Australians embrace their criminal past, with a little help from the Old Bailey

Not so long ago Australia's middle classes were deeply ashamed of their criminal past. Now Sydney dinner party conversations are dominated by boasts of convict ancestry as doctors, lawyers and politicians stake their claim to belonging to one of the "first families" of Australia. And from today, descendants of British criminals sentenced to servitude in the New World will be able to authenticate such claims through an online scheme to release documents of thousands of trials held at the Old Bailey.

Researchers working on the new website say they have been bombarded with requests from Australians desperate to find a relative convicted at Britain's most famous criminal court.

Tim Hitchcock, the Old Bailey website project director, said: "In Australia these records form the equivalent of an aristocratic pedigree. To be descended from someone tried and convicted at the Old Bailey is to be able to claim to be from one of Australia's first families."

Between 1780 and 1834, 21,000 people were sent to Australia after being sentenced at the Old Bailey. Alongside thousands more convicted in the provincial courts, they formed the bulk of the new population.

Among their number were five of the Cato Street conspirators, whose plan to overthrow the government was uncovered by Home Office agents.

Other transportation cases published on the Old Bailey website are much more ordinary but provide fascinating insight into the criminal justice system of the day.

Transportation as a punishment for Britain's criminals began with the 1718 Transportation Act, first to America and then Australia.

Professor Hitchcock, a professor of history at Hertfordshire University, said: "The online edition of the published proceedings of the Old Bailey now makes available the full transcripts of the cases that sent these men, women and children halfway around the world. The details of the crimes of Australia's 'first fleet' emigrants and the thousands who arrived in the first few decades of the 19th century are available at the click of a mouse."

Under the terms of the new transportation policy, magistrates were encouraged to send more women to Australia so that the colony would flourish.

Elizabeth Wills, for instance, was caught on 26 April 1800 stripping the clothes from a four-year-old girl with the intention of selling them on. Wills, 14, was sentenced to seven years' transportation.

Louisa Marshall, 18, was also sentenced to seven years' transportation after being found guilty of pick-pocketing a handkerchief. At her trial in 1834, the man whose handkerchief had been stolen, a gas company engineer called John Tropp, told the court: "... she came and seized my arm, and took me to a dark part of the street - she kissed me, and ran away - I then missed my handkerchief, and followed her and saw her with three men - I charged her with taking my handkerchief, and held her til the officer came."

But many of those transported did not settle. Susan Courtney, 27, was sentenced to transportation in 1822 after being found guilty of being in possession of a counterfeit coin. But a year later she had made her way back to England, where she was arrested and charged with being "feloniously at large without a lawful excuse".

Those caught "returning from transportation" were dealt with severely. Susan Marshall, who according to the documents offered no defence, was one of thousands who were sentenced to death and executed in Newgate prison.