Researching your ancestors transported to Australia

The transportation of criminals was originally introduced in 1615 at a time when England sought an alternative to hanging. From 1615 to 1775 criminal were transported to colonies in North America, such as Virginia. Such transportation ceased with the start of the American civil war. However, without a sufficient central prison system the transportation system was re-introduced in 1787, this time to the new land of New South Wales (NSW), Australia which Captain James Cook had discovered only 17 years earlier.

Transportation to Australia continued until 1868 during which time in excess of 160,000 men, women and children were transported and the areas colonised included NWS, Tasmania from 1803-1853 and Western Australia from 1850-1868. In finding out whether your Australian ancestor was a convict it is important to know which states and at what times convicts were sent.

Convicts were usually transported to serve a sentence of either 7 years or 14 years. Once their term had been served the individual would be given a ‘Certificate of Freedom’ was free to return to their home country although few did.  A sentence of transportation for life in the case of the most serious offences meant that the individual would never return home, even if they were released early.

Many convicts sentenced to transportation would seek a pardon. “If a convict had been particularly helpful to the authorities (for example, helping them recapture escapees) then a Conditional Pardon could be issued. Very rarely, in exceptional circumstances transported convicts could receive a Royal Pardon, which was an absolute and unconditional pardon”[1].

Research Plan

Anyone researching their Australian roots, particularly where it is known those roots are not of native Australia (i.e. Aborigines) will first need to trace the origins their ancestors back to the earliest known in an ancestor in Australia. This should initially be carried out using Birth, Marriage and Death records and census records.

Birth, Marriage and Death records (B/M/D)

Compulsory civil registration began in Australia at different times in different states[2]:

Tasmania                                1838    1 Dec  

South Australia                       1842    1 Jul   

Western Australia                   1841    9 Sep  

Victoria                                   1853    1 July 

Queensland                             1856    1 March         

New South Wales                   1856    1 March         

Northern Territory                  1870    24 Aug

Australian Capital Territory   1930    1 Jan

However, records of B/M/D were kept prior to these dates, much as in England, in church records of baptism, marriage and burials. As in England, indexes to B/M/D have been prepared and include records before compulsory civil registration was introduced which were created from the church records by the registrars. These records are available online on both the English and Australian versions of the Ancestry website[3] and on the Find My Past website[4], spanning the years:

New South Wales       1788-1910

Northern Territory      1870-1910

Queensland                 1829-1910, 1915-1919

South Australia           1842-1922

Tasmania                    1803-1910

Victoria                       1836-1910

Western Australia       1841-1905

Birth indexes are searchable by name, year of birth, place of birth and names of parents; marriage indexes by name, year of marriage, place of marriage and name of spouse; death indexes by year of death, place of death, estimated year of birth, father’s name and mother’s surname.

Copies of certificates would need to be obtained from the appropriate registry office:

The information to be found on the certificate will depend on when and in which state the event took place but largely they followed the style of certificate the same certificates in England.

Census records

Census records in Australia began earlier in Australia than in England. By 1828 many convicts had served their sentences and had settled as free men. They could no longer be compelled to attend the annual musters and therefore the first census was conducted in New South Wales. These are available in two copies – one held in Australia, one held at The National Archives (TNA) in England.

Censuses were then held in 1833, 1836, 1841, 1846, 1851, 1856, 1861 after which they were held every ten years to 1901[5]. The returns New South Wales (NSW), Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia for 1851 through to 1891 appear to have been destroyed in the Garden Palace Fire of 1882. Census returns for the Northern Territory survive for 1881 through to 1921. The records which do survive are again, much like those in England, they are the Collectors books and not the actual household schedules.

The following surviving records can be searched online[6] by name, year of birth and place/territory:

  • 1828 New South Wales, Australia Census (Australian Copy)
  • 1828 New South Wales, Australia Census (TNA Copy)
  • 1841 New South Wales, Australia, Census (including what are now the states of Victoria and Queensland)
  • 1891 New South Wales, Australia Census 
  • 1901 New South Wales, Australia Census 

The census returns include details of where a person was born and therefore the earliest ancestor to arrive in Australia having being born in England (or Ireland) should be able to be located unless of course the earliest ancestor to arrive, arrived during the period 1851 to the end of transportation in 1868. If that is the case, there are census substitutes available[7]:

  • Population Musters of convicts and military (see below);
  • Electoral rolls which began in NSW in 1842;
  • Trade Directories which began in the early 1800’s;
  • Depasturing licenses of grants of land from the Crown to settlers;
  • Rate and valuation books from the later 1850’s;
  • Lists of convicts (see below).

