Tag Archives: First Fleet

Bound for Botany Bay? Old Bailey penal sentences and their implementation

The opportunity to connect each Old Bailey convict from their trial, to the ship they sailed on, to the records of their lives in Australia is only one of the benefits of the huge data -linkage efforts currently being undertaken by the Digital Panopticon. However, as this process develops we are presented with a second opportunity – to see where data is missing, and to follow those who seem to disappear between datasets. So far, this has been most apparent in the case of those sentenced to transportation but who are absent from records of convict vessels, or convict arrivals.

Leading historians of transportation, such as Digital Panopticon partner Deborah Oxley have estimated that anywhere between one quarter and two thirds of those sentenced to transportation were never actually sent to Australia. Initial investigations indicate that between1782-1800 3,801 men, women, and children, were sentenced to transportation at the Old Bailey. Yet just over two-thirds of these convicts (2468) do not appear in the next relevant data set – the British Transportation Registers.

It seems clear that the road from arrest to Australia was rarely so straight forward as suggested by many contemporary and later popular accounts. Testimonies given by the officials who ran the transportation system tell us that it was predominantly those below the age of 50 years (45 years for women), and those convicted of the most severe crimes that were selected for transportation.  Historians have also provided evidence to suggest that it was not only the young, but also the practically skilled that were preferred for transportation to Australia. Yet the disparity between sentencing and implementation of transportation suggests that, at present, histories focussing on those transported tell only half of the story. For a fuller picture of how this penal process worked we now have the chance to start tracing those that were left behind.

Preliminary findings suggest that the missing convicts can be traced to three main groups.

The first group of convicts did not even make it to the secondary phase of transportation – that is detainment on the hulks or in holding prisons. Instead their ill health saw them detained in Newgate hospital ward until eventual death a few weeks or a few months after their trial. In the cramped and insanitary conditions of Newgate Gaol, fever was rife and infection spread quickly. Most of those who died were only recorded as having very generalised ailments. Coroners would regularly record a death with little detail, listing simply fever, decline, despondency or ‘natural causes.’

Inside Newgate Gaol

There are of course some exceptions that give us a little more detail. For example, forty-year old Thomas Kennedy was tried at the Old Bailey on 12 July 1797 for the theft of a silver watch. He was found guilty and sentenced to seven years’ transportation. He died in Newgate in April 1799.

Most of those who died in these vague circumstances were the elderly, at least in transportation terms.  These generic fevers, fits, and decline listed as causes of death for those in Newgate could be a myriad of infections that could be found in any of the densely populated areas of London. Sickness such as typhus, typhoid, dysentery, pneumonia, and tuberculosis spread quickly and fatally in the confines of the gaol. Those without strong immunity – especially the elderly or very young were especially at risk.

There were also other convicts who died in gaol as the result of pre-existing illness such as venereal disease, heart problems, and jaundice. Robert Fosgate was sentenced to seven years transportation in October 1787 for the theft of a large amount of clothing. After a year waiting in the gaol suffering from venereal disease, he died of its effects in November 1788. Similarly Peter Rock whilst awaiting transportation in Newgate but three months after of trial he succumbed to the effects of jaundice, and dropsy – a common symptom of heart failure.

A second group of missing prisoners were delivered on board the floating prison ships, the hulks. Some died after accidents on board the ships, others drowned after falling overboard or during escape attempts. Both occurrences could be common upon such vessels. Other men could have remained on the hulk either until the expiration of their sentence – the collection of new data regarding the hulks will allow us to more fully understand why this might have been – or some would have died from illness or infection in the hulks which were described as ‘the most brutalizing, the most demoralizing, and the most horrible’ of British penal history, and where the death rate was estimated to be twice as high as that of the English population in general. [1]

Inside Hulk

The third and final group that our initial linkage has shed light on are those who received pardons. At present our understanding of this process is limited. For women, pardons were complete, dissolving the woman’s conviction and setting her at liberty. However a pardon could come a substantial time into the sentence. Those awaiting transportation could wait years before their sentence was commuted or their crime pardoned. Hannah Findall was sentenced to seven years’ transportation in 1793.   It was not, however until September 1797 that she was pardoned. For male convicts, a partial pardon was more common than a full one. There could be several conditions attached to such freedom. Commonly this might be service in the army or on the high seas. On the level of individual cases it is impossible to say with any certainty what the criteria for pardons or commutation might have been. However, when the data linkage process is more complete, it will be possible to analyse these convicts in aggregate, and view the commonalities in their ages, crimes, sentences, and skills.

Making it from the courtroom to Australia, then, was not just about being young and healthy. It seems to have actually been about not already being sick, vulnerable to illness via age or an existing condition, and perhaps about not being useful to the state for something else. As the work of the Digital Panopticon continues, there will doubtlessly be other disposals we discover which will again change how we think of the transportation process. As the data-linkage on these records progresses we are hoping to produce more accurate proportions of sentence implementation – or failure – and will be able to visualise whether this changed over the convict period. We have the opportunity to gain some new perspectives on transportation that don’t just note numbers of those not eligible for transportation, but also give more of an idea about who they were and what fate awaited them.


[1] T. Forbes ‘Coroners’ Inquisitions on the deaths of Prisoners in the Hulks at Portsmouth England in 1817-1827’ in Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences (1978), 33, 3, p.358. See also B. Webb and S. Webb,  English Prison’s Under Local Government (Longmans,Green, and CO.: London), pp. 45-46.


