How to look for records of... Criminal transportation

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1. Why use this guide?

This guide will help you find records of people sentenced to transportation. The National Archives holds records of many criminal trials and convictions – as well as convict voyages, censuses and pardons – and this guide explains how these are indexed and how they can be searched. It also outlines which details can be useful when starting your research, and contains background information on the history of criminal transportation.

2. Before you start

Before 1776, all convicts sentenced to transportation were sent to North America and the West Indies. Few records of these individuals survive, though legal records from this period may contain useful information.

After 1776, all criminal transportation was to modern-day Australia, specifically New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land (modern-day Tasmania). Many more records survive from this period but, as few are indexed by name, finding an individual can still be difficult. Your chances of success will be much better if you begin with some information about the person you’re looking for.

Try to find out:

  • when and where the convict was tried
  • the name of the ship on which they were transported
  • the date on which the ship sailed

Other records that we hold may help you find this information: consult our guides to criminals and convicts.

3. What can I see online?

Records of transportees to Australia, 1787-1879

Convict censuses, musters, pardons and tickets of leave, including series HO 10, HO 11 and CO 209/7, can be searched at ancestry.com.au (£). The New South Wales census (HO 10/21 – HO 10/27) is the most complete. You can often find:

  • biographical information
  • whether each settler came free or as a convict, or was born in the colony
  • the name of their ship and their year of arrival

HO 10 contains material about convicts’ pardons and tickets of leave from New South Wales and Tasmania, 1834-59.

HO 10 and HO 11 can be downloaded free of charge from Discovery, our catalogue; however, please be aware that these are very large files, suitable only for download via a fast and unlimited broadband connection.

Index to Tasmanian convicts, 1804-1853

Search the index to Tasmanian convicts (archives council of Tasmania) by name to see some digitised records, including conduct records, indents and descriptions.

Criminal registers for England and Wales, 1791-1892

Search criminal registers for England and Wales (HO 26 and HO 27), 1791 to 1892, on Ancestry.co.uk (£).

Criminals, convicts and prisoners, 1770-1934

Assorted records of criminals, convicts and prisoners can be searched on on Findmypast.co.uk (£), though many do not relate to criminal transportation.

4. Where to start

A list of men and women transported to North America between 1614 and 1775 is included in The Complete Book of Emigrants in Bondage 1614-1775 by Peter Wilson Coldham. The list also details where each person was tried. Bonded Passengers to America, also by Peter Wilson Coldham, gives a detailed overview of all relevant records and published sources in The National Archives. Finding out more about a person transported to North America or the West Indies is likely to be difficult, though legal records can be useful.

While there is no single index of the names of people transported to Australia, various lists of names exist, both in published books and among our records. Few of these contain any other biographical information, so further research usually involves legal records.

The names of convicts transported with the first fleet, which sailed in May 1787 and reached Australia in January 1788, are listed in The First Fleeters, edited by P.G Fidlon and R.J Ryan. A similar list for the second fleet, which left in 1789 and suffered 278 deaths during its voyage, is included in The Second Fleet Convicts, compiled and edited by R. J Ryan.

The microfiche index to the New South Wales convict indents and ships, compiled by the Genealogical Society of Victoria, can be consulted in our reading rooms. It records the names and aliases of the convicts who arrived in New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land between 1788 and 1842 and also contains an index of ships.

5. Using the records

Legal records

These can be useful in researching transported convicts. Most are records of trials, and though a few can be searched by name you will usually need to know where and when the trial took place:

This information has been digitised from many different records. A list is available through the findmypast search page, though not all the documents mentioned are available online.

Records of trials held at quarter sessions are held by local archives. Contact details can be found using find an archive.

Pardons and reduced sentences

In many cases convicts appealed to be pardoned or to have their sentences reduced, while transportation itself was often used as a reduced sentence for a convict who might otherwise have been executed. The records of these appeals can be very useful.

Applications for pardons are officially known as petitions, and were sometimes made by friends, relatives and other associates on behalf of the convict. They include information aimed at establishing the convict’s good character and proving them worthy of merciful treatment, often including details of their personal circumstances and family background. These can be found in various ways:

  • through our catalogue or findmypast.co.uk, by name of the prisoner or the person asking for a pardon, for records from 1819-1839. Only some of these records are available to view online
  • through petitions for clemency in records series HO 17 and HO 18. First you will need to search the registers in series HO 19, available on findmypast (£)

Many petitions in HO 17 and HO 18 are available to search online. However, some have not been digitised, so you will need to use the coded references to petitions in HO 19. These consist of letters (numbers from 1839) for the bundle and a number for the papers within the bundle. For example, the code Rk 44 for William Ashton leads to HO 17/92, which contains papers from bundles Rk-R1. Meanwhile the code 351.10 for William Scott leads to HO 18/351.

Be aware that bundles with codes that end in letters A-G (e.g Aa, Ba, Ab etc.) are missing, and that some entries prior to 1839 have been given numerical rather than alphabetical codes; these bundles do not appear to have survived.

  • through judges’ reports from 1784-1829, which are in series HO 47 and can be searched by name and keyword in our catalogue. These can include details of evidence from the trial as well as comments from witnesses, juries and the friends and relatives of the accused
  • through judges’ circuit letters from 1816-1840, which are arranged by date in series HO 6, and contain more material about the decision to reduce sentences
  • through records series HO 48, HO 49, HO 13, HO 45 and HO 144, all of which can be searched on our catalogue and may contain more information

6. More about criminal transportation

Before transportation most criminal offences were punished by death, a fine or whipping. Transportation provided an alternative punishment for crimes which were considered serious, but not worthy of execution. The usual period of transportation was 14 years for convicts receiving conditional pardons from death sentences or seven years for lesser offences.

The American Revolution of 1776 meant that transportation to North America was no longer possible. Sentences of transportation were still passed, with convicts held in prison while the government considered alternative destinations. The prisons soon became overcrowded and extra accommodation had to be provided in derelict ships (or hulks) moored in coastal waters. The solution was to develop new penal colonies in modern day Australia, and on 13 May 1787 the first fleet set sail.

Transportation was not formally abolished until 1868, but it had been effectively stopped in 1857 and had become unusual well before that date. During its 80-year history 158,702 convicts arrived in Australia from England and Ireland, as well as 1,321 from other parts of the Empire.

7. Further reading

Some or all of the recommended publications below may be available to buy from The National Archives’ Bookshop. Alternatively, search our library catalogue to see which are available to consult in the reading rooms.

Charles Bateson, The convict ships 1787-1868 (1983)

Alan Brooke, and David Brandon, Bound for Botany Bay: British convict voyages to Australia (2005)

PG Fidlon and RJ Ryan (eds), The first fleeters: a comprehensive listing of convicts, marines, seamen, officers, wives, children and ships (1981)

Michael Flynn, The second fleet: Britain’s grim convict armada of 1790 (2001)

Mollie Gillen, The founders of Australia: a biographical dictionary of the first fleet (1989)

David T Hawkings, Bound for Australia (2012)

David T Hawkings, Criminal ancestors: a guide to historical criminal records in England and Wales (2009)

Robert Hughes, The fatal shore: a history of transportation of convicts to Australia, 1787-1868 (1987)

LL Robson, The convict settlers of Australia (1981)

RJ Ryan (ed), The second fleet convicts: a comprehensive listing of convicts who sailed in HMS Guardian, Lady Juliana, Neptune, Scarborough and Surprise (1982)

Guide reference: Legal Records Information 17