You may know the story of how Australia came to be. You may also know that the British turned it into a penal colony to “dispose” of the “unwanted” excesses in their prisons. It’s not a pretty story.
What you may not know is that the practice of sending prisoners to Australia only began when America had a Revolution and told the British to stop sending them HERE. Really.
From nearly the first landing on the American shores up until 1776 and the Revolution, the British first through a black market type system, then by a government sanctioned (Transportation Act of 1718) policy systematically emptied the gaols of felons not convicted of what we would now call “high crimes.” Petty theft, prostitution, robbery, arson, and bigamy were offenses that could land you in America the hard way. They filled boats arriving from America with tobacco (imagine the smell) with these convicts destined to serve their sentence in the plantations of Maryland and Virginia.
Additionally, and not incidentally, the British also “transported” (that was the official sentence) political prisoners, POWs, and others not committing crimes.
Fortunately the records of the British courts have been preserved, documented and made easily accessible for us to crack open this period in American history and the lives of our ancestors.
Peter Wilson Coldham (1926- 2012), a British genealogist and expert in the records at the British Public Records Office (National Archives), brings us a robust library of sources to investigate convicts coming to America.
- English Convicts in Colonial America (vol 1 1617-1775, vol 2 1656-1775) (1974) Coldham has abstracted court records (royal pardons, transportation bonds, landing certificates, session minute books and rolls, patent rolls, money books, and treasury board papers, and the printed series of Old Bailey Sessions for London and the County of Middlesex (vol 1) Counties of Assize and Palatinate (Vol 2).). Records include name, sentence, crime, ship of transport and destination. Arranged alphabetically; no index.
- Bonded Passengers to America 1615 – 1775 (1983) Coldham’s second effort at documenting convicts transported to America. Here he turns to the Greater London Record Office, Gaol Delivery Registers, Gaol Delivery Books, Gaol Delivery Sessions Rolls, Transportation Bonds, Sessions of the Peace Books, Sessions of the Peace Rolls, Money Books (logs of payment to transporters/ship captains), Treasury Board Papers, Patent Rolls, and State Papers). He begins this multi-volume series with a robust discussion of the history, the social conditions, and the experience of transportation. Each entry includes court, sentence and date of transportation. Alphabetical order.
- The Complete Book of Emigrants in Bondage, 1614-1775. (1988)This book encompasses the reference book above (English Convicts in Colonial America); however, Coldham has further surveyed more than fifty Courts of quarter Session “each having the power to impose sentences of transportation.” Organization of each entry is as follows, name, parish of origin, occupation or status, sentencing court, date transported, date arrived in America, English county sentenced. 45,000 names.
- Supplement to The Complete Book of Emigrants in Bondage, 1614-1775 (1992) Coldham, as the book title suggests, has added to the above reference and added to Bonded Passengers to America (below) based on newly accessible material and some records revisited. The sources include the Patent Rolls, Criminal Correspondence, State Papers (criminal) and the Sessions Docket Books and Transportation Bonds from the Bristol Records Office. He had noted next to each entry if the information is revised or new. Alphabetical order.
- More Emigrants in Bondage 1614 – 1775 (2002) Appending the two above mentioned resources, this draws on records from the Midland Circuit Criminal Process Book 1739-1742, Sheriffs’ Cravings (expense accounts), Criminal State Papers, and County Records. Cross referenced and annotated with convict records at the Maryland State Archives. Alphabetical order.
- Maryland and Virginia Convict Runaways 1725 – 1800: A survey of English Sources Written as a supplement to the Tom Costa work found on the Virtual Jamestown site, mentioned below, Colham abstracts convict runaway ads from the Virginia Gazette 1725 – 1800. Indexed.
- King’s Passengers to Maryland and Virginia (1997) The Maryland State Archives contains two volumes with names of convicts: The Anne Arundel Convict Record, 1771-1775 MSA C57 and MSA CM952 (microfilm), and the Baltimore County Convict Record, 1770-1783 MSA C309 and MSA CM154 (microfilm) have been transcribed and published as part of Peter Wilson Coldham’s The King’s Passengers to Maryland and Virginia. There is also a Talbot County Court Convict Record, 1727-1733 MSA C1855.<description from the Maryland State Archives website> Also, included in the second section of the book is a collection of runaway advertisements.
- Emigrants in Chains. A Social History of Forced Emigration to the Americas of Felons, Destitute Children, Political and Religious Non-Conformists, Vagabonds, Beggars and Other Undesirables, 1607–1776 (1992) Coldham has in his prior works included an introduction, a chapter, or even a whole section on the history of transported convicts. Here, he wraps the cumulative knowledge of years of research into one complete story. Unlike Oldham’s work (below) he focuses exclusively on the American experience. Addresses the lives and times of the convicts, the transportation experience, the legislative acts, and has a few individual profiles. Includes a bibliography.
Other Authors and Works of Note
- Original Lists of Emigrants on Bondage from London to the American Colonies 1719-1744 (1967) by Marion and Jack Kaminkow An early attempt to document convicts coming to America. This book enumerates 7,283 persons. The data is drawn from the Treasury Money Books (record of money paid to each contractor/ship captain). The names are from London, Surrey, Middlesex, Kent, Sussex, Hertfordshire, and Buckingham for the period 1719-1744. Includes name, where from (town or gaol), destination in America, name of ship, captain, and date received on board. Alphabetical order.
- Britain’s Convicts to the Colonies (1990) by Winlfrid Oldham. An early historical work – written in the 1930s only to be published in the 1990s – on the nature and development of transportation of convicts to the Colonies, then Africa, and finally to New South Wales (Australia). Rich in statistical data, this is a good choice for a 50,000 foot overview of the Transportation Story.
- Colonists in Bondage – White Servitude and Convict Labor in America 1607 – 1776 (1947) by Abbot Emerson Smith An extensive narrative on the history of both indenture and transported convicts. While not a genealogy reference filled with lists, it does have a respectable number of sourced examples. Notable for its unique discussion of the number and distribution of indentured servants, and a chapter on military and political prisoners transported. Rich bibliography.
- The Encyclopedia of Virginia website has a great historical breakdown on Convict Labor in Virginia. It gives an overview of the history as other works sited here do; however, and more importantly, it focuses on the Virginia experience. What industries did they serve? Where were the convicts located in Virginia?
Check also the Records of the Old Bailey. On this site are the official transcripts of the court records for the City of London and County of Middlesex, preserved, transcribed, and beautifully organized in an online database. Also, check out Virtual Jamestown, where a database (under the Geography of Slavery) based on Tom Costa’s research into runaway ads in Virginia, Maryland, and beyond.
Dare I say this is a captivating subject? Rich in history, interest, and documentation. I invite you to learn more.