Convicts to Australia

Researching Convict Ancestors in Australia & New Zealand

Convicts were sent from the British Isles to the early settlement of Australia to serve out their sentence as slave laborers.
Getty / Craig P. Jewell

From the arrival of the First Fleet at Botany Bay in January 1788 to the last shipment of convicts to Western Australia in 1868, over 162,000 convicts were transported to Australia and New Zealand to serve out their sentences as slave labor. Nearly 94 percent of these convicts to Australia were English and Welsh (70%) or Scottish (24%), with an additional 5 percent coming from Scotland. Convicts were also transported to Australia from British outposts in India and Canada, plus Maoris from New Zealand, Chinese from Hong Kong and slaves from the Caribbean.

Who Were The Convicts?

The original purpose of convict transportation to Australia was establishment of a penal colony to alleviate pressure on the overburdened English correctional facilities following the end of convict transportation to the American colonies. The majority of the 162,000+ chosen for transportation were poor and illiterate, with most convicted for larceny. From about 1810, convicts were seen as a labor source for building and maintaining roads, bridges, courthouses and hospitals. Most female convicts were sent to 'female factories,' essentially forced labor camps, to work off their sentence. Convicts, both male and female, also worked for private employers such as free settlers and small land holders.

Where Were The Convicts Sent?

The location of surviving records related to convict ancestors in Australia largely depends on where they were sent. Early convicts to Australia were sent to the colony of New South Wales, but by the mid-1800s they were also being sent directly to destinations such as Norfolk Island, Van Diemen's Land (present-day Tasmania), Port Macquarie and Moreton Bay.

The first convicts to Western Australia arrived in 1850, also the site of the last convict ship arrival in 1868. 1,750 convicts known as the 'Exiles' arrived in Victoria from Britain between 1844 and 1849.

British transportation records of criminal transportees described on the website of the UK National Archives are the best bet for determining where a convict ancestor was initially sent in Australia.

You can also search the British convict transportation registers 1787–1867 or Ireland-Australia transportation database online to search for convicts sent to the Australian colony.

Good Behavior, Tickets of Leave and Pardons

If well-behaved after their arrival in Australia, convicts rarely served their full term. Good behavior qualified them for a "Ticket of Leave", a Certificate of Freedom, Conditional Pardon or even an Absolute Pardon. A Ticket of Leave, first issued to convicts who seemed able to support themselves, and later to convicts after a set period of eligibility, allowed the convicts to live independently and work for their own wages while remaining subject to monitoring -- a probationary period. The ticket, once issued, could be withdrawn for misbehavior. Generally a convict became eligible for a Ticket of Leave after 4 years for a seven year sentence, after 6 years for a fourteen year sentence, and after 10 years for a life sentence.

Pardons were generally granted to convicts with life sentences, shortening their sentence by granting freedom. A conditional pardon required the freed convict to remain in Australia, while an absolute pardon allowed the freed convict to return to the U.K.

if they chose. Those convicts who did not receive a pardon and completed their sentence were issued a Certificate of Freedom.

Copies of these Certificates of Freedom and related documents may generally be found in the state archives where the convict was last held. The State Archives of New South Wales, for example, offers an online Index to Certificates of Freedom, 1823–69.

More Sources for Researching Convicts Sent to Australia Online

    Were Convicts Also Sent to New Zealand?

    Despite assurances from the British government that NO convicts would be sent to the fledgling colony of New Zealand, two ships transported groups of "Parkhurst apprentices" to New Zealand -- the St. George carrying 92 boys arrived at Auckland on 25 October 1842, and the Mandarin with a load of 31 boys on 14 November 1843. These Parkhurst apprentices were young boys, most between the ages of 12 and 16, who had been sentenced to Parkhurst, a prison for young male offenders located on the Isle of Wight. The Parkhurst apprentices, most of whom were convicted for minor crimes such as stealing, were rehabilitated at Parkhurst, with training in occupations such as carpentry, shoemaking and tailoring, and then exiled to serve out the remainder of their sentence. The Parkhurst boys chosen for transport to New Zealand were among the best of the group, classified as either "free emigrants" or "colonial apprentices," with the idea that while New Zealand would not accept convicts, they would gladly accept trained labor. This did not go over well with the inhabitants of Auckland, however, who requested that no further convicts be sent to the colony.

    Despite their inauspicious beginning, many descendants of the Parkhurst Boys became distinguished citizens of New Zealand.