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Archives In Brief 2 - Convict records

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Outlines the main sources to be used for convict research.

Online indexes

A range of online convict indexes are available to search. We are progressively adding new indexes to this collection. Our other online indexes, such as the Index to Bench of Magistrates cases, 1788-1820 and the Index to Quarter Sessions cases, 1824-37 may also be of interest to convict research.

Where to begin convict research

The first step is to identify the convict:

Marriage and death certificates

A marriage certificate may say 'married with permission of the Governor'. This indicates that one or both parties to the marriage were convicts still serving their sentences. A death certificate may state 'prisoner of the Crown'.

Muster and census records

These records will often note if somebody was a convict at the time, or if they were 'free by servitude'.

Family stories

If there is a possibility that there is a convict in the family check the following for the ancestor's name:

Index to convict indents, 1788-1842
Fiche 5969-5979

Trial records

Criminal registers

State Records holds microfilm copies of criminal registers for England and Wales, which provide basic information about a convict's trial including crime. These are part of the Australian Joint Copying Project (AJCP) and are held on microfilm in the reading room and at the Mitchell Library (the State Library of New South Wales).

Case papers

The records of Quarter Sessions cases in England are held in the County Record Office of the county in which the trial occurred. The National Archives (UK), holds records of trials by Assize Courts in England. Transcripts of trials that were heard at the Old Bailey in London are held on microfilm at the Mitchell Library and will be made progressively available online at the Proceedings of the Old Bailey website.

Irish trial records

There are few records of trials surviving for Ireland. Some records are included in the 'Irish Gift', which is a set of microfilm records given to Australia as a Bicentennial gift. Microfilm copies of these records are available at the Western Sydney Records Centre, the State Library of NSW and the Society of Australian Genealogists. Indexes to these records are held at the State Library of NSW and on the National Archives of Ireland website.

Convict indents

The starting point for any convict research is the convict indent, which is the list of convicts transported to New South Wales on a particular ship. The early indents only provide name, date and place of trial and sentence. Later indents contain more information such as a physical description, native place, age and crime. The indents may also contain numbers of tickets of leave, pardons or certificates of freedom as well as details of any further crimes committed in the colony. Researchers should always make a note of these annotations.

Indexes to convict indents

Index to convict indents, 1788-1842
Fiche 5969-5979
Published by the Genealogical Society of Victoria

Index to convicts arriving, 1849-50
COD 496

In addition, there are 18th and 19th century indexes to convicts arriving, which may also be checked if the convict being researched does not appear in any of the above. These indexes are listed in the Convict Guide.

Surgeons' Journals

The surgeon's journal for a particular convict ship usually contains details of any illnesses or deaths during the voyage. The journal may also contain mention of a convict's behaviour during the voyage and a description of the voyage.

The surgeons' journals of ships carrying convicts to New South Wales are available as part of the Australian Joint Copying Project (AJCP), and are held on microfilm in the reading room and at the Mitchell Library. See the Convict Guide for a listing of surgeon's journals.

Assignment

On arrival, a convict was either retained by the Government for labour on public works or was assigned to an individual. Very few records of assignment have survived. Those that have survived are listed in the Convict Guide.

Useful resources relating to assignment

Index to assignment registers, 1821-25 *ARK
Fiche 745

Index to convicts arriving, 1828-32
PRO Reel 70

Index to convicts arriving, 1833-34
PRO Reel 70

Index to Tickets of Exemption from Government Labour, 1827-32
Fiche 1001

Tickets of Leave

A ticket of leave allowed convicts to work for themselves on condition that they remained in a specified area, reported regularly to local authorities and if at all possible, attend divine worship every Sunday. Further details of tickets of leave may be found in the Convict Guide. An index to these records is:

Index to NSW Convict Tickets of Leave, 1810-75
Fiche 5727-5733
This index is also available online at the Society of Australian Genealogists' website.

Certificates of Freedom

A Certificate of Freedom was only available to a convict with a finite sentence (for example, 7, 10 or 14 years), as it showed that a sentence had been completed. Convicts with a life sentence could receive a pardon.

Index to Certificates of Freedom, 1823-69

Pardons

Convicts with life sentences generally received pardons. The two main types of pardons were:

  • Conditional pardon - the convict was free as long as they remained in the colony. The vast majority of convicts granted pardons were granted a conditional pardon
  • Absolute pardon - the convict's sentence was entirely remitted. That is, they were free both within and outside of the colony and could return to Britain.

