New! Sentenced beyond the Seas: Australia's early convict records, 1788-1801
A project to digitise and index Australia's earliest convict records. Convict Indents list the convicts transported to New South Wales. Search over 12,000 names listed in these records and view the digital indents online.
Search early convict arrivals and view the indents online »
Search over 130,000 names in the convict database
All available in the one index - Search c.130,000 entries including certificates of freedom; bank accounts; deaths; exemptions from Government Labor; pardons; tickets of leave; and, tickets of leave passports. See more about these records »
How do you know if there was a convict in your family?
There are several different records that may indicate if a person was a convict:
- A marriage certificate of the ancestor may state 'married with the permission of the Governor'. This indicates that one or both people were convicts.
- A death certificate may state 'prisoner of the Crown'.
- The person may be listed as a convict in population records such as musters and census records.
- You may stumble across some correspondence or online database that refers to your person as a convict.
- There may be a suspicion in the family that the person was a convict.
Now you can start on the exciting research to find your convict ancestor!
Also make sure to look at our case study of convict John Knatchbull (below).
On this page
- Finding Aids
- Trial and Transportation
- Records of the voyage - indents, ships' musters and surgeons' journals
- Tickets of Leave
- Certificates of Freedom
- Bank accounts
- Families of Convicts
- Colonial Trials and Court Records
- Penal Settlements
- Letters about convicts
- A case study of convict John Knatchbull - showing what records you may find
UNESCO Memory of the World International Register
Our convict records were inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World International Register in June 2007. The convict records archive is one of the most important and extensive penology archives in the world and covers the period 1787-1842.
Guide to the NSW Archives relating to Convicts & Convict Administration
This webpage has excerpts taken from the Convict Guide. The Convict Guide should be consulted for full record details, including microform reel and fiche numbers. The Convict Guide is available for sale online and can be viewed in State Records's reading room.
For more general information about convict records consult our information leaflets:
Convict Family History Worksheet
We have developed a Family History Convict Worksheet to help you keep track of your convict research. Simply print it off at home and bring it into the reading room with you.
The truth about what happened to many of the Convict Records
When conducting your convict research many come to a 'dead end' or discover a 'gap' in the records where what your looking for simply hasn't survived. Ever wondered why? Read an article written by Christine Shergold titled New South Wales Convict Records - 'Lost and Saved' to find out about the organised destruction of records by the Colonial authorities in 1863 and 1870.
Where to find NSW Convict records by government department
This overview "Where to find convict records" is designed to assist researchers in identifying the main government agencies responsible for creating and maintaining convict records. View at a glance which government departments created and kept records relating to convicts.
Historical background to transportation
The practice of banishing undesirables had a long history in England, but it was not organised as a definite system until the Transportation Act 1717 which made transportation an alternate punishment to death in certain circumstances, and a punishment in its own right for some offences. Botany Bay had been considered a possible outlet for convicts during the 1780s. In 1786 the British government decided to make use of this region. In October 1786 Captain Arthur Phillip was appointed Governor of New South Wales and set sail with the First Fleet on 13 May 1787, arriving in Botany Bay with some 775 convicts on 18 January 1788.
From the outset convicts were used as a labour force, initially working for the government on necessary public work projects, then for private settlers who began arriving in 1793. Once the early problems had been overcome the settlement expanded and by 1821 NSW had taken shape as a colony in which farming, grazing, commerce and a variety of other economic activites flourished. Between 1788 and 1842 about 80,000 convicts were transported to NSW. Of these, about 85% were men and 15% were women. Almost two thirds of convicts were English (along with a small number of Scottish and Welsh), with the Irish making up the remaining one third. Most were first offenders with the majority being convicted of petty larceny or receiving stolen goods. Transportation of convicts to NSW finished in 1842, although some convict 'exiles' continued to arrive until 1850.
