Image: Botany Bay, New South Wales, c.1789. Watercolour by Charles Gore. From the collections of the State Library of New South Wales (via Wikimedia Commons).
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.
Image: The Warrior prison hulk. Illustration taken from Henry Mayhew and John Binny, The Criminal Prisons of London, and Scenes of Prison Life, Volume 3, 1862, p. 256. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
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.
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.
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.
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. The convicts were often held in prisons or hulks for months before their transportation.
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.
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.
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).