1. Why use this guide?
This guide to finding records of convicts who were transported includes:
- information about how and why transportation developed as a form of punishment
- information about which records can help you trace people who were transported, held by The National Archives and other organisations
- details of other publications and websites which might help your research
You may wish to start your research by consulting our beginners' guide to research on transportees.
2. Essential information
Few records survive about individual convicts who were transported to North America and the West Indies. However, an alphabetical list of convicts transported between 1614 and 1775 has been published - see section 3.1.
Far more records survive of convicts transported to Australia. Many records have been digitised and made available on Australian websites - these are described in this guide. Between 1787 and 1868 over 160,000 people were transported to Australia. There is no single index to their names. In order to find out more about a convict you will need to know when they were tried and/or the date and ship in which they sailed to Australia. There are various sources you can use to find this information - see section 4.1.
You can also find information about a convict who was transported by searching legal records. Some of these are online and some are searchable by name in Discovery, our catalogue. However, many records are not catalogued in this way and searching for the relevant information may prove challenging.
3. Why transportation became a form of punishment
Nowadays we think of imprisonment as one of the more obvious forms of punishment for convicted criminals, but in the past most criminal offences were punished by death or by a fine and/or whipping. Many convicted criminals were pardoned to avoid carrying out a death sentence. Transportation emerged during the seventeenth century as a way of ensuring that criminals were punished without putting them to death.
3.1 Transportation to North America and the West Indies
From 1615 onwards transportation became increasingly common, and initially most convicted criminals were transported to North America or the West Indies. From 1718 onwards transportation was entirely to North America. The period of transportation was usually 14 years for those receiving conditional pardons from death sentences and seven years for non-capital offences.
An alphabetical list of men and women transported between 1614 and 1775, as well as where each person was tried, is printed in Peter Wilson Coldham's book The complete book of emigrants in bondage, 1614-1775. He has also published a book called Bonded passengers to America, which gives a detailed overview of all the published sources of relevant records in The National Archives.
Finding out more about a person transported to North America or the West Indies is likely to be difficult, but you might be able to trace a person among legal records - see sections 4.3, 4.4 and 4.5.
3.2 Transportation to Australia
The American Revolution of 1776 meant that transportation to North America was no longer possible. Sentences of transportation were still passed, but convicts were held in prison while the government tried to find somewhere to send them. The prisons soon became overcrowded, and extra accommodation had to be provided in old ships (the 'hulks') moored in coastal waters. The solution to the crisis was to develop a new penal colony, and on 13 May 1787 the first fleet set sail for Australia.
The first fleet consisted of six transport ships, together with two warships and three store-ships. They transported 717 convicts, 48 of whom died on the journey, and arrived at Port Jackson in January 1788. The names of the convicts transported are listed in P G Fidlon and R J Ryan, ed, The first fleeters. A list of convicts transported on the second fleet of ships, which left in 1789 and during which 278 died, has also been compiled in R J Ryan, ed, The second fleet convicts.
Transportation was not formally abolished until 1868, but in practice it was effectively stopped in 1857, and had become increasingly unusual well before that date. During the 80 years in which people were transported to Australia, 158,702 convicts arrived in Australia from England and Ireland, and 1,321 from other parts of the Empire, making a total of 160,023 men and women transported.
Before starting your search you might find it useful to consult some of the books on the reading list below. Bound for Australia and Criminal ancestors: a guide to historical criminal records in England and Wales, both by David T Hawkings, give transcripts and facsimiles of the many different types of document that you may want to consult.
4. Tracing a convict in legal records
4.1 Finding trial dates and ships
There are several published censuses or musters of the penal colonies, listed in further reading (section 7). These often indicate the place of conviction and the date and ship of arrival in Australia. For convicts arriving in the first or second fleets, consult the publications discussed in section 3.2.
The microfiche index to the New South Wales convict indents and ships, available as a CD-Rom in The National Archives' library, was compiled by the Genealogical Society of Victoria. It records the names and aliases of the convicts who arrived in New South Wales and Van Dieman's Land between 1788 and 1842, and also indexes ships recorded on the same documents.
The criminal registers in HO 26 (Middlesex prisoners, 1791-1849) or HO 27 (Middlesex prisoners not tried at the Old Bailey, 1809-11, all Middlesex prisoners 1850-1892, and provincial prisoners 1805-1892) can be searched by name at Ancestry.co.uk (subscription required).
The transportation registers in HO 11 (1787-1871), which can be searched by name on the State Library of Queensland website, provide the name of the ship on which the convict sailed as well as the date and place of conviction and the term of the sentence.
