Website reveals secrets of convicts sent to Australia

Detailed records are now available of thousands of Britons transported in the 18th and 19th centuries

When the Napoleonic war veteran Warren Kerr was caught stealing from his MP, justice was brief and brutal: he was sentenced to death. Luckily for him, his life was spared. Unluckily, along with thousands of other convicts, he was sentenced to the next worst thing: deportation to Australia.

Kerr's story is one of 55,000 posted on the internet today detailing the fate of thousands of British convicts sentenced to transportation. An ancestry website outlines how Kerr was convicted of stealing from Samuel Thornton, MP for Hull, in 1815. A trial at London's Old Bailey heard that he had stolen rings and watches from Thornton's London home while working there. The death sentence was later commuted and Kerr, a decorator, was transported by convict ship to New South Wales.

One in three Britons have a convict ancestor, according to Ancestry.co.uk, which is publishing the records to coincide with Australia Day on Tuesday. Details on the website of those who were deported include their crime, trial, the name of the ship, physical description and occupation.

The records, part of a four-year project to make details of more than two million deportees available, feature the Convict Registers of Conditional and Absolute Pardons, 1791-1846, and the New South Wales Certificates of Freedom, 1827-1867, given to convicts in the colony.

They give vivid first-hand accounts of how Australia became the politically expedient safety valve for Britain's overpopulated jails. These were fit to burst after American colonies slammed the door on British deportees after the American War of Independence in 1776.

In 1787, the first 11 ships carrying convicts to Australia – known as the First Fleet – set sail for New South Wales, arriving eight months later.

Among the thousands of convicts detailed in the collection were a number of infamous criminals who would change their ways dramatically in their new homeland. Joseph Backler, a British artist who was sentenced to death for forging cheques in 1831, had his sentence commuted to transportation. Continuing to paint after receiving a conditional pardon in 1847, he is today regarded as the most prolific oil painter of early colonial Australia.

Sadly, it appears not to have had such a salutary effect on Warren Kerr's life or fortunes. Not long after being sent to New South Wales on board the Elizabeth he was sentenced to the lash for stealing timber from a government yard. In 1824, after setting up business with his wife, he was convicted of handling stolen goods. Records reveal that his son, Warren Jnr, was also convicted of theft. Warren Snr eventually earned a conditional pardon in 1848 only to die five years later at the Benevolent Asylum in Sydney.

"He had quite an unfortunate life, this chap," said Charlotte Samiec, Kerr's great-great-great-great granddaughter, from Mildenhall, Suffolk, who researched his life using UK and Australian archives and hopes to fill some blanks using the material that becomes available today. "He had been in front of the judge a couple of times. He'd previously stolen some boot-tops, and was thrown in jail for six months, but stealing from Samuel Thornton, MP for Kingston-upon-Hull, was to be his downfall."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power