Convicts were usually given sentences of transportation for seven and 14 years or life. Some convicts in the 1830s received ten-year sentences. About one quarter of the convicts were sentenced to 'the term of their natural lives' and a proportion of these had reprieves from the death sentence.
British & Irish trial records
The majority of convicts to NSW originally came from Great Britain. Following apprehension, after committing a crime, a person was brought before a magistrate and formally charged. If there was enough evidence, the prisoner would be detained in gaol to await trial. If found guilty the prisoner could be sentenced to transportation or death, which was then often commuted to transportation. The prisoner would then be sent to a gaol or hulk to wait to board a convict vessel for the Australian conlonies.
If a person was tried by a Quarter Sessions court in England, these records are held in the County Record Office of the county in which the trial occurred. The Society of Australian Genealogists holds a number of records relating to English Quarter Sessions. If a person was tried by an Assizes Court, the records are held by the National Archives (United Kingdom), at Kew, London.
Proceedings of trials of prisoners from the City of London and County of Middlesex Gaol Deliveries can be searched online at Old Bailey, 1788-1834. There are few records of trials surviving for Ireland. Some records are included in the Ireland-Australia Transportation Database, 1788-1868, which is available on the National Archives of Ireland website.
The starting point for any convict research is the Convict Indent which is a list of convicts transported to NSW on a particular ship. The early Indents only provide name, date and place of trial and sentence. Later Indents contain more information such as physical description, native place, age and crime. The Indents often contain numbers of Tickets of Leave, Pardons or Certificates of Freedom as well as details of any further crimes committed in the colony. Convict Indents are arranged by vessel. Printed indents were distributed to magistrates and officials to enable them to identify individual convicts and to provide the magistrate with relevant facts on their history.
Ships musters and papers, 1790-1849
Most papers were usually brought on the vessel from the port of embarkation. These lists of convicts generally show only name, date and place of trial and sentence. There are sometimes copies of indentures with the owner of the ship contracted to transport convicts or a muster taken before embarkation or after disembarkation in NSW.
The lists of free passengers on convict ships are included in the Index to Miscellaneous Assisted Immigrants, c.1828-53, which is available in the reading room.
Many of the original records are held by National Archives (United Kingdom) and have been copied as part of the Australian Joint Copying Project (AJCP).
The journals of the Surgeon Superintendents usually contain details of persons (convict, military, crew or passengers) treated by the surgeon in the course of the voyage. Deaths are also recorded. There may also be mention of convicts' behaviour during the voyage and a description of the voyage. Not every convict transport has a surviving surgeon's journal. The journals are arranged alphabetically by ship and were copied as part of the AJCP. See Convict ships to NSW and Van Diemen's Land link below for reel references for surviving Surgeons journals.
Transportation registers database
This is a new searchable database compiled by the State Library of Queensland. The convict details are taken from the British Home Office records, which are available as part of the AJCP.
Under Governor Phillip most convicts were kept in government hands to construct buildings, roads and to cultivate the land needed to establish the settlement. Phillip's successors continued to make use of convicts. Macquarie, in particular, had an extensive public works programme that derived in part from his ambitious plans for the colony and partly from the fact that after 1815 the number of convicts arriving exceeded the capacity of private settlers to employ them.
After the opening years the majority of convicts were assigned to private employers who were responsible for their discipline and provided lodging, food and clothing in return for their labour. Assignment benefited government and private employers alike but the system was far from uniform in its operation. Benevolent, wealthy employers usually treated their convict workers well and gave them the opportunity to improve their position. Extra rations and indulgences such as tea, tobacco and rum, improved accomodation and wages were often offered to keep the services of the best men. Assigned male convicts were generally employed as field labourers or tradesmen; women became domestic servants.
Misdemeanours such as insolence, laziness, disobedience and absconding were punished by flogging, time on the treadmill or assignment to a road gang. For more serious or frequent offences the most severe punishment short of execution, was transportation to one of the penal settlements, such as Newcastle, Port Macquarie, Moreton Bay or Norfolk Island. Convicts who went to these settlements undoubtedly experienced the harsher side of the convict system, with hard labour, severe punishments and little or no attempt at rehabilitation.
