Convicts Guide

Between 1788 and 1842 about 80,000 convicts were transported to New South Wales

Between 1788 and 1842 about 80,000 convicts were transported to New South Wales. Of these, approximately 85% were men and 15% were women. Almost two thirds of convicts were English (along with a small number of Scottish and Welsh), with the Irish making up the remaining one third. Convicts were usually given sentences of transportation for seven, 14 years or life. Some convicts in the 1830s received ten-year sentences. About one quarter of the convicts were sentenced to 'the term of their natural lives', and a proportion of these had reprieves from the death sentence.

How do you know if there was a convict in your family? Find out where to start and how to dig further into the records, including: trial and transportation records, penal settlements, emancipation, and families of convicts.

Where to begin convict research

A range of online convict indexes are available to search.

The first step is to identify the convict:

Marriage and death certificates

A marriage certificate may say 'married with permission of the Governor'. This indicates that one or both parties to the marriage were convicts still serving their sentences. A death certificate may state 'prisoner of the Crown'.

Muster and census records

These records will often note if somebody was a convict at the time, or if they were 'free by servitude'.

Family stories

If there is a possibility that there is a convict in the family check the Index to Convicts indents (listed below) for the ancestor's name:

Trial records

Criminal registers

We hold microfilm copies of criminal registers for England and Wales, which provide basic information about a convict's trial including crime. These are part of the Australian Joint Copying Project (AJCP) and are held on microfilm in the reading room and at the Mitchell Library (the State Library of New South Wales).

Case papers

The records of Quarter Sessions cases in England are held in the County Record Office of the county in which the trial occurred. The National Archives (UK), holds records of trials by Assize Courts in England. Transcripts of trials that were heard at the Old Bailey in London are held on microfilm at the Mitchell Library and will be made progressively available online at the Proceedings of the Old Bailey website.

Irish trial records

There are few records of trials surviving for Ireland. Some records are included in the 'Irish Gift', which is a set of microfilm records given to Australia as a Bicentennial gift. Microfilm copies of these records are available at the State Archives Reading Room, the State Library of NSW and the Society of Australian Genealogists. Indexes to these records are held at the State Library of NSW and on the National Archives of Ireland website.

Convict indents

The starting point for any convict research is the convict indent, which is the list of convicts transported to New South Wales on a particular ship. The early indents only provide name, date and place of trial and sentence. Later indents contain more information such as a physical description, native place, age and crime. The indents may also contain numbers of tickets of leave, pardons or certificates of freedom as well as details of any further crimes committed in the colony. Researchers should always make a note of these annotations.

Indexes to convict indents

(Fiche 5969-5979)
Index to convict indents
Published by the Genealogical Society of Victoria
(COD 496)
Index to convicts arriving

In addition, there are 18th and 19th century indexes to convicts arriving, which may also be checked if the convict being researched does not appear in any of the above. These indexes are listed in the Guide to Convicts and Convict Administration.

Surgeons' Journals

The surgeon's journal for a particular convict ship usually contains details of any illnesses or deaths during the voyage. The journal may also contain mention of a convict's behaviour during the voyage and a description of the voyage.

The surgeons' journals of ships carrying convicts to New South Wales are available as part of the Australian Joint Copying Project (AJCP), and are held on microfilm in the reading room and at the Mitchell Library. See the Convict Guide for a listing of surgeon's journals. Surgeons Journals can also be viewed on the Ancestry website - search for UK, Royal Navy Medical Journals, 1817-1856.

See more about the AJCP on the State Library of NSW website and the National Library of Australia website.


On arrival, a convict was either retained by the Government for labour on public works or was assigned to an individual. Very few records of assignment have survived. Those that have survived are listed in the Convict Guide.

Useful resources relating to assignment

(Fiche 745)
Index to assignment registers *ARK
(PRO Reel 70)
Index to convicts arriving
1828-1832, 1833-1834

Tickets of Leave

A ticket of leave allowed convicts to work for themselves on condition that they remained in a specified area, reported regularly to local authorities and if at all possible, attend divine worship every Sunday. Further details of tickets of leave may be found in the Guide to Convicts and Convict Administration.