Further details of pardons may be found in the Convict Guide.

The main records for conditional pardons are in the Colonial Secretary's records

NRS 1170, Registers of conditional pardons, 1791-1825 *ARK
Reel 774; Fiche 820-23

NRS 1172, Copies of conditional pardons registered by the Colonial Secretary, 1826-70
Reels 775-796

Index to Convict Pardons 1791-1825, 1837-47

Marriage

Marriage for a convict still serving his or her sentence may have resulted in better working or living conditions. Marriage was clearly seen as an indulgence and it was therefore necessary to apply to the Governor for permission to marry.

The main sources to check are:

Index to the Colonial Secretary's papers, 1788-1825 *ARK

TD Mutch index to births, deaths and marriages, 1787-1957
Reels 2125-2129
The index is believed to cover all existing birth, death and marriage records for NSW between 1787-1828, except for the Newcastle Register and the Methodist Church records and selected records to 1957

Index to Convict Marriage Banns, 1826-41
Fiche 5270-5277

NRS 12212, Principal Superintendent of Convicts: Registers of convicts' applications to marry, 1825-51
Fiche 780-802

Death

The Government generally recorded the death of a convict still serving his or her sentence.

Principal Superintendent of Convicts

NRS 12213, Convict death register, 1828-79 *ARK
Fiche 749-751
Entries chiefly relate to convicts who were still serving their sentences

Petitions and Correspondence

A convict may have petitioned the Government about a number of matters or may be mentioned in the correspondence of another individual. Often these petitions, memorials and items of correspondence can provide valuable information about the convict, their family and circumstances.

Index to the Colonial Secretary's papers, 1788-1825 *ARK

Index to the Colonial Secretary's Correspondence: Convicts and Others, 1826-94
Fiche 5557-5559, 5736-5738, 5907-5909, 5955-5957, 5966-5968, 6069-6074, 6127-6129, 6433-6435, 6448-6450, 6453-6455
This indexes letters relating to convicts in Colonial Secretary; NRS 905, Main series of letters received, 1826-88

Index to letters received by the Colonial Secretary from individuals relating to land, 1826-56

Index to the copies of letters sent re convicts by the Colonial Secretary, 1826-55
Fiche 5912-5914, 5921-5925

Muster and census records

At various times, the Government of the colony conducted a census or muster of the inhabitants of the colony. These may have been for a specific purpose such as assessing landholdings or as a general 'head count' of the population. These muster and census records can contain valuable information concerning a convict's residence, employment and family circumstances.

Some of the early musters and censuses have been published in book form, for example the 1828 Census. These are available in the reading room as are microform copies of all other surviving musters and censuses for New South Wales. See Short Guide 12 for more information.

Convict bank accounts

After 1822 any money a convict brought to New South Wales was entrusted to the Surgeon-Superintendent of the ship during the voyage out and these funds were then deposited in the Savings Bank on arrival. In addition, money that was earned for extra work performed, or deposited by friends or relations could be held in trust for a convict. The convict could not access the money until proof of reformation could be shown such as having received a ticket of leave, pardon or on completion of sentence.

Index to convict bank accounts, 1837-70

Further reading

There are a number of publications on the convict system or particular groups of convicts such as the First Fleet. The following are held in the reading room:

  • Archives in Brief 34: Convict families
  • Archives in Brief 100: How to find a convict
  • Charles Bateson. The convict ships, 1787-1868. Sydney, Reed, 1974.
  • Michael Flynn. The Second Fleet: Britain's grim convict armada of 1790. Sydney, Library of Australian History, 1993.
  • Mollie Gillen. The founders of Australia: a biographical dictionary of the First Fleet. Sydney, Library of Australian History, 1989.
  • Babette Smith. A cargo of women: Susannah Watson and the convicts of the Princess Royal. Kensington, NSW, New South Wales University Press, 1988.
  • Carol Baxter. Convicts to NSW 1788-1812 - complete listings from transportation records. Sydney, Society of Australian Genealogists, 2002. (CD ROM)

Further information

Researchers should consult Archives Investigator, Archives in Brief 34, Archives in Brief 100, and the Guide to Convict Records, known as the Convict Guide, which is available in the reading room, for more detailed information.

*ARK signifies that a copy of the record or guide is part of the Archives Resources Kit and is held by the community access points.

© State of New South Wales through the State Records Authority, 2003.
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