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Help with those unfamiliar terms and expressions

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For More General Terms
See Genealogy Dictionaries (on Cyndi's List of Genealogy Sites)


Purple Bar Absolute Pardon
A man or woman who received an absolute pardon was restored to the position of a free person. They could leave New South Wales if they wished.

Used on the Probate indexes and symbolised with the letter A. It means the deceased did not leave a will. A letter of administration can be obtained which generally disposes of the property to the next of kin.

American Loyalists
Those colonists who supported George III in the War of Independence.

Each Australian State has an Archives Office which handles old government records and is open to the public, free of charge. These include shipping, convict, Government employment, early land, naturalisation records and early probate indexes. Some Archives Offices require you to have a readerís ticket.

To summon a prisoner to the bar of a court, to read to him or her the charge or indictment, and to ask whether he or she pleads guilty or not guilty.

A craftsman or a skilled industrial worker.

Assigned Servant
A man or woman convict whose services were assigned for a certain period, under certain conditions to a private master or mistress.

Assisted Immigrants
Immigrants brought out by the Government of the time under assisted passage. The Government paid for the passage. Some immigrants paid a portion of the amount. These records are generally well indexed.

Trials at which jurymen or assessors decide questions of fact; a judicial inquest; sessions held from time to time in each county in England for administering justice by judges acting under special commission.

Assize Records
Records of the Clerks of Assize take us closest to the prisoners' origins. Indictments give a full statement of the charge. The parish of origin given in them is not necessarily accurate: it was often assumed (incorrectly) to be the place where the crime was committed. Other details noted are very basic, containing nothing about origins, parentage or the course of the trial. Depositions, usually filed with indictments give written evidence of witnesses, and can be very informative.

Attorney General
Principal law officer. The first Attorney general in New South Wales was appointed in 1823.

BDM Indexes
The Birth, Death, and Marriage indexes relate to the civil registration indexes prior to 1900, which have been publicly released for each State.

Barons of the Exchequer
Judges of the Courts of Exchequer Chamber which dealt with cases arising out of the collection of revenue and also, by this period, cases between subjects themselves.

A building in which soldiers or convicts were lodged.

Benefit of Clergy
Originally, this meant that clergymen could be tried by church courts which exacted only spiritual punishments. It was gradually extended to literate males. Laymen could claim it only once, and were branded on the thumb to prevent its being claimed twice. In 1705, it was extended to all first offenders, except for certain serious offences which were excluded by law. Benefit of the Clergy was therefore a method of softening the harsh criminal code of the eighteenth century.

Bill Sykes Physiognomy
The cast of face, or the features, of a thief.

Boatswain (pronounced bo'sun)
The ship's officer in charge of the sails and rigging; he was also in charge of the day-to-day running of the ship.

Botany Bay
As used in Portia Robinson's The Women of Botany Bay, this description of New South Wales did not infer a geographical location. It was linked with the infamous and degraded connotations of a convict colony.

Bounty Immigrant
Similar to an assisted immigrant. The Bounty Scheme operated to New South Wales from 1835 to 1841. A colonist chose the emigrant from England and paid his or her passage to Australia. The emigrant would then work for the colonist. The colonial Government would reimburse the colonist a bounty equal to the fare. A good explanation of this system is contained in the book by R. B. Madgwick, Immigration into Eastern Australia, 1788-1851 Sydney: Sydney University Press 1969.

A bandit who hid in the bush and robbed travellers etc.

Came Free
Men, women and children who arrived in the colony unconvicted were said to have come free.

Capital Respite
One who is transported instead of suffering the death penalty.

Cat o'nine tails: Whip with nine lines at the end, each containing three or more knots.

Census Records
Very few census records survive for Australia. The census resembles the present-day forms.

An essential but costly part of genealogical research. Each State and Territory of Australia issues it own birth, death, and marriage certificates.

Certificate of Freedom (CF)
Introduced in 1810 and issued to convicts on completion of their sentences.

Certificate of Remission (CR)
Enabled the man to serve less time than the original sentence. Many remissions were granted in England before the convict actually arrived in Australia.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS)
The Church houses the world's largest collection of genealogical records, copies of which can be hired through the various branches of the LDS Genealogical libraries.

Civil Registration
The Government registration of all births, deaths, and marriages. Each State and Territory of Australia has its own commencement dates. Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia followed the British system of civil registration, whereas Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and the Territories followed the more useful Archer system.

The placing of convicts in different classes or categories, depending upon the length of their various sentences, in a gaol. Classification implied separate treatment of the convicts in different classes.

Department of the army responsible for the providing of food and other supplies.

Official responsible for providing food, transport and stores for a body of soldiers.

Common Law
The body of English law originating in common and unwritten customs. It was developed and administered by common law courts.

