Convict Reference Files and Prisoners' Petitions and Cases
Petitioning the Lord Lieutenant was the only real hope of obtaining a commutation of sentence. Petitions, also known as memorials, were prepared by the convict or by a representative and referred directly, in the first instance to the Lord Lieutenant. He then referred them, via the CSO, to the trial judge, the local constabulary and sometimes to the governor of the local gaol to confirm statements made by the convict protesting innocence, age, size of family, or state of health as mitigating factors. All petitions were investigated thoroughly.
The accumulations of documents which gathered as investigations progressed are known as Prisoners' Petitions and Cases (PPC), from 1778 to 1835, and as Convict Reference Files (CRF), from 1836 to 1853.
The files are arranged alphabetically by year, in straight numerical sequence. The finding aids for the petitions is a card index by name of petitioner or convict. The finding aids for the Convict Reference Files are the Convict Reference Books (1836-1853). To call up a Prisoner's Petition or Convict Reference File for consultation in the Reading Room, the reader must prefix the reference number of the file with the letters PPC or CRF.
When citing files from this series in theses or publications, the author must prefix the reference number with the letters NAI, PPC or CRF.
Approximately 7,500 petitions were received from men and just under 1,000 from women between 1791 and 1853 . Given the proportion of male to female convicts, it would appear that women petitioned on average only half as often as men. Most successful petitions were on the grounds of old age, chronically bad health or insanity. Petitions from women seeking clemency only on the grounds of large family size were generally not successful.
The transportation sentences of women convicted under the vagrancy act (mostly prostitutes) which was peculiar to Ireland, were remitted if security was given for future good behaviour within three months of the date of sentence being passed. It also appears that under the vagrancy act such sentences could not be commuted to imprisonment, and prisoners had to be either transported or discharged.
Successful petitions were often those which contained a request concerning children. In 1848 the petition of Mary and Johanna Kelleher from Bantry, both serving 12 month imprisonment sentences, was investigated. It was found they had committed the offence in order to be transported, as they wished to go with their mother who had been given a seven year sentence. When the real motive was discovered they were discharged and placed on the ship with their mother as free settlers (CRF 1848/K39). Mary Campbell, aged twenty-three, who gave herself up to the police, was given a ten year sentence for larceny. She stated in her petition in 1850 that she had committed the crime because of her illegitimate child aged four. Her petition was successful and she and the child were sent out as free settlers on the ship Blackfriar (CRF 1850/C68).
It was extremely difficult to obtain a mitigation of sentence on health grounds. Pregnancy or extreme youth were not mitigating factors. In 1848 the petition of the relatives of a twelve-year-old who pleaded on the grounds that her sight was failing due to cataracts was unsuccessful because, while it was admitted her eyes were tender, she was not actually blind (CRF 1848/H45).
There is throughout the petitions a very slight sprinkling of those who actually wanted to be transported as quickly as possible. Eliza Brown petitioned in 1820 to be transported, as she could not fulfil the condition of her sentence, which was that she find bail within three months or be transported. On failing to find bail she begged to be sent off to Botany Bay immediately to relieve her out of her present distressed situation (PPC 1820/1442). Mary Kilrea's petition in 1820 asked if the Lord Lieutenant through your accustomed tenderness and humanity to the distress would show such directions as you think most expedient on the subject in question to have petitioner removed and forwarded to her place of destination as speedily as possible (PPC 1820/1503). In 1849 Margaret Byrne from Carlow had her death sentence which was imposed as a result of an arson attempt made by her on an occupied house commuted to transportation for life. She stated that she had committed the crime in anticipation of a transportation sentence (CRF 1849/B 25).
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