Historical records

Guide to penal transportation records: Ireland to Australia, 1788–1868

Irish archives are a major source for Australians researching Irish convict ancestors.

Not all records from the Chief Secretary’s Office in Dublin Castle survive, however, especially from the period before 1836.

Penal transportation to Australia, and later to Bermuda and Gibraltar, covered the years 1791 until 1853, when the sentence of penal transportation was commuted to a prison sentence in Ireland.

The National Archives holds a wide range of records relating to the transportation of convicts from Ireland to Australia covering the period 1788 to 1868, which are available on a the Transportation database. In some cases, these include records of members of convicts’ families transported as free settlers. While the collection of convict petitions dates from the beginning of transportation from Ireland to Australia in 1791, all transportation registers compiled before 1836 were destroyed in 1922. Therefore, if the person you are researching was convicted before 1836, but was not the subject of a petition, he or she will not appear on this database as the records from which the transportation database was compiled are incomplete. A successful search in the records may produce not just a bald official summary, but perhaps one of the thousands of petitions submitted by, or on behalf, of prisoners. The records relating to transported convicts comprise:

  • Transportation Registers, 1836–1857;
  • Prisoners’ Petitions and Cases, 1788–1836;
  • State Prisoners’ Petitions, 1798–1799;
  • Convict Reference Files, 1836–1856 : 1865–1868;
  • Free Settlers’ Papers, 1828–1852; (f) Male Convict Register, 1842–1847;
  • Register of Convicts on Convict Ships, 1851–1853.

The database index of transportation records is designed to be searched by surname, but may also be searched under place of trial, crime or date. Microfilms containing full copies of the records are available in the Reading Room and the index and microfilms are also available in state libraries in Australia. If the search of the transportation database and the microfilms has been successful there may be enough information to pursue the search in other National Archives’ sources, including the Chief Secretary’s Office Registered Papers, which includes Outrage Reports, or in newspapers held in the National Library of Ireland.

What was the transportation system and when did it commence?

The exact origin of the use of transportation as a punishment for crime is obscure, but it seems to have developed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries from a need to avoid what were considered the destabilising influences of particular groups within society. When, during the course of the eighteenth century, the death penalty came to be regarded as too severe for certain capital offences, transportation to North America became popular as a means of mitigating the sentence. Except for very serious crimes, transportation came to largely replace capital punishment. After the American War of Independence, New South Wales replaced North America as a penal colony and capital punishment was largely replaced by a sentence of transportation.

Does the National Archives hold records relating to the transportation of Irish convicts to other destinations?

The surviving transportation records in the National Archives document the transportation of Irish convicts mainly to penal colonies in Australia and Tasmania, and to the West Indies in the final years of the operation of the convict transportation system. However, one small series of documents, State Prisoners’ Petitions, includes documents relating to persons who were transported or exiled to North America, or who opted to join foreign armies in Europe following their implication for involvement in events surrounding the Rebellion of 1798.

When did the transportation of convicts from Ireland to Australia begin and for how long did the system of transporting convicts last?

The transportation of convicts from Ireland to Australia began when the first shipload of convicts left Ireland for New South Wales at the beginning of April 1791. Before this, convicts were transported to North America, but transportation to that destination ceased after the American War of Independence. The transportation of convicts from Ireland to Australia ceased in 1853, due largely to growing opposition of colonists, who regarded the continued use of Australia as a penal colony as a disincentive to the immigration of free settlers. The exception to this was the transportation of people involved in the Fenian Rising of 1867.

How can I get further information on my convict ancestor’s trial and conviction?

Trial records for the periods covered by our transportation records were largely destroyed by fire and explosion in the Public Record Office of Ireland during the Irish Civil War in 1922. Some trials were reported in local newspapers, however, and many of these can be found in the collections of the National Library of Ireland, Kildare Street, Dublin 2. The National Archives does not hold copies of newspapers in its collections.

Are there any police reports relating to the crime committed by my ancestor?

The archives of the Chief Secretary’s Office includes crime reports, some of which might document a convict’s crime. However, locating information on a particular convict can require a level of research that the National Archives cannot undertake on behalf of correspondents and any research in these records must be undertaken personally or by a professional researcher commissioned to perform the work on your behalf.

How can I get further information on my convict ancestor’s imprisonment?

Registers of local prisons, convict depots and convict prisons will contain details of convicts, varying in the level of detail recorded. For example, the register of Grangegorman female convict depot covering the period 11 July 1840 to 22 December 1853, contains some 3,500 entries. Registers of local prisons will include, among details of all prisoners, information relating to those sentenced to transportation. However, locating information on a particular convict can require a level of research that the National Archives cannot undertake on behalf of correspondents and any research in these records must be undertaken personally or by a professional researcher commissioned to perform the work on your behalf.

How can I find out the name of the ship on which my convict ancestor was transported?

The transportation register frequently records the name of the ship on which a convict was transported and where such information is not recorded, determining the name of the ship can involve research in other sources. A good starting point for such research is a publication, The Convict Ships, by Charles Bateson (Glasgow, 1969), which lists ships departing from Great Britain and Ireland and records such information as dates of arrival in Australia and Tasmania.

Were children transported?

There is evidence that children as young as 12 years were, on conviction, sentenced to a term of transportation. In addition, the children of female convicts were generally allowed to accompany their mothers as free settlers, and there are instances where the children of a male convict were also allowed to accompany him. Although there seems to have been no clear policy with respect to allowing children to accompany a convict parent, it is possible that the lack of any defined official policy may have been due to the fact that it was in the interest of the authorities to have as many children as possible sent with their convict parents in order to avoid their becoming a burden on the poor law. The main preoccupation of the authorities was to dispose of children in the cheapest way, whether on board ship or otherwise.

Did any convict transportation ships sink during the voyage?

The Convict Ships by Charles Bateson (Glasgow, 1969), provides a comprehensive description of the voyages, including dates of departure and arrival of the convict transportation ships that sailed from Great Britain and Ireland.

From other sources, I can identify my ancestor’s native county. How can I get further information on my ancestor and his/her family?

For further information please see  Researching Family History.

Where can I find other information on the Irish convict transportation system?

An overview of the system of transportation and descriptions of surviving archival sources that document the operation of the system and the transportation of individual convicts can be found in the articles listed below:

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

‘The Registered Papers of the Chief Secretary’s Office’ by Tom Quinlan.

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