Skip to main content

Australian convict records: Home

Between 1788 and 1868 about 160 000 British convicts were sent to Australia. This State Library of South Australia guide will assist you to locate worldwide resources for researching your convict ancestors.

Convict arrival dates

 

New South Wales                              1788 - 1850
Queensland 1824 - 1839
Tasmania 1803 - 1853
Victoria 1803 - 1849
Western Australia 1850 - 1868

Cast Iron Leg Irons

Introduction

The Industrial Revolution and other events in Europe through the 18th century, among other results, brought unemployment and great poverty for many people. This in turn led to an increased crime rate as many of those struggling simply to survive committed crimes in desperation - aside from that section of the population who were always liable to nefarious activities.

English law at the time was harsh. There were more than 200 crimes which carried the death penalty.

With overcrowded prisons, the British government also made use of decommissioned naval ships as floating prisons on the River Thames, and at Portsmouth and Plymouth. 

"Transportation" of criminals, that is, sending them into exile in distant British colonies began in the 1600s, with convicts being sent to America and the West Indies. The discovery of Australia in 1770 provided the opportunity to send criminals to the most distant land yet known.

A person convicted of a capital punishment (a crime punishable by death) became eligible to have the sentence converted to fourteen years in a penal colony. Those convicted of a non-capital offense could have the sentence converted to seven years. Naturally, very few former convicts ever returned to Britain. However, convict transportation was usually the opportunity for a better life in the new land.

The "First Fleet" consisting of eleven convict ships under Australia's first governor (Arthur Philip) and soldiers, left Portsmouth on 13 May 1787 and arrived at Botany Bay on 20 January 1788 - the date now commemorated as Australia Day.

There were about 778 convicts - mostly men - in this group. Finding that Botany Bay was not suitable for a colony, the settlement moved north to Port Jackson - modern day Sydney.

Subsequently other penal settlements were established at Norfolk Island and at various locations in Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia. By the end of the convict era approximately 160,000 men and women had been transported to Australian penal settlements.

South Australian Convicts?

South Australia was an experimental British colony and the only Australian colony which did not officially take convicts.

Naturally there were some convicts who made their way to South Australia. This included a handful of escaped convicts, but also quite a number of convicts who had completed their sentences came to settle here, usually hiding their convict past due to stigma. This ranged from the prosperous shipping agents, Emanuel and Vaiben Solomon, down to a number of farmers around the south coast.

 

Further information about former convicts settling in South Australia can be found in Paul Sendziuk's paper 'No convicts here: reconsidering South Australia's foundation myth', in Turning points: chapters in South Australian history (2012).

 

Criminals who were convicted of major crimes in South Australia were sent as convicts to the eastern colonies until 1851. An index to these local convicts is available on the Find My Past database - (available in the Library or by private subscription) and on Family Historian, Graham Jaunay's website.  In some cases the index includes biographical information such as name of spouse, number of children, religion etc.

General information about South Australian convicts sent to the other colonies is contained in the pamphlet,  SA convicts sentenced to transportation 1837-1851 by Graham Jaunay (1995).

 

Who we are

State Library of South Australia
Contact:
GPO Box 419
Adelaide SA 5001
(08) 8207 7250

Family History Services at the State Library of SA

The State Library Family History Collection specialises in South Australian resources. It is also strong in material relating to England and Ireland and includes a selection of interstate and overseas resources.

The collection is located in the Spence Wing on Level 1.

A staff member is stationed in the area weekdays from 10am to 5pm during Library opening hours. Outside of these times assistance is available at the Information Desk.

Our Ask Us service can provide assistance for those unable to get to the Library.

Staff are able to get you started by showing you how to use the resources and can refer you to professional services for more extensive personalised research.