By Dr David J. Cox, University of Wolverhampton
One of the most common pitfalls when looking for an ancestor who received a sentence of transportation is assuming that they were actually transported. Many criminals who were sentenced to a term of transportation never left English shores.
You also need to understand how the criminal justice system worked in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. All cases then as now first appeared before a magistrate. Your first port of call should therefore be to identify the offence for which your ancestor was sentenced, and where their trial took place. It is likely that their initial hearing would have been before a magistrate sitting in the town or area where the offence occurred.
If the offence was a minor one, then your ancestor would have been very unlikely to have been transported. If the offence was more serious, then your ancestor would have first appeared at a magistrates’ hearing but then been remanded in custody to await trial at either Quarter Sessions (see Quarter Sessions guide) or at the Assizes.
Local archives can hold a lot of information about Quarter Sessions sittings. If your ancestor was tried at the Assizes, then most Assize records are held at the National Archives.
The best sources for magistrates’ hearings (both Petty Sessions and Quarter Sessions) are local and regional newspaper archives. These can often be consulted at the archives in the location of the offence. Local archives and libraries may also have institutional subscriptions to many of the most useful internet sites such as Ancestry, Findmypast and the British Library newspaper archive.
Old Bailey Proceedings
If you are ‘lucky’ enough to have an ancestor tried at the Central Criminal Court in London, (better known as the Old Bailey) then you will be able to look up details of the trial for free on the Old Bailey Online website (www.oldbaileyonline.org/).
You can also trace your ancestor through the Digital Panopticon website (www.digitalpanopticon.org), which contains links to over 50 other databases for criminals convicted at the Old Bailey from 1780.
The Old Bailey Online also has a sister website entitled London Lives (www.londonlives.org) which can be useful for any ancestors transported from London before 1800.
From 1791-1892 (a period covering the vast majority of the period of transportation) all felonies heard at Quarter Sessions and Assizes were recorded in Criminal Registers. These can be searched by name on Ancestry and other genealogical websites.
Australian transported convict records
Thanks to the extensive nineteenth-century bureaucracy of the British Empire many types of records relating to transported convicts survive.
Ancestry and Findmypast both have international versions in which you can look for Australian records, but there are also numerous other free-to-use websites that give details of convicts transported to Australia. These include:
The Digital Panopticon (www.digitalpanopticon.org) – this website allows you to trace 90,000 convicts transported from London to Australia and also links to numerous other useful databases.
Founders and Survivors (foundersandsurvivors.org) – this website contains searchable details of the over 60,000+ convicts sent to Tasmania (formerly known as Van Diemen’s Land) between 1803 and 1853.
British Convict Transportation Register 1787-1867 (www.slq.qld.gov.au/resources/family-history/convicts) – here you can search over 120,000 transported convicts’ records.
Convict Records of Australia (convictrecords.com.au) – this website also has a useful resources webpage and allows researchers to upload details of ‘their’ convicts.
Convict Ships Index (www.jenwilletts.com/Convict%20Ships.htm) – this allows you to search the convict ships arriving in both New South Wales and Tasmania between 1788 and 1850.
National Library of Australia Trove (trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper) – this website contains over 22 million digitised newspaper pages and can be very useful in tracing your convict ancestor’s life in Australia, both during their term of transportation and what happened to them after they were released.