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Criminal court records, 1788-1833

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This is a valuable resource relating to the New South Wales colonial justice system and will be of benefit to those of you researching criminals, convicts and crimes committed during the early years of the Colony. There are over 5000 entries in this index.

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About the Index

This index includes criminal cases from the Court of Criminal Jurisdiction and the Supreme Court of Criminal Jurisdiction covering the years 1788-1833. It is a valuable resource relating to the New South Wales colonial justice system and will be of benefit to those of you researching criminals, convicts and crimes committed during the early years of the Colony.

The index shows date, name(s) of perpetrators, offence (including names of victims), information about the record and remarks.

Civil cases are not included.

How was the index compiled?

The index was compiled from two interim guides available in our reading room:

  • Court of Criminal Jurisdiction, 1788-1824, and
  • Supreme Court: Criminal Jurisdiction, 1824-1833

The record series included are:

NRS 2700, Minutes of proceedings, 1788-1815
The minutes show date of hearing, members of the Court, names of defendants, evidence given, verdict, sentence, and, where applicable, recommendations regarding mitigation of sentence. This series is incomplete.

NRS 2701, Precepts, 1788-1824
Precepts, issued by the Governor (or, in his absence, by the Lieutenant Governor), convening Courts of Criminal Judicature. Each precept, addressed to the Judge-Advocate, shows: date of precept, names of members of the Court, date(s) of sittings. From 1812 it was the custom to attach the indictments and informations to the precepts and hence these may be found here rather than in NRS 2703. Papers from 1812-15 are listed in this index.

NRS 2702, Miscellaneous criminal papers, 1788-1816
Papers include statements and depositions of witnesses; recognizances to appear and bail bonds; warrants to the Provost Marshal to carry out sentences; prisoners' defences; petitions for mercy and for mitigation of sentences. There are also the prosecution and defence statements and exhibits in Rex v Garnham Blaxcell, William Campbell and Arnold Fisk on the prosecution of Simeon Lord re breach of contract and conspiracy on the ship General Wellesley.

NRS 2703, Informations, depositions and related papers, 1796-1824
Each indictment or deposition shows: name of defendant, nature of crime or misdemeanour with which the defendant has been charged, names of private parties prosecuting (where applicable), defendant's plea, and occasionally names of Crown witnesses and date of trial. Affidavits and informations may also be included.

NRS 2707, Informations, depositions and related papers - Hobart and Launceston, 1821-23

NRS 13477, Informations and other papers, 1824-33

NRS 880, Papers and Depositions, Supreme Court Sydney and on Circuit, 1824-33
The records show name of defendant, crime with which charged, defendant's plea, and sometimes date of trial. Records prior to 1837 consist primarily of depositions, comprising sworn statements of evidence.

Accessing the records

Records that are available on microfilm can be viewed in our reading room. Uncopied, original material can only be viewed in the reading room at the Western Sydney Records Centre. The search results in the index will indicate if a microfilm copy is available.

We do not offer a copy service from this index. Copies can only be ordered in the reading room after viewing the records as the amount of information available for each case may vary greatly.

The Court of Criminal Jurisdiction, 1788-1824

The establishment of a NSW Court of Criminal Jurisdiction was authorised by King George III, through the First Charter of Justice (Act 27 Geo.III c.2) 1787.

How the Court worked

The Letters Patent (or Charter of Justice) provided that the Court should be a Court of Record presided over by the Judge Advocate of the Colony, together with six naval or military officers appointed by the Governor, with the authority to try all criminal causes which were offences under the law of England. A majority vote of the Court was sufficient for conviction except in capital cases, where unless five members of the Court held the accused guilty, the matter was reserved for Royal decision.

Sentencing

In composition and procedure the Court of Criminal Jurisdiction resembled a court martial. The only sentences the Court could inflict were death for capital offences and corporal punishment (ordinarily by flogging, sometimes by close confinement) for all others.

The Court of Criminal Jurisdiction was abolished in 1824.

Establishment of the Supreme Court in 1824

The Charter of Justice issued under the provisions of the New South Wales Act 1823 (Act 4 Geo.IV c.96), established a Supreme Court with both civil and criminal jurisdictions.

The Supreme Court was given jurisdiction in all pleas, civil, criminal and mixed, and the jurisdiction of the Courts of Kings Bench, Common Pleas and Exchequer, and Courts of Oyer and Terminer [to hear and determine] and General Gaol Delivery.

The most serious criminal offences, including all crimes where capital punishment could be the penalty, were heard before the Judges of the Supreme Court. In criminal cases all trials were to take place before judge and jury of seven military or naval officers. In 1833 the Colonial Act 4 (Will. IV no.12) allowed accused persons the choice of a jury of twelve civilians or seven military officers. In 1839 the Act 3 Vic. no.11 abolished military juries entirely.

Other online resources

Crime and Punishment Gallery

Featuring gaol photographs from the State Records collections.

Decisions of the Superior Courts of New South Wales, 1788-1899

The edited records of legal cases, concentrating on the Supreme Court's decisions between 1824 and 1841 as well as a number of cases concerning Aboriginal people from later years, has been published by the Division of Law Macquarie University.

Original Documents on Aborigines and Law, 1797-1840

The site - Original Documents on Aborigines and Law, 1797-1840 - contains digital copies of selected documents and transcriptions covering the period between 1797 and 1840. These are believed to have been collected by Justice William Burton of the Supreme Court of NSW. They are available at the Centre for Comparative Law History and Governance of Macquarie University website.

Capital Punishment Database, 1826-37 (Castle Database)

This database contains the details of 1300 people sentenced to death between 1826 and 1837.

Some were executed, and many others were reprieved by the Governor and the Executive Council only to face a term of transportation to places such as Norfolk Island or Moreton Bay.

The Castle database can be searched by first name, surname, sentence date, gender, crime and Aboriginality.

Further reading

Macquarie Law Division Website - Decisions of the Superior Courts of New South Wales 1788-1899
At present the Macquarie University Website includes a number of transcriptions concentrating on the decisions of the Supreme Courts and other courts of unlimited jurisdiction between 1788 and 1841. The site is presently under construction, and new cases will be added over time.

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We would appreciate any feedback and suggestions you may have on using the Index.