Between 1788 and 1868, the British Government transported over 160,000 convicts from Britain and Ireland to the Australian colonies.
This has been described as a concerted attempt to rid the British Isles of its 'criminal class'.
More than 850 of those transported were sentenced in the courts in Hull and the East Riding of Yorkshire. In this online exhibition we will explore the story of transportation through case-studies of seven residents of East Yorkshire who made the long voyage to Australia as convicts.
- William Dring (transported in 1788)
- Charles Drewery (1788)
- Snowden Dunhill (1821)
- John Wells (1823)
- Sarah Ann Sharpe (1837)
- Luke Dales (1848)
- Maria Fay (1851)
Each individual's story links to content about the wider history of transportation, and of the complex local, national and global transformations which help to explain it.
We will also show you some of the local places and buildings connected to the story of transportation, and point towards records available for tracing ancestors from our region who were transported.
Choose a chapter below to explore the exhibition in more detail.
The British in the late 18th century believed that they were in the midst of an overwhelming crime wave, and over the next 70 years attempted to address this by expelling what was seen as a 'criminal class'. More than 160,000 convicts were transported to Australia and Tasmania.
A sentence of transportation meant that criminals paid a huge price for their crimes - they suffered the loss of everything and everyone they had ever known, endured a perilous sea journey in often unimaginably harsh conditions, and struggled to survive in a terrifyingly strange and forbidding landscape. Yet many found that life on the far side of the world offered possibilities not available at home.Go to Chapter 1
Image: 'Chain gang - convicts going to work near Sidney N.S. Wales' by Edward Backhouse (Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts : State Library of Tasmania. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)
Although some were political prisoners of a higher social standing (for example, the artisans who became the 'Tolpuddle martyrs'), and some were Irish rebels, most of those who were transported were poor urban and rural labourers who had committed felonies. More transportees came from cities than from the countryside.Go to Chapter 2
Image: Early photograph of a convict transported to Australia. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Criminal Justice 1788-1851
Across our period (1788-1851 approaches to crime, and the systems fro catching, prosecuting and punishing criminals in Britain, underwent changes. These changes were rooted in wider societal transformation as Britain moved from a primarily rural society to become the world's first urbanized, industrialised nation.Go to Chapter 3
Image: In the 18th century, the authorities and propertied classes felt they were in the midst of a crime wave. They applied the death sentence to a wider and wider range of crimes - this was known as the 'bloody code'. 'The Idle 'Prentice Executed at Tyburn' by William Hogarth (1747). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
The convict journey
A transportee's journey from freedom in the East Riding of Yorkshire to incarceration in New South Wales or Van Diemen's Land could last months and even years. Often the convicts were held in prisons or prison hulks for months prior to their transportation.Go to Chapter 4
Image: The ships Bangalore, Dominion, Duke of Portland, Lady Nugent, and Canterbury in 1851. Image taken from the Illustrated London News. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons..
The local context
It is often noted that the East Riding of Yorkshire stands slightly apart, both geographically and culturally. Unlike the historic North and West Ridings of Yorkshire, the East Riding is a predominantly low-lying arable district, dependent on grain production rather than hill farming or industrial manufacturing. In this respect, the county has more in common with Lincolnshire to the south; however the wide River Humber operates as an effective barrier to any significant integration of the two.Go to Chapter 5
Image: The historic East Riding of Yorkshire. Image from Gott Collection, A1.91 6/108.
Our East Riding convicts can be linked to many places around Hull and the East Riding through the local villages in which they lived, the courtrooms in which they were tried and the gaols in which they were imprisoned.Go to Chapter 6
Image: In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, East Riding Quarter Sessions were held in the courtroom of the Beverley Guildhall.
Many sources are available for those wishing to undertake research into convicts transported from the East Riding of Yorkshire to Australia between 1788 and 1868.
Whilst copies and transcriptions of original documents are often available online, to consult many others it is necessary to visit archival repositories. A huge number of original documents relating to transportation are preserved in the National Archives in Kew, London. Some other documents, notably quarter sessions records, are only available in local archive collections in Hull and Beverley.
The discussion in the following sections is by no means comprehensive, and those interested in finding out more should consult the National Archives website, which includes excellent guidance on the records available for studying transportation, and also the online catalogues for The East Riding Archives Service and the Hull History Centre. Two useful books discuss National Archives sources in detail (Hawkings 1987, Brookes and Brandon 2005; see the bibliography for full details).