(Fiche 5727-5733)
Index to NSW Convict Tickets of Leave
This index is also available online at the Society of Australian Genealogists' website.
NRS 1166(Reel 601, COD 18)
Lists of tickets of leave issued
The earliest surviving tickets of leave records from Jul 1810 -Oct1814 may be found in this series. There is a gap in the records of tickets of leave issued from Nov1814-Jul 1824 when NRS 12200 begins.
2 Jul 1810-26 Feb 1811; 9 Jun 1810-3 Oct 1814
NRS 12200[4/4060-4062], Reel 890
Principal Superintendent of Convicts, Registers of tickets of leave
The registers provide the following information: the prisoner's number, name, ship and date of arrival, place of conviction, term of sentence, native place, 'calling', height, complexion, colour of eyes and hair, date of ticket, district he is confined to, and any 'general remarks'.
NRS 12202(Reels 909-965, 893)
Principal Superintendent of Convicts, Ticket of leave butts
Each butt provides the following information: prisoner's number, name ship and year of arrival, master of ship, native place, trade or calling, offence, place and date of trial, sentence, year of birth, physical description, the district the prisoner is allocated to, the Bench which recommended him/her, and the date of issue of Ticket. There are also notes on many of the butts referring to matters such as change of district, and conditional pardons.Please note that the tickets of leave in volumes [4/4419-20], Reel 2668A are incorrectly headed, Certificate of Freedom instead of Ticket of leave.
31 Mar 1827-31 Dec 1875
NRS 12207(Reels 891-893)
Principal Superintendent of Convicts, Butts of Colonial tickets of leave
The following details are stated: number, date, name, ship and master, year of arrival, native place, calling, offence, place and date of trial, sentence, year of birth, height, complexion, hair, eyes, general remarks, and in which district prisoner is allowed to remain.

Tickets of Exemption from Government Labour

A Ticket of Exemption differed from a Ticket of Leave in that the individual was not allowed to employ him or herself or to acquire property.

As stated in a Circular to Magistrates from the Colonial Secretary dated 1st January 1830 the Exemption Ticket allowed:

simply the privilege of residing until the next 31st December with the person therein named, generally a relation, in some specific district and no other.

The convict still had to attend church service and had to renew the Ticket each year. It appears that the Tickets were used as a form of assignment to relatives.

From the extant records, it appears that a large number of those convicts who received a Ticket of Exemption were assigned or received a Ticket of Leave in August/September 1833. Given this, and the fact that we don't hold any records which date after 1832, it is possible that the issuing of Tickets of Exemption was discontinued at that time.

For most of the records the name of the relation with whom the convict was to reside is given on the Ticket. Other information may include why the ticket of exemption was granted and to the reason why the ticket was cancelled (for example, for having committed a crime or misdemeanour, because the sentence was served and a certificate of freedom issued, because of the granting of a ticket of leave, on account of the convict's death).

NRS 12196(Reel 589, Fiche 1002-1005)
Principal Superintendent of Convicts: Tickets of Exemption from Government labour
The butts of the tickets of exemption are the office record of the ticket of exemption which was given to the recipient as proof of his status. They generally provide quite detailed information about each convict receiving a ticket, such as: number and date, and name of the convict; name of ship, master and year of arrival; religion; native place; trade or calling; offence, place of trial, date of trial and sentence; year of birth; height, complexion, colour of hair and eyes, and other distinguishing features (such as tattoos and scars); name of relation with whom the convict was to reside (if applicable); district for which the ticket of exemption was valid.
In addition, information concerning colonial crimes and convictions, misdemeanours, punishments; name of master or details of employment; receipt of a certificate of freedom or ticket of leave; assignment to wife/husband etc or another person; reasons for which the ticket was granted (such as for services rendered, on recommendation, disability); and any change in the district for which the ticket applied can also be provided. Hence the ticket of exemption is an easy means of tracing the life or details of an individual convict. Information about correspondence is also recorded and is thus another means of delving into other records.
As one of the main features of the ticket of exemption was the privilege of residing with a relation, information about that person is also given. Not only is the name and relationship given but also, frequently, ship of arrival, maiden name, if born in the Colony, and if a convict, ship and status (free by servitude, ticket of leave, etc).
NRS 12197 (Reels 590 & 890, Fiche 1006)
Principal Superintendent of Convicts: Copies of the Registers of Tickets of Exemption from Government Labor
The Registers are more of a summary record.
Indexes to Births, 1788-1918, and Deaths and Marriages, 1788-1945
NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages
(Reels 2125-2129)
TD Mutch Index to Births, Deaths and Marriages

Ticket of Leave Passports

These allowed convicts holding tickets of leave to travel between certain points, visit a certain place or to attend the city markets for a specified period of time.

