convict chain gang
Convicts in a chain gang

Between 1788 and 1868, about 162,000 convicts were transported to Australia. Most convicts were transported for petty crimes such as theft. More serious crimes would have resulted in hanging.

I have found two members of our family who were sentenced to transportation. This is their stories.

Thomas Bettison

The first member of our family to be transported was Thomas Bettison. He was involved in the Pentrich Rising and was found guilty of riot and sentenced to transportation for 14 years on 25th September 1817. There is a separate page on this website about the Pentrich Rising. His convict records describe him as five feet eight and a half inches tall with a pale complexion and hazel eyes.

Before being transported, convicts were housed in one of the Woolwich Hulks on the Thames. These were old ships that were used as prisons. This was intended to be a temporary solution to prison overcrowding but it would last about 80 years. Thomas was imprisoned in a ship called the Retribution. Then he had to survive the trip to Australia. During the voyage, prisoners were housed below deck where conditions would be cramped. If they had not been to sea before, many of them would suffer from sea-sickness. Some would die from diseases such as scurvy, dysentery and typhoid. They were allowed some time on deck for exercise and fresh air.

One first-hand account by a minister who travelled out on a convict ship went as follows.
‘I saw a number of fellow-creatures in a state of degradation, with pale and haggard countenances passing up and down the hatchways with their legs ironed; or else at intervals marching round and round the ship, in a continued line, or rather oblong, of three and four deep, to the beat of drum, for the purpose of obtaining the exercise necessary to the preservation of health.’

Thomas was transported to Australia on a ship called the Tottenham. There were 201 prisoners on board. It set sail from Sheerness on the 11th January 1818 but had to return because of problems. By March it had moved to Spithead, Dartmouth where it set off again on the 27th March. Then it only got as far as Plymouth because of rudder problems. It finally left Plymouth on 17th April. Then in June there was a major outbreak of scurvy and they had to put into Rio de Janeiro for fresh supplies. Ten men died as a result of the outbreak. They eventually arrived in Australia, docking at Port Jackson, near Sidney on 14th October 1818, 201 days after leaving Spithead.

On arrival the prisoners were served with fresh fruit and new convict clothing consisting of a yellow jacket, black trousers, shirts, shoes, stockings and a cap. They were then mustered for inspection by the colony’s governor. They were assigned to government work such as road building or to private businesses as labourers. Many were subjected to a harsh and brutal life with lashings for the slightest misdemeanour.

In 1822 Thomas was sent up the coast to the penal colony in Newcastle to work in the coal mines. Conditions were harsh and the medical officer reported that their rations were inadequate and they suffered from dysentery in summer, bitter cold in winter and chest complaints all year round.

In 1825 he was granted his ‘Ticket of Leave’. If convicts were well behaved, they were often not required to serve out their full term and could apply for a Ticket of Leave. A Ticket of Leave allowed convicts to work for themselves provided that they remained in a specified area, reported regularly to local authorities and attended divine worship every Sunday. They could not leave the colony or return home, so technically, he was still not a free man.

Then after fourteen years when his sentence ended, he received his certificate of freedom. This was issued at the completion of a convict’s sentence, as proof that he was a free person. They were now free to travel anywhere and could return to the United Kingdom. In practice, this option was impossible for most as they had to pay for their return passage!

Thomas appears to have stayed in Australia as in 1834 he appeared in court in Sydney as a witness after being robbed. He described himself as a quarry man who lived on the Ultimo Estate in Sydney. He had no incentive to return to England as his wife had re-married in 1826.

The Pentrich Revolution web site shows that he died the following year on 12th April 1835 at the age of 52. The hardship of convict life would have taken its toll.

Thomas Bettison freedom certificate
Thomas’ Ticket of Freedom

William Sandlant

The other convict in our family was William Sandlant. The Sandlants are a side shoot of the Holmes branch. Simon Holmes, my great great grandfather, married a lady called Emily Sandlant. William Sandlant was her grandfather, which makes him my great (x4) grandfather.
He lived in Ashby del la Zouch and appears to have been a bit of a disreputable character. He was arrested in June 1838 for a number of thefts.
The following is an extract from a newspaper report which describes his crimes.

