My convict ancestors were an unusual lot – but three of them were also really common. That’s the conclusion I came to after looking at a clever take on transportation statistics on one Australian website.
Three out of four of mine were thieves, the crime committed by the largest number (41.4%) of transported convicts in the records at ConvictRecords.com.au, the online resource based on the British Convict transportation register for ships bound for Australia between 1787-1867. It covers 123,888 convicts from an estimated total of 160,000.
The database hasn’t got the records for Atlas II, the ship on which Nicholas Delaney arrived in 1802, and there seems to be a gap where a lot of Irish rebels – or political prisoners – from 1798 should be.
There were four murderers, which was what Nicholas was convicted of, and one transported for high treason. I reckon that last one got off lightly. Until 1814, the punishment for a man was to be hung, drawn and quartered. This meant being hung, but without the long drop which could cause death. After a period of strangulation the victim was cut down, stripped naked, and, while still conscious, castrated, his belly cut open and his internal organs pulled out and burnt in front of him. At last he would be beheaded and his body cut into quarters which, with his head, would be publicly displayed as a warning to others. The punishment was designed to combine long torture (and half-hanging was notoriously also used against many suspected or genuine United Irishmen in the 1790s) with ritual humiliation.
After theft, the most common offences were larceny (12.7%), burglary (6.3%), housebreaking (5.2%) and robbery (3.9%) – there seems to be a pattern there. Some convicts were a little more imaginative in their crimes, though, with one transported for riotous conduct and felony, five machine breakers, one bigamist, seven sheep stealers and four horse thieves. There is also one convicted of being a shoemaker, but I suspect that just might be a mistake.
As for their jobs, my great-great-great grandfather John Simpson, who arrived in New South Wales on the Ocean II in 1818, was one of only four tailors on the database. James Thomas Richards of Deptford, the 2x great grandfather who I’ve just begun looking at, was the only waterman.
The top three occupations of transported criminals were those of labourer (12.3%), farmer (5.7%) and at 5.1%… convict. Were these repeat offenders? James Thomas Richards was convicted of another crime while serving his time in New South Wales, but the same convict system did not operate in Britain. Were they prisoners who re-offended while in custody? Do you know the answer?
Perhaps not surprisingly, housemaids come top of the specifically female occupations with 10 (2.9%) transported. They would have had plenty of temptation and opportunities to pocket the family silver and other portables. The two nursery maids, two general maids and one plain cook/house servant would have had fewer chances but probably no less covetousness.
Three needlewomen, three dairymaids and three housewives found themselves bound for Australia. Maids, laundresses and housekeeper/cooks went out two by two. One nurse/midwife is on the list, and there is one book folder, a trade which was often carried out by women. Perhaps surprisingly, there is only one prostitute. It’s interesting to note that nobody was specifically transported for plying the oldest profession.*
Back to the men, and there was a mill worker, possibly one of the machine breakers – or were the three weavers responsible, with their livelihoods threatened by the new mills? We don’t know whether these were hand weavers (usually male) or steam weavers (mostly female), but if they were male Luddites, they were lucky to be transported – 17 others were executed after a trial in York in 1813.
From the professional classes, one accountant got caught fiddling the figures and was sent overseas, as was one doctor.
Some of the more unusual occupations included a miniature painter, a gilt toy maker, a leather trunk maker, a coach painter, a glover’s assistant, a painter’s boy and a wool sorter. There was a shosebinder (is this something to do with shoe-making? It could be an alternative spelling). The only whitesmith listed worked with ‘white’ metals like tin, not ‘black’ iron.
And I’ve saved the best till last. I’ve always wanted to write this – a postillion. Not struck by lightning, but dealt a heavy blow by being transported to the other side of the world. Yet at the same time fortunate, like all my convict ancestors were, to keep their lives, to escape imprisonment and to be given the chance to make a new life in Australia.
I’ve found two of my ancestors on this list – have you spotted any of yours? Are you a descendant of the shosebinder, the prostitute or the postillion?