Sunday, 27 October 2013

A Murder of Crows

Convict chain gang in New South Wales

A couple of generations ago, the discovery of a convict ancestor was considered a terrifying prospect which haunted any reputable Australian citizen. Robert Hughes, in his book The Fatal Shore, likened it to an individual "perched like a crow" on what might otherwise be a 'respectable' family tree.

In more enlightened times, the idea fascinates and intrigues us and we want to know more about the circumstances in which those ancestors found themselves.

The Percival 'crow' was called Moses, a ploughman with a wife and three children, born circa 1805 in Great Tey, Essex. In 1831, he was sentenced to 14 years exile in Van Dieman's Land - modern day Tasmania - for stealing a sack of barley.

Over 165,000 convicts were transported to Australia between 1789 and 1868 when transportation ceased. Moses fell victim to the Georgian perception of criminality, that society could rid itself of the 'criminal classes' by sending them off to some distant land.

Having lost America as a destination for its exiled convicts following the American War of  Independence, Parliament was under pressure to find an alternative destination. England's gaols and hulk ships - rotting decommissioned vessels used as extensions to the country's prisons - were full to overflowing and the situation was becoming dire. Inmates even rioted in protest at the intolerable conditions.

The hulk 'Discovery', at Deptford

Desperate for a way out of the crisis, the authorities finally allowed themselves to be swayed by favorable reports that Botany Bay satisfied their criteria of having fertile soil, a good climate, fresh water, pasture and an abundance of fish - an over optimistic assessment which the first settlers would learn to their cost. It would take years of hardship and near starvation before the colony learned how to tame the unfamiliar land and feed itself.

In the penal 'system', convicts served out their sentence providing free labour for landowners and other settlers in the colony. Well behaved prisoners would be given a 'ticket of leave' which allowed them certain freedoms, and once they'd served their time, a pardon would be issued and they would become free settlers. Those who were less cooperative suffered harsh treatments - the wearing of leg-iron, flogging or dispatch to one of the stricter penal colonies such as Norfolk Island which gained a brutal reputation for the way it treated its inmates.

Moses Percival's convict record noting his pardon in 1838.
An empty page suggests he was a model prisoner with no misdemeanours recorded!
(courtesy of Archive Office of Tasmania)

After gaining their freedom, prisoners often remained in the colony to make a new life for themselves and this appears to have happened to Moses Percival. He worked for Mr Andrew Tolnie for some years, receiving his Pardon in 1838, after serving only half of his 14 year sentence. But there is no record of him returning to England and in 1844 back in Essex his wife, Hannah, remarried.


If you want to find your own 'crows', there's a wealth of information on Australian convicts on the Internet.

A good place to start is Australia's convict records.

Jen Willets's website lists many convict ships, some with the names of the convicts on board, including in some cases, reports of life during the voyage to the colony recorded by the Ship's Surgeon, who was responsible for the welfare of the prisoners.

Convict Central has stories of individual prisoners, the plight of women convicts and a comprehensive list of links to other research sites. has a wide selection of criminal records to search, including a link to Bedfordshire & Luton Archives for the Bedfordshire Gaol Index which gives description detail about prisoners from 1770-1882.

If, like Moses, your felons ended up in Tasmania, their archive portal gives you access to records where you can also view digitized images of actual documents.

Happy hunting!

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