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10 useful websites for convict research

Historical research is becoming more and more accessible online, with the new collections being made available. Anyone, at any time, can discover an untold story. Daniel McKay lists ten websites that are making tracing the journey of some long-dead convict across the globe a little easier.


1. Google

No, this isn’t a joke! Google is an immensely powerful search engine that has the potential to find sources and information that you would never otherwise find. However don’t expect it to do all the work for you, this is a blunt instrument which pulls up everything and anything, if you type in John Smith for instance you’re going to find much more than you want, John Smith the convict after all is unlikely to have a Facebook account. Besides that, there were over 600 convicts called John Smith. But by using some tricks you can refine your search. By putting “John Smith” in inverted commas Google will search for the phrase as a whole, rather than John and Smith as they appear individually. Also, trying this in combination with the word convict, or other key words like the name of the ship, or where they ended up “Moreton Bay”. Google is good for giving you an idea of what’s out there, but if you don’t find anything or much, do not give up hope, don’t sulk of become disheartened there lies gold buried elsewhere for the taking!

Author’s tip: Searching the name of the person you’re tracking with their ship is a good way to refine your search as in most old records and newspaper reports most convicts were referred to by name and ship of arrival.

2. NSW Index of Convicts

Why do all the hard work when someone has done it for you? Most state archives or libraries have some form of Index of Convicts which have been compiled with the blood, sweat and tears of staff and volunteers. Some of these indexes like the NSW and Tasmanian lists are searchable, so you can look up a name to see if your target is there, and if so – what other information exists in their holdings for you to find. Some of these indexes give a lot of information, others just tell you where you can find it.

Author’s tip: As with all of these searchable databases, remember that the person you’re tracking could have had their name recorded with a range of variations,  for example the convict Matthais Yody, variously appears as Matthew and Udy, Yodie, Jody and Todie.

3. Index – Moreton Bay Chronological Register of Convicts 

To find out about convicts who were sent to the Penal Settlement at Moreton Bay, this is the best starting place. Available on the Queensland State Archives website this index is quite user friendly and accompanied with useful explanatory notes.

Author’s tip: It’s always a good idea to cross reference information on the index with the original record. Also remember that until 1859 Queensland did not exist, and was part of New South Wales, so many convicts who ended up in that state probably first landed in NSW.

4. Tasmanian Index of Convicts

If you know or want to see if the person your tracking went to Tasmania this searchable index is a great resource, cataloging around 76,000 people.

5. Trove – National Library of Australia

The Trove website is one of the most useful ways of getting to know more about your convict. Containing searchable database of digitized Australian newspapers from the very beginning of settlement, you will be surprised by what you can find. For instance, when freedom was granted the convict’s name would appear in a list published by the colonial secretary, or if they had been involved in some further scandal or crime it might be detailed in an article. Also if you have found reference to some event that is in another source you can use that as a lead to find newspapers from the event, when they aren’t referred to directly by name.

Author’s tip: Remember that these newspapers have been digitized and the OCR (Optical Character Recognition) that is used to search the text is fallible, so it’s a good idea to use different techniques to find what you’re after. Also take care of the many derivations that names can have.

6. Old Bailey Court Records

Covering the period from 1674 – 1913 this website is an amazing searchable resource of trial proceedings from this most notorious of criminal courts of justice in London. Many convicts transported to Australia began their journey in the docks of the Old Bailey and so to add detail to your research it’s an invaluable resource.

7. State Library of Queensland

The State Library of Queensland has a great resource page on researching convicts with details of their own holdings and other useful sites. There is also a database that you can use athough isn’t as exhaustive as some of the others.

8. State Library of New South Wales

Although geared towards family history, this guide to using the records for researching convicts is quite comprehensive. The State Library of NSW has the lion’s share of convict records and other sources. This includes material relating to the penal settlement at Moreton Bay. However, he Queensland State Library has microfilm copies of much of these records, so you don’t always need to go to Sydney for your research.

9. Convict Records

As a basic search tool this is a useful way of snavelling a couple of leads, although the information is largely unreferenced and it’s better if you can find the stuff for yourself so you can be more certain of its accuracy. Plus it’s boring if you don’t get to go on a treasure hunt.

10. Australian National Maritime Museum – Convict Ships

If trying to get an appreciation for convict ships, this is a good page that details further resources you can track down. Often there is information you can find about the ships on which convicts came to Australia. For instance, by searching the name of the convict ship you might find details that you wouldn’t otherwise have done. A search for the Malabar which came out in 1819, revealed that Governor Lachlan Macquarie had boarded it for inspection and written about the event in his diary.

There are lots of other great sources that you can reach through the internet depending on who you’re searching for. There is often a wealth of great images and written sources that you can find as contextual material, for instance about what the Old Bailey looked like, or what it was like to be a convict in the places where the person you’re tracking was at the time. While you’re still going to have to visit a library or archive, there is a lot you can do before you get there.

The above list is far from a complete listing of the online resources for tracing your convict ancestors but it is a very useful starting point! Follow us here or on facebook for more updates on new sites emerging every day. Like Claim a Convict!

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