Charles Bateson's "The Convict Ships 1787-1868" is regarded as the definitive guide to
Australia's period of transportation. Information is given about the voyages to New South Wales,
Norfolk Island, Tasmania, Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia. It ranges from the life on
board for both crew and convict, right through to records of deaths, numbers of convicts and the
length of each voyage. A comprehensive index of the convict voyages has been extracted from
Bateson's text and is presented on our convict shipping pages.
Apart from describing each ship, the index gives the dates of each voyage, the ports they
travelled between, the number of male and female convicts embarking and disembarking at each
port and the route they took. Discrepancies between the number who embarked and disembarked were
often due to deaths on board, transfers to other ships en route, or landing at other ports.
Transported convicts were handed over to the master of a ship at the beginning of the voyage and
formally transfered into the custody of the Governor of the colony who was receiving them.
Indents, or Indentures, were the documents used to record the transaction on arrival.
Conditions on Board
Convicts were housed below decks on the prison deck and often further confined behind bars. In
many cases they were restrained in chains and were only allowed on deck for fresh air and
exercise. Conditions were cramped and they slept on hammocks. Very little information seems to
be available about the layout of the convict ships, but a few books do contain artists'
impressions and reproductions of images held in library collections.
Although the convicts of the first fleet arrived in relatively good condition, the same cannot
be said for those that followed during the rest of the century. Cruel masters, harsh discipline
and scurvy, dysentery and typhoid resulted in a huge loss of life.
After the English authorities began to review the system in 1801 the ships were despatched twice
a year, at the end of May and the beginning of September, to avoid the dangerous winters of the
southern hemisphere. Surgeons employed by the early contractors had to obey to the master of the
ship and on later voyages were replaced by independent Surgeon Superintendents whose sole
responsibility was for the well being of the convicts. As time went on, successful procedures
were developed and the surgeons were supplied with explicit instructions as to how life on board
was to be organised. By then the charterers were also paid a bonus to land the prisoners safe
and sound at the end of the voyage.
By the time the exiles were being transported in the 1840s and onwards, a more enlightened
routine was in place which even included the presence on board of a Religious Instructor to
educate the convicts and attend to their spiritual needs. The shipboard routines on some of the
Western Australian transports during the 1860s have been transcribed and are worth reading.
Ship Naming Patterns
One thing that confuses many researchers is the naming of the convict transports. A system
adopted by Charles Bateson is in common use today and makes provision for the multiple voyages
made by some ships, the use of different ships with the same name, and the changing description
of some ships after they underwent a refit. The shipping lists on these pages describe when the
ships were built and where, their size and their type.
Name-wise, the Roman Numeral after the ship's name describes the individual ship, while the
number in brackets describes which voyage the ship was making. As an example, three different
ships called 'Mary' were sent to Australia with convicts and although the first two vessels only
made one voyage each, the last one made five. In some cases, extra confusion arises when two
ships with the same name were in active service at the same time.
Another point of confusion that often arises with convict voyages is the route they took. The
convict shipping lists indicate if a ship travelled via other ports. That was especially so in
the early days when ships were smaller, took longer and had to put in for supplies and repairs
along the way. In later years, after other Australian settlements had been established, the
transports often stopped at more than one destination to land convicts. From England the
transports may have stopped off at Gibraltar, a port in the West Indies, South America, the Cape
of Good Hope, and any one of the Australian penal settlements.