Convict transportation to NSW

A history of convict transportation to New South Wales and related records such as trial records and records of the voyage and arrival.


Transportation Act

The practice of banishing undesirables had a long history in England, but it was not organised as a definite system until the Transportation Act 1717 which made transportation an alternative punishment to death in certain circumstances, and a punishment in its own right for some offences. (Gillen, Founders of Australia, p.xvi, Shaw, Convicts and the Colonies, pp.21-37). Prisoners sentenced to transportation were

committed under bond to ship masters, who were responsible for the safe journey of the prisoner and could dispose of their services in the colonies (of America) as they thought fit'.

(Australian Encyclopaedia, 4th ed., vol. 3, p.46).

Transportation to America

During the 18th century the number of convicts transported to the American colonies increased. Poverty in England was exacerbated by the industrial and agricultural revolutions, increasing population, urbanisation, and cheap gin. (Gillen, Founders of Australia, p.xvii). The penal code, riddled with inconsistencies, was primarily intended to protect property, and the number of offences punishable by execution and transportation increased. There was also a growth in the number of prisoners reprieved from the death penalty and transported by executive action. (Australian Encyclopaedia, 4th ed., vol. 3, p.46).

Transportation to America ceased

Following the outbreak of the War of Independence in 1775 the American colonists ceased accepting convicts. Initially the British government expected to win thus making it possible for convict transportation to be resumed. In the meantime gaols, meant for short-term imprisonment only, quickly became overcrowded.

A temporary answer was the Hulks Act (1776) under which prisoners were employed on river works and naval dockyards, and housed in disused ships until they had completed their sentences or could be sent overseas. (Shaw, Convicts and the Colonies, pp.43-6, Gillen, Founders of Australia, p.xxi). Other alternatives were also considered. One idea was to construct penitentiaries, allowing convicts to be housed and reformed in England; another was to find alternative outlets overseas. Nothing, however, eventuated. No other British colony would take convicts, no suitable site was found elsewhere and penitentiaries were considered too costly. To make matters worse the American colonists were victorious and refused to allow convict transportation to be revived after 1783.

The number of prisoners in Britain continued to increase, creating overcrowding in prisons and hulks and raising fears of disease and escapes. Transportation overseas, still considered the best solution to this problem, was cheap and acted as a deterrent to potential criminals. It removed criminals from Britain and provided them with new opportunities in a fresh environment. It also provided a labour force that could open up and develop new settlements.

New South Wales

Botany Bay

Attention was turned to Botany Bay, which had been considered as a possible outlet for convicts during the early 1780s. In 1786 the British government decided to make use of this region. Historians disagree as to whether convicts provided the sole, or even the main motive and a considerable literature now exists on this subject. (Frost, Convicts and Empire, Gillen, Botany Bay Decision, Mackay, A Place of Exiles, Martin, Founding of Australia). It is clear, however, that the overcrowded state of the gaols was a powerful incentive and the region had long been mooted as an outlet for convicts.

Port Jackson

In October 1786 Captain Arthur Phillip was appointed Governor of New South Wales and after the necessary preparations had been completed, the First Fleet set sail on 13 May 1787, arriving at Botany Bay with some 775 convicts on 18 January 1788. Eight days later Phillip moved the fleet to Port Jackson where he had discovered a more suitable site.

Awaiting transportation

After committing a crime and being arrested, a person was brought before a magistrate and formally charged. If there was enough evidence, the prisoner would be detained in gaol to await trial. If found guilty at trial, the prisoner could be sentenced to transportation or death. A death sentence was often commuted to transportation and the prisoner would then be sent to a gaol or hulk to wait to board a convict vessel for the Australian colonies.

Those from English inland gaols were conveyed to seaports, the women by coach or carts and the men trudged on foot. (Bateson, The Convict Ships, p.58). In Ireland male and female prisoners

were collected from the country and city gaols and placed aboard small vessels at Dublin or Cork to await a convict ship or to voyage to one of those ports – sometimes they remained for weeks in the small, crowded brigs, awaiting the arrival of a convict ship, but more often the convict ship had to await its passengers'.