Although the online catalogue details for records held by both services are good, these local quarter sessions records are among the sources for convict history not yet available online and so it worth consulting the original documents. Both archives services can copy documents and send them (for a charge). Quarter sessions records include registers of prisoners in local gaols, and criminal indictments with details about crimes - for example, what was stolen, when and from whom, which justices of the peace presided over the case. They often note the convict's place of residence and trade.
In addition to the online catalogues of each service, a publication by the East Riding Family History Society (see bibliography) gives details of every known prisoner sentenced to transportation at the East Riding quarter sessions and Kingston-Upon-Hull quarter sessions.
Crimes which were serious enough to carry the death sentence were tried not in quarter sessions but in assize courts. Assizes for parts of Yorkshire including the East Riding and Hull were usually held in York - the records for York assizes are held by the National Archives, whose catalogues can be searched online.
In some instances an East Riding resident might have committed a crime in an adjacent county and would be tried in a court there - for example, Snowden Dunhill crossed the River Humber to undertake thieving raids in Lincolnshire, and was tried in the Lindsey quarter sessions.
As well as the originals, most registers are available to view on microfiche at the East Riding Archives Service in Beverley and at the Hull City Archives. A list of parish registers for the villages and towns of the East Riding - with dates - is also available to browse online in the East Riding Archives.
Parish registers can be used to confirm a convict's birthplace and the name of his or her parents.
For some convicts these records also give details about trade, age, literacy, height, health, appearance, dates of tickets of leave, whether they married in the colony.
An interesting source of details about particular voyages to Australia are the ships surgeon's records, held as part of the Admiralty records series in the National Archives (catalogued at ADM 101). For example, we learn from the surgeons records that the ship England, on which John Wells travelled to New South Wales, was visited by a phrenologist Mr Deville, who examined the heads of all of the 148 convicts and wrote a report on what this revealed about the character of each. The journal also records that John Wells was one of several prisoners punished for theft and giving false evidence - he was 'to receive 48 strokes over his bare breech with a leathern thong' - and that Wells was a conspirator in a foiled convict plan to mutiny and take control of the ship, in order to sail it to South America (National Archives ADM101/26/1 - Admiralty Records, Medical journal of the England, convict ship, for 18 March to 29 September 1826).
This type of web content is often based on painstaking research, though it must be born in mind that like any piece of history writing, such content involves transcription, translation and interpretation of sources - there is potential for mistakes and interpretive leaps. Unlike books or articles from academic publishers, such online historical narratives have not been scrutinized by academic peers.
- Allison, K.J. The East Riding of Yorkshire Landscape (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1976)
- Bateson, Charles. The Convict Ships, 1787-1868. (Sydney: Library of Australian History, 1983)
- Briggs, John; Harrison, Christopher; McInnes, Angus; Vincent, David. Crime and Punishment in England. An Introductory History. (Abingdon: Routledge, 1996)
- Brooke, Alan, and Brandon, David. Bound for Botany Bay. British Convict Voyages to Australia. (Kew: The National Archives, 2005)
- Caunce, Stephen. Amongst Farm Horses. The Horselads of East Yorkshire. (Stroud: Alan Sutton, 1991)
- Damousi, Joy. Depraved and Disorderly: Female Convicts, Sexuality and Gender in Colonial Australia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997)
- Dunhill, Snowden. The Life of Snowden Dunhill. Edited with an introduction by David Neave. (Howden: Mr Pye, 1987)
- East Yorkshire Family History Society. Transportation from Hull and the East Riding to America and Australia taken from Quarter Session Records. (1984)
- East Riding of Yorkshire Council. 'Criminals, Courts and Correction. A history of crime and punishment in Beverley. Exhibition in the Beverley Community Museum (Beverley Guildhall) from July 2008 to May 2009.'
- Hawkings, David T. Bound For Australia. (Chichester: Phillimore, 1987)
- Hughes, Robert. The Fatal Shore. (London: Vintage, 2003)
- Morgan, Gwenda and Rushton, Peter. Banishment in the Early Atlantic World. Convicts, Rebels and Slaves. (London: Bloomsbury, 2013)
- Oxley, Deborah. Convict Maids. The Forced Migration of Women to Australia. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000)
- Taylor, David. Crime, Policing and Punishment in England, 1750-1914. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1998)
(Thanks to Lauren Bell for undertaking additional historical research and checking the exhibition text for historical accuracy - any errors of fact and interpretation are not, however, her responsibility.)