Stealing sheep or wool or cloth in 18th- and 19th-century England could land you a minimum seven-year sentence at an Australian penal colony, according to Ancestry.com’s newest online collection of Australian convicts records. For those interested in uncovering the criminal ancestors lurking in their past, the world’s largest online resource for family history today released the largest collection of Australian convict records, indexed and searchable online for the first time. Records detail the some 165,000 convicts transported to Australia from 1788 to 1868.
An estimated 22 percent of Australians are descended from these British exiles. Their sentences served, many convicts remained Down Under, becoming Australia’s first western settlers.
The British government deemed transportation, as the practice was known, just punishment for a mixed bag of crimes from marrying secretly to burning clothes. Although “felony,” “larceny” and “burglary” described the overwhelming majority of crimes, a few records include juicy details, such as, “obtaining money by false pretences,” “stealing heifers” and “privately stealing in a shop.” The convict records typically contain convict’s name, date and place of sentencing, length of sentence – usually 7 years, 14 years or life – and, sometimes, the crime committed.
“By today’s standards, many of these crimes are minor misdemeanors or are no longer illegal, and the severity of punishments seem ludicrous,” said Megan Smolenyak, Chief Family Historian for Ancestry.com. “No wonder Australians consider a convict in their family tree a badge of honor and seek to uncover the amusing, quirky and outrageous details in their family’s ‘criminal’ past.”
But as notorious as the Australian convicts might be, England first disposed of its felons in the American colonies. High crime rates and over-crowded jails led the English government to transport small-time criminals to British colonies. By 1775, England had shipped some 50,000 convicts to America. They worked as indentured servants, typically on tobacco plantations in Virginia and Maryland.
Tired of England deporting unwanted citizens to America, Benjamin Franklin suggested sending rattlesnakes to England in return – a sentiment shared by many Colonial leaders. The American Revolution ended convict banishment to the United States, and the British began shipping their criminals some 15,000 miles to newly discovered Australia.
Unique Attributes of Australian-Bound Convicts:
- A vast majority of Australia-bound convicts were English, Irish and Scottish men between the ages of 20 and 24
- Women accounted for some 15 percent of Australian convicts but were outnumbered by men, six to one
- 39 percent of male and 35 percent of female convicts had no prior convictions
- The oldest convict transported was approximately 60, and the youngest nine
- 1,321 convicts were from other parts of the British Empire
- The majority of convicts were illiterate and convicted for crimes of poverty (theft)
- In the first years of transportation, convict ships were unsanitary and disease ridden; conditions improved in the later years
- Convicts typically served their sentence building roads, bridges and buildings or for free settlers
- When transportation ended, convicts made up 40 percent of Australia’s English-speaking population