Sunday, February 12, 2012

Irish Convicts to Botany Bay Brought to Life by Author

Since the discovery of her Dublin Highwayman ancestor, Australian genealogist and author Barbara Hall has lovingly devoted herself to researching those Irish transported from their homeland to Australia on five convict ships.  Along with Cassie Mercer, editor of Inside History magazine, Sydney-based Hall created what she calls a publishing hub for the millions of those pursuing family history descended from Irish convicts.

In her series of books, Barbara brings to life the harrowing trials and journeys of some of the more colorful Irish convicts sent to Botany Bay, New South Wales, with her own ancestors between 1790 and 1806. Genealogy Producer Alannah Ryane was particularly excited about interviewing Hall, since she has long been seeking information about a possible ancestor transported to Nova Scotia from County Wexford.

A researcher for 25 years, Hall has written five books on Irish convicts transported to Botany Bay in the 1790s. She has been interviewed twice on Irish radio and won the Mander Jones Award in 2009 for the best publication that “uses, features or interprets Australian archives” for her book “The Irish Vanguard: The Convicts of the Queen, Ireland to Botany Bay, 1791.”  Barbara, approximately how many transported Irishmen and women are we talking about during this time period?

Hall: It is difficult to supply accurate numbers as record keeping was rather haphazard, but in the decade of the 1790s, five ships transported approximately 1,100 men and women to Botany Bay. Between 1800 and 1806 another eight ships arrived with 1,143 prisoners, a large number of these were rebels, some of whom were court-martialed as a result of their involvement in the 1798 uprising. Altogether a total of about 2,220  prisoners had arrived by 1806. Men greatly outnumbered women.  How challenging has it been for you to research the ancestry and the descendants of these Irish convicts?

Hall: It was difficult at first, because I began in the late 1980s with my own family research, before the availability of records online. I loved the process so much that I decided to research all 245 convicts who came on my highwayman’s ship in 1796. It has just grown from there. The most difficult problem was finding details of the crimes of these early Irish convicts as official records no longer existed, they were destroyed when the State Paper Office in Dublin was attacked in 1922 [during the Irish Civil War].  I decided to search the available contemporary Irish newspapers. As a result, I can usually find at least 50% of crime or trial reports. Once my books became known,  I found that many descendants contact me and offer information. Our website and email has also made this much easier.  You have stated that these prisoners were not considered rebels but "urban and country criminals," having committed mostly small and petty crimes.  What was it about their stories that affected you the most?

Hall: The prisoners arriving in the 1790s were mostly urban and country thieves, swindlers, forgers, prostitutes, a sprinkling of highwaymen, a gang of three highwaywomen and only a couple of murderers. I was also able to identify, for the first time, rebels in the years prior to the 1798 uprising at Vinegar Hill. ... 

The stories that most affected me were those of the women, often very young, sentenced for stealing perhaps shoe buckles worth 4/9d [4 shillings, 9 pence, worth about $12.65 in today's dollars] from a customer, then harshly sentenced to transportation for 7 years, seemingly to make up female numbers in a predominantly male penal colony. Some gave birth during the six-month journey. I did find through colonial records though, that they often were witnesses at each others marriages, and their children intermarried. I also found that one of the very young men who was transported to Newfoundland on that journey in 1789, was then transported to Botany Bay in 1791, returned to Ireland and transported yet again in 1806. He died a few years later.  Was there a county that had a larger share of people convicted and transported to Australia?

Hall: I haven't done a breakdown of county figures, but it seems that the majority came from Cork, Dublin and Belfast, not so many from the counties in the west of the country, Clare, Sligo, Kerry. After the 1798 rebellion, a large number came from Kildare, Wexford, Dublin, Cork, Meath and Waterford.  We have heard the horrific stories of the coffin ships, but as I research the ships it sounds like the convicts lived a particular kind of hell. What was it like for them on that long journey to New South Wales, and why would freemen want to be on those ships?

Hall: Even on a well-run ship the conditions on board for convicts would have been cramped and uncomfortable for the six months or so it took to reach NSW [New South Wales]. Of the five ships I have so far researched, the Britannia of 1797 was by far the worse. The convicts, many of them rebels, planned to seize the ship, kill the captain and officers, and sail to America. The captain acted with brutality in ordering the ringleaders to receive 700 lashes, then to be thrown back into the prison without any medical assistance or water. At least seven perished from this treatment. The women were also harshly treated, and one committed suicide.  I was reading your interview in Australia's Irish Echo regarding "The Irish Vanguard," the last book in your "Ireland to Botany Bay" series,  when my heart skipped a beat.  A group of women and men convicts were abandoned in Newfoundland, Canada.  For 12 years now, I have been looking for the origins of my Wexford [ancestors, named] Scallions and Johnsons who appeared in Nova Scotia around 1800 buying land, having first, through family lore, landed in Bay Bulls, Newfoundland.  I had always thought that perhaps the reason no one has ever found evidence of their former lives or how they got here was indicative of their being criminals or rebels.  Did the stigma of being a convicted felon and Irish in an English colony make them lead a more secret life once freed?

Hall:  It was the ‘Duke of Leinster’ which departed from Ireland with convicts bound for Nova Scotia in June 1789. [**See Alannah Ryane's comment below.] This was one of the last of the transportation voyages to North America. These prisoners were rounded up and sent back to Dublin, where at least 23 were re-transported on the Queen, arriving in Botany Bay in 1791. (This information courtesy of Bob Reece’s excellent book, "The Origins of Irish Convict Transportation to New South Wales.")

In early New South Wales, it was impossible to hide the fact that you were a convict, or even had a pardon. It was the later generations who worked hard to erase all knowledge of their family past, the stories only coming to light in recent times [as] people belatedly recognized the richness of their background.

Barbara Hall  I love that two women created their own publishing company. What brought you and Cassie together?

Hall: Cass and I also love this arrangement. We are mother and daughter, and Cass began her career by editing my books, doing page layout and cover design.  After working as an editor in London, she and her husband, Ben,  arrived back in Sydney and began their magazine, Inside History.

Cassie Mercer
Editor's Note: Cassie Mercer is the editor and co-publisher of Inside History, a new family history magazine for Australian and New Zealand genealogists and historians, and editor at Irish Wattle. She is based in Sydney and. in her spare time. is writing a book about some of her and Barbara's favorite Irish convicts.

To purchase books or contact Barbara please visit her website or Cassie Mercer at

** Alannah Ryane:  I discovered an in-depth description of this Newfoundland landing (see citation below)  that was, to my surprise and delight, indeed in Bay Bulls and in secret. In July 1789, when the 'Duke of Leinster' left Dublin, the destination was officially 'unknown' as it had already 'put to sea' when transportation to the Americas was officially banned and Botany Bay became the penal colony of choice.  It seems that the location depended on who had the greatest desire to take advantage of this free labor.   During the voyage there were rumors that the captain was dropping them off in both Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, but because of a number of desperate circumstances, changed his mind and 'dumped'  94 men and women at Bay Bulls and 17 at Petty Harbour.  During the rounding up of the Newfoundland  convicts for transportation back to Dublin, some escaped, as 37 were missing from the magistrate's list.   The convicts from the southern counties were in the minority and most of the Irish immigrants living in Bay Bulls were from Waterford, so it was suspected that some of the 37 were assimilated into the community. 

Citation: Bannister, J., Convict Transportation and the Colonial State in Newfoundland, 1789. Acadiensis, North America, 27, mar. 1998. Available at: <>. Date accessed: 11 Feb. 2012.

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