Tasmanian convicts and their records

Tasmanian gaol records (1860-1936)
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office via Compfight

Tasmania is the southernmost state of Australia being separated from the mainland states by Bass Strait. The area of the state including the lesser islands is 68 300 square kilometres. It is the second oldest state in the country and was first settled in 1803. At that time it was known as Van Diemens Land. From 1812 until 1853, convict ships were sent direct to VDL rather than stopping in Sydney. In the fifty years of transportation about 67,000 convicts arrived in VDL, around 22% of them Irish.

“A fear of French colonisation of Van Diemens Land led to the small settlement on the Derwent River in 1803. Of the 49 people in the group, 33 were convicts. In 1804 they were joined by the 307 ‘Calcutta’ convicts. Until 1812, all the convicts in Van Diemens Land had been re-shipped from New South Wales or Norfolk Island. The arrival of 200 convicts direct from Britain on the ‘Indefatigable’ in 1812 was a solitary act as it was not until 1818 that the beginning of steady shipments from Britain began. In the intervening years, convicts from other parts of New South Wales kept arriving.

In 1822, a penal colony was established at Macquarie Harbour on the west coast of the island to house repeat offenders from New South Wales and its reputation for cruelty and barbarism spread throughout the Empire. In 1825 the British Government separated Van Diemens Land from New South Wales. As it became increasingly obvious that Macquarie Harbour was too hard to control from Hobart, it was closed down and a new settlement called Port Arthur was established. Like its predecessor, the new settlement’s reputation for brutality soon spread throughout the world.

In 1835 a special settlement was established at Point Puer near Port Arthur to house and rehabilitate the growing number of young male convicts who were being transported to the colony during the 1830s.

Female convicts were sent directly to the Female Factory although some did not actually live in the factory, but nearby and came in every day to work. Many also remained only for a day or so as they were sent to work for free settlers, or even convict settlers, and many also married very quickly. The idea was that any man wanting to marry one of the girls would apply. The girls were lined up at the Factory and the man would drop a scarf or handkerchief at the feet of the woman of his choice. If she picked it up, the marriage was virtually immediate.

Children of convict women either stayed with their mothers or were moved to an orphanage. Young convict girls were also employed in the Female Factory and young convict boys were sent to Point Puer.

In 1842 the worst offenders from Van Diemens Land began to be transported to Norfolk Island which had an even worse reputation for brutality. As the number of convicts transported to New South Wales decreased, the number arriving in Van Diemens Land rose and by 1846 around 5000 convicts were arriving each year. Britain yielded to public pressure and implemented a two year moratorium before resuming transportation once more. The last two ships arrived in Van Diemens Land in 1851 amid public outcry and as a result, Britain finally ended all transportation to the colony in 1853. On November 26, 1855, the colony officially became known as Tasmania.”

Above are quotations from Convict Central which has lots of information about convicts in Australia.

Convict records in Tasmania

When looking at convict records, you can see many of the crimes would just get a slap on the wrist nowadays but in 1788, in England, there were about 160 crimes punishable by hanging. They included stealing sheep, cattle, clothes and goods worth £2 or more. Because the hulks and gaols in England were overflowing with convicts, many sentences were changed to transportation for 7, 10 or 14 years.

Once you know you have a Tasmanian Convict in your family, there are many pieces of information you can gather about that ancestor. If you look at the Tasmanian Convicts CDROM, which is available from the Tasmanian State archives, you will be given the place where the convict was shipped from, the date shipped, arrival date in VDL and finally what records to look up here in Tasmania.


These convict records can also be found online through the Libraries Tasmania website. Search the Names Index by your convict’s name.

Most convict records begin with CON or MM. The main records include:

Conduct record

– gives information about history before arrival and details of work in the colony. The early history includes offence, date and place of trial and sentence. From 1816, a gaol report, hulk report and marital status are also included. By 1821 relatives and religion were also added. Convict confessions or statements of their crimes were recorded and often give clues to previous offences. When reading the conduct record and the working life of your ancestor, the information is written in the following form: Date of offence, name of employer or initials, the offence and finally the punishment.

When people receive these papers, they find there is a knack to reading all the information contained especially that on the conduct record. Many abbreviations are used, even some unknown to the present day archivists. Below is a list of a few of the more common abbreviations used.

  • stg   stealing
  • CPM   Chief Police Magistrate
  • H of C   House of Correction
  • APM   Assistant Police Magistrate
  • PW   Public Works
  • CDC   Chief District Constable
  • B & W   bread and water
  • Ass   Assizes
  • admd   admonished
  • repd   reprimanded
  • TL   Ticket of Leave
  • PB   prisoner’s barracks
  • dismd   dismissed
  • R & W   read and write
  • NP   Native Place
  • solty   solitary
  • QS   Quarter Sessions
  • recd   received
  • mos   months
  • appd   approved

Names of places mentioned in southern Tasmania as probation stations include:

Southport, Darlington (Maria Island), Cascades (near Port Arthur), Impression Bay (near Port Arthur), Salt Water River (coal mines near Port Arthur), Browns River (present day Kingston) and in Hobart itself – Prisoners’ Barracks, Cascades Female Factory, Old Wharf, Brickfields, Dynnyrne and Sandy Bay.

In the middle 1800’s there was only one main road in Van Diemens Land leading from Hobart in the south to Launceston in the north. Many convict chain gangs were used to build the roads so there were many probation stations along the way including (in order from Hobart to Launceston): Anson (an old boat housing female convicts), Bridgewater, Green Ponds, Lovely Banks, Spring Hill, Jericho, Oatlands, Antill Ponds, Tunbridge, Ross, Campbell Town, Snake Banks, Perth, Westbury and in Launceston itself a prisoners’ barracks and a female factory.

Description list

– just as you would think, this gives a description of the convict. It includes trade, height (without shoes), age, complexion, head, hair, whiskers, visage, forehead, eyebrows, eyes, nose, mouth, chin and other marks including tattoos, scars and speech impediments. From the 1840’s the description was often included in the conduct record above.

Description lists also include MW=medium wide, Dk Bro =dark brown, Do=ditto

Indent list

– These were documents written to formally transfer prisoners from the custody of the master of a transport ship to the Governor of the colony receiving them. They were kept for each convict and up till the mid-1800s they recorded names, date and place of trial and sentence. Later indents went into more detail and gave name, age, date and place of trial, sentence, former convictions, marital status, number of children, crime, religion, height, colour of eyes, hair and complexion, visible marks, scars, tattoos and other such identifying information. Often included were names of parents and siblings.

When reading the indent papers, there are different sets of abbreviations used. These include many shortened forms of names for brothers, sisters and parents.

F=father, M=mother, H=husband, W=wife, B=brother and S=sister

Wm = William, Hy = Henry, Jno=John or Jonathan, Tho=Thomas, Geo=George

The other important convict documents included musters, appropriation lists (employers) and whatever documents the Colonial Secretary’s Office (CSO) might have on your ancestor.

There are many sites on the web dealing with convicts in Australia, but one of the best has been mentioned above at Convict Central. There is also a great email list at AUS-TAS-CONVICTS-L@rootsweb.com

People receiving these conduct records can find out so much about their past relatives and their offences while still a convict by understanding the many abbreviations used by the clerks filling in the paperwork for the British Governments.

A book  published titled Transcribing Tasmanian Convict Records is written by Susan Hood ISBN 0 9579394 3 4 Published by Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority