The cook, the thieves, the prostitute and the postillion – convicts transported to Australia

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.

English: Chain gang : convicts going to work n...

Convicts going to work near Sydney (via Wikipedia)

Three out of four of mine were thieves, the crime committed by the largest number (41.4%) of transported convicts in the records at, 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.

English: Hanging of suspected United Irishmen.

Half-hanging of suspected United Irishman (via Wikipedia)

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.

English: Black-eyed Sue and Sweet Poll of Plym...

Black-Eyed Sue and Sweet Poll of Plymouth say goodbye to their convicted lovers (via Wikipedia)

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.

English: "A Coach With Two Extra Horses, ...

Coach driven by a postillion (via Wikipedia)

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?

* Since writing this, I’ve come across a passage from Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore, which says: “What is quite certain, however, is that no women were actually transported for whoring, because it was never a transportable offense. The vast majority of female convicts, more than 80 percent, were sent out for theft, usually of a fairly petty sort.”

(Extract taken from



 © Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand, 2010-2014

About rebelhand

A Rebel Hand is: about Nicholas Delaney, Irish rebel of 1798, transported as a convict to New South Wales, roadbuilder, innkeeper and farmer. My great-great-great grandfather. Other ancestors transported to Australia, like Sarah Marshall, John Simpson and James Thomas Richards, pop up as well. This blog's also about the historical background to their lives, in England, Ireland, and Australia. My respectable Welsh ancestors sometimes get a look in.
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9 Responses to The cook, the thieves, the prostitute and the postillion – convicts transported to Australia

  1. Pingback: Deep down in Deptford (and thumbs up for archives) | A Rebel Hand

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  4. cassmob says:

    An intriguing post with a great title and in-depth research. I don’t even have minor “Australian royalty” in my family tree ie no convicts at all. However I do research one with the same name as one of my family because they keep tripping over each other on the Darling Downs. He was one of the last convict batches so-called “exiles” but not the political variety. He doesn’t appear on this database and misses out on a few others. They seem to often slip through the data net. Really hanging, drawing and quartering was barbarous as well as butchery. I imagine that a life sentence to Australia would have seemed like a doddle by comparison. Thanks !


    • rebelhand says:

      Thank you – I enjoyed researching this (and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is a great film). To some extent I’ve found that ‘my’ convicts are the easiest of my ancestors to research just because they are likely to appear in the records – for obvious reasons. And yet – as you say, some slip through the net. One of mine was sent to Norfolk Island where he seems to disappear. More work needed!
      I’m hoping that the database I used for this post is expanded in the future. It is such a refreshing way to look at the facts.
      As for C18th and C19th punishments, they are horrific to us. Yet the people passing sentence would have thought themselves to be at the height of civilisation and respectability. Only two hundred years ago – how like us they were, but how utterly different, too.


  5. Kathy Reed says:

    I’ve not come across your blog before, but I, too, admire your research. I have Irish ancestors, famine immigrants from Co. Limerick who ended up in America. Initially, they were doing the same kind of lowly work. The first generation started out making bricks. What a hard life they had — and yet we are all a testament to their strength.


    • rebelhand says:

      Thank you, Kathy. I agree with you completely. Our ancestors had such tough lives. But their hard work made it possible for their descendants to live better ones. I’m full of admiration for them.


  6. Sharn White says:

    I very much enjoyed reading this post. You have done some fascinating research. One of my Irish convict ancestors was a ‘car boy’ although on another record he is listed as, ‘Dublin burglar’. He was only 14 years of age when transported for 7 years and unfortunately continued his erring ways in the Colony. I must admit that it is fun to say my g g grandfather was the Dublin Burglar. Several others who were bricklayers have left their legacy in beautiful bridges in Tasmania. Our convict ancestry is fascinating.


    • rebelhand says:

      Thanks, Sharn! I find it all fascinating – these people were only a few generations away and yet their lives were so different.

      I think it’s great to be able to say that your g g grandfather was the Dublin Burglar! It really has a ring to it. He was so young, at 14, to be sent far away from his family and home. And yes, some of my own ancestors became respectable citizens but others still had the taste for roguery.

      It’s wonderful to think that some of our ancestors have made their mark and that their work can still be seen to this day – a real link with the past and our own roots.


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