Johanna Finlay was only nine years old when her family received the dreaded news; her brother, Archibald, had been caught pick-pocketing in the streets of Glasgow. Barely a teenager, the future for this fair-haired, blue-eyed Scottish lad had taken a dramatic, uncertain turn. Sentenced to transportation for 14 years for his crime, Archie no doubt thought he would never see his family again. The year was 1828, and his term was lengthy.
We’ll never know if Archie was able to farewell his entire family, or receive one final hug from little sister Johanna before leaving them behind, but it would be nice to think so. Or perhaps nicer still to include a scenario where the Finlays all stood on the docks with ‘their Archie’ – not saying goodbye, but rather, until we meet again. As the eldest son, he would no doubt be missed.
It’s hard to imagine how a boy of only 13 would have felt or even coped with being taken away from his home at such a young age. No doubt apprehensive, and likely a little frightened. Picking pockets as a ‘skill’ took a fair dose of courage and determination, so perhaps Archie also clung onto this as he made his way into an unknown future.
Archie turned 14 on the voyage from Glasgow to England, where he was received on the ‘floating prison’ Retribution at Woolwich. After being washed, inspected and issued with clothing and other ‘essentials’ including a blanket and eating utensils, he was transferred to the Euryalus – a convict hulk specifically for boys. The youngest to take up residence on this particular hulk was recorded as being aged only nine. Difficult to comprehend, but a harsh reality of the time. Like Archie, many of these boys were also awaiting transportation to Australia for their crimes.
Moored at Chatham, conditions on the Euryalus were less than ideal and often reported as being a cause for concern. Regardless, it remained Archie’s new ‘home’ for the next two years. His days would have likely been spent labouring on shore in a work gang for 10-12 hours a day; possibly stone collecting, cleaning the river, or general dockyard work.
With many boys from the Euryalus being described as leaving the hulk ‘more hardened than they arrived’, it’s easy to speculate that Archie may have been included among these, and perhaps that this was also how he came about the scars on his forehead that would later appear on convict records.
After almost three years since his conviction, Archibald Finlay finally arrived in Sydney Cove, New South Wales on 4 March 1831. Disembarking the ship Lady Harewood and promptly marched toward Hyde Park Barracks to commence the next stage of his convict assignment, he no doubt took in the starting differences in his surroundings. He was indeed a long way from home.
Just two months’ shy of his 17th birthday, the boy from Glasgow was by now almost a man.
As a result of having my DNA tested earlier this year, two stumps have been cleared and seven more ancestors warmly welcomed into the family tree.
One of these stumps was a known convict, and the other was…also a convict as it turns out! My little family of ‘criminal’ ancestors has now grown to 16, and I love it. DNA testing has certainly kept things interesting, along with some great connections with distant cousins made along the way.
It may seem like a large number of convicts to some people, and I’m often asked if they are direct ancestors or whether they just ‘married into the family’ or were perhaps siblings.
Nope – definitely direct.
And when you think about it, we have in excess of 200 possible ancestors once we reach the 8th generation (fifth great-grandparents). So it’s actually only around 6% of the total.
See? Quite possible indeed! Especially if you live in Tasmania, where 13 of my convicts were transported to. The other three were sent to New South Wales – the earliest arriving in 1797 on the ship Ganges.
Being a very visual person, I’ve put together a bit of a snapshot to illustrate how these 16 relate to me. The visual shows seven generations in full, and at generations eight and nine, only my NSW convicts have been squeezed in.
My mother’s DNA result are due back any day now, and I’m excited to think of what other discoveries we may find. Having her results will help narrow down which line of the family tree a match belongs to; if someone matches with both of us, I can rule out ancestors on my father’s side in looking for a connection.
As Denis McCarthy, his wife and seven children prepared for bed one summer’s evening in 1846, little did they know that within hours they would be awoken by the police. Their house in Mountshannon, Limerick was on fire, soon to be burned to ashes. In the early hours of the morning on 15 June – and after an hour of battling flames – the McCarthy’s escaped, luckily unharmed.
Nearby in Annacotty, a young Irish woman was in police custody. Later charged and found guilty of Arson, Ann Mahony, aged 22 and also from County Limerick, was sentenced to transportation for 15 years.
