1788, when the British government established a penal colony at Port Jackson, Sydney Bay. Records about convicts transported to Australia are numerous and play a major role in Australian family history research.
History of Transportation to Australia
New South Wales holds more convict records than any other state. Of the approximately 150,000 convicts transported to Australia from Great Britain between 1788 and 1850, nearly 90,000 of them went to the region of New South Wales, which then covered a substantial portion of Australia. To learn more, read the following guides.
By 1829 convicts or ex-convicts made up approximately 65 percent of the population of New South Wales. The ex-convicts had received either a ticket of leave, a certificate of freedom, or a pardon.
The first fleet of ships carrying convicts to Australia arrived first in Tasmania. First Fleet Online contains a searchable database of those in this fleet.
Handbooks and Guides
Indexes and records of convicts are available in a variety of formats including microfiche, microfilm, book and CD. Some indexes and guides are available on the internet and generally provide information for further research in material in State Archives and libraries. See Convicts to Australia - A Guide to Researching your Convict Ancestors.
The punishment of "transportation" for a crime tried in London by the Old Bailey Court resulted in exile to Australia after the American Revolutionary War. The website below is searchable by several categories including by name for the punishment of Transportation:
Proceedings of the Old Bailey 1674-1834
A partial index of convicts arriving in Australia is available at Claim a Convict.
Types of Convict Records
Tickets of leave
Issued to convicts having served about half of their sentences with good behavior. These tickets allowed convicts to seek employment as they wished, limited their movement to a certain district for the remainder of their sentences. Prior to 1828, bench magistrates granted tickets of leave and approved applications for convicts to marry. The actual ticket of leave was issued to the convict; the government retained the ticket of leave butts. Ticket of leave butts listed the convict’s name, ship, and date of arrival, native place, trade or calling, date and place of trial and sentence, a physical description, and the district to which he or she was confined.
Certificates of Freedom
A document stating that a convict's sentence had been served and was usually given to convicts with a 7, 10 or 14 year sentence or when they received a pardon. Convicts with a life sentence could receive a Pardon, but not a Certificate of Freedom. The Certificate of Freedom number was sometimes annotated on the indent or noted on a Ticket of Leave Butt. Colonial Certificates of Freedom relate to sentences received for offenses committed after arrival in the colony. The government retained certificates of freedom butts, which were similar to ticket of leave butts.
Both conditional and absolute, were generally granted to convicts with life sentences. Conditional pardons required that the ex-convict never return to the British Isles or his or her pardon would be void. Absolute pardons allowed an ex-convict to return to the British Isles if he or she wished. Pardons contain information similar to tickets of leave.
Lists that were made when convicts arrived on transport ships. Information given in indents is similar to that in tickets of leave but also includes a convict’s marital status and number of children and whether the convict was literate.
- New South Wales index to convict indents for 1788–1842 is held by the Archives Office of New South Wales.
- Tasmania received more than 60,000 convicts from Great Britain in addition to convicts from other colonies. The ticket of leave butts and certificate of freedom butts for the over 67,000 convicts sent to Tasmania have not survived. The main records for Tasmanian convicts are the convict conduct registers. Information contained in these registers are similar to the tickets of leave and certificates of freedom. Description lists are also available for Tasmanian convicts and give detailed descriptions of the convicts. See Index to convict applications for permission to marry 1829-1857.
- Western Australia Swan River Convicts 1850-1868.
- South Australia never received convicts. See South Australian transported convicts 1837-1851.
- Victoria and Queensland did not become separate, self-governing colonies until after convict transportation to eastern Australia ceased. Thus, these areas do not have convict records. Technically, during the transportation era, no convicts were transported to the Port Phillip District of New South Wales, however convicts did find their way to the District. Please observe the copyright requirements for the following site: PRO Victoria - Convict Records.
Family History Library
The Family History Library has copies of the following:
- Guide to the convict records in the Archives Office of New South Wales. Sydney, Australia: The Archives Authority, 1970. (FHL book 994.4 A35g no. 14 or on film no. 908277 Item 1.)
Records about convicts are found under several topics in the Family History Library Catalog . Use the Place Search under:
- AUSTRALIA - CONVICT RECORDS
- AUSTRALIA, [STATE] - CONVICT RECORDS
- AUSTRALIA - CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTIONS
The Family History Library has a large collection of records generated by correctional institutions. Correctional institutions, including jails and penal colonies, created many valuable genealogical records. Such records include jail entrance and charge books, musters of convicts and prisoners, registers of sentences and punishments, registers of prisoner conduct, petitions for mitigation of sentences, and registers of sentences remitted or commuted. Additional Correctional Institutions records are available by adding a State or Town to the Place Search:
AUSTRALIA - CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTIONS
AUSTRALIA, [STATE] - CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTIONS
AUSTRALIA, [STATE], [TOWN] - CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTIONS
Related topics include:
- AUSTRALIA - CENSUS
- AUSTRALIA - COURT RECORDS
- AUSTRALIA - EMIGRATION AND IMMIGRATION
- AUSTRALIA - PUBLIC RECORDS
For Further Reading
The following books are good sources for further information about convicts and the English penal and transportation systems:
- Bateson, Charles. The Convict Ships. 2nd ed. Glasgow, Scotland: Brown, Son & Ferguson, 1969. (FHL book 994 H2b.)
- Cobley, John F. C. C. The Crimes of the First Fleet Convicts. Sydney, Australia: Angus & Robertson, 1970. (FHL book 994 P2c.)
- Hughes, Robert. The Fatal Shore. New York, NY, USA: Alfred A. Knoft, 1987. (FHL book 994 H2hr.)