Thinking about Dates and Data

Our headline dates (1780-1925) are far from being the whole story when it comes to thinking about data collection and record linkage. One of our stated objectives in our original application elaborates:

to chart the fortunes of all Londoners convicted at the Old Bailey between the departure of the First Fleet to Australia (1787) through to the death of the last transported Londoner in Australia in the early 1920s

But in order to do this, we need to look at data from significantly earlier than 1787, or even 1780. Our interest in convicts doesn’t start at the moment of the Old Bailey trial that sent them on their journeys to Australia. For 18th-century offenders, we don’t have census or civil registration records that we can use, so our focus will be on attempting to trace earliest contacts with the criminal justice system. But if we go too far back, we’ll spend a lot of time and computing resources processing data we don’t need, which will increase problems with noise and false positives (especially when we’re looking for needles in haystacks of unstructured data like newspaper or sessions papers).

Still, it seemed worth checking a more simple question initially. We knew some of the convicts transported in 1787 would have been held in the hulks for several years, as authorities sought a replacement for the American colonies (those pesky Revolutionaries). How long exactly? We wanted to pin down a more precise date than 1780.

Attribution: State Library of New South Wales

The First Fleet entering Port Jackson, January 26, 1788 (State Library of New South Wales)

The Old Bailey Online isn’t a very useful source for this question, however convenient it might be (a few moments with the stats search tells me, for example, that 1258 people were sentenced to transportation between 1781 and 1786), because sentences given after trials don’t necessarily reflect actual outcomes: not everyone who was sentenced to transportation was actually transported; and not everyone who was transported had been given that sentence in court (a significant proportion of of death sentences was subsequently commuted to transportation). In addition,between the collapse of transportation to the American colonies and the establishment of Australia as the primary recipient of transported convicts, there were experiments with transportation to other colonies.

I needed different sources, based on the actual transportation records, so it was a chance for me to start learning about the transportation and Australian datasets I’m not familiar with. In fact, there is plenty of source material: many of the transportation records routinely included information about the convicts’ trials – offence, court, and date convicted. Moreover, a number of projects have already produced readily usable and accessible datasets based on these sources.

I started with the State Library of Queensland British Convict Transportation Registers database (BCTR), created from Home Office registers (TNA HO11, for those who’re interested). We’ve already indexed this data in Connected Histories. The CH version wasn’t designed for this kind of data analysis, however, and to run individual searches would have been a long slow job, so I downloaded the full dataset and played with it (using OpenRefine) until I got the information I wanted. The earliest trial in there, it seemed, was that of John Martin, in July 1782.

The second relevant and easily accessible dataset was the First Fleet database (FF-DB), which is also available to download. This is a smaller dataset, containing the 780 or so convicts transported on the First Fleet, of whom 327 had been sentenced at the Old Bailey. Unlike the BCTR, it’s been compiled from a number of different primary and secondary sources. In FF-DB, the earliest Old Bailey trials were from 1781. The earliest trial of all was that of Samuel Woodham and John Ruglass, at the sessions of 30 May 1781.

Why hadn’t I found these in BCTR? Because, it transpired on reading the entries, in each case their journey to Australia was actually their second convict voyage. They’d escaped from their first convict destination and had been convicted of returning from transportation around 1784-5. BCTR only gave the date of the second conviction that actually put them on the ships to Australia, whereas FF-DB records both. Most of the 14 FF-DB convicts from 1782 trials had also returned from transportation (several had been involved in the Mercury mutiny) and been re-sentenced at a later date.

Don’t ya just love the way a ‘simple’ historical question is never so simple after all?

A different question I decided to ask the data: setting aside 1781-2 outliers, what was the more normal interval between conviction and departure for Australia for the Old Bailey First Fleeters? The following table is taken from the FF data (without taking the “re”-transported into account): 213 (65%) were originally tried in 1784 or earlier. Those who’d spent less than 3 years in the hulks could presumably consider themselves the lucky ones.

Year of conviction Number of convictions
1781 4
1782 14
1783 48
1784 147
1785 37
1786 49
1787 28

Now I needed to investigate the age range of the First Fleet convicts, which would help me to work out the likely earliest dates of contact with the justice system. Both the transportation and Old Bailey Online data contain at least some information about ages, although 18th-century information on this is often imprecise and not always accurate. I wasn’t too worried about this, since they didn’t need to be exact for this purpose.


What are the recorded ages of the First Fleet convicts in FF-DB? There is age information for 309 out of the OB sample of 327 (bearing in mind these are recorded as ages at the time of departure, so they’d have generally been a few years younger at the time of trial). I think it will hardly come as a major surprise to 18th-century crime historians that the majority (64%) were between 20 and 30 years old, and the vast majority (95%) were over 15 and under 40.

That age data could be skewed in various ways, though: it’s conceivable that those selecting prisoners for the First Fleet tended to choose younger people who’d be more likely to survive the passage, and be stronger workers at the other end;  on the other hand, though, we might reasonably speculate that very young offenders would be less likely to be transported.

Age data is available for only about 3% of Old Bailey Online defendants between 1740 and 1780 (contrasting sharply with the later 19th-century Proceedings – which in itself tells us a lot about changes in record-keeping generally and surveillance of the criminal elements in society in particular). We have no idea how representative that 3% was so I’m wary of taking any hard numbers from it. (And again, I can imagine that very young offenders might be slightly less likely to appear at the Old Bailey than at lower courts.) But  it does show a reasonably similar profile to FF-DB, with very, very few defendants under 15, though rather more between 40 and 50 – which might (if we could really trust it) back up my notion that the First Fleet convicts tended to be selected from younger prisoners.

Using the age of 45 (in 1787) as an upper limit would give a birth year c. 1742 – let’s round that down to 1740 for convenience. So, if they were unlikely to appear in criminal justice records much before the age of 15, that takes us to 1755. That too will not be quite the final word: we’ll probably do manual searches in earlier records for the handful of First Fleeters aged over 45, and for individuals who appear to have exceptionally rich stories. But in terms of data collection for automated searching/processing, that is likely to be close to our “real” starting date.