Many of these records are available online at previously named websites and www.familysearch.org. They can also be found in most major archives and libraries in Australia.

Population Musters of convicts and military

Prior to, and beyond, the 1828 census population counts or Musters took place in NSW in[8] 1800 (settlers); 1806 (first complete muster that has survived); 1811 (convicts, including those given tickets of leave, pardons etc); 1814; 1816 to 1821 (convicts); 1822; 1823 (military not included) to 1825 (military not included); and 1837.

And in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) 1811 and 1808 to 1849. 

They contained more information than would be found on an ordinary census, with some early musters list children, wives, and servants:

  • Name;
  • Address;
  • Status (convict, free, military);
  • Sex
  • Ship of arrival
  • Trial date and place
  • Sentence and any other remarks.

So, where an ancestor can be found in the population musters the information found can be used to trace that ancestor back to their origins in England. Where it is identified that the ancestor was a convict the information found in respect of the ship they arrived on, their trial date and place, will help direct the researcher to records held at The National Archives (TNA) and more locally in England.

Lists/Returns of Convicts

If an ancestor cannot be found in the Population musters, they may be found in the Lists or Returns of Convicts. The Convicts Index 1791 to 1873 (“A single searchable database containing certificates of freedom; bank accounts; deaths; exemptions from Government Labor; pardons; tickets of leave; and, tickets of leave passports. There are 140,000+ entries to search”) is available to search for free at New South Wales Government State Archives and Records website[9] provides:

  • Name
  • Alias
  • Ship
  • Year
  • Record type   
  • Date   
  • Remarks         
  • Citation

The same website also contains a Convict Indents (Digitised) Index for 1788 to 1801 which is a fully digitised index containing a list of the convicts transported to NSW. “Early indents provide name, date and place of trial and sentence; later indents usually contain more information such as a physical description, native place, age and crime”[10]

The index to convict indents and ships for New South Wales and Van Diemen’s land from 1788 to 1842 are also available on microfiche at TNA.

The New South Wales Government State Archives and Records website[11] is a good place to start researching convict records in Australia once the first ancestor to arrive in Australia is known, particularly for those researchers living in Australia.

However, there are a vast amount of records available in England for those researchers based in England.

For Queensland convicts the British Convict Transportation Register 1787-1867 can be searched at the State Library of Queensland website https://www.slq.qld.gov.au/research-collections/family-history/convict-queenslanders.

If an ancestor was in the first or second fleet to be transported, there are published lists of the names of those convicts:

  • “The First Fleeters” by P G Fidlon and R J Ryan;
  • “The Second Fleet Convicts” by R J Ryan

The Convict Transportation Register 1787-1870

Series HO11 held at TNA is a list “of convicts transported in various ships, giving the dates of their convictions. Transcripts of these registers can be accessed via the State Library of Queensland website[12].

The Convict Transportation Register can downloaded for free from the TNA website  and the following can be searched online at www.ancestry.com.au:

  • Australian Convict Transportation Registers – Other Fleets & Ships, 1791-1868
  • Australian Convict Transportation Registers – First Fleet, 1787-1788
  • Australian Convict Transportation Registers – Third Fleet, 1791    
  • Australian Convict Transportation Registers – Second Fleet, 1789-1790

And include the convicts name, date and place of conviction, term of sentence, name of ship on which they sailed to Australia, date of departure date and the name of the colony to which they were sent.

This will help confirm the information which may already have been found in the population muster or lists/returns of convicts. However, it may also be useful where the first known ancestor to Australia cannot be found in the census, musters or list/return of convicts because such records may be incomplete. Where a person is named, for example on a birth certificate as a parent, then the Convict Transport Register can be searched for them. If not in these records, then it is probable that the ancestor was not a convict but arrived as either a free settler or military/naval personnel. 

