Monday, May 5, 2014

Last year (2013) I spoke at the annual Sydney University alumni gathering (called SUGUNA), and spoke about genealogy for Australians, focusing on convicts  in our ancestry. I was asked to write a short summary of one aspect of the talk for the SUGUNA newsletter, which was circulated this month.

Am I marked by the convict stain?

Many third-generation Australians are descended from one or more convicts, sentenced to servitude in one of the Australian colonies. This was once regarded as a ‘stain’ on the family’s heritage, something not to be discussed. This stain has metamorphosed into a badge of honor to be worn proudly alongside other Australian ancestry ‘achievements’ such as Gallipoli or the Eureka stockade (and I have all three!). Arrivals to Australia in the 1800s can be broken into three dominant sources, viz. convicts who stayed (voluntarily or involuntarily), soldiers and their families (pensioned out while serving or deserters), and immigrants (of the assisted and non-assisted variety). Convicts came to Australia predominately from Britain and Ireland, but also places beyond including Canada and various other colonies, and were of many races and religions. Even some Americans ended up in Australia by this path, through conviction in places such as Canada.

Descendants of convicts can be thankful that the administrative requirements associated with penal enforcement has resulted in one of the richest sources of information available for any group of people from this time, anywhere in the world. In my talk, I used an ancestor Edward EWER (b. 1796 Clewer, Berkshire, d. 1859 Bathurst, NSW) to demonstrate the range of records available, and how these can be used to ‘flesh out’ the life of one man. His life, as with any, would be difficult to condense into 500 words, and here I will simply identify the key steps in the life of a convict and the records associated with them. Access to sources is variable, but many are now available electronically through commercial and governmental archives. The critical point to make is that the following is presented chronologically, but the reality is that birth can be one of the last things identified about a person.

One usually starts with birth – notoriously difficult to identify for convicts as court records in Britain and marriage and death certificates in Australia often don’t state details such as names of parents and place of birth (‘not given’). Family life in England or the colonies can be explored through parish records (England) and civil records – in New South Wales these started in 1855, but the state gathered many parish records and these too have been indexed to create an artificial BDM index from 1788 onwards ( In Britain (but less so Ireland due to the Four Courts fire), records of court proceedings and hulk imprisonment allow a convict’s life from capture onwards to be traced, and the emerging British digitized newspapers effort makes this even easier. Transportation indents became more informative over time, and allow one to gain insight into physical description (e.g., ruddy!), tattoos, occupation, crime and sentencing. Ship diaries (surgeon’s journals) also record details of the voyage, and prisoners who were unwell, or misbehaved. Each step in the path to emancipation also involved issuing of a physical certificate that contained information including the valuable ‘native place’ (usually village or town of birth). A convict who continued to make trouble (not uncommon), or did extremely well in life after freedom (uncommon), will appear in the Colonial Secretary’s correspondence. For example, letters of request for sentences to be mitigated, or requests for a grant of land or allocation of a convict servant will appear in the correspondence. Perhaps the most popular tool is the National Library of Australia’s newspaper digitization effort (called Trove, The level of detail one can unearth on an individual is stunning, be it from court proceedings, letters to the editor, obituaries, and many more. Finally (literally), along with death certificates and obituaries, don’t rule out the possibility of a headstone existing for your ancestors, and the information that might be chiseled thereon (

There are many other smaller indexes created that relate to convicts, from gaol description books, requests to marry, to the convict savings bank books. Examples of the information available from many of these records can be found at my blog (, and I’m happy to help provide people with direction and assistance related to both their convict ancestors, and those who chose a legally quieter path in life. 

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