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New South Wales Convict Records - 'Lost and Saved' by Christine Shergold

The State of New South Wales is fortunate in having in its archives an extensive collection of records documenting the 'careers' of over 80,000 Imperial convicts transported between 1788 and 1842 (plus the 'convict exiles' from the later 1840s and 1850s). The surviving records (particularly those documenting the convicts’ legal status and whereabouts) can be found at State Records NSW, and copies of many of them are available at Community Access Points throughout the State. The value and importance of these records was formally recognised internationally in 2007, when the Convict records in the Archives of New South Wales, Tasmania and Western Australia were inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.

A better understanding of the Convict records can be gained by an awareness of how the system worked within the Colony. Primary responsibility initially devolved upon the Colonial Secretary, supported by the Principal Superintendent of Convicts. From around 1827 onwards, the Principal Superintendent (1) progressively assumed most of the duties of administering the system, and continued in this role (with gradually declining numbers of convicts to administer) up to the end of 1855, when the Office was abolished and full responsibility for the Convict Establishment transferred to the Colonial Government. From 1 January 1856 the duties associated with the remaining Imperial Convicts became the responsibility of the Inspector General of Police via the Convict Branch of his Office.

Local administration of the convicts took place in the various Convict Establishments and Settlements via Superintendents and Commandants. As well, at the local level, the Benches of Magistrates not only tried and punished convicts but performed a number of administrative tasks (for example, sending assigned convicts to their masters; transmitting petitions and requests for assignments or indulgences such as alterations of Tickets of Leave, and so on).


One of the most persistent myths passed down through the years about the destruction of Convict records is that large quantities were dumped into Sydney Harbour or ‘at sea’. This is not supported by the available evidence, as the following notes explain.

Researching how and when the Convict records were destroyed has been a challenging exercise, with important links in the chain of documentation not located. Nonetheless, enough information has been found within the archives to show clearly that there were two major destructions of Imperial Convict records by the Colonial authorities, neither of which involved Sydney Harbour! The first was in 1863 (apparently by fire) and the second in 1870 (through pulping). These destructions were not random or casual acts but carefully planned, executed and documented, especially the more significant destructions of 1870.

The 1863 destruction of Convict records

The catalyst for the destruction of some Convict records in 1863 was a July 1862 memorandum by Percival Wilkinson of the Military Stores Office, Sydney, entitled 'List of Articles in the Military Store, lodged on the breaking up of the Royal Engineer Department and the Convict Establishment …'. (2) This was referred to the Governor by the Secretary of State, the Duke of Newcastle, in a Despatch which was received in January 1863. While agreeing with Wilkinson that the 'documents connected with Convicts should on no account be sold’ and that they could properly be destroyed as there could be ‘no sufficient motive for preserving such masses of obsolete papers’, Newcastle left the decision up to the Governor as to the method of disposal.

The records are described in the Memorandum as 'Convict Records Establishment and Hospital records of a miscellaneous description in 18 Cases Measuring 4½ tons', consisting mainly of folded documents which were sent into the Store on the cessation of transportation.

Action on the disposal of these records was slightly delayed by the discovery that among the Hospital and Convict records in the Ordnance Store there were also papers ‘among others’ connected with Military Hospitals. This however did not affect the conclusion made in the final report in June 1863 to the Principal Under Secretary, which was that

The Registers and papers alluded to were returned to Store from the several Convict Hospitals, and as it does not appear to us, that their preservation is any longer necessary or desirable, we would recommend that ... they should be burnt under the supervision of an officer to be appointed by the Government.

Authorisation for their destruction was accordingly given in July 1863 but left up to the Military authorities to give the final instructions for putting this into effect.

There appears to be no surviving list of the records authorised for destruction, but the natural assumption would seem to be that the records were probably those of Convict hospitals (such as at Liverpool, Moreton Bay, Newcastle, Parramatta and Sydney) and perhaps some other Convict establishments (such as the Female Factories at Newcastle and Parramatta). These institutions had closed due to the gradual decline in the number of Imperial convicts in the Colony. This is backed up in an October 1848 letter from the Colonial Secretary's Office which conveyed the Governor's approval to a request from the Deputy Purveyor to the Forces for authority 'to remove Sundry packages of Records etc remaining from the Several Convict Establishments into the Commissariat Store in consequence of there being no accommodation for them in the Medical Depot'.(3)

Although it could be assumed that the bulk of the records did relate to Convict establishments, without any lists or more details, it is impossible to say with any certainty just how much of the 4½ tons fell into this category.