4.2 Petitions for clemency and judges' reports
Applications for clemency, known as a petitions, sometimes contain personal information about the petitioner. People asking for clemency or a pardon wanted to prove that they were worthy of mercy, so they often included a lot of information designed to establish how respectable they were. For this reason, the petitions often include the kind of details about personal circumstances and family background of interest to family historians.
Petitions for clemency are in HO 17 (1819-1839) and HO 18 (1839-1854). They are arranged in coded bundles: you will need to use the registers in HO 19 to identify the right one. The registers are arranged by the date of receipt of the petition. They date back to 1797 and include information about the response to the petition, so you can sometimes find out something useful about a convict even if the petition itself does not survive.
Reports and returns from the judges can also be very informative. They sometimes include an unofficial transcript of evidence (together with comments on the characters of both witnesses and juries) as well as memorials and petitions from friends and relatives of the accused. The judges' reports are in HO 47 (1784-1829), and can be searched by name and/or keyword (for example, crime or place) in the Catalogue. Judge's circuit letters are in HO 6 (1816-1840).
4.3 Finding the right court
Trial records are very formal, and do not normally contain either transcripts of evidence or any information about age and family relationships. In addition, the information given about occupation and residence can be inaccurate.
Convicts were sentenced to transportation after trials at assizes, quarter sessions, or the Old Bailey. If the trial took place at quarter sessions, the record will be held at the relevant local archive. If it was at the assizes, the documentation will be at The National Archives. For trials at the Old Bailey see section 4.5.
To find records of the trial you will need to know where the trial was held. In addition to HO 11, HO 26 and HO 27, mentioned in section 4.1, the date and place of trial may in many cases be ascertained from prison registers, which indicate where the prisoner was held before trial, and any movements from prison to prison. Many include an index of prisoners. Other records which might help you trace a trial are:
- registers of county prisons, 1847-66, in HO 23
- prison registers and returns, 1838-75, in HO 24
- miscellaneous registers relating to convict prison hulks, 1802-1849, in HO 9
- quarterly returns of convicts in prisons and hulks, 1824-76, in HO 8
- lists of crews and convicts on convict hulks, 1802-31, in T 38
- a list of hulks in 1830 in T 38/338
- lists of prisoners tried at Newgate, 1782-1853, in HO 77
- calendars of prisoners held for trial at quarter sessions and assizes, 1774-1882, in PCOM 2
For more information about criminal courts, see the research guide on criminals and convicts.
4.4 Assize records
Surviving records of assize trials are held in The National Archives. For more information about assize records and which record series to search, see the research guides Assizes: criminal trials 1559-1971 and Assizes: key to series for ciminal trials 1559-1971.
A full statement of the charge appears on the indictment contained within the trial records. The parish of origin given in the indictment is not necessarily accurate: it was often assumed (incorrectly) to be the place where the crime was committed. Other details noted are very basic, containing nothing about origins, parentage or the course of the trial. Before searching the indictments it is worth looking in any surviving agenda books (which set out the basic charge and sentence) or in the crown or minute books to determine the law term (winter, lent, summer or autumn) when the trial took place. Agenda books and crown or minute books are arranged by county - see the research guide Assizes: key to series for ciminal trials 1559-1971.
Depositions, usually filed with indictments, give written evidence of witnesses, and can be very informative.
4.5 Trials at the Old Bailey
Records of Old Bailey trials for London (to 1834) and Middlesex (to 1834), are held by the London Metropolitan Archives. Those of the Central Criminal Court at the Old Bailey (from 1834) are held by The National Archives.
From 1834 the Central Criminal Court at the Old Bailey served as the assize court for London and Middlesex and parts of Essex, Kent and Surrey. The Old Bailey sessions papers (PCOM 1) contain incomplete sets of the printed proceedings for the London and Middlesex sessions, 1801-38, and CRIM 10 contains similar material for the Central Criminal Court from 1834. Old Bailey sessions papers, 1815-49 (HO 16), list prisoners to be tried at the Old Bailey. Calendars for Newgate prison are in HO 77.
Old Bailey proceedings from 1674 to 1913 are now available at Old Bailey online.
4.6 Commutation of death sentences to transportation
As mentioned above, death sentences, other than those for murder, were commonly commuted to transportation. Petitions on behalf of prisoners are in HO 17 (1819-39) - these are partially name-searchable on the catalogue) - and HO 18 (1839-54), with registers of petitions, dating back to 1797, in HO 19. There are further petitions in HO 48 and HO 49.
The circuit letters in HO 6 (1816-40) contain regular returns from the justices, including material about commutation. The judges' reports in HO 47 (1784-1829) give details and supporting evidence for commutation or for the grant of a free pardon in some cases. These are searchable by name and keyword in our catalogue. Home Office warrants for pardons and reprieves are in HO 13 (1782-1849), and HO 15 (1850-71). Records of criminals can be found in HO 45 and HO 144. These series can be searched by name in our catalogue.