(Bateson, The Convict Ships, p.58).

Deaths on board

Thanks to Governor Phillip's thorough preparations and the care displayed on the voyage to Botany Bay there were only about 3% deaths on the First Fleet. Nearly 26% of the convicts on the Second Fleet, however, died on the voyage out and within eight months of their arrival 40% were dead. (Flynn, Second Fleet, p.1).

After the high death toll of the Second Fleet contractors, previously paid for the number of convicts who embarked, were now paid for those who arrived. (Shaw, Convicts and the Colonies, p.111).

Matters left much to be desired in the years up to 1801 when the Transport Commissioners issued instructions to the masters and surgeons of the Minorca, Canada and Nile. The vessels were to be kept 'sweet and clean', and that every day weather permitting 'the convicts to be brought on deck for the benefit of Air, and see that their Berths be properly cleansed and ventilated'. The Master's Log and Surgeon's diary were to record these particulars and the Governor was to issue 'certificates of Good Conduct if satisfied with the conduct of the voyage'. These were then presented to be paid a gratuity. (HRA Vol 3, pp.97-98).

Deaths continued to occur and in 1814 three transports, the General Hewitt, the Three Bees and the Surrey arrived with the convicts in appalling condition. (Bateson, Convict Ships, p.48). William Redfern conducted an enquiry at Macquarie's request and urged that naval surgeons be appointed as surgeon-superintendents, that assistant surgeons travel on each transport, and that greater attention be paid to ventilation and cleanliness. (Shaw, Convicts and the Colonies, pp.119-120).

The adoption of these recommendations resulted in improvements, particularly after faster ships reduced travel time and the quality of naval surgeons rose. (Shaw, Convicts and the Colonies, pp.116, 121-124).

Commissioner Bigge

From the outset convicts were used as a labour force, initially working for the government on necessary public works projects, then for the private settlers who began arriving in 1793. Once the early problems had been overcome settlement expanded. By 1821 New South Wales had taken shape as a colony in which farming, grazing, commerce and a variety of other economic activities flourished.

Since 1793 the British government had been too preoccupied with the wars with France to pay much attention to what was going on in New South Wales. Once hostilities ended in 1815, attention was turned to this distant outpost. In 1819 the government sent Commissioner J. T. Bigge to report on whether the 'system of transportation to New South Wales should be reformed or abandoned'. (Ritchie, Punishment and Profit, pp.57ff). Bigge favoured continuing the system, but urged that it be made more punitive and run more economically. He believed that tickets of leave and pardons should be made more difficult to obtain and that convicts should work for private settlers in the interior, rather than be allowed to congregate around the amenities and pleasures of the townships. In this way transportation would be made more of a deterrent and at the same time pastoralists and wool growers, whose activities Bigge greatly favoured, would be provided with the labour force they needed to expand their activities. Convicts could thus be used to serve imperial as well as penal ends.


Bigge's recommendations were accepted in their entirety and implemented under Macquarie's successors. (Ritchie, Punishment and Profit, pp.213ff). Governors Brisbane, Darling and Bourke pursued a policy of increased severity towards convicts, most of who were assigned to private service. Penal settlements were successively opened at Port Macquarie, Moreton Bay and Norfolk Island to deal with convicts who broke the law after reaching New South Wales. (Shaw, Convicts and the Colonies, p.203).