Common Pleas
Actions, under common law, between subjects and the realm.

The description used by Rev. Samuel Marsden to describe the women not legally married in 1806.

Conditional Pardon (CP)
A man or woman conditionally pardoned became technically free but could not leave the colony until the expiry of their original sentence imposed in Britain.

Continent Example
Restraining example.

A man or woman under sentence of the law. Contemporaries seldom distinguished between a convict and an ex-convict, frequently refering to both as convict.

Day Labourer
One hired to work at a certain rate of wages per day.

Degree of the Coif
The position or order of Sergeant at law (barristers of superior degree who had certain privileges).

Deptford Dockyard
Deptford is a suburb of London on the Thames.

Distaff Lines
Female lines on the family tree, as important as the male lines.

East India Company
British company chartered by Elizabeth I in 1600 for trade in Asia; after 1623 it concentrated its activities in India. In the early eighteenth century it was harassed by local princes and the French. In 1773 the British Parliament passed a regulating act to curb the Company's exploitive practices and to gain a share of its revenue.

Technically, an emancipist was an emancipated convict, that is, one who had been freed by pardon, either absolute pardon or conditional pardon. It was used loosely to refer to all ex-convicts and has continued to be used in this sense.

Emigration Fund
Monies derived from the sale of colonial Crown land devoted to the assistance of emigration from Britian.

The full length of the sentence had been served and the convict was free.

In common law, any crime which occasioned the forfeiture of land or goods of the offender, on conviction, and which carried the death penalty. The distinction between a felony and a misdemeanour is now abolished.

Female Factory
A place for hardened and troublesome female prisoners who had not been assigned to domestic service.

A brotherhood for the overthrow of British rule in Ireland.

Free or Paying Passenger
Persons who paid their own passages on ships.

Iron rings placed around the ankle to which chains are attached.

Free Pardon
Sometimes called a Full Pardon. The convict was released from serving his or her full sentence because of some act, e.g. the rescuing of free persons from a ship wreck, etc.

Gentlemen Convicts
Those felons not of the labouring class, usually with clerical or professional skills.

Government Servant
A man or woman convict whose services were retained by the government.

Great Seal, (Pardons Under)
Royal pardon, that is, granted by the Sovereign on the advice of the Ministers of the Crown.

Habeas Corpus
'You may have the body.' The Habeas Corpus Amendment Act, passed by Parliament in 1679, guaranteed people charged with an offence a speedy trial.

A sailing ship, no longer fit to go to sea, which was stripped of its masts and used as a floating prison.

See Indentures.

(Or Arrivals) The most important legal records in the Convict System. They are usually lists of convicts arranged by the ships in which they arrived, although there are some alphabetical lists up to 1800. The earliest records give names, date & place of trial and sentence. The later lists give details of personal information about the convicts.

International Genealogical Index (IGI)
An index of over 90 million names prepared by the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It gives marriages, births, and christenings in every country of the world. It covers from the 1500s to approximately 1875, but it is not complete. It is updated every two or three years.

International Reply Paid Coupon
Can be bought at post offices and is redeemable for postage stamps. Used when corresponding overseas if a reply is desired.

Convicts in chains.


The felonious taking of another person's goods with the intention of converting them to the taker's use. Grand larceny and petty larceny, originally, was committed in cases where the value of the goods was respectively greater, or less than, 12 pence.

Launched into Eternity; Turned Off

A district within an English county, but exempt from the sheriff's jurisdiction, and having a separate commission of the Peace (abolished in 1850).

A faithful subject of the king; originally, in feudal law, one sworn to the service of his lord who, in return, gave him protection.

Long Intervallo
A poor second.

Lords Commissioners of the Treasury
Government department in Britain responsible for the administration of the revenue of the State.

Lords Spriritual and Temporal
The House of Lords comprises bishops of the Established Church of England (lords spiritual) and holders of titles, which until 1958 were hereditary, save in the case of the law lords who have been created peers for life since 1876.

An herbaceous climbing plant and a dye obtained from it.

Justice of the Peace. Judicial officer (unpaid) having summary jurisdiction in matters of criminal and semi criminal nature.

Magna Carta
'Great Charter' sealed by King John in 1215. It was an instrument by which the King agreed to be bound by law, and which gave 'freemen' inalienable rights; notably trial by jury. Originally, 'freemen' meant barons, but the idea spread so that these rights extended to all social classes.

Master and Servant Act
Legislation to regulate conditions of employment and to discipline employees.

Skilled labourer.

Microfilm & Microfiche
Microfilm is like a movie film and microfiche is like a photograph. Copies of most genealogical records can be found in either format.

County immediately to the west of London and adjacent to the capital.

Military Chest
Treasury or fund of the military.

An indictable offence, less serious than a felony.