The 1869 recall of Convict records by the Colonial Secretary

The Colonial Secretary’s Office commenced recalling Convict records from the Benches of Magistrates in October 1869.(4) The Benches were to forward, at their earliest convenience, all 'Convict Indents Records etc anterior to the cessation of Transportation to this Colony' which were then in their Police Offices.
Private use of the Convict records may have been the main reason for the recall of these records from the Benches. Writing some ten years later, the Inspector General of Police noted that:

Some years ago, when Sir John Robertson was Colonial Secretary I believe, instructions were issued to all the country Benches to transmit to Sydney, to be destroyed, all Imperial Convict Indents and Records, as it was thought that one set of Records in this Office was all that could be necessary, and that there was reason to think that the books were sometimes referred to from curious or improper motives.

The Colonial Secretary also wrote to the Inspector General of Police requesting that he forward

under seal to him, the Census of 1828 deposited in your Office; and that you will cause to be packed up in cases, and forwarded to this office, until finally disposed of, the records in your charge relating to Imperial Convicts, prior to the cessation of transportation to this Colony.

The Inspector General of Police quickly responded, from 25 October, by forwarding Convict records to the Colonial Secretary's Department in accordance with the directions received on 9 October 1869.(5) There were 27 cases of records transferred, one of which contained the 1828 Census. Of the remaining 26, while 17 cases are described only as 'Miscellaneous papers brought from Hyde Park Barracks in 1864' the contents of the remaining 9 cases are quite detailed and are clearly records of either the Principal Superintendent of Convicts Office, the Hyde Park Barracks or the Convict Branch of the Inspector General of Police. The lists with this correspondence at CSIL 69/8284 show that at this point the primary Convict records were still extant, including Principal Superintendent of Convicts correspondence and correspondence registers, and confirm that the earlier destruction in 1863 was probably, as thought, of records of Convict hospitals and other establishments.

The 1870 destructions

The 1869-80 correspondence (6) includes some correspondence concerning the matter of disposing of the Convict records, including an advising from the Law Department in June 1870

The late Colonial Secretary has in view, as I believe, a strong Act of State in calling in these documents from the various Police Offices, and had it in contemplation wholly to destroy them; and it is not for me, as a Law Officer, to say that the reasons for such a course, may not outweigh the occasional convenience of recourse to these records for private purposes in individual cases. …

Following the Law Department's advising the next action taken by the Colonial Secretary's Department in late July 1870 was for the whole of the Convict records to be forwarded to the Inspector General of Police so that he could select, as per the opinion of the Law Officers, those which could be destroyed. The Inspector General of Police responded quickly in removing the records to his office but, in reporting this, expressed some reservations about sifting through the Convict records to select those for disposal and those for preservation:

The very damaged condition of the Cases and records, owing to the want of care in their preservation since they left my possession; and the addition of unassorted books and documents forwarded from the Country, will make the classification of the same a matter extremely tedious and difficult.

He did submit two lists however, one of those books and documents which he recommended be retained, the second of those he considered should be immediately destroyed. He also noted that he did not suppose that the two lists were perfect as the records were 'in such a complete state of confusion' but that he would take ‘every precaution practicable to prevent the destruction of documents likely to be of any value'.

The following records appear on the (probably imperfect) Inventory of Convict Records to be destroyed: 111 spare sets of Printed Indents from 1830 to 1842; 4 General Convict Muster Books; 21 Court Books; 21 Black Books (see note a. below); 1 White Book (see note b. below); 5 Runaway Convict Books; 2 Stockade Registers; 2 Entrance Books; 46 Ticket of Leave Passports (see note c. below); Pass Registers; Assignment Registers; Register of Convicts; Description Books; 1 Stamp Register; 1 Requisition Book; 11 Miscellaneous Books; 1 Surgeons Report; ‘A Number of packages printed Indents, Books papers etc received from the different Country Benches’; and, ‘A large Number of Conditional and other pardons, Muster Rolls, Assignment Papers, Letters and other Miscellaneous documents’.