Criticism of the system

During the 1830s the convict system came under growing criticism in England from humanitarians, penal reformers and the followers of the colonial reformer, Edward Gibbon Wakefield. (Shaw, Convicts and the Colonies, pp.266ff, Hughes, Fatal Shore, pp.493ff). They questioned whether, despite the changes that had been introduced, transportation was acting as a deterrent to crime, claiming that the system was unduly costly and that assignment was too much of a lottery. Some convicts, it was alleged, found themselves in the hands of masters who treated them well, while others were treated as little more than slaves. Crime was said to have increased, not only in Britain but also in the colony, producing an unduly depraved society. By this stage growing numbers of migrants who possessed manual skills rather than capital had arrived. Unlike their wealthy counterparts who brought capital to invest in the pastoral industry, they did not welcome convicts, viewing them as a threat to their livelihood and a moral blot on the colony.

Abolition of transportation

The question arose as to whether, now that New South Wales contained so many free and freed people, it was desirable for transportation to continue. In 1837 the British government appointed a Select Committee of the House of Commons to investigate the matter. It was chaired by the anti-transportationist, William Molesworth, and was composed largely of men who shared his views. Not surprisingly it recommended the abolition of transportation to New South Wales, but was prepared to allow its continuance to Van Diemen's Land subject to certain safeguards. In 1839 the British government reduced the number of convicts sent to New South Wales and a year later the last ship transporting convicts from England arrived. Ships transporting convicts from Ireland and various colonies continued to arrive until January 1842.

Revised system

Transportation to Van Diemen's Land continued throughout the 1840s and Norfolk Island remained a place of secondary punishment, initially under New South Wales, then under Van Diemen's Land. (Robson, History of Tasmania, pp.483ff). In the mid 1840s, however, after it became evident that Van Diemen's Land was becoming overcrowded, an attempt was made to recommence transportation to New South Wales under a revised system.


In 1844 the Royal George arrived in Port Phillip carrying 'exiles' who were granted conditional pardons. Convict exiles were those who had served part of their sentence in prisons in England and were granted conditional pardons or tickets of leave on arrival in the colony. In New South Wales exiles were sent to the Port Phillip district, Sydney and Moreton Bay. Pastoralists welcomed this but the townsfolk were strongly opposed. When a ship bearing convicts, the Hashemy, arrived at Sydney Harbour in 1849, mass demonstrations were organised at Circular Quay by the powerful anti-transportation lobby, which had links with other colonies. (Shaw, Convicts and the Colonies, pp.312ff). Confronted with this situation the British government decided to abandon its proposals. By now the prison system had been reformed in England and convicts could be housed there. The last ship carrying convict exiles to the colony of New South Wales was the Bangalore which arrived in Moreton Bay on 30 April 1850.

Western Australia

In 1853, after gold discoveries in Victoria had made it more difficult for the government of Van Diemen’s Land to maintain discipline, transportation ceased. Convicts were, however, dispatched to Western Australia between 1850 to 1868 at the request of the colonists who were suffering from an acute shortage of labour.

End of the convict system

In New South Wales the Convict Establishment was broken up at the end of 1855 and the remaining duties were transferred to the Convict Branch of the Police. Those remaining convicts still under sentence were regarded as imperial convicts whose upkeep was paid for by the British government. Many of these were aged and/or infirm and spent their final years in government asylums.

Indexes to the records

  • Index to convicts who arrived in NSW, 1788–1842, compiled by the Genealogical Society of Victoria
  • Convicts to New South Wales 1788-1812 complete listings from the transportation records, compiled and edited by Carol Baxter
  • Index to convict exiles arriving, 1846–50
  • Convicts Index - certificates of freedom; bank accounts; deaths; exemptions from Government Labor; pardons; tickets of leave; and, tickets of leave passports.
  • Index to the Colonial Secretary's Papers, 1788–1825
  • Index to letters sent re convicts, 1826–May 1855, compiled by Joan Reese
  • Joan Reese's NSW Colonial Secretary's In Letters Index, 1826-1895, available in the Reading Room
  • NRS-922 Colonial Secretary's Indexes and Registers, 1826–1900, available in the Reading Room 
  • Index to male convicts to Western Australia, 1850–68. Compiled by the Genealogical Society of Victoria, COD 187 and COD 188 in the Reading Room

A list of record series

Trial records

Trials - England and Wales

Quarter Sessions

If a person was tried by a Quarter Sessions court in England, these records are held in the County Record Office of the county in which the trial occurred. The Society of Australian Genealogists holds a number of records relating to English Quarter Sessions.

