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Ancestors transported to Australia


Between 1787 and 1868, some 160,000 convicts were transported from the UK to Australia. About 4,000 of these came from Norfolk.

At the Norfolk Record Office (NRO) we hold records of the various courts that sentenced people to transportation – these are described below. The National Archives (TNA) also holds records relating to transportees.

Records held in Australia are often more detailed than those in England. The National Library of Australia has a research guide to convict records.

  Australian Transportation Registers, 1787-1868

The transportation registers give information such as:

  • Convict's name
  • Date and place of conviction
  • Term of sentence
  • Name of ship on which the convict sailed
  • Departure date
  • Name of colony to which the convict was sent

The registers are held at TNA, but are available at AncestryFind My Past and The Genealogist. These are subscription websites, but can be accessed free of charge at the NRO, the Norfolk Heritage Centre (NHC) and King’s Lynn Borough Archives.

Between them, these websites give access to a large number of related sources including:

  • Settler and convict lists
  • Arrivals
  • Deaths
  • Pardons
  • Tickets of leave
  • Indentures
  • Applications to marry
  • Certificates of freedom
  • Some records relating to the wives and children of some convicts

  Local newspapers

At the NRO we have a list of people transported from Norfolk courts available on the searchroom shelves, compiled from reports in the local newspapers.

This has a names index and can be a useful starting point if the date of trial is not known.

Local newspapers may give more information than the court records.

The Norfolk Chronicle and Norwich Mercury cover the whole period and the Norfolk News the period from 1845 onwards. These newspapers are all available on microfilm at the NHC.

The Norfolk Chronicle 1776-1907 (with gaps) and Norwich News 1823-1905 (with gaps) are available to search at the British Newspaper Archive.

This is a subscription website, but can be accessed free of charge at NRO, NHC, King’s Lynn Borough Archives and all Norfolk libraries.

  Records of trials

The assize court or one of five quarter sessions courts in Norfolk could sentence people to transportation.

In general, the assize courts tried crimes for which the culprit could be sentenced to death, while the quarter sessions courts tried lesser crimes.

However, there are a few cases of death sentences being given by the King's Lynn and Great Yarmouth sessions courts in the early 19th century. The surviving records are summarised below.

The assize court

Assize judges came from London to Norfolk twice a year to hold trials in cases of serious crime. The main records are the indictments which give the crime, plea, verdict and sentence.

Sometimes there are depositions or other supporting papers, but the survival rate of these for the Norfolk circuit is not good.

Assize courts were held at Easter and in July or August: the cases were reported in all the local newspapers listed above. The records of the assize court are held at TNA.

Some printed assize calendars (lists) of prisoners, giving brief summaries of the proceedings, are held at the NHC while others are at the Castle Museum in Norwich.

We have some calendars of prisoners, as well as microfilm copies of some calendars held elsewhere, 1693-1971 (with many gaps): see below.

Norfolk quarter sessions court

This court had jurisdiction over the county of Norfolk, apart from the boroughs listed below. It met in Norwich and by adjournment in King’s Lynn, Walsingham, Holt and Swaffham.

The location of the trial gives some idea of where in the county the crime took place.

If the court papers survive they will give more details on the crime and the evidence of witnesses. For records of this court, see list C/S. These include:

  • Sessions books, 1786-1868. These record the proceedings of the court: see list C/S1.
  • Court papers, 1786-1800 and 1804-08: see C/S3 list (Please note that the court papers 1801-03 and 1809 onwards were destroyed in 1879).
  • Calendars of prisoners, 1826-1971. The NRO has microfilm copies of those held at the NHC, 1826-96, as well as original calendars, 1862-1971.See lists C/S10 and MC 2118/1, 923X9 and microfilm MF/RO 611/4-5.

Norwich quarter sessions court

  • Sessions books, 1786-1846: see NCR 20a
  • Sessions books, 1839-68: see N/S 2
  • Court papers, 1786-1868: see NCR 11
  • Calendars of prisoners, 1831, 1879, 1885-1895, on microfilm MF/RO 611/4-5; 1927-1958, see N/S 4/7; 1963-71 with Norfolk Quarter Sessions records, see list C/S

Great Yarmouth Borough sessions court

  • Sessions books, 1786-1864: see list Y/S 2
  • Court papers, 1786-1863: see list Y/S 3
  • Calendars (lists) of prisoners, 1888-90, on microfilm MF/RO 611/4-5

King's Lynn Borough sessions court

Surviving records are held at the King's Lynn Borough Archives, but the sessions books are available on microfilm at the NRO.

  • Sessions books, 1786-1865; see list KL/C21, on microfilm MF 611
  • Court papers, 1816-65; see list KL/C22

Thetford Borough sessions court

  • Sessions books, 1786-1876: see list T/QS 2-4

  England and Wales Criminal Registers, 1791-1892

These are registers of all persons charged with indictable offences in England and Wales. The information given may include:

  • The name, age and birthplace of the accused
  • When and where they were tried
  • The crime and sentence
  • The date of execution or release
  • By whom the accused was committed
  • To whom he or she was delivered

The registers are useful in identifying the court which heard the case, so that you can look for any surviving court records. The original registers are held at TNA, and can be searched via the Ancestry website.

  Commutations of sentence

Some people who were sentenced to death (almost all at the assizes) later had their sentences commuted to a period of transportation instead.

In a very few cases, this is noted in local records and their names are included in the draft list of transportations in the NRO.

In most cases, however, their names can only be found through the Commutation records at TNA.

  Further reading

  • R Hughes, The Fatal Shore: A History of Transportation of Convicts to Australia (London 1987). This describes how the system worked, how the convicts were employed and what happened when their sentences expired.
  • R J Ryan, The First Fleeters (Sydney 1981). This gives the names of the convicts who were on the first fleet of convict ships which left England in May 1787, reaching Australia in January 1788. This is especially useful as it includes people who had been tried some time before and had been waiting in hulks while their fate was decided.