Records of assignment
Very few records of assignment and employment of convicts have survived. There are a number of indexes available in both the Sydney Records Centre and the Western Sydney Records Centre. Another major source for the early period of convict is the Colonial Secretary's Papers 1788-1825 available online.
For more details on records of assignment arranged by name of ship see:
Additional information from Musters and Census
The Government conducted census and musters of the inhabitants of the colony. It was often voluntary to attend a muster so not everyone is included. There are several records covering the early years of the colony. Transcribed musters include 1801-02, 1805-06, 1811, 1814, 1822 and 1823-25. The 1828 census is also useful for tracing residents in the colony. After 1828 there is an 1837 General Muster of Convicts. Other surviving census records include 1841, 1891 and 1901.
Convict discipline depended not only on punishment but also on incentives and rewards. One inducement for good behaviour included tickets of leave, ticket of leave passports, tickets of exemption from government labor and pardons. Governor King introduced the ticket of leave system in 1801 and from Macquarie's governorship, minimum time periods had to be served before the granting of a ticket.
Ticket of leave (ToL) men were seen as the elite workforce. The convict was required to be sober, honest and industrious and the petition had to be endorsed by the local magistrate. There were exceptions made for those with influential friends in Britain or who had performed amazing acts of heroism. The ticket allowed the convict to work for themselves on condition that they remained in a specified area, report regularly to local authorities and if at all possible, attend divine worship every Sunday. A ToL had to be carried at all times.
ToL are often annotated with references to Certificate of Freedom (CF) numbers, pardon numbers, correspondence or colonial trials. The correspondence numbers often relate to the Principal Superintendant of Convicts' correspondence which has not survived. You could also try searching the Colonial Secretary's correspondence or the local Bench of Magistrates for more information.
Ticket of leave passports
A prisoner holding a ticket of leave needed official permission to move outside the district for which his ticket was issued. A ticket of leave passport was often indicated on convict records with the annotation PP. The passport was usually issued for a 12 month period after which it could be renewed.
A Certificate of Freedom was a document stating a convict's sentence had been served. The certificate of freedom was introduced because of the need for former convicts to prove that they were in fact free. It was only available to a convict with a finite sentence of 7, 10 or 14 years. Convicts with a life sentence would receive a pardon. In most cases claims to freedom were made without difficulty. A convict would make a declaration to the local magistrate who would send to Sydney to check the indents. If all was in order a certificate was issued after a fee had been paid.
For more details on where to find Certificates of Freedom see:
- Certificates of Freedom 3 May 1827 to 23 Jan 1840
- Certificates of Freedom 23 Jan 1840 to 31 July 1863
Convicts with life sentences generally received pardons. In the formative years of the colony the Governor possessed the discretion to grant free pardons and conditional pardons as rewards for good behaviour, for special skills or for undertaking special responsibilities. Governor Macquarie introduced new regulations setting minimum periods to be served for both pardons and tickets of leave.
There were two types of pardons:
- Conditional Pardons - the convict was free as long as they remained within 'Government limits', that is the colony, until their original term had expired. The vast majority of convicts granted pardons received a CP.
- Absolute Pardons - the convict's sentence was entirely remitted. That is, they were free both within and outside the colony and could return to Britain.
A Colonial Pardon was a pardon given for a crime committed in the colony.
During the years up to 1821 convicts were permitted to bring money and goods to the colony and use them for their own purposes. Commissioner Bigge, however, recommened that any property brought by convicts should be confiscated and not returned until they had reformed. This in effect created convict bank accounts.
The Surgeon-Superintendents were entrusted with convict monies on the voyage out and deposited them in the Savings Bank on arrival. Convicts with wealthy friends or relations could also have money deposited on their behalf. A convict could also earn money for extra work or duties performed.
