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Chief Secretary's Office Registered Papers

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With respect to the history and operation of the system, the records of the centre of government administration during the nineteenth century, the Chief Secretary's Office, are the best source. The collection spanning the years 1818 - 1924, is known as the Registered Papers of the Chief Secretary's Office (CSO RP), and consists of all the incoming letters, reports, returns and memoranda to that office which accumulated in the course of business, in addition to an annual series of bound volumes in which details of these communications were recorded and which act as indexes or finding aids to the papers themselves.

Unfortunately for the researcher, the method of recording the details of incoming papers altered over the period during which convicts were transported. From 1818 until 1839, the registry clerks of the CSO indexed rather than registered the papers, with the result that for these years the volumes simply act as annual indexes to the incoming papers. In 1840, the system of registering details of all incoming papers in ascending numerical order by reference number and the amalgamation of related papers to form files began.

Thus, information on each paper appears in tabular format across the full opening of each page, including columns for date of document, date of receipt, from whom received, subject matter of paper and how disposed of.

With respect to the corresponding accumulations of documents on related topics, these were assembled together under the reference number of the latest incoming paper. The register entry relating to the paper removed was amended to indicate this fact by the inscription in the register of the reference number of the paper to which the removed paper was annexed.

To facilitate the retrieval of the papers, there are volume indexes to the registers for each year. Each one is divided into alphabetical sections or cuts, in which all papers received in a given year were indexed under the initial letter of the name of the individual organisation or institution from which they emanated, or under the subject matter to which they related.

Within each alphabetical cut, index sub-headings were created for the indexing of frequently received papers from for example, a particular government office, or on a recurrent subject - with respect to transportation, the alphabetical cut is C for convicts or P for prisons [see footnote 6].

As finding aids for contemporary research purposes, these volumes are difficult to use. They are on open access in the Reading Room, but before embarking on a research project, an intending researcher is advised to consult the duty archivist. To call up a document in this series, the reader must prefix the reference number with the letters CSO RP. When citing documents from this series in theses or publications, the author must prefix the reference number with the letters NAI, CSO RP.

Like all other series discussed below which contain correspondence, the records of the Chief Secretary's Office contain a very large volume of material on the supervision and treatment of convicts in the depots prior to embarkation and on preparations for the voyage. For instance, a government enquiry in 1817 into abuses in the system vigorously scrutinised the activities of all those involved in the management of convicts. Those conducting the investigation found the cost of maintaining convicts to be too high, the procedures for carriage to the port and for embarkation to be slow and inefficient and the fees paid to sheriffs, gaolers, and contractors who provided stores and provisions for the voyage to be exorbitant [see footnote 7]. As a result, the general and medical supervision of convicts was taken over by Dr Edward Trevor [see footnote 8], who quickly set about redressing these perceived grievances [see footnote 9].

Much of the early material on transportation in the CSO RP concerns the efforts made by Trevor to implement the recommendations of the enquiry. In detailing his efforts to reduce costs and improve efficiency, he reveals a great deal about the running of the Convict Department both before and after he took office [see footnote 10]. He claimed to have abolished the unnecessary cost of demurrage [see footnote 11] by insisting that high sheriffs of counties and cities order the local inspectors and medical officers of their gaols to see to the health, cleanliness and clothing of convicts before they were sent to Cork. He also claimed to have made large reductions in clothing costs by arranging for all garments to be made by the convicts themselves, (NAI, CSO RP/1818/C29), to have introduced competition among the traders and shopkeepers for the provisioning of convict supplies (NAI, CSO RP/1819/T67) and to have reduced overcrowding by increasing the speed with which warrants for sailing were prepared and sent (NAI, CSO RP/1819/T91). He believed that in order for the system to work to optimum efficiency, the movement of convicts from the gaols to the ships should be as speedy as possible. In 1818, he reversed a decision by the surgeon superintendent of the ship Elizabeth to keep back four female convicts on the grounds of ill health - on conducting his own investigation, he found that three were perfectly fit to travel (the doctors in charge of the vessels were called surgeon superintendents and those who took medical charge of convicts prior to embarkation were known as medical superintendents) (NAI, CSO RP/1818/C88).

