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Guide reference: Legal Records Information 17
Last updated: 31 March 2011

1. Why use this guide?

This guide expands on the advice provided in our introductory guide to criminal transportees, suggesting further avenues of research in your search for a convict transported to Australia, North America or the West Indies.

2. Essential information

2.1 For records of convicts sent to North America and the West Indies

Few records survive about individual convicts who were transported to North America and the West Indies.

From 1718 to 1776 transportation was entirely to North America.

After 1776 no convicts were sent to North America. The legal records discussed in section 5 that cover dates before 1776 may contain material on transportees shipped across the Atlantic but they are significantly less numerous than records of convicts sent to Australia.

2.2 For records of convicts sent to Australia

Between 1787 and 1868 over 160,000 people were transported to Australia and there is a wealth of records to search within for details of them.

Before starting your search, you might find it useful to consult the following books, both by David T Hawkings, which give transcripts and facsimiles of the many different types of document that you may come across in your research for records of convicts sent to Australia:

3. Lists of convicts transported to North America and the West Indies

An alphabetical list of men and women transported between 1614 and 1775, as well as where each person was tried, is printed in:

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. You might be able to trace a person among legal records - see section 5.

4. Lists of convicts transported to Australia

There is no single name index for transportees to Australia. There are, however, various lists of names of convicts, some in published books, others within records at The National Archives. Few of these contain any other biographical information. To find out more about a convict you will need to consult the records and sources suggested in sections 5 and 6 of this guide and in our introductory guide on criminal transportees.

The names of the convicts transported with the First Fleet, which set sail in May 1787 and arrived in Australia in January 1788, are listed in:

The names of convicts transported on the second fleet of ships, which left in 1789 and during which 278 died, are listed in:

You can access the microfiche index to the New South Wales convict indents and ships compiled by the Genealogical Society of Victoria at The National Archives, Kew. 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.

5. Tracing a convict in legal records

You can find information about a transported convict amongst legal records, most commonly records of trials.

Though a small percentage of trial records are searchable by the tried person's name, to find most records of trials you will need to know when and where the trial was held.

5.1 Finding the place and date of trial

Convicts were sentenced to transportation after trials at Courts of Assizes, Courts of Quarter Sessions or the Old Bailey. The Old Bailey was the assize court for London and Middlesex and parts of Essex, Kent and Surrey, and from 1834 became known as the Central Criminal Court.

To find which court a convict was tried in and when the trial was held:

  • search the criminal registers 1791-1892 by name, at Ancestry.co.uk (£); these are digitised versions of HO 26 and HO 27 records
  • search the transportation registers 1787-1871 by name, on the State Library of Queensland website, for 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; these are digitised versions of HO 11 records

Search prison registers, which indicate where the prisoner was held before trial, and any movements from prison to prison - many include an index of prisoners.

Many prison registers tell you the date or place of the trial. Search and download images of the registers from the assorted crime records available on  findmypast.co.uk, digitised from the following National Archives record series:

  • registers of county prisons 1847-1866 by place in HO 23
  • prison registers and returns 1838-1875 in HO 24
  • miscellaneous registers relating to convict prison hulks, 1802-1849 in HO 9
  • quarterly returns of convicts in prisons and hulks, 1824-1876 in HO 8
  • lists of crews and convicts on convict hulks 1802-1831, 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

Trial records are very formal, and do not normally contain either transcripts of evidence or much information about age and family relationships. In addition, the information given about occupation and residence can be inaccurate.

If the trial took place at quarter sessions, the record will be held at the relevant local archive. You can use our ARCHON directory to find contact details of local archives.

For more information about trial records and where to search for them, see the following guides:

5.2 Petitions for pardons or reduced sentences

The pardoning of a crime in legal language is known as clemency.

The reduction of a sentence is known as commutation. Death sentences, other than those for murder, were commonly commuted to transportation.

There are records of the applications, officially known as petitions, that convicted persons made for pardons or reduced sentences. Sometimes these petitions were made by friends, associates or relatives of the convict on their behalf.

People asking for a pardon or a reduced sentence wanted to prove that they were worthy of mercy, so petitions often included a lot of information designed to establish how respectable they were, including details about personal circumstances and family background.

You can:

  • search our catalogue or findmypast.co.uk by name of prisoner or petitioner for petitions made between 1819 and 1839 in HO 17 (note that only some of these records are available to view online)
  • search for petitions for clemency 1839-1854 in HO 17 or HO 18 - use our catalogue to browse the registers of these petitions in HO 19, which covers 1797 to 1853. The registers themselves 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.
  • search judges' reports 1784-1829 by name and keyword in HO 47 in our catalogue. They can include:
    - details and supporting evidence for commutation or for the grant of a free pardon in some cases
    - an unofficial transcript of evidence with comments on the characters of both witnesses and juries
    - memorials and petitions from friends and relatives of the accused
  • search or browse judges' circuit letters 1816-1840 by date in HO 6 for more material on commutation
  • search our catalogue within HO 48 and HO 49 by date for other petitions. These are not indexed.
  • search for Home Office warrants for pardons and reprieves 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.

6. Other records of transportees and transportation

Search or browse the following collections of correspondence, amongst which you can find administrative information on the transportation process as well as lists of convicts:

  • contracts made with agents to transport prisoners in TS 18/460-515, TS 18/1308-1361 by name of ship for lists of convicts
  • Privy Council correspondence 1840-1843 in PC 1/2715-2719 by name of ship for lists of convicts
  • New South Wales original correspondence in CO 201 for lists of convicts and emigrant settlers 1801-1821
  • New South Wales entry books relating to convicts in CO 207 for lists of convicts 1788-1825; these records are only available on microfilm at The National Archives, the originals are now held in the State Archives of New South Wales
  • New South Wales registers of correspondence from 1849 in CO 360 and CO 369 to find names of convicts
  • New South Wales correspondence entry books in CO 202 from 1786

Some of the lists from the above records have been printed in the following book:

Search the Privy Council registers by date in PC 2 for lists of convicts transported for 14 years or less.

You may find the following record series useful for details of the ships and voyages themselves. For Royal Navy ships look in:

  • ADM 51 for captains' logs (convict vessels are listed under 'transports')
  • ADM 1 for captains' despatches
  • ADM 52 for masters' logs
  • ADM 53 for ships' logs
  • ADM 101 for surgeons' logs on convict ships

For merchant navy ships used as convict transports look in:

  • BT 107 for registers of ships 1786-1854
  • BT 108 for registers of ships 1855-1859

Some wives applied to accompany their convicted husbands. Their petitions, covering 1819-1844, are in PC 1/67-92 and from 1849 in HO 12, identified via the registers in HO 14 (under 'miscellaneous').

Accounts of legal expenses for transportation to New South Wales, including convicts' names, 1789-1830, are in AO 3/291.

7. Records of convicts after arrival in Australia

Consult the following published censuses and musters of the penal colonies, all edited by Carol J Baxter and available in The National Archives library at Kew. They often indicate the place of conviction and the date and ship of arrival in Australia:

8. How transportation emerged and developed as a form of punishment

Prior to the emergence of transportation as a punishment in the 17th century, 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 as a way of ensuring that criminals were punished without putting them to death.

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
  • seven years for non-capital offences

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.

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.

9. Further reading

Some or all of the recommended publications below may be available to buy from The National Archives' Bookshop. Alternatively, search The National Archives' Library to see what is available to consult at Kew.

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

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

Fidlon, PG, and Ryan, RJ (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 (2012)

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

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

Robson, LL, The convict settlers of Australia (1981)

Ryan, RJ (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

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