5. Other records of transportation
Contracts with agents to transport the prisoners, with full lists of ships and convicts, are in TS 18/460-515 and TS 18/1308-1361 with a few stray lists, 1840-43, in PC 1/2715-2719. These records can be searched by name of ship in the Catalogue. Accounts of legal expenses for transportation to New South Wales, including convicts' names, 1789-1830, are in AO 3/291.
Some wives applied to accompany their convicted husbands. Their petitions, covering 1819-44, are in PC 1/67-92 and from 1849 in HO 12, identified via the registers in HO 14 (under 'miscellaneous'). The Privy Council correspondence in PC 1/67-92 contains additional material about transportation, as do the Privy Council registers (PC 2), which also give lists of convicts transported for 14 years or less. These series can be searched in the Catalogue by date.
Reports on the medical condition of convicts while at sea are in Admiralty medical journals in ADM 101, 1817-1853. These records are partially searchable by name and keyword in the Catalogue.
The Admiralty Transport Department's records in MT 32, 1858-67, also provide medical information about convicts and are searchable by name of ship in the Catalogue. There is further information, such as what convicts had to eat, in ADM 108, covering 1773-1868. For the voyage itself see the captains' logs in ADM 51 (convict vessels are listed under 'transports'); captains' despatches in ADM 1; masters' logs in ADM 52; and ships' logs in ADM 53. Particulars of merchant navy ships used as convict transports are in BT 107 (1786-1854) and BT 108 (1855-1859).
6. Settlement in Australia
Although individual convicts as well as policy decisions may be noted in Colonial Office records relating to Australia - see Colonial Office index under individual states (available in the reading rooms at The National Archives at Kew) - these are not easy to search for particular named criminals.
Censuses, primarily concerned with the convict population, were, however, taken periodically between 1788 and 1859, and are in HO 10. Transcripts of the returns are available on ancestry.com.au (subscription required), and can be searched online by name, date and keyword. The census of 1828 for New South Wales, in HO 10/21-27, is the most complete and therefore the most valuable. It contains the names of more than 35,000 people with details of age, religion, family, place of residence, occupation, and stock or land held. In addition, there is an indication as to whether each settler came free or as a convict, or was born in the colony. The name of the ship and the year of arrival are also given. HO 10 also contains material about convicts' pardons and tickets of leave from New South Wales and Tasmania, 1834-59. Correspondence, including material on the deaths of convicts in New South Wales, 1829-34, is in HO 7/2.
The Archives Office of Tasmania has a database listing all 76,000 convicts transported there from 1804-1853, searchable by name. Further advice on researching a convict transported to Australia, including specific information on many such convicts and transport ships, is available at convictcentral.com.
There are further lists of convicts, together with emigrant settlers, 1801-1821, in New South Wales original correspondence in CO 201, and in entry books relating to convicts in CO 207, 1788-1825. CO 207 is available in microfilm only: the originals are now held in the State Archives of New South Wales. Other names can be traced in New South Wales registers (CO 360 and CO 369), from 1849, and entry books (CO 202), from 1786. Some of the lists from these records have been printed in L L Robson, The convict settlers of Australia.
7. Further reading
Baxter, Carol J (ed):
- General muster of New South Wales, 1814 (1987)
- General musters of New South Wales, Norfolk Island and Van Diemen's Land, 1811 (1987)
- General muster and land and stock muster of New South Wales, 1822 (1988)
- Muster and lists: New South Wales and Norfolk Island, 1800-1802 (1988)
- Musters of New South Wales and Norfolk Island, 1805-1806 (1989)
- General muster list of New South Wales 1823, 1824, 1825 (1999)
Bateson, Charles, The convict ships 1787-1868 (1983)
Brooke, Alan, and Brandon, David, Bound for Botany Bay: British convict voyages to Australia (2005)
Fidlon, P G, and Ryan, R J (eds), The first fleeters: a comprehensive listing of convicts, marines, seamen, officers, wives, children and ships (1981)
Flynn, Michael, The second fleet: Britain's grim convict armada of 1790 (2001)
Gillen, Mollie, The founders of Australia: a biographical dictionary of the first fleet (1989)
Hawkings, David T, Bound for Australia (1987)
Hawkings, David T, Criminal ancestors: a guide to historical criminal records in England and Wales (1992)
Hughes, Robert, The fatal shore: a history of transportation of convicts to Australia, 1787-1868 (1987)
Robson, L L, The convict settlers of Australia (1981)
Ryan, R J (ed), The Second Fleet convicts: a comprehensive listing of convicts who sailed in HMS Guardian, Lady Juliana, Neptune, Scarborough and Surprise (1982)