The convict could not access the money until proof of reformation had been shown such as having a ToL, pardon or on completion of sentence. Extenuating circumstances, such as the money being required to pay for defence in a court trial, was also taken into consideration. Applications could be made to access the sums held to their credit and if approved a warrant was issued which authorised the money to be withdrawn.
Wives and families of convicts sometimes accompanied their convict relations or came out later. Children were placed on board the convict transports with their parent(s), often with no official record of their voyage or arrival being recorded in the indents. The children were supported and fed at government expense and orphan homes were established to accomodate those separated from, or deserted by, their parents. Young children were permitted to stay with their mothers in the Female Factory until they reached the age of four when they were sent to the Orphan School and could be returned to their mother when she left the Factory.
Convicts, who had been in the colony for a period and who did not commit further offences were eligible to apply to have their families brought out at the expense of the Crown. Applications had to show that convicts would be able to support their families upon their arrival and not incur any further expense to the Government. In general, families were not permitted to reunite in Australia unless the convict applying had a Ticket of Leave which allowed convicts to work for themselves, to provide a means of supporting their families.
Births & Deaths
State registration of births, deaths and marriages was not introduced until 1 March 1856. The recording of baptisms, burials and marriages in church registers was well established in England but the first Acts in NSW to regularise and validate the practice, as well as to authorise registration, were not passed until 1825 for Anglicans, 1834 for Roman Catholicas and Presbyterians, 1839 for Wesleyans and 1840 for the Congregational, Independent and Baptist denominations. Nonetheless, records were kept prior to these years.
The death of a convict is sometimes noted on the convict indents and that of those who died on voyage out was recorded in the surgeons' journals. Subsequently, although records of deaths were kept this was not on a regular basis, prompting Macquarie to complain that before his arrival no regular account of the death of convicts and settlers had been kept. Macquarie established a register of convict departures. Later governors followed a similiar practice but the statistical material available is by no means complete.
Executions formed a special category and from 1802 were recorded in the Sydney Gazette and later in other colonial newspapers. State Records holds records of the various gaols and the correspondence of the Sheriff who was in charge of executions.
Governors encouraged marriage and family life believing that it served moral ends and brought stability to society. Various enducements such as tickets of leave, pardons and assistance with establishing households were offered. It was not uncommon in the early years for convicts to marry again in the colony even though they already had been married prior to transportation. Some acted in the belief that their spouse was dead, others either thought they would never see their spouse again or believed incorrectly that transportation annulled marriage. Divorce was not possible in NSW until 1873.
Until the 1820s marriages, regardless of the faith of the individuals involved, were conducted only by the Church of England and involved the issuing of a licence or the proclamation of banns on three successive Sundays before the ceremony. Approval in the case of convicts had to be given by the Governor and returns of applications for the publication of banns were sent by the local clergy to the Colonial Secretary and remain in his correspondence. For convict marriages after 1825 see Registers of convicts' applications to marry, 1825-51 (NRS 12212). The registers contain details about the parties applying for permission to marry, including those who were not convicts. Some marriages that were approved may not have gone ahead with some convicts making more than one successful application to marry. For the period 1826-41 see the Index of NSW Marriage Banns, available on microfiche in the reading room.
New South Wales was a penal colony and that played a major part in determining the structure and operation of the various courts. By 1820 the Bench of Magistrates could punish convict offenders with extra work, consignment to a gaol gang, imprisonment and transportation to a penal settlement. Corporal punishment remained the most common punishment imposed on male convicts.
Floggings interfered less with a convict's availability for work than did imprisonment and were imposed for absconding, neglecting work, insolence, and drunken and disorderly behaviour. Only a court could order a flogging and masters were forbidden to whip their servants. Flogging came under criticism in the press and in 1823 the treadmill, which was approved by prison reformers, was introduced as an alternative. During the 1830s solitary confinement also came into favour.