Assizes Court

If the person was tried by an Assizes Court, the records are held by the Public Record Office, now National Archives (United Kingdom), at Kew, London.

PRO Reels 2730-2744
Criminal registers
Returns of prisoners tried at Middlesex from 1791 and at other counties in England and Wales from 1805.
See Appendix IV of the Guide to Convicts and Convict Administration. These are part of the Australian Joint Copying Project. Microfilms are held in our Reading Room and at the State Library of NSW.
Mitchell Library (ML) Q343.1/L
Old Bailey Session papers
Proceedings of trials of prisoners from the City of London and County of Middlesex Gaol Deliveries. There are indexes to persons tried at the back of individual volumes. 
Transcripts of trials which were held at the Old Bailey in London available online at The Proceedings of the Old Bailey London 1674-1913.
Also held on microfilm at the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.
1776–79, 1782–1809, 1816–33
Old Bailey Sessions – Returns of convicted prisoners, 1815–49
See Appendix IV of the Guide to Convicts and Convict Administration
PRO Reels 1542-45
ML X343.42/1, and MDQ352.205/2
Printed sources: Hue and Cry, and Police Gazette
Printed in London every three weeks. These newspapers contain information relating to convicts in New South Wales and Tasmania, including lists of escaped convicts, lists of deserters from the armed forces and notes of committals in the City of London and country areas.
30 Sep 1797–22 Dec 1810; 18 Jan 1828–30 Dec 1840 (1829 missing)

Trials - Ireland

There are few records of trials surviving for Ireland. Some records are included in the Irish Transportation Records, 1788–1868 ('Irish Gift'), which is a set of microfilm records from the National Archives of Ireland given to Australia as a Bicentennial gift. Microfilm copies of these records are available in the Reading Room, the State Library of NSW, the Society of Australian Genealogists, the National Library of Australia, Canberra and the National Archives of Ireland website. Details of Irish trials can sometimes also be found in Irish newspapers.

