Convict Tales: small stories and big data

View near Woolwich in Kent shewing [sic] the employment of the convicts from the hulks, c. 1800. From the collections of the State Library of NSW.

View near Woolwich in Kent, c. 1800. From the collections of the State Library of NSW.

We’ll soon be starting a regular series we’re calling Convict Tales. Every week (or thereabouts), we’ll tweet and blog about individual convicts whose lives we’ve started to link together in our database. Some of their stories might be exciting, others will be quite unexceptional (and short).

We have several reasons for doing this. Firstly, we want to share with you some of the material that we’re starting to gather; the range and variety of sources will expand along with the development of the project. At the same time, it may be a reminder of the many gaps and silences in the records. We expect many lives to be fragmentary, or for links to be not quite certain. This can all be smoothed over, perhaps misleadingly, in the aggregate and the data visualisation. The final reason is that amidst all our visualisations and statistics, we don’t want to lose sight of the multitudes and the diversity of real people and individual stories – lives like those of George Fenby – that make up the monstrous regiments of ‘Big Data’.

4 thoughts on “Convict Tales: small stories and big data

  1. Renee Black

    This project is of great interest to me as I am trying to find out more about my great ancestor – a convict named Margaret Darnell who was sentenced in 1787 at the Old Bailey for stealing a dozen desert knives. She was sentenced to 7 years transportation and came on the First Fleet aboard the Prince of Wales in 1788. She was later married to Owen Cavanough, an able seaman who arrived aboard the first fleet flagship, the Sirius. Owen reportedly was the first sailor to set foot ashore Port Jackson as he secured the longboat landing party. I am descended from her son James Cavanough through my paternal grandmother, Glenyce Black (nee Evans). Margaret lived the rest of her life with Owen Cavanough as farmers along the Hawkesbury River in NSW, until her death in 1834.

    I have found the following resource – an extremely brief transcript of her trial at the Old Bailey – but do not know much else about her life prior to becoming a convict and being transported to Australia other than she was born in 1766 in Dublin, Ireland. Stealing a dozen desert knives is not a particularly exceptional story but if such information existed, it would be interesting to know why she was driven to petty crime and what she was doing in London at the time. Would she be suited to your project?

  2. Sharon Howard Post author

    We’ll definitely be interested in Margaret and will hope to find out more about her, although it’s much harder to find out much about 18th-century convicts than the later ones (and the reasons for that are something the project is exploring). Please keep an eye on project progress as there will be important developments in the next few months.

  3. Ruth Mann

    I am interested in this topic through research of 6 convicts in the family: 3 English (Old Bailey), 3 Irish & 1 Welsh who were transported to NSW from 1818 until 1837 when records were good. Most eventually settled around rural Bathurst. You may be most interested in Elizabeth & Hannah Ford (alias Miller – before the Old Bailey under both names from childhood). They were transported for life in 1823 aged 19 & 16 and came to Sydney with Elizabeth’s 2yr old daughter, Mary. As Hannah was young & Elizabeth had a child under 5 they lived at the Parramatta Female Factory for a few years before being offered for marriage. Elizabeth kept out of trouble while her Irish husband was around. However, when her husband was sentenced to time at Pt Macquarie Penal Settlement she was found drunk and readmitted to the Female Factory. On his return they moved to county NSW where they had a large family and later established their own farm. After her husband’s death Elizabeth didn’t cope as well.
    Hannah is more difficult to trace. She had 2 children and another child died in infancy. I can’t find records of her after mid 1830’s when her husband was transported to Norfolk Island for a secondary offense. Hannah was twice rejected from assignment as a servant as unsatisfactory. She never spoke during her Old Bailey trial with Elizabeth doing all the talking.
    My sources have mainly been the NSW convict records, BDM from 4 states, and NSW colonial records. I have only needed to look at Tasmanian records for the convict who went to Norfolk Island and to look for missing relatives.
    I’ve also traced 7 Irish convicts (2 family & 5 friends convicted at same time) but not certain if this is in the scope of your study.

  4. marian balch

    I Have an ancestor Christopher Ponting, he was a Swing Rioter who was transported to Tasmania for 7 years, in 1831. I believe he may have been pardoned as he did return to Gloucestershire and produced more children. What I would like to know is , what would the prisoners lives been like in Van Diemans land and how difficult was it to return home.

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