NRS 12204(Reels 966-981)
Principal Superintendent of Convicts, Butts of ticket of leave passports
The following information is given: ticket of leave passport number, date of ticket of leave passport, name of holder, ship and year of arrival, where and when tried, sentence, ticket of leave number, what the holder is allowed to do, by whom recommended, and date of recommendation.

Certificates of Freedom

A Certificate of Freedom was only available to a convict with a finite sentence (for example, 7, 10 or 14 years), as it showed that a sentence had been completed. The Certificate of Freedom number was sometimes annotated on the indent or noted on a Ticket of Leave Butt.

Colonial Certificates of Freedom relate to sentences received for offences committed after arrival in the colony.

NRS 12208(Reels 601-602)
Registers of Certificates of Freedom
1 Dec 1823-Apr 1827
NRS 12210(Reels 604, 982-1027)
Butts of Certificates of Freedom
NRS 10990(Reels 603, 1258)
Butts of Colonial Certificates of Freedom [CCFs]
This series relates to convictions within the colony. 
20 Feb 1860-1 Oct 1869


Convicts with a life sentence could receive a pardon but not a Certificate of Freedom. The two main types of pardons were:

  • Conditional pardon - the convict was free as long as they remained in the colony. The vast majority of convicts granted pardons were granted a conditional pardon
  • Absolute pardon - the convict's sentence was entirely remitted. That is, they were free both within and outside of the colony and could return to Britain.

The main records for conditional pardons are in the Colonial Secretary's records:

NRS 1170(Reel 774; Fiche 820-823)
 Registers of conditional pardons *ARK
NRS 1172(Reels 775-796)
Copies of conditional pardons registered by the Colonial Secretary
NRS 1165(Reel 601, COD 18)
Copies of returns of Absolute and Conditional Pardons granted
- Free (absolute) pardons, 7 Mar 1810-18 May 1813; 22 Feb 1814-14 Jun 1819
- Conditional pardons, 15 Jun 1810-4 Oct 1813; 3 Nov-24 Dec 1813; 1 Jan 1814-31 Jan 1815
NRS 1167(Reel 601, COD 18)
Return of pardons and certificates of freedom surrendered
In a despatch to Viscount Castlereagh dated 8 March 1810 Governor Macquarie wrote:
The trials which took place during the Usurpation have been annulled by Public Proclamation. The Grants of Lands and of Stock, and Leases, have been revoked in the same manner, and also the All Pardons and Emancipations granted to Convicts... (Historical Records of Australia I Vol 7 p.220 ).
This refers to those pardons issued after the arrest and removal of Governor Bligh. Macquarie examined those surrendered (those issued during the administrations of Johnston, Foveaux and Patterson) and he reissued those which he regarded as valid or warranted.
29 Feb 1810-18 Feb 1811


Marriage for a convict still serving his or her sentence may have resulted in better working or living conditions. Marriage was clearly seen as an indulgence and it was therefore necessary to apply to the Governor for permission to marry.

In the early years of the Colony, most marriages followed the publication of banns in a church on three successive Sundays. Convicts were married by banns having first sought official permission.

The Registers of convicts' applications to marry, 1825-51 (NRS 12212) record key details about the parties applying for permission to marry including: their names; their ages; the date of permission or refusal; ship of arrival; sentence (for the party who was the convict); whether free or bond and the name of the clergyman. While the registers can add considerably to the convict’s ‘profile’, they can also be a valuable resource for tracing those elusive ancestors who may have ‘arrived free’ but have proved to be difficult to locate in the shipping lists. The details of the party who was ‘free’, including the name of the ship of arrival in some cases, were often recorded. Sometimes this was the only time the information was recorded in official sources.