Montagu-Stanley System
The probation system of Van Diemen's Land. John Mantagu was Colonial Secretary in Hobart; Lord Stanley (later 14th Earl of Derby) was Secretary of State.

Monumental Inscriptions
The epitaph or inscription on a tombstone.

See Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A nickname for the LDS.

Punish by the imposition of a fine.

Head counts of prisoners. These were required by the Government to keep check on the supply and demand of the Government Stores.

Of the First Water; Pure Merinoes; Exclusives
Terms describing the respectable men and women who were unconvicted and free of all criminal taint.

Order in Council
Gives the force of law to administrative regulations drawn up by government departments within the ambit of parliamentary legislation.

Ordnance Department
Branch of government concerned with the supply of military materials.

Oyer and Terminer
Comission granted to judges on circuit, directing them to hold courts for trials of offences.

See Absolute Pardon; Conditional Pardon; Free Pardon.

A subdivision of a county. Originally the district served by the local church, but by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries also the base unit of civil administration (eg. poor relief or social welfare).

Parish Registers
The church registers of christenings, marriages, and burials. The New South Wales Government has publicly released on microfilm the pre-1856 parish registers. Tasmania has also released its early parish registers on microfilm.

Juvenile prison established in 1841 on the Isle of Wight in England.

Pastoral Address
Policy statement by a bishop for the information of his co-religionists.

Military personnel in receipt of a pension; brought out of retirement to perform limited duty.

Penitentiary opened in London in 1842.

Piece Work
Work paid for according to the amount done.

A seventeenth century term meaning a settlement in a new or conquered country, or colony, applying particularly to British (and other) colonies in North America and to British settlement in Ireland.


Proni Ventri
Swollen or low-slung stomach.

Quarter Sessions
Courts held before two or more justices of the peace when necessary and at least four times a year.

Measured amounts of food supplied to convicts.

Reader's Ticket
Some major libraries and Archives require readers of original material to obtain a ticket. It is generally issued annually and allows someone access to rare, restricted and original material. Conditions for obtaining a reader's ticket vary, some require only two forms of indentification, others have quite stringent terms and require letters of reference from two other persons.

Remittance Man
A person whose family paid for him to come to Australia.

In law, the free imposition of capital punishment.

A whip for punishing prisoners.

Until 1823 the office of secretary was a personal appointment of the Governor. The office was quite different from that of Colonial Secretary who, after 1823, was a member of the Executive and Legislative Councils, which bodies also made their debut at that time.

Secretary of State
Secretaries of State were in charge of all foreign and domestic affairs except for taxation. There were two secretaryships until 1768 when a third, for Colonies, was added. With the loss of the American colonies, the office of the Secretary of State for Colonies was abolished in 1782. The second Secretary (for Home Affairs) administered colonies, thereafter, although not exclusively. In 1794 a third secretary was again appointed, but for War, not colonies; however in 1801 the Secretary for War took over colonial affairs, which became proportionately more important after 1815, when Britain was at peace.

Separate System
Imprisonment in separate, individual cells.

Brothers and sisters.

Society of Friends
Religious denomination (Quakers).

Districts comprising the tin mines and smelting works of Cornwall and Devon in the south-west region of England.

Statute Law
The body of laws passed by Parliament.

A steerage passenger is equal to an economy passage on an aeroplane today. It was the cheapest way to travel. Unfortunately, names of steerage passages were not often collected, the people being counted instead. Therefore, if your ancestors came as steerage passengers, it is unlikely that their names will be recorded.

Summary Jurisdiction
The power of a magistrate or justice of the peace to try cases of a relatively minor nature.

Territorial Revenue
Revenue derived from the sale of land.

The Three-Legged Mare; The Gallows Tree; The Fatal Tree
The scaffold (for hanging).

Ticket of Leave (TL)
Was granted before the sentence expired. It freed convicts to seek employment under a master or to seek their own work. It obliged them to report each month to the local Resident Magistrate. They were not permitted to leave the district allocated without permission and a pass.

The act of transporting persons. In this context, to the colonies as punishment for crimes committed. Death sentences, other than those for murder, were commonly commuted to transportation.

Instrument of discipline in prisons. A cylinder made to revolve by the action of prisoners putting their weight on boards fixed as steps on the surface of the cylinder. It was intended to be an irksome and monotonous punishment.

Unblessed Unions De facto relationships. (Also a description used by Samuel Marsden.)

Piece of land enclosed for the breeding of game.

Places for the relief and correction of paupers, or people who were unable to support themselves.

[Derived from a number of sources including How to trace your convict ancestors: their lives, times & records (Janet Reakes); Women of Botany Bay (Portia Robinson) and Convicts and Colonial Society 1788-1868 (L. Evans & P. Nicholls)]

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