Records of the Voyage

NRS-1155 [2/8240-8284 part], Reels 2417-2428
Musters and other papers relating to convict ships
Most papers were usually brought on the vessel from the port of embarkation. These lists of convicts generally show only name, date and place of trial and sentence. They are sometimes copies of the indentures with the owner of the ship contracting to transport convicts, or a muster taken before embarkation or just before or just after disembarkation. The other papers cover miscellaneous matters including lists of deaths during the voyage, convicts to be employed in the iron'd gangs, warrants to transport military prisoners, and papers concerning court marshals, lists of free settlers on board. Occasionally there are letters about a convict after arrival.For a detailed listing see Appendix III of the Guide to Convicts and Convict Administration
NRS-898 [4/1795], Fiche 3279
Victualling and other arrangements for convict ship
10 Jun 1805–10 Dec 1808
NRS-898 [4/1095.1] , Reel 6028
Letters from Navy Office: arrangement of passages to India for the officers and men of various regiments who had done escort duty on convict ships
1818–1823, 1825
NRS-898 [4/7015.3], Reel 6022
Lists of "Medical Comforts" for convict vessels shipped in London
1 May 1819–21 Jul 1823
NRS-906 [4/1115]
Admiralty notifications that convict ships had been chartered 
Copies of certificates to masters and surgeons of vessels contracted by government
The volume registers certificates given to masters and surgeons of vessels, chiefly carrying convicts but also other government passengers, stating that they had been safely landed, and noting any further arrangements.
These volumes are one of the most reliable sources for the number of prisoners on a particular vessel.  There are indexes in front of each volume.
- 17 Oct 1827–11 Oct 1830 [4/4529], Reel 706
- 14 Dec 1830–14 Dec 1832 [4/4530], Reel 706
- 7 Jan 1833–24 Jan 1837 [4/4531], Reel 706
- 27 Jan 1837–4 Apr 1853 [4/4532], Reel 707
17 Oct 1827–4 Apr 1853
NRS-1157 [4/7101.1-.2]
Registers of convict ships arrived in Port Jackson
[4/7101.1] lists convict ships transporting male and female convicts and records: date of arrival; name of ship; whence sailed; number of convicts – embarked, died or escaped during the voyage, and landed; and the annual standing numbers allocated to the prisoners. Vessels from places other than England or Ireland are also included.
[4/7101.2] also notes in addition, numbers of free men, women and children on board; master's name; date of certificate; surgeons' name; date of bills and certificate; and the ship the surgeon was to return home by. It also has in the back a section noting vessels sailing from Sydney to London direct from January to April 1838, recording name of vessel, when sailed, where bound and whether accommodation had been arranged.
17 Jan 1829–Jan 1837, 2 Jan 1838–21 Nov 1840
NRS-1159 [5/3823]
Log of convict transport Randolph (to Van Diemen's Land)
Entries showing details of day, weather, winds, landmarks and events on board.
9 Apr–27 Aug 1849
NRS-1193 [2/8208], Reel 2664
Memoranda book, 1829–37, and record of applications for assigned servants
Includes copies of letters sent regarding the landing, disposal and assignment of convicts off convict ships, 13 Aug 1829–11 Dec 1833. The volume also includes a copy of the Regulations for the conveyance of convicts in the service of the Crown by Sea.
NRS-13695 [5/1125]
Supreme Court: Cash book of convict ship Britannia, Jan 1792–Aug 1797, and various other accounts and entries up to Sep 1807
The volume records financial accounts concerning supplies and cargo.
1792-1797, 1807
PRO Reels 3181, 3187-3213
Surgeon Superintendent's journals
The journals of the Surgeon Superintendents usually contain details of persons (convict, military, crew or passengers) treated by the surgeon in the course of the voyage. Deaths are also recorded. There may also be mention of convicts' behaviour during the voyage and a description of the voyage. The journals are arranged alphabetically by ship. They are digitised on the Ancestry website in the database UK, Royal Navy Medical Journals, 1817-1856.
The journals were copied as part of the Australian Joint Copying Project. Microfilm copies are available in the Reading Room. See Appendices I and IV of the Guide to Convicts and Convict Administration.

Sources held elsewhere

  • Journal of Thomas Bell, surgeon superintendent of the convict ships Thomas, 1829, and Edward, 1830–31, with lists of convicts Mitchell Library Mss 34
  • Accounts and papers relating to convicts on board the hulks and those transported to New South Wales, 1791–92. House of Commons, 1792 Mitchell Library Q365/G
  • Report from the Select Committee on Transportation, 10 Jul 1812. House of Commons, 1812 Mitchell Library Q365/G
  • Reports from the Select Committee on Secondary Punishments, together with the Minutes of Evidence, etc., 27 Sep 1831 and 22 Jun 1832. House of Commons, 1831–32 Mitchell Library Q365/G
  • Reports from the Select Committee on Transportation, together with the Minutes of Evidence, etc., 14 Jul 1837 and 3 Aug 1838. House of Commons, 1837–38 Mitchell Library Q365/G
  • Select Committee on Secondary Punishment, 1857
    Votes and Proceedings of the Legislative Assembly, 1858 Vol.1 p.1209

Convict arrivals

The starting point for any convict research is the Convict Indent which is the list of convicts transported to New South Wales on a particular ship. The early Indents only provide name, date and place of trial and sentence. Later Indents contain more information such as a physical description, native place, age and crime. The Indents will often contain numbers of Tickets of Leave, Pardons or Certificates of Freedom as well as details of any further crimes committed in the colony. Researchers should always make a note of these annotations. They have been indexed in the Index to Convicts who arrived in NSW, 1788-1842

See also Appendix IV of the Guide to Convicts and Convict Administration

Indents - convict vessels arriving at Port Jackson, 1788–1842, 1849

Convict indents are arranged by vessel and usually provide details of the prisoners' name, age, marital status, literacy, place and date of conviction, sentence and physical description. References to tickets of leave, pardons or certificates of freedom later received are frequently noted.