The registers also include entries where the application to marry was refused. Researchers should also note that even when the parties received permission to marry, the marriage may not have gone ahead. In fact, it appears that some convicts made more than one successful application to marry, often seeking to marry a different person on each occasion.

The first permission to marry recorded in these registers was granted on 6 January 1826, and the first refusal on 9 June 1826.

The main sources to check are:

(Reels 2125-2129)
TD Mutch index to births, deaths and marriages
The index is believed to cover all existing birth, death and marriage records for NSW between 1787-1828, except for the Newcastle Register and the Methodist Church records and selected records to 1957
(Fiche 5270-5277)
Index to convict marriage banns
NRS 12212(Fiche 780-802)
Principal Superintendent of Convicts: Registers of convicts' applications to marry. These registers are in the process of being indexed. Read more about what has been indexed so far and search for entries here.


The Government generally recorded the death of a convict still serving his or her sentence.

The death of a convict is sometimes noted on the convict indents. If a convict died on the voyage out it may have been recorded in the surgeons' journals. Records of deaths were not kept on a regular basis, prompting Macquarie to complain that before his arrival no regular account of the death of convicts and settlers had been kept (HRA Vol. 7, pp. 615-6).

Macquarie issued orders on this subject and during his administration and that of his successors matters improved. The Convict Death Register (NRS 12213) was maintained for the years 1828-79.

This register was used to record the deaths of convicts who died while still serving their sentence. It records name, ship of arrival, age, date of burial, parish and occasionally other details relating to convicts whose deaths were reported to the Principal Superintendent of Convicts (until 1855), and subsequently the Inspector General of Police.

Principal Superintendent of Convicts

NRS 12213(Fiche 749-751, Reel 601)
Convict death register *ARK
Entries chiefly relate to convicts who were still serving their sentences. Aarranged alphabetically, and then within each letter by the date of death in chronological order. 

Further information may possibly be located in:

Online Index to the Colonial Secretary’s Papers, 1788-1825. Searching under the person's name.

The late Joan Reese compiled the Index to the Colonial Secretary's Letters Received, 1826-1896 and the Index to Letters sent by the Colonial Secretary relating to convicts (1826–55), available on microfiche in the reading room. These indexes include references to the deaths of convicts who were still serving their sentences.

Petitions and Correspondence

A convict may have petitioned the Government about a number of matters or may be mentioned in the correspondence of another individual. Often these petitions, memorials and items of correspondence can provide valuable information about the convict, their family and circumstances.

Index to the Colonial Secretary's papers, 1788-1825
Index to the Colonial Secretary's Correspondence: Convicts and Others, 1826-94
This indexes letters relating to convicts in Colonial Secretary; NRS 905, Main series of letters received, 1826-88
Index to letters received by the Colonial Secretary from individuals relating to land
(Fiche 5912-5914, 5921-5925)
Index to the copies of letters sent re convicts by the Colonial Secretary

Muster and census records

At various times, the Government of the colony conducted a census or muster of the inhabitants of the colony. These may have been for a specific purpose such as assessing landholdings or as a general 'head count' of the population. These muster and census records can contain valuable information concerning a convict's residence, employment and family circumstances.

Some of the early musters and censuses have been published in book form, for example the 1828 Census (now online). These are available in the reading room as are microform copies of all other surviving musters and censuses for New South Wales. See the Musters/ Census Guide for more information.

1828 Census: Householders' returns
District of Prospect # 9 Iron Gang, District of Botany Bay #11 Road Party, District of Kissing Point #14 Road Gang, District of Liverpool Prisoners Barrack, District of Concord #26 Road Gang #22 Road Gang #7 Road Gang.
1828 Census: Householders' returns - District of Parramatta Government Factory
1828 Census: Householders' returns
District of Melville #10 Iron Gang - Barnard Larogy, Melville
1828 Census: Householders' returns - District of Parramatta Parramatta Hospital, #23 Road & Bridge Party, #13 Road Gang. District of Baulkam Hills #13 Road Gang.
1828 Census: Householders' returns - List of Convicts in Government employ and to whom Slop Clothing was issued on the 1st November 1828

Bank accounts

Prior to Commissioner Bigge's Report on Convicts (printed in 1822) taking effect, convicts could retain the money they brought with them for their own use. This money could often 'purchase' a more comfortable life during their period of servitude.