‘A system of robbery has been in existence in Ashby for nearly ten years which has been conducted with astonishing success and audacity by a number of men, some of whom have been almost openly known in the town as the guilty parties. The master spirit or presiding genius of this gang of rouges is an old man named Sandlant, frequently called ‘Billy Jersey’, who is supposed to have acquired this nick-name from having been originally a jersey comber. Sandlant, in the early part of his life, some forty-five years ago, learnt his business from a man of dishonest character, and he has been a noted character ever since.’

The report goes on to list the charges which were, stealing 84lbs of wool, another stealing 100lbs of wool and two gallons of gin, stealing sugar, tobacco, soap and brushes, and finally stealing glasses and earthenware. One member of the gang, Thomas Pickering, turned Queen’s Evidence and so William was found guilty and sentenced to transportation for life. Copies of some of the newspaper reports of the trial are here.

Before being transported he was housed in one of the Woolwich Hulks called Justitia. The Justitia was an ex-convict transportation ship
Convicts were now being transported to Tasmania. He was transported on the Augusta Jessie. It set sail on 14th August and took 114 days before it arrived in Tasmania on 6th December 1838. He was about 67 when he was transported, making him one of the oldest prisoners to be sent to there.

There is a record of William becoming ill on the trip in September. He complained of a griping pain in the bowels. He was described as flushed, tongue coated and yellow with moist skin. After treatment, his bowels were reported as ‘much relieved’.

Under ‘nature of disease’, it says synocha. This was a term used then to describe a fever.

Initially conditions on the transport ships were pretty terrible and many died on the journey. Later the charterers were paid a bonus to land the prisoners safe and sound at the end of the voyage. This meant conditions started to improve. Another change was that ships would have an independent Surgeon Superintendent whose sole responsibility was for the wellbeing of the convicts. This would help cut down the cases of scurvy, dysentery and typhoid experienced in the early voyages. Simon seems to have benefited from the improving conditions as only one convict died on his voyage.

William Sandlant sickness report
Report of William becoming ill

When they arrived in Tasmania, they were assigned to work, often in chain gangs, building roads, bridges and buildings. Some were assigned to free settlers to work as labourers. The earliest convicts were even sent out to hunt kangaroos when food was short. Punishments for any misbehaviour would often be a flogging or the treadmill, but solitary confinement was used more often in later years.

There are not a lot of surviving records detailing William’s time there. The record of his physical characteristics describe him as five foot five and a half inches tall with blue eyes and black to grey hair and whiskers and sallow complexion.

On his arrival, his initial report described him as ‘bad in every respect’. However, I cannot find any reports of him getting into trouble while there and the Surgeon’s Report described him as ‘a well-disposed old man’.

One record in 1841 gives his location as ‘Mr Wilde Morven’. Morven is now called Evandale. It was a town that had been founded in 1829, just a few years before William arrived. Mr Wilde was probably one of the free settlers living there, so it would seem William had been allocated to work for him.

Because William had been sentenced to transportation for life, he was not eligible to apply for a Ticket of Leave. Life offenders only hope of freedom was to appeal against their sentence. There is a record of an appeal against his sentence in 1843, but the response was short and to the point. It said ‘There is no intension to mitigate the sentence of the convict William Sandlant’.

William Sandlant convict record
William’s convict record
Impression Bay
Impression Bay

The next reference to William is in 1849 which says he was at the Impression Bay Station (now called Premaydena). This had been converted a few years before to an invalid station for “prisoners in a most wretched physical condition, blind, maimed, infirm, and debilitated from age, accident, or disease”. This would suggest that by then, William was too old and weak to work.

He survived for four more years before he died on 15 Jan 1853 aged 81 in the hospital at Impression Bay a long way from his home in Leicestershire. Meanwhile back in Leicestershire, his wife Mary would have to face her remaining years knowing she would never see her husband again.

Often the families of transported convicts would have a worse time than their husbands. Because they now had no husband to support them, some would finish up in the workhouse. I have been unable to find out what happened to Mary. There is no trace of her in any census records after his sentence.

More Information

The National Library of Australia has a lot of information about transported convicts

Convict Records of Australia website also has a lot of information

I also found this article that someone had written about William Sandlant