Trace your Australian convict ancestors like Anne Reid

By Jon Bauckham, 29 September 2015 - 1:26am

Laura Berry looks at the records available for researching the life of a convict after their transportation

Convict ship Getty Images

Anne Reid’s ancestor John Reid was sent to Tasmania on a convict ship after committing forgery (Credit: Getty Images)

In 1787, the British government shipped the first fleet of convicts to Australia’s east coast, identified by Captain James Cook as suitable for habitation in 1770. Hundreds of prisoners, guards and mariners landed at Port Jackson in January 1788, becoming the first Europeans to settle in Australia.

Although the terrain was much harsher than had been expected, they quickly set to work building the first camp at Sydney Cove, New South Wales. Two more fleets arrived in 1790 and 1791, and by the time transportation came to an end in 1868, more than 162,000 men, women and children had been forcibly sent Down Under.

In 1803-1804, the British took a party of convicts to build penal colonies on an island off Australia’s south-east coast, named Van Diemen’s Land by Dutch explorers (later known as Tasmania). It was here that actress Anne Reid’s ancestor John Reid was sent for committing forgery. In the early 19th century camps were also raised in Queensland and later in Western Australia and Norfolk Island.

The location of any surviving records charting the lives of convict ancestors in Australia largely depends on where they were sent, and, as Anne Reid discovered, convicts in the mid-19th century were treated quite differently to the early transportees.

Australian convicts inspection Getty Images

Convicts are inspected at Sydney Cove on their arrival in 1788 (Credit: Getty Images)


The first convicts who arrived in the 1780s and 1790s suffered greatly from malnutrition, exposure and disease. The First Fleet website uses original documents to explore their lives and includes a database of their names. By the early 19th century, convicts arriving in the established colonies entered a strictly regimented system.

British transportation records described on The National Archives' website should reveal the colony to which your ancestor was initially sent. Anne Reid’s ancestor John Reid was found in the Tasmanian Archives’ Index to Tasmanian Convicts, showing when he arrived in Van Diemen’s Land.

Research the history of the colony to which your ancestor was transported to understand the unique way it operated at various points in time.

John Reid arrived a few years after the Probation System was implemented in Van Diemen’s Land. Convicts were segregated into labour gangs and forced to work at one of over 80 probation stations, or at a penal settlement if they had a life sentence. After several years’ hard labour they could earn a probation pass and be hired by free settlers.

Information about life as a convict can be found on Tasmania’s Heritage page, and useful background information for the whole of Australia is online.

State Records Office of Western Australia screenshot

The State Records Office of Western Australia has a useful list of convict records on its website

Life as a convict

Hard labour was meant to deter criminals from re-offending. Convicts built Australia’s first roads, cleared dense scrubland, felled and hauled timber, and worked in a variety of mines and factories. Some absconded, in which case their chance of survival in the bush was slim, particularly during the early years of settlement.

The Tasmanian Archives has a rich online collection of conduct rolls and registers, indent rolls and description lists, and the State Library of Queensland has an excellent resources page for researching people transported all over Australia at this link.

The State Library of New South Wales has a research guide to learning more about life in the colony and finding records for individual convicts, and the State Records Office of Western Australia lists its convict records here, with further information on the State Library of Western Australia website at this link.

Repeat offenders were tried at the local Court of Petty Sessions and Bench Magistrates. Norfolk Island, Port Macquarie, Van Diemen’s Land and Newcastle received many unruly convicts who were re-transported from their original colony for offences like swearing and disorderly conduct. Research New South Wales trial papers with help from this online guide, and refer to the state archive and library websites above for other areas.

Though the British established thousands of penal sites across Australia during the 18th and 19th centuries, few remain intact. A total of 11 of the best-surviving examples of convict settlements are now preserved as UNESCO World Heritage sites, listed here. Some former settlements have been turned into museums, one of the most significant being Port Arthur in Tasmania.

Australian Certificate of Freedom

Certificates of Freedom were proof that a convict had completed their sentence


Few convicts served out their full sentences. Good behaviour could be rewarded with a ticket of leave, allowing the person to live and work close to their colony until their sentence had expired.

Certificates of Freedom, introduced in 1810, were issued as proof that a convict had completed their sentence. Conditional pardons granted freedom to live as an exile on the condition that they didn’t return to Britain. An absolute pardon meant they could return home if they wished, and their sentence was totally cleared.

Copies of these documents may be found in the state archives where your ancestor was last held. The Tasmanian Convict Muster Roll of 1849, held at the Tasmanian Archives, recorded John Reid as a free man. Many of the sources described in our online tutorial can be used to track what happened to freed convicts if they remained living in Australia.

The return passage to Britain was too expensive for most people, if indeed they were allowed to return, so many built new lives as respectable citizens in Australia. Over half the population had a criminal past in the mid-19th century, so ex-cons were not stigmatised in the way they might have been at home.

Findmypast holds the New South Wales, Certificates of Freedom 1827-1867 and Australia Convict Conditional and Absolute Pardons 1791-1867, plus other related records. Ancestry’s Australian Convict Collection includes pardons, certificates of freedom and tickets of leave among other records. For a round-up, click here.

WDYTYA? Magazine guide to New Zealand ancestors

Visit our online tutorial for advice on tracing New Zealand kin here

Life after release

Reformed convict exiles could move great distances within Australia after they had served their term, and were free to work as ordinary citizens. Until 1841, New Zealand formed part of New South Wales, and many were allowed to move there to start afresh. Go to our tutorial for advice on tracing ancestors who settled in New Zealand.

TheGenealogist has a selection of records from Australia and New Zealand, including transportation records taken from The National Archives’ Home Office series, available here.

Newspapers are a great source of information, whether or not your ancestor left Australia. ‘Notices of intent’ were published in the Sydney Gazette, listing people departing the colonies. Adverts in the Hobart Town Gazette and The Courier were also helpful for establishing that Anne Reid’s ancestor remained in Tasmania and went on to work as a clerk and secretary.

The National Library of Australia’s digital newspaper collection of historic titles from all Australian states and territories is free to search.

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