One of Commissioner Bigge's recommendations concerned the care of convicts' property (including their money) on their arrival in the colony:

It is recommended ... that their Clothes and Bedding should be taken care of on their Landing and that the Money belonging to Individuals should be taken and deposited .... and not allowed to be held by the Superintendent or any other person.

Following the implementation of the Bigge Report, the Surgeon-Superintendents of the ships on which the convicts were transported were entrusted with convict monies during the voyage out (some lists may be found in NRS 1155 Musters and other papers) and these funds were then deposited in the Savings Bank on arrival.

In addition to these arrangements, friends or relations could deposit money to be held in trust for a convict or a convict could earn money for extra work or duties performed. The convict could not access the money until proof of reformation could be shown such as having received a ticket of leave, pardon or on completion of sentence. Extenuating circumstances such as the money being required to pay for defence in a court trial were also taken into consideration. Application could be made to access the sums held to their credit and if approved a warrant was issued which authorised the money to be withdrawn.

NRS 12221(Reel 595-597)
Convicts' bank balances
On presentation of the warrant at the Savings bank the convicts' money was given to the bearer of the warrant. This series contains the butts of the warrants issued and gives the number and date of warrant, the convict's name, ship of arrival and condition (for example, ticket of leave, free, dead).
While the date range given refers to the date of the warrant many convicts included arrived many years prior to 1837 and only received the warrant on becoming free. For the years 1840-1855 in volumes [4/4547-48] letter numbers prefaced by the abbreviation Col. Sec. refer to Colonial Secretary's Correspondence. Others which simply give a letter number appear to relate to the Principal Superintendent of Convicts' correspondence which has not survived. For some convicts there may also be additional letters to be found by searching the correspondence of the Colonial Secretary. The warrants were signed on behalf of the Governor and addressed to the Trustees of the Bank.
NRS 12218(Reel 595)
Convicts' bank balances
This is a list of prisoners with the names of the ships on which they arrived and the year of arrival which shows the amount in the savings bank ledger and amount in the convict ledger. The entries are arranged by ship. The entries in this volume begin in 1833 and continue to 1840. On page 56 there is a further entry giving details of amount standing to credit of prisoners, accrued interest and total amount; this is dated 17 May 1871 and signed by Geo. C. Allen, Managing Trustee of the Savings Bank. There is an alphabetical index by convict's name and ship name towards the back of the volume.
NRS 12219(PRO Reel 58, CO 207/4-5)
Convicts' saving bank ledgers
The accounts are arranged by ship of arrival. It records date, name, ship, interest, principal, remarks and date paid. There is an index to ships in the front of each volume.
NRS 12220(PRO Reel 58, CO 207/6)
Convicts' savings bank cash book, 1824-27 and letters received from the Colonial Secretary relating to the savings bank, Jul 1826-Mar 1827
Volume [2/8392A] is arranged alphabetically by convicts' name and records date, ship of arrival, and amounts. Some entries have remarks concerning the payment of monies.
Volume [2/8392B] contains correspondence from the Colonial Secretary.
The volumes listed at NRS 12219 and 12220 were filmed as part of the Australian Joint Copying Project when they were held in England prior to their being returned to NSW State Archives (then Archives Office) New South Wales on 18 June 1974.

Families of Convicts

Wives and families of convicts sometimes accompanied their convict relations or came out later. Children were placed on board the convict transports with their parent(s) often with no official record of their transportation or arrival being recorded. The children were supported and fed at government expense and orphan homes were established to accommodate those deserted or separated from their parents. Young children were permitted to stay with their mothers in the Female Factory until they reached the age of four when they were sent to the Orphan Schools and returned to their mother when she left the Factory.

