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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
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

Tradewind Recruitment: Key Stage 2 Teacher Required in Grays

£21000 - £40000 per annum + Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Key Stage 2 tea...

Recruitment Genius: Software Development Manager

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Tradewind Recruitment: Humanities Teacher

£120 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: The Humanities Department of this ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Music Teacher

£120 - £180 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: Newham Position: Music Start dat...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee