VDL Founders and Survivors Convict Biographies 1812-1853

Photograph of Mark Jeffrey, Tasmanian convict. From Wikimedia Commons.

The "Van Diemen's Land Founders and Survivors Convict Biographies 1812-1853" collection of data included on this site provides extensive biographical details, from a wide variety of surviving sources, on some 30,000 convicts transported to Van Diemen's Land (now called Tasmania), covering the years 1812-1853.

Origins and Content

The Founders & Survivors Ships Project (FAS-Ships Project) at the University of Melbourne, builds on the larger Founders & Survivors: Australian Life Courses in Historical Context, led by Hamish Maxwell-Stewart of the University of Tasmania and first funded by the Australian Research Council in 2007. The Ships Project was funded from Janet McCalman's 2011 grant 'Land and Life: Aborigines, convicts and immigrants in Victoria, 1835-1985: an interdisciplinary history' and from 'Convicts and Diggers', led by Rebecca Kippen, both then at the University of Melbourne.

The Ships Project was designed to produce a large prosopographical sample of the Tasmanian convict population, built from the transcription of convict records and wider genealogical and historical research of full shiploads of convicts. Maxwell-Stewart had built a 1:25 sample with full transcription of all conduct records and subsequent Police Gazette entries for his research, but the life course analysis required greater numbers and a different method of sampling based on the shared historical experience of the transportation ship so that individual life courses could be historically contextualized.

The Melbourne team had already developed their methodology of prosopographical demography in two previous projects led by McCalman: the Melbourne Lying-In Hospital Birth Cohort 1857-1985 (LIH) and the Koori Health Research Database (KHRD) which reconstituted the colonial Aboriginal population of Victoria, 1855-1985. Such prosopography can produce a range of population characteristics, factors and exposures that can be analysed as risk factors affecting survival. The process is similar to social epidemiology, producing risk factors and outcomes at a population level which are observed associations. The findings of course, do not explain events and results at an individual level, only as population trends, and for every general discovery there will be a multitude of exceptions. However, population analysis of this kind can illuminate la longue durée of the human past and suggest new questions and perspectives.

Australia has preserved very few census returns, so the two previous studies - the LIH and KHRD - had needed to rely on the State of Victoria's outstanding vital registration regime (from 1855, the only place in the world that instituted the London Statistical Society's ideal system), and it was hoped that this could be replicated from Tasmania's even older vital registrations (from a linked dataset built by Dr Peter Gunn and Dr Rebecca Kippen). Moreover, as we discovered, at least half the convicts left Tasmania once they were free, so that we could follow them in other Australian colonies using the rich genealogical sources now on the Internet, as well as the extraordinary archive created by the National Library of Australia which has digitized Australian historical newspapers, including small regional publications. The global online revolution in genealogical resources now makes it possible to reconstruct convict lives outside the intense, but nonetheless narrow gaze of the Digital Panopticon. And we can investigate the convict experience from cradle to grave.

Bill Thompson, Tasmanian convict (c. 1900). From Wikimedia Commons.

Relationship to Other Sources

The "VDL Founders and Survivors Convict Biographies 1812-1853" contains further information on many of the convicts included in the VDL Founders and Survivors Convicts 1802-1853 database. Many convicts can also be found in the trial records of the Old Bailey, the Old Bailey Proceedings 1740-1913 and the England and Wales Criminal Registers 1791-1892, as well as other records of transportation.

Strengths and Limitations

The Ships Project data is very valuable because of its size and complexity, and the fact the sources extend beyond the judicial records which dominate the Digital Panopticon collection of datasets. It is based on the richness of the underlying data from the Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office collection, the genealogical resources now available for the United Kingdom, Ireland and Australia, and the digitized newspapers in Australia and those for the United Kingdom through the Ancestry and Find My Past services.

There two critical limitations. First, it depends on the survival of such additional data, and the efforts of individual volunteers to identify all the relevant information.

Second, record linkage is difficult given the large number of common names and the propensity of convicts to use aliases both when transported and after sentence. Record linkage for this data cannot be automated and involves historical judgement, which can be fallible. It must be undertaken case by case by experienced genealogists who can search for points of triangulation to confirm a sighting. Finding deaths accurately is especially difficult with the Tasmanian registrations where rarely is there any mention of the deceased's place of birth and known relatives can only be ascertained if they were witnesses to the death. The Permissions to Marry records were the basic means of identifying a convict and his or her connections once they left the oversight of the convict department or the Tasmanian criminal justice system. Convicts who were convicted in Victoria were sometimes correctly identified with their ship of arrival, but many succeeded in concealing their past and origins. Many recidivists operated under multiple pseudonyms and many convict marriages collapsed and were replaced with de facto or bigamous partnerships where they died under another surname. It is scarcely surprising that in a society where the 'convict stain' was almost indelible, that 'old lags' should create webs of secrets and lies that have survived within their descendants until the present day. These apparently successful survivors who disappeared from the public record are only now becoming visible again as their, generally delighted descendants, discover the truth.

Photograph of Catherine Bartley, convict in VDL.

Original Sources and Digitisation

The project was clearly labour intensive and beyond the means of any competitive grant to pay research assistants, so crowd sourcing was the obvious solution. A partnership was also formed with the Female Convicts Research Centre (FCRC) in Hobart who had pioneered the use of volunteer genealogists to transcribe the full conduct records of all the women transported to Tasmania. We were able to fund some research assistance and the purchase of death and other registration certificates from Victoria and NSW for the FCRC. Fifty-four volunteers from all over Australia and the United Kingdom stayed the course over the five years of data collection, researching whole ships at a time, reconstructing lives before, during and after sentence to a traced death where possible. From a sample of 126 ships that arrived in Tasmania 1812-1853, we had a sample of 16,953 men and 7,783 women, around 40 per cent of whom could be traced to a registered death outside the convict system.

The data contributed to the Digital Panopticon comprise the prosopographies of all the convicts on these 126 ships - 16,923 men and 7,783 women, totaling 24,746 convicts, plus approximately another 5000 entries for people who were traced incidentally. Because the Irish ships contained distinct pre- and post-famine populations, these were almost completely researched for a future Irish Famine study. In our analysis, we corrected for this sampling bias.

In addition to the prosopographies, the volunteers completed online spreadsheets where they recorded and coded characteristics and events for statistical analysis. Since accurate transcription of a dense conduct record can take many hours, it was decided to condense the transcription and coding into one process where researchers counted and coded penal offences and punishments as insults. This approach is derived from the historical life-course methodology first suggested by James C. Riley and then developed by Diana Kuh and George Davey Smith, where exposures during critical periods of the life course - gestation, childhood, adolescence, young adulthood and later adult life - can help to elucidate the psycho-social and biological processes that operate across the life course and across generations. Obviously an historical study cannot replicate the quality of the variables available to contemporary social epidemiology, but we can test whether recorded characteristics such as literacy, occupation, height, age, family history as recorded in the indent, and native places, can provide some early life factors to test for significance. Finally, at the end of life, we have survival itself and we have used family formation over three generations as a test of an individual's resilience and capacity. This coded dataset is not included in the Digital Panopticon collection, but will be digitally archived in Australia and available to approved researchers in due course.

Original sources of data included:

The Australian Research Council provided funding for the creation of the database via the following grants:


Lead Researchers

Professor Janet McCalman, Redmond Barry Distinguished Professor, University of Melbourne.

Associate Professor Rebecca Kippen, Associate Professor of Demography, School of Rural Health, Monash University, Bendigo.

Checkers and Researchers

Nola Beagley, Geoff Brown, Tricia Curry, Lance Dwyer, Alison Ellett, Jennifer Elliston, Leanne Goss, Cheryl Griffin, Jan Kerr, Maureen Mann, Garry McLoughlin, David Noakes, Teddie Oates, Judith Price, Steve Rhodes, the late Cecile Trioli, Colin Tuckerman, Jenny Wells.

Female Convicts Research Centre (FCRC)

Colette McAlpine, Trudy Mae Cowley

Ships Project Researchers

Colleen Aralappu, Maureen Austin, Vivienne Cash, Dianne Cassidy, Glenda Cox, Kathy Dadswell, Margaret Dimech, Brian Dowse, Ros Escott, Barry Files, Peter Fitzpatrick, Janet Gaff, Nanette Gottlieb, Stuart Hamilton, Jane Harding, Robyn Harrison, Graeme Hickey, Margaret Inglis, Bronwyn King, Jenny Kisler, Darryl Massie, Elizabeth Nelson, Margaret Nichols, Rosemary Noble (UK), Keith Oliver, Maureen O'Toole, Margaret Parsons, Annette Sutton, Robert Tuppen, Rob Weldon, Lyn Wilkinson, Glad Wishart, Jacqueline Wisniowski, Judith Wood.

System and Design

Sandra Silcot, Claudine Chionh, Robin Petterd, Len Smith

Further information

Author Credits

This page was written by Janet McCalman, with additional contributions by the Digital Panopticon project team.