Settlers and Convicts, New South Wales and Tasmania: Records 1787-1859 

Found in series HO 10held at TNA this is another list “of the male and female convicts and former convicts in the colonies giving particulars as to their sentences, employment, settlement in the country, the land and cattle acquired by them and other information; lists of pardons granted; lists of convicts embarked for and arriving in New South Wales; general musters and census of 1828 relating to settlers and convicts”[13].

These records can be downloaded for free from TNA website. These records not only help with tracing the origins of an ancestor in England but may provide further details of their lives after serving their sentence and their then settlement in the country.

Other records available at TNA which can be used to identify whether a named ancestor was a convict (not digitised)

  • TS 18/460 – 515: Contracts for the transportation of convicts, naming convicts, with date and place of trial and sentence;
  • HO31/1: Orders of the Privy Council 1782 to 1794 contain lists of convicts for transportation[14];
  • PC 1/2715: Lists of Convicts embarked on the ship Eden to New South Wales, with correspondence, 1840;
  • PC 1/2716: Lists of Convicts embarked on the ship Tortoise to Van Diemen’s Land, with correspondence, 1841;
  • PC 1/2717: Lists of Convicts embarked on the ship Elphinstone to Van Diemen’s Land, with correspondence, 1842;
  • PC 1/2718: Lists of Convicts embarked on the ship Anson to Van Diemen’s Land, with correspondence, 1843;
  • T 1 Treasury Board papers and T 53 Treasury Money Books also contain ships’ lists of convicts who were transported.

Prison Hulk Records – records held at TNA

  • HO 9/1 – 15: Convict Prison Hulks: Registers

Registers of convicts in the prison hulks, 1802 to 1849, arranged by hulk name

1811 to 1843 images and indexes can be downloaded for free the TNA website

  • ADM 6/418, 420, 422: Registers of convicts in prison hulks, with gaolers’ reports 1814 to 1835, each indexed at ADM 6/419, 421, 423 respectively.
  • PCOM 2/105: Portsmouth Prison, Hampshire: registers of prisoners, nos. 1-1477 from Sept 30, 1847 to Apr 18, 1853

Images and indexes are available at www.findmypast.co.uk in series in their series England & Wales, Crime, Prisons & Punishment, 1770-1935;

  • PCOM 2/131 to 137: Registers of convicts on specific prison hulks from 1837 to 1860

Images and indexes are available at www.findmypast.co.uk in their series England & Wales, Crime, Prisons & Punishment, 1770-1935;

  • HO 8/74: Quarterly returns of convicts in prison hulks for 1842 Dec

Available at TNA only.

These records will provide details of name, age, offence committed, when and where tried, date of transfer to a ship for transportation. This essentially forms a paper trail of the convict’s movements between conviction and transportation.  Many prisoners were initially held on prison hulks awaiting transportation. Not all were in fact transported. The records may not provide any additional information which may have been gained from other record discussed above however they could be used in alternative to those set out above or as confirmation of information already obtained.

Petitions for clemency and pardons

Series HO 17 and HO 18 held at TNA hold original petitions made by or on behalf of convicts asking for a revocation or reduction of their sentences. “Attached to some petitions are related papers and some returns, made by the governors of convict prisons, of convicts recommended for early release for good behaviour”[15].

HO 17 holds petitions made between 1819 and 1839;

HO 18 holds petitions made between 1839 and 1853.

There is an index to the petitions which can be found in HO 19 arranged alphabetically giving the reference of the original petition, the place of imprisonment and the outcome of the petition. 

Many have been indexed and digitised and made available at www.findmypast.co.uk in their series England & Wales, Crime, Prisons & Punishment, 1770-1935. HO 17, 18 and 19 can be found as subseries and can be searched by name, year and place.

Petitions are most likely to include personal information regarding the convict, such as their age, family circumstances, where he lived prior to his conviction, previous good character, his occupation and any extenuating circumstances.

Newspapers reports

Once the court and/or area is known, before searching the court records it may be worth searching newspaper reports to see what further information may be gleaned about the case and the convict. Newspaper reports often include personal information about those they are reporting on, including age, occupation, where they were from, where the offence was committed and sometimes details of their family. The largest collection can be found at the British Library but there are several websites where newspapers can be searched:

The British Newspaper Archive[16];

Find My Past[17]

London, Edinburgh and Belfast Gazettes[18]

Local newspapers will also be available in the local archives for the area where the trial took place.

Court Records

Once you know the court your ancestor convicts’ trial was heard then the court records can be searched for more information. To be sentenced to transportation, a convict had committed a serious offence which would have been heard in either their local Assize Court or the Old Bailey/Central Criminal Court. 

Assize courts

Assize court records, where they exist, are largely held at TNA although some may be found at local archives (for example searching the Surrey History Centre online catalogue there are various papers from the assize courts which appear to have been provided to the archives from personal collections or as part of the Quarter Session records), however many records were destroyed. Records may be found in various series held at TNA, none of which are digitised and can only be viewed at TNA:

  • ASSI 1 – 54: Records of the Justices of Assize from 1554 to 1971 arranged by circuits;
  • KB 6/1 – 6: Depositions 1836-1886;
  • KB 10/1 – 92: Indictments (London and Middlesex) 1675-1845[19];
  • KB 11/1 – 107: Indictment (Rest of England) 1676-1845[20];
  • KB 12/1 – 228: Indictments files for all counties 1846-1926[21];
  • KB 19/1 – 3: Pleadings

It should be noted that the Palatine courts of Chester, Durham and Lancaster (Lancashire) merged into the assizes system in 1876. Prior to this their respective court records will need to be searched at TNA is series CHES, DURH and PL

Old Bailey and Central Criminal Court

The Old Bailey was essentially the Assize court for the City of London until 1834 when the Central Criminal Court was established. The Central Criminal Court had jurisdiction over the City of London, Middlesex, parts of Essex, Kent, Surrey, crimes committed at sea and abroad.

Old Bailey/Central Criminal Court session papers are held Guildhall Library and at TNA in series PCOM 1 for 1801 to 1904 and CRIM 10 for 1834-1912.

Old Bailey trials for the period 1674 to 1935, can also be searched at https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/. They may also be searched online at www.findmypast.co.uk under their series Middlesex, London, Old Bailey Court Records 1674-1913.

Civil registration, census returns, parish records and parish registers.

Once you have found, from any of the resources above, where the convict ancestor lived at the time they were convicted, then further research can be continued in the well-known genealogical record, to find their origins (parentage etc) depending on the period of time:

  • post 1837 – civil registration records
  • 1841 and beyond – decennial census returns
  • pre-1837 – parish registers and records.

The records discussed above represent a sample of records available to help trace the origins of a convict transported to Australia. There are numerous other records available both in Australia and England, online and off. The National Library of Australia has a very helpful research guide[22] as does TNA[23] and both should be consulted where such a research task is to be undertaken.


[1] “A guide to tracing your transported convict ancestors by Dr David J Cox

[2] https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/Australia_Civil_Registration

[3] www.ancestry.co.uk and www.ancestry.com.au

[4] www.findmypast.com.au

[5] https://www.records.nsw.gov.au/archives/collections-and-research/guides-and-indexes/census-musters-guide?searchterm=musters%20census

[6] Online at the websites previously stated

[7] https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/Australia_Census

Many of these records are available online at previously named websites and www.familysearch.org.

[8] https://guides.slv.vic.gov.au/earlycensus/nsw

[9] https://www.records.nsw.gov.au/archives/collections-and-research/guides-and-indexes/node/1616/browse

[10] https://www.records.nsw.gov.au/archives/collections-and-research/guides-and-indexes/convicts

[11] Ibid

[12] https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C8875

[13] https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C8874

[14] “Criminal Ancestors” by David Hawkings, page 235

[15] https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C8881

[16] https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk

[17] www.findmypast.co.uk

[18] www.gazettes-online.co.uk

[19] Can be searched using index IND 1/6669-6677 for 1673-1843

[20] Can be searched using index IND 1/6680-6684 for 1638-1704 and 1765-1843

[21] Can be searched using registers IND 1/6685, IND 1/6686, IND 1/6687/1 and IND 1/6687/2

[22] https://www.nla.gov.au/research-guides/convicts

[23] https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/criminal-transportation/

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