These are the four main series of indents.

NRS-1150 [SZ115, 4/3999]
NRS-1151 [4/3999]
NRS-1152 [4/4000]
NRS-1153 [4/4001]
NRS-1154 [4/4002]
NRS-12188 [4/4003-4058, 4/6377-6408]
1. Bound Indents
Principal Superintendent of Convicts. The volumes were written up in the colony in the office of the Colonial Secretary. The volumes located at [SZ115, 4/3999-4/4002], ([4/3998] now SZ115 at COD 9 Fiche 620-624; [4/3999] on Reel 2719, Fiche 625; [4/4600-02] Reel 2719), are mostly copies or originals of the indentures with the owners of the ships contracting to transport the convicts, not always with a list of prisoners attached.
[4/4003] (COD 131-136, Reel 392, Fiche 614-617) is an alphabetically arranged list of convicts arriving 1788–1800, taken at a later date from earlier volumes. The pencil annotations in the right hand columns refer back to those volumes. [4/3996] and [4/3997] are each copies of part of [4/4003] made at a much later date. The remaining volumes, [4/4004-22] ([4/4020-23] not filmed) are arranged chronologically by the arrival of the various transports.
The early convict indents provide details of: name, age (on some pre-1800 indents and from June 1813), when and where convicted, sentence. From July 1814 [4/4005] they also record native place, calling and physical description. In addition, from 1826 onwards they record offence, former convictions, religion, marital status, family and education. Those for the years 1826-32 also record 'how disposed of' which usually records assignment on arrival. Numbers of any tickets of leave, conditional or absolute pardon received are often recorded on the convict indent. See Item list Appendix I of the Guide to Convicts and Convict Administration
2. Printed Indents
Principal Superintendent of Convicts. These volumes were printed for limited distribution to magistrates and officials to enable them to identify individual convicts, and to provide them with relevant facts on the convict's history: name, age, literacy, religion, marital status, number of male and female children, native place, trade or calling, offence, when and where tried, sentence, former convictions, and detailed physical description.
See Item list Appendix I of the Guide to Convicts and Convict Administration
3. Musters and related papers
Most papers usually came on the vessel from the port of embarkation and form part of the series Colonial Secretary: Letters received NRS 897, 905 (being frequently registered after 1826).
The lists of convicts usually show only name, date and place of trial, and sentence. They are sometimes copies of the indenture with the owner of the ship contracting to transport convicts, or a muster taken before embarkation or just before or just after disembarkation. The other papers are miscellaneous — list of deaths during the voyage, convicts to be employed in the iron'd gangs, warrants to transport military prisoners, list of free settlers on board. Occasionally there are letters about a convict after arrival.
The lists are also concerned with convicts from India, Cape of Good Hope, Mauritius, Canada, South Australia, Western Australia and occasionally with convicts to Van Diemen's Land, Norfolk Island or Port Phillip, as well as New South Wales.
See Item list Appendix III of the Guide to Convicts and Convict Administration
4 .‘Irish indents’
Warrants of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, relating to convict vessels from Ireland. These warrants accompanied the convicts to the colony, and transferred authority over them from the Lord Lieutenant to the Governor of New South Wales. They provide details of name, crime, sentence, age, and county. Occasionally comments on character are made.
See Item list Appendix I of the Guide to Convicts and Convict Administration

How to access the records covered in this guide

  • Some of the files can be viewed online
  • Visit the Reading Room to view the original documents
  • Copy service - choose paper photocopies or digital delivery
  • Hire a researcher. We cannot undertake research for you. Please see our referral list of professional researchers