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Sources in the National Archives for research into the transportation of Irish convicts to Australia (1791-1853) by Rena Lohan: introduction

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The exact origin of the use of transportation as a penal measure is obscure, but it seems to have developed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries from a need to avoid what were considered to be the destabilising influences of particular groups, such as the banishing of Irish Catholics to the West Indies during Cromwellian times [see footnote 1]. When, in the eighteenth century, the death penalty came to be regarded as too severe with respect to certain capital offences, transportation to North America - in the absence of an adequate alternative - became popular as a mitigation of such sentences [see footnote 2].

When North America was replaced by New South Wales as a suitable penal colony after the American War of Independence, capital punishment - except in the case of very serious crimes - had largely been replaced by transportation [see footnote 3]. Legislation permitting transportation from Britain to New South Wales was first passed in 1784, and an equivalent Irish act followed in 1786 (26 Geo. III c 24).

The British act did not name the destination, merely providing for transportation 'beyond the sea, either within His Majesty's dominions or elsewhere outside His Majesty's dominions'. The Irish statute provided for removal 'to some of His Majesty's plantations in America or to such other place out of Europe'.

This difference between the two acts appears to have had the effect of enabling transportation to Australia from England to get under way in 1787, while there were difficulties with the Irish act.

The passing of further legislation in 1790 (30 Geo. III c 32) designed 'to render the transportation of such felons and vagabonds more easy and effectual' rectified matters, and the first shipload of convicts left Ireland for New South Wales at the beginning of April 1791. Between 1787 until the termination of the system in 1853, Australia received over 160,000 convicts, approximately 26,500 of whom sailed from Ireland [see footnote 4].

When a transportation sentence was handed down, the convict was usually returned to the local or county gaol until preparations were made for transmitting him or her to the port. Transportees from the southern counties were housed in the city gaol at Cork. Built over the old gate to the northern part of the city, it was in decay and constantly overcrowded. Convicts brought to Dublin were housed, along with other offenders, mostly in Newgate and Kilmainham gaols. Like its namesake in London, Dublin's city gaol, Newgate, was under constant criticism from reformers because of its deplorable condition and the fact that all categories of offender were housed together. Kilmainham was Dublin's county gaol, with arrangements for convicts much the same as in Newgate, except that transportees were separated from debtors and petty offenders. From 1817 a holding prison, known as a depot, was provided in Cork to house the large numbers of convicts accumulating there [see footnote 5]. From 1836 a depot was provided in Dublin for female convicts and between the Great Famine and the opening of Mountjoy convict prison in 1850, temporary depots and Smithfield in Dublin and Spike Island in Cork harbour were opened to take males.

Due to the rich store of late eighteenth and nineteenth century administrative records held at the National Archives, the researcher is assured of an abundance of material on this subject, whether for the purpose of genealogical investigation, for academic research into the administrative and political framework in which the transportation system developed, the technicalities of its operation, or the reasons for its eventual demise. This paper will attempt to explain to the reader the composition and arrangement of each of the record categories or series relevant to this subject, to give an account of the type of material they contain and to explain how they can best be used. The appropriate record collections, or series, are:

Chief Secretary’s Office Registered Papers
Official Papers
Government Prisons Office papers
Convict Letter Books
Transportation Registers
Prison Registers
Convict Reference Files
Prisoners Petitions and Cases
Free Settlers Papers
Transportation database


1Legislation providing for the transportation of offenders was first passed in 1597, though it was most probably never put into effect (39 Eliz. c 4). In 1666 further legislation was passed by which moss troopers convicted in Cumberland or Northumberland as notorious thieves and spoil-takers could be transported for life to America (18 Car. 2 c 3) The first Irish statute to mention transportation was 2 Anne c 12. See Leon Radzinowicz and Roger Hood, A History of English Criminal Law and its Administration from 1750, v, `The emergence of penal policy' (London, 1986), p 465.

2. Its use as a mitigation of the death penalty was in the case of capital statutes carrying Benefit of Clergy. This privilege, which was not abolished until 1827, was originally confined to members of the clergy who were tried for felonies in ecclesiastical courts. By the mid-seventeenth century it had been extended to literate laymen and women. Eventually it was widened to include all offenders, although it could be claimed once only, and the number of offences to which it applied was severely restricted. The number of capital statutes not carrying Benefit of Clergy (the `Bloody Code') was still very large and was estimated in 1823 at 200.

3By the 1850s, the death penalty was restricted to murder and treason, and public executions ended in 1866. The lesser physical penalties were also curtailed or abolished - branding in 1779, the pillory in 1837 and whipping of women in 1819.

4. During the transportation era, the term convict referred to the serious offender who received a sentence of either death or transportation. After the passing of the first Penal Servitude Act in 1853, a new long term prison sentence replaced that of transportation. For details of names of ships, numbers embarked, numbers landed, dates, ports from which the vessels set out and their destinations, see Charles Bateson, The Convict Ships (Sydney, 1974).

5. The removal of the male convicts to hulks in 1822 meant that conditions at the Cork depot improved considerably. During her tour of inspection of Irish prisons in 1826, the prison reformer, Elizabeth Fry, pronounced it to be defective as to its conformation, but '...cleanly, comfortable and well superintended'. She was not convinced, however, of the need for such depots, and seemed more in favour of the English method of bringing the convicts straight from the county and city gaols to the transport ships for embarkation. (See Elizabeth Fry and Joseph John Gurney, Report addressed to the Marquess Wellesley, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, respecting their late visit to that country, London, 1827, pp 21-22). The depot was not abolished until 1851 when it was closed because of its bad state of repair, only to be re-opened in 1854 due to the increasing demand for convict accommodation following the ending of transportation. 

Irish Archives

The following pages are an online version of the article, Sources in the National Archives for research into the transportation of Irish convicts to Australia (1791-1853) by Rena Lohan. The complete printed version with illustrative examples of the document types mentioned, appears in Irish Archives, the Journal of the Irish Society for Archives, Spring 1996.

A large amount of related material may also be found in Sources in the National Archives for researching the Great Famine