On the 31st January, 2019, historian Joan Kavanagh gave a fascinating talk on the archival sources held in the National Archives, Ireland relating to convict transportation from Ireland to Australia. Joan is one of those people you could listen to all day, I spent one inspiring evening listening to her contribution to a recording of ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ and feel I learnt more in an hour of eavesdropping during filming than I had by personally working with the transportation papers – she brings the archives alive and is a natural teacher.
Joan explained the background to convict transportation which began in 1716 with the Banishment Act that sent convicts primarily to Bermuda. Transportation formally ended in 1867 but transportation from around 1853/54 occurred only from Britain and not directly from Irish ports, the first direct ship from Ireland arrived Down Under in 1791. Joan made the point that the thinking behind transportation was to act locally by removing convicted criminals but to build a global British empire with workers building the infrastructure of the colonies.
Around 160,000 convicts were sent to New South Wales, Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) and Western Australia and of those around 41,000 were Irish (men and women). It was noted that many more people were sentenced to transportation than actually arrived due to death on board ship or whilst waiting for transfer, being deemed unfit to travel or by having the sentence commuted. One of the most significant sources in the archives is the prisoner petition files. One area of Joan’s research specialism is analysing the records for those sent from County Wicklow. Along the way Joan noticed that many of the petitions had the same handwriting and were quite formulaic and she eventually discovered that the Church of Ireland chaplain for Wicklow gaol was responsible for writing a vast number of appeals to stop the transportation of prisoners or to have their sentences commuted from death.
Prison register featuring Eliza Davis, a prisoner sentenced to death but commuted to transportation.
Joan went on to explain the value of the Ireland- Australia transportation database (1791-1853) which notes the reference to the transportation register where you can search for individual names. As with many archives the registers evolve over time as a result of the information recorded by the clerk and the later volumes hold more information than the earlier ones, for example they tell you if they actually went to Australia and weren’t merely sentenced to go.
Joan also spoke about the specific deportation of women, in 1816 single sex ships were established to prevent any ‘issues’ on board. Interestingly women often had ‘no profession’ in the registers but when arriving in Australia had acquired occupations such as nursemaid or bonnet maker in the hope that their skills would lead to a good placement with a settled family. Joan ended on a very positive note with a case study on convict Eliza Davis who was convicted of infanticide as a result of abandonment and desperate circumstances. Eliza went on to marry twice to fellow ex-convicts and had two families; very pleasingly the talk ended with a picture of her descendants who were proud to own their heritage and the origins of their belonging to Australia.
Natalie Milne, Archivist