Convicts could apply to have their families brought out at the expense of the Crown. Applications had to show that a convict would be able to support his family upon their arrival and not incur any further expense to the Government. In general, families were not permitted to reunite in Australia unless the convict applying had a Ticket of Leave. This indulgence allowed a convict to work for himself, thereby providing a means for supporting his family.

After a convict had applied to have his family brought out to the Colony, the application was assessed by the Government. On arrival the spouse often applied to have the convict assigned to them. This allowed the convict to serve out his sentence while living with his family.

Applications and Responses

Colonial Secretary: Special Bundles
- Applications for Free Passages for Wives and Children of Convicts, 1824-1835 *ARK [4/1112.1A-B, 4/1111.3]; Fiche 3285-3288, Reels 697-698
- Applications for free passages, 1832-1834 [4/2188]; Reels 698-699
- Applications, 1835-1842 [4/2550.1]; Reels 700-701
- Returns of petitions for free passages, 1828, 1834-35 [4/1112.2]; Reel 697
List of convicts who have applied for their wives and families to be sent to New South Wales at the expense of the Government
1 May 1843
NRS 1190(Reel 699)
Returns of Convicts' applications for wives and families to be brought to New South Wales at Government expense
1837-1843, 20 Oct 1843-1 Apr 1850
NRS 4518[4/1637 pp.236-65]; Reel 697
The Governor: Alphabetical list of 89 convicts recommended to have their families sent out at the expense of the Crown

Passage to New South Wales

(Reels 30-37)
Index to Bounty Immigrants *ARK
Index to Assisted Immigrants »
NRS 5321(Reel 699, Fiche 837-838)
Wives and families of convicts on bounty ships *ARKThis series is indexed as part of the online indexes above
NRS 1155(Reels 2417-2428)
Returns of the families of convicts on convict ships, and other papers *ARK
These documents form part of the series Musters and other papers relating to convict ships, 1790-1849.
They are listed in the Convict Guide and in the Guide to using the Archives Resources Kit.


(Fiche 5290-5291)
Female Factory Parramatta: Index to inmates
This index was compiled by Joan Reese.
Colonial Secretary: Special Bundles
- Petitions from wives of convicts for their husbands to be assigned to them, 1826-27 [4/7084]; Reel 588
Indexes to Births, 1788-1918, and Deaths and Marriages, 1788-1945
NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages
(Reels 2125-2129)
TD Mutch Index to Births, Deaths and Marriages

Children of convicts

Clergy and School Lands Corporation and Protestant Orphan School

Related: Child care and protection index

NRS 782(Reel 2776)
Applications for admission in the Orphan Schools *ARK 
NRS 783(Reels 2776-2777)
Applications for children out of the Orphan Schools 
NRS 793(Reel 2777)
Female Orphan School Admissions Books 
NRS 796(Reel Fiche 3307, 2777)
Male Orphan School Admissions Books
NRS 12266(COD 506)
Protestant Orphan School: Admission Book (Female) 
(Reel 3702, COD 540)
Male Orphan School Admission register

The Female Factory, Parramatta: Index to inmates, 1826-41, and the Index to the Colonial Secretary's Correspondence may also be of interest when researching the children of convicts.

Tasmanian Convicts

Available at the Archives Office of Tasmania website is the index of all convicts transported to Tasmania and those who were convicted (through the convict system) in the colony, from the beginning of transportation in 1804 until 1853 when transportation ceased. The latest entry in the database for the locally convicted convicts is 1893. About 76,000 people are indexed.

Further reading

There are a number of publications on the convict system or particular groups of convicts such as the First Fleet. The following are held in the reading room:

  • Charles Bateson. The convict ships, 1787-1868. Sydney, Reed, 1974.
  • Michael Flynn. The Second Fleet: Britain's grim convict armada of 1790. Sydney, Library of Australian History, 1993.
  • Mollie Gillen. The founders of Australia: a biographical dictionary of the First Fleet. Sydney, Library of Australian History, 1989.
  • Babette Smith. A cargo of women: Susannah Watson and the convicts of the Princess Royal. Kensington, NSW, New South Wales University Press, 1988.
  • Carol Baxter. Convicts to NSW 1788-1812 - complete listings from transportation records. Sydney, Society of Australian Genealogists, 2002. (CD ROM)