Convicts who reoffended while still serving out their sentence in NSW could be tried in a colonial trial and if found guilty of a serious crime, retransported to another penal colony, such as Norfolk Island or Van Diemen's Land. Most of the convict records of country Benches of Magistrates were destroyed in the nineteenth century. For surviving records consult the Convict Guide under colonial trials. For other records see:
- Court of Criminal Jurisdiction
- Index to Bench of Magistrates, 1788-1820
- Index to Quarter Sessions Cases, 1824-1837
- Criminal Division [Supreme Court NSW]
- Clerk of the Peace
Researchers who believe a convict relative was retransported to Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) may like to search the Index to Tasmanian Convicts, available on the Archives Office of Tasmania website. Use the name search or in the remarks field enter any of the following terms for convicts retransported from NSW:
- BERRIMA or BATHURST or PARRAMATTA or SYDNEY or NSW
- TRIED MAITLAND or TO NORFOLK ISLAND or MILITARY CONVICT
For details of the convicts time in Tasmania contact the Archives Office of Tasmania.
Penal settlements were intended as places of incarceration and punishment for convicts who committed serious offences after reaching NSW. During the 1820s penal settlements were used as a means of making transportation more of a deterrent and they came under control of the military. Norfolk Island acquired a reputation for extreme harshness and severity. Women were forbidden to go there and stories of brutality abounded. Many places served for a time as penal settlements: Newcastle (1804-24), Port Macquarie (1821-28), Cockatoo Island (1839-69), Moreton Bay (1823-39), Norfolk Island (1788-1814, 1825-53) and Van Diemen's Land 1803-53 (State Records NSW has convict records for 1812-part 1825 only).
For more details of the records concerning penal settlements see the Convict Guide.
Most researchers engaged in tracing a particular convict would be aware of the major records such as indents, tickets of leave, certificates of freedom or pardons. An often neglected source is the correspondence found within the Colonial Secretary's Papers.
The correspondence of the Colonial Secretary is one of the most valuable sources of information about all aspects of the history of NSW. Chiefly responsible for this was the Colonial Secretary's pre-eminence in public life and the fortunate survival of the greater part of those papers.
As the number of convicts increased and the convict system became more complex, a wider range of matters were the subject of petitions. By the 1830s a convict could request things such as to have a spouse assigned to them, to live out of barracks, to marry, to have Fridays off or to be informed on the progess of an earlier petition. Often these petitions and memorials can provide valuable information about the convict, their family and other circumstances.
- Search the Colonial Secretary's Papers, 1788-1825
- More details on the Main Series of Letters, 1826-1982
John Knatchbull - a convict example
John Knatchbull was born in Kent, England in about 1792. He served as a volunteer in the British Navy from 1804-1818, rising to the rank of captain. He seems to have then fallen on hard times and in August 1824 he was found guilty of stealing with force and arms at the Surrey Assizes. Knatchbull was given a 14 year sentence and transported to NSW on the Asia V. References to John Knatchbull, alias John Fitch, turn up in a number of convict records, such as the convict indents, Tickets of Leave and Ticket of Leave Passports. What makes Knatchbull more intriguing is that he continues to get in trouble for the rest of his life, thereby leaving a steady stream of records about him. You will find examples of these records scattered throughout the page that detail the rest of Knatchbull's life, including his trial for forgery and seven year sentence to be served in Norfolk Island, where he took part in an mutiny on the convict colony before turning informer on his fellow mutineers. Knatchbull returned to Sydney in 1839 to serve out the remainder of his original sentence. In January 1844 he murdered shopkeeper Ellen Jamieson with a tomahawk while stealing money for his upcoming marriage. He was found guilty of murder and hanged on 13 February 1844.
Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol 2 1788-1850, Douglas Pike (General Editor), Melbourne University Press, 1966
GD Woods, A History of Criminal Law in New South Wales: The Colonial Period 1788-1900, Federation Press, 2002