They were two very different parties, with two very different outcomes. But they each had something in common: escape. The McCarthy family may have escaped a fire, but Ann Mahony was about to escape from something as well; the hunger, death and destitution surrounding (and no doubt overwhelming) her.
At the time of Ann’s crime in 1846, The Great Famine had hit. In its infancy – but already having a devastating effect – this period of mass starvation and disease in Ireland would last for six years. Six years that would not only see a million Irish leave their homeland through emigration, but for those left behind, a staggering amount of deaths. By the end of the famine, an estimated one million people had lost their lives.
Ann wasn’t to know that, but she had likely seen enough and experienced enough to want her escape. To plan her survival. It’s also likely that she set fire to the McCarthy house with exactly that on her mind.
And unsurprisingly, she wasn’t alone.
Arson was a popular crime for women during convict times, and 248 were transported to Van Diemen’s Land between 1841 and 1853 for just that. During the Famine and post-Famine period, at least 79 of these women appear to have done so with transportation as their end-goal; some stating it on arrival, others confessing outright. A deliberate act for an almost assured outcome.
For Ann, achieving this involved conveniently committing her crime near the police station in Annacotty. According to the trial reports, this ‘wretched-looking woman’ also sought out the authorities and confessed to the ‘monstrous outrage’ that same night.
Ann Mahony’s Convict Conduct Record and Convict Indent Record further paint a picture of just how desperate things had become; prior to her conviction in Limerick on 15 July 1846, she had spent the previous 12 months ‘on the town’ (and quite possibly battling to survive).
Ann didn’t know what the future would hold, but it’s easy to imagine her hope that it would be better than the life she was leaving behind. For Ann, and the women like her, this uncertainty was deemed worth it. In such chaotic and desperate times, theirs was a survival strategy – taking control of their own lives, and a leap of faith into a new one.
Before Ann could begin her ‘new’ life, she first had to spend time in both Dublin County Gaol and Grangegorman Female Prison. Her escape was not yet complete.
While at Grangegorman, Ann would have spent time learning domestic skills. Like the other women held there, this – along with moral instruction and advice – was to help them settle into a new life in a new land.
Finally, after almost five months of incarceration – including learning these ‘desirable skills’ – Ann began the journey to a far-away country to serve her time.
Joining 149 other female prisoners and 27 children, Ann embarked on board the convict transport Arabian at Kingstown, Dublin. Setting sail in November 1846, theirs was a voyage of almost four months – during which time seven children and one convict died. Unlike some of her fellow shipmates, Ann’s journey appeared to be a smooth one. She experienced no sickness or ill health, but in fact, was quite likely one of the many convicts described by the Ship’s Surgeon Superintendent in his report as being ‘in as good, & some better condition, than that in which they Embarked’.
Things looked like they were starting to turn around after-all.
On 25 February 1847, hazel-eyed, brown-haired Ann Mahony arrived in Hobart Town, Van Diemen’s Land. From summer in Ireland to summer in Australia and a distance of around 9,500 nautical miles, the difference would have no doubt been a startling contrast.
Upon arrival, Ann was one of 133 convicts transferred from the Arabian to the Anson hulk; the other 16 being sent to either the Hospital or the Dynnyrne Nursery. The Anson, a refitted warship moored near Hobart, had been used since 1844 to house female convicts prior to them being sent out for service.
We can assume that Ann spent the next six months on board the Anson, and was one of the 106 women advertised by the Convict Department as ‘per Arabian…eligible for private service as Pass-holders’ from 1 September 1847.
After more than a year since her crime of Arson was committed, Ann Mahony was now able to be assigned for service. Following time spent in two different prisons, months at sea on board a convict ship, and moored on a convict hulk, she could finally commence the next stage of her 15-year sentence.
Now aged 23, Ann Mahony had many years remaining before she would be considered ‘free’.
She may have escaped famine-stricken Ireland, but ahead of her was more hardship, more obstacles to overcome, and more despair.
But she wasn’t to know that.
Also ahead of her was happiness; a large family and a settled life. She wasn’t to know that, either.
What she most certainly didn’t know was that her many descendants today are thankful for this ‘lass from Ireland’ who followed her survival instincts and had the courage to escape.
And to Denis McCarthy’s family (and descendants) – we’re glad you escaped, too.