The papers chronicle very well the workings of the system covering, as well as Trevor's period as head of the Convict Department of the Chief Secretary's Office, those of his successors James Palmer and Edward Cottingham and the first head of the newly formed Government Prisons Office, Herbert Hitchins, who took office in 1850. The papers indicate that, apart from security, the main preoccupation of the authorities was that the process of embarkation should take place as efficiently and cheaply as possible. This necessitated particular attention being paid to convicts' general health and maintenance before embarkation and to some extent, particularly in the later years of the system, to vocational and educational training. There were constant efforts to ensure that there was a period of detention at the depot before embarkation, that convicts washed and were free from infection, especially as the surgeon superintendents were ordered not to reject any convict capable of undertaking the voyage, apart from those obviously suffering from serious or contagious diseases, women in an advanced state of pregnancy or having recently given birth, the very elderly, or those suffering from mental afflictions.

Although there is plenty of evidence that convicts who were deemed to be too ill to travel were presented again and again before further sailings until finally embarked, the process of embarkation seems in general to have been very carefully monitored by the medical superintendents. Fear of epidemics, such as dysentery, typhus and cholera, breaking out in the ports and then transferring to the ships was one of the main medical concerns. As early as 1832, during the cholera epidemic, the hulks at Cove and Kingstown [see footnote 12] were isolated and convicts had to observe the most rigid attention to cleanliness, (NAI CSO RP/1832/T1813). When cholera broke out on the ship Java in 1833, she was cleared of her stores and every part cleaned, ventilated and fumigated (NAI, CSO RP/1833/T3539).

An indication of how confident the Convict Department had become in the excellence of health procedures for female convicts can be gleaned from the sharp rebuke the surgeon superintendent, John Moody, received from the superintendent at Grangegorman depot, Marian Rawlins, when he complained in 1852 about the filthy and diseased condition of the female convicts embarked on his ship, Blackfriar. Rawlins defended her actions by stating that all the prisoners were clean on embarkation, but that unless they were daily inspected they would unquestionably, after several days, be in the state Dr Moody described. She protested that none were put on board that he objected to, either convicts or children. She said the slightest previous symptom of insanity did not appear in any convict embarked on the Blackfriar and that there is a large number of old and useless women sentenced to transportation is perfectly correct, but we consider it our duty to have their sentence carried into effect as far as practicable. Herbert Hitchins also complained about Moody's remarks, saying that the strict procedures long in force had been carried out with great precision on the Blackfriar. He protested at Moody's having blamed others, including the prison officers, as the ultimate selection was in his hands and he had signed the list of prisoners fit to go. Both letters were sent to the Home Office with the suggestion from the Lord Lieutenant that some further enquiries be made into statements made by Moody. Moody then retracted his statement in a letter to the director general of the medical department of the Navy, saying that what he was referring to was slight gonorrhoeal infections, such trifling affections not rendering them unfit to undertake the voyage (NAI, CSO RP/1852/G4950).

The diet on board ship, which included fresh meat, vegetables, oatmeal and chocolate, seems to have been adequate and there is evidence that additional dietary provisions were often recommended when it was believed they could prevent disease. After 1845, a supply of apple potatoes was put on board all convict ships in order to prevent scurvy (NAI, CSO RP/1845/G5802).

Governor Franklin of Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) complained in 1841 about the wretched state in which the Irish female convicts had arrived on board the ship Mary Ann. He asked that they in future be allowed to keep the clothes they possessed on conviction, as was the practice in England, as on landing they were invariably in a state unfit to be admitted into a respectable house. The authorities insisted, however, that the rags worn by Irish convicts on conviction were unfit for use (NAI, CSO RP/1841/G13358).

One of the more confused areas was with respect to the transporting of convicts' children. It would seem that from the beginning, except in extreme circumstances, children were allowed to accompany their mothers without objection. No definite policy is discernible throughout the period, in fact there was an almost deliberate vagueness on the subject. One explanation for the apparent lack of strictness on the part of the authorities may have been the fact that it was in their interest to have as many children as possible sent off in order to avoid their becoming chargeable on the rates, with resultant pressure from the Grand Juries. Many children therefore, were transported with their mothers and even in some cases with their fathers. It is not clear if special arrangements were made for children on board ship. The main preoccupation was to dispose of them in the cheapest way, whether on board ship or otherwise.

Trevor's economies included the transporting of as many as possible of convicts' children along with them. When in 1822, one of several very badly behaved women was threatened with not being permitted to bring her children, aged two and four years, on the ship, she apparently swore on the bible that if her children were not permitted to travel with her she would destroy her own life. When asked by the Chief Secretary under what authority children had been sent on former occasions, Trevor answered that it was under verbal communication made to him, as otherwise children would be cast friendless on the world if not allowed to embark and besides, no extra expense was incurred as a result. On this occasion Trevor failed and the children were not permitted to travel (NAI, CSO RP/1822/2716).

By 1831 there was still no definite regulation concerning children, and another list of convicts' children, who were likely to become destitute, was forwarded for approval. Official ignorance on the subject is shown by the response from the Chief Secretary's Office, which was simply to let them embark if it can be done without an improper infringement of the regulations (NAI, CSO RP/1831/3317).

Eventually it was the colonists who insisted on making definite regulations. The ending of the assignment system, whereby convicts were immediately put into service on arrival in the colony, but were instead kept in prisons for varying periods, meant that children would no longer be dispersed throughout the colony with their mothers, but would have to be kept along with them at in the prisons or at nearby orphanages. In April 1841, Governor Franklin complained that there were 30 very young children on the ship Mary Ann, who had been admitted to an orphanage at a cost to the government of 10 a year for their maintenance. The letter was referred to the convict superintendent, James Palmer, who insisted that this was a regulation practised in this country for upwards of twenty years, sanctioned by the Treasury and recommended and approved of by successive governments, but specially directing that the children should be under ten years of age. Yet again the original official document sanctioning the practice could not be found, but it was claimed that Chief Secretaries had always ordered such children to be embarked -  It has been a most humane regulation, and if now suspended I fear these orphans (as they would virtually be) will become a burden if not worse, to the country. The governor of New South Wales never objected to the numbers of children I have thus sent out to Sydney in the last thirty convict ships (NAI, CSO RP/1841/G13358).

The question arises when examining these records, as to whether the apparent increasing determined administrative effort at efficiency led to improved conditions over time. Several examples occur, one of which appears in 1846, when it was decided for the first time to send out a matron on each ship containing females, to superintend the work and instruction of the prisoners and their children during the voyage. Matrons selected were to spend some time before embarkation in the depot where the prisoners were confined, so that they could make themselves acquainted with them. It was hoped this would put an end to convicts deceiving the surgeon superintendents into thinking they were fit for transportation when they patently were not. A letter of complaint from the Home Office enclosed a list of ten females who went out on board the ship Green and the ship Phoebe, who were reported upon arrival in the colony as unfit to earn their livelihood. The matron was employed at the same rate as her equivalent in England -  30 paid in advance as a gratuity, a free passage and a status on board ship which allowed her to dine at the intermediate table. During her two months in the depot previous to embarkation, she was paid at the rate of 40 a year, the same as the other assistant matrons (NAI, CSO RP/1846/G17770).

In 1850, a further improvement was made when it was decided to divide the sleeping decks of female transport vessels into three compartments by louvred boarding partitions and to appoint a separate matron for each division. When this was done, the method of fitting up the female convict ships was at last regarded as satisfactory by the authorities. The newly appointed matrons were directed to keep journals and to forward these on landing for the information of the government (NAI, CSO RP/1850/G6675).

Despite improvements, pressure from the Australian authorities to end the system was so severe that in 1846 all transportation of Irish males was suspended for the following two years, causing a crisis in the Convict Department. A re-modelled system known as the exile system, where convicts were to spend periods in prison at home, followed by public works in Bermuda and Gibraltar, at the end of which they would be transported to Van Diemen's Land on ticket-of-leave (a type of probation), was designed by Lord Grey, the Secretary of State for the colonies. It was not possible to operate this system in Ireland because of overcrowding due to increased convictions during the Great Famine. In 1849 Lord Grey tried to persuade the authorities to allow him to arrange for some training for Irish transportees on arrival in the colony as an alternative (NAI, CSO RP/1849/G10919).

Governor Denison did not agree, complaining that of the 298 Irish female convicts disembarked on the ship Pestonjee Bomanjee in January 1849, 272 had been convicted in 1847 and four in 1848 so that having undergone only a short period of imprisonment, they were now ticket-of-leave holders earning higher wages and living better than they ever could have hoped to do in their native country...they seem not to look on their removal as a punishment. (NAI, CSO RP/1849/G10919).

Despite protestations that Irish convicts were not the result of profligacy and vicious contamination and that their offences were merely thefts to which they were driven by distress connected with the possession of land or local feuds, Denison refused in July 1850 to allow any more Irish convicts to travel with tickets-of-leave, thus heralding the ending of transportation.

So, it can be see from the records that the ending of transportation was largely forced by colonial opposition. The decision to end the transportation system was finally announced in a letter of 11 February 1853 from the Home Office. It included a request to be informed whether the Irish government was prepared for the immediate implementation of this measure. If this was not the case, the Home Office wished to know what portion of the convicts in confinement at that time in Ireland should be removed in order to give time and opportunity to increase prison accommodation. This was referred to Hitchins who informed Thomas Larcom, the Under Secretary, that the number of prisoners with transportation sentences in Ireland on 1 February 1853 was 4,500. He added however, that while the estimates provided for 5,000, no steps had been taken to enlarge the prisons because a decrease had been anticipated in the number of convicts due to the ending of the Famine. He thought that suitable accommodation existed for less than 4,000, with over 1,000 more expected as a result of the assizes and quarter sessions of 1853. He also believed that prolonged detention of convicts in the county gaols would not be tolerated for much longer by the county authorities.

Because of this situation, he recommended that two ships be chartered to convey 600 convicts to the colony (NAI CSO RP/1853/1434). These ships were never dispatched however, and the last convict ship to leave Ireland for Van Diemen's Land was the Midlothian which reached Hobart on 24 February 1853 (NAI, CSO RP/1853/1434.

Footnotes ctd.

6. For a comprehensive account of the history of the Chief Secretary's Office and of the arrangement and use of its records, known as the Registered Papers of the Chief Secretary's Office, see Tom Quinlan, 'The Registered Papers of the Chief Secretary's Office', Irish Archives, Autumn 1994, pp 5-21.

7. Report of the commissioners appointed by the crown to investigate certain alleged abuses in the convict department at Cork; together with the evidence taken before them, 99, H.C. 1817 (343), viii, 104, 113-115.

8. The notorious Edward Trevor, ex-superintendent of Kilmainham gaol, where state prisoners were held in 1798 and 1803, claimed to have foiled an attempt at escape by Robert Emmet.

9. Until the recommendations of the report of the enquiry were put in place, three government officials were involved in the preparation of convicts for transportation: the agent of transports was appointed by the Chief Secretary to contract with a private shipowner to transport the convicts, the victualling agent had to provide for the convicts while on board ship in the harbour, and the medical superintendent looked after the convicts while in port, undertaking further medical examinations on embarkation. Supervision during the voyage was the responsibility of the surgeon superintendent.

10. Although the Chief Secretary's Office was set up in 1780, the surviving records date from 1818, by which time the transportation system had been in operation for 18 years. The department responsible for the transportation of convicts was known until 1850 as the Convict Department, when it was renamed the Government Prisons Office.

11. This was a penalty paid to the shipowner for failure to discharge the ship within the time allowed.

12. A separate depot for convicts was finally opened in Cork in 1817, which housed both male and female convicts until 1822, when Trevor received authorization to place male convicts directly on a hulk (on the style of the notorious British hulks) in Cork harbour, freeing the depot for the exclusive use of the female convicts. Like the depot, both the hulk at Cork and a further temporary one at Kinsgtown, were run by the convict department, with the inspectors general reporting annually to government. The Kingstown hulk was proposed by Trevor in 1823 to save the expense of sending the prisoners from northern gaols to Cork. Because the Irish hulks were to be used only as places of temporary detention while awaiting embarkation, they had not even the sparse facilities of the British hulks, where convicts were allowed to work on shore for part of the day, resulting in extreme overcrowding on board at all times.

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