a. In 1827 the Black Books created in the Principal Superintendent of Convicts Office were described as a 'Record of all Prisoners Convicted in the Colony, stating their Crimes and Sentence Alphabetically arranged to which reference must be had on all applications for Tickets of Leave, and other Indulgences' or more succinctly, as books 'in which the Convictions, and Punishment of all Convicts throughout the Colony are recorded'.(7)
b. It is possible that the August 1827 report on the Principal Superintendent of Convicts Office provides a clue as to the purpose or nature of the White Book. This report refers to ‘the “Book of Merit”, in which the Names of Convicts who have apprehended Bushrangers, or performed any signal Service, to entitle them, to favorable consideration’ are recorded.(8)
c. This probably refers to the Butts of ticket of leave passports, 1835–69, NRS 12204 (SRNSW: [4/4235-80]; Reels 966-981) which have survived. An index is available on State Records' website.

The Imperial Convict records were accordingly destroyed by pulping between 13 and 20 December 1870, with the pulping oversighted by Police Detective John Mansergh. The quantity destroyed, excluding book backs and rubbish, totalled just over 102 hundredweight or around 5.1 tons.

‘Lost’ and ‘not quite lost’

In disposing of the Convict records the New South Wales Colonial Government essentially did what all governments do — get rid of those records which are felt, rightly or wrongly, to no longer be required for administrative or evidential purposes. Generally, in the nineteenth century scant if any consideration was given to their value for the research requirements of future generations; and in the case of Convict records other compelling reasons were probably at play.

Perhaps the greatest loss from a research perspective, from the 1870 pulping, are the Assignment records. Petitions from convicts did not always mention their movements between masters, gangs and the Government, and it could even be argued that for many it was advantageous for them to skim over such details. Probably the General Convict Muster Books and the Court Books would also have been fairly useful research resources.

While their loss is regrettable, other records in the 1870 destructions are not necessarily totally lost – the information is just that bit harder to locate. Apart from information to be gleaned from some contemporaneous printed resources (for example, the Sydney Gazette and the NSW Government Gazette), an especially valuable resource here is the Colonial Secretary correspondence from 1826 onwards (NRS 905). Among many of the pre-1856 Colonial Secretary in-letters can be found considerable amounts of the Principal Superintendent of Convict correspondence (frequently marked with his registration numbers), especially the petitions of Convicts for indulgences and for their wives and families to be brought out by Government; and the returns of applications for the publication of banns. Likewise other correspondence to the Colonial Secretary about/from convicts often includes such information as their Police histories, albeit time bound, which would have been in the Black Books.


1. Information about the duties carried out, and the records created, in the Principal Superintendent of Convicts Office are documented in various letters and reports. Among these are: the two enclosures to Despatch 96 of 2 October 1827, Darling to Goderich, CO 201/183 pp.321-31 on ACJP Reel 154; enclosure 1 to Despatch 51 of 28 March 1828, Darling to Huskisson, in Historical Records of Australia (HRA), I, 14, pp.66-69; and, Despatch 1 of 1 January 1843, Gipps to Stanley, in HRA, I, 22, p.454 et seq.

2. Correspondence re the old records stored in the Military Store and their disposal can be found in Colonial Secretary: Main series of letters received, NRS 905 [SRNSW: CSIL 63/3329 in [4/503])

3. Letter 48/183 of 27 October 1848 in Colonial Secretary: Copies of letters sent to Medical officers, NRS 980 ([4/3790 p.499]; copy Reel 2866)

4. Correspondence re the recall and disposal of Convict records can be found in Colonial Secretary: Main series of letters received, NRS 905 (SRNSW: CSIL 80/6527 in [1/2492])

5. Correspondence re this transfer of Convict records from the Inspector General of Police can be found in Colonial Secretary: Main series of letters received, NRS 905 (SRNSW: CSIL 69/8284 in [4/673])
6. See note 4

7. Enclosures to Despatch 96 of 2 October 1827, Darling to Goderich, CO 201/183 p.324 and 330 respectively on ACJP Reel 154

8. Ibid., p.331