Descendants of convicts have been fairly lucky in being able to piece together an ancestor’s time after arrival. Not only did convict records in Van Diemen’s Land capture details including physical appearance, age and religion, their time while under sentence was also pretty well documented. For many of ‘my’ convicts, I know who they were assigned to (and where), and can track their movements up until they received their ticket of leave or were deemed ‘free’.
The downside, however, comes in tracing them back any further than their crimes. For my 15 known convicts, I have only found the baptism of one – and that’s largely due to this convict’s trial report being pretty specific, ie ‘father Peter Finlay, Moulder, of Old Wynd’. Her brother was also transported, with his record providing a mother’s name and siblings. Eureka!
In most cases though, I only have either a father’s name, or mother’s first name – never both. For the rest, no names were recorded at all.
Combine this with ‘Native Place’ sometimes referring to where they were living at the time of their crime (not necessarily where they were born), along with variances in age from record to record, and you have quite a sizeable amount of stumps!
As an example, my Ancestor Scorecard shows that I have 142 unknown (I love this tool as a great snap shot of where you may need to focus your efforts, but also a reminder of how far you’ve come).
Of these ‘unknowns’, 70 relate to my convicts; either their parents, grandparents or great-grandparents. Of the total number, quite a few were Irish as well (presenting their own challenges).
So after years of digging and prodding my stumps, it’s time to try something new.
Enter DNA testing.
There are different types of tests, and different companies that do this, but I chose Ancestry’s Autosomal DNA testing.
This test looks at the DNA I have inherited from both of my parents (and all of their ancestral lines), and is often referred to as atDNA – or what I like to refer to as,
“ALL the DNA!”
The percentage of All the atDNA inherited from the more distant ancestors decreases with each new generation – it basically dilutes over time (which makes sense when you think about it). It also means that I may or may not have ‘bits’ of DNA from a particular ancestor, depending on how many generations back they are. But the beauty of DNA testing in genealogy is that you’re actually looking for matches with living people. Cousins!
Once my DNA is processed, magic technical sciencey stuff happens, and it will be compared to others in the AncestryDNA database looking for matching ‘segments’.
The higher the match, the more likely it is that we share a common ancestor. Then it’s just a case of us collaborating to work out who that common ancestor may be.
Well – it’s more involved than that (involving other acronyms and DNA terms and wot-not), but in my rose-coloured glasses approach, I’m hoping I can crack at least one convict mystery. Just one would be lovely please.
At the moment, my convict-DNA-laden saliva is in a test tube somewhere in the US waiting to be processed.
The wait begins.
In an ideal world, in 6-8 weeks’ time a fourth cousin in Ireland will be sitting at their computer, refreshing their screen hoping for a match. They have been searching for years for their great-great grandfather’s sister to no avail. But suddenly – what’s that? A match for Mahony! Could it be?
*cue excited people running toward each other in slow motion with uplifting music playing in the background*
We’ve all had them, I’m sure – those moments of wondering ‘what if’.
They’re the moments that shaped our lives, set us on a path, and even influenced our futures.
What if they happened differently?
What if our parents, grandparents, or even great-grandparents had never met?
What if our convict ancestors didn’t steal that watch, didn’t steal food to survive, didn’t…get caught?
It’s amazing stuff when you think about it; which is pretty much what I’ve been doing recently.
Thinking about it.
All because of a ship that arrived in Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) in 1828.
The Mermaid was transporting female convicts, all bound for their ‘new’ home in Port Jackson (New South Wales). Once disembarked, the ship was then scheduled to make its way to Van Diemen’s Land with supplies. But due to bad weather and rough seas, the Mermaid – convict women and all – headed for Hobart Town first instead.
One of those convicts was my gr-gr-gr grandmother, Mary Leary.
She wasn’t meant to arrive here, she wasn’t meant to meet and marry James Lane, and she wasn’t meant to raise a family with him.
But she did.
So perhaps she was meant to…?
I’m pretty sure the weather-gods were thinking of me that day:
But Team Weather could only do so much.
While the Mermaid was diverted for a bit, the plan remained unchanged – the crew would simply unload the ship supplies, and then transport the convicts to their originally intended destination.
So Team Crops-and-Farming stepped in to save the future day.
Yep. Thanks to crop failures in New South Wales, a decision was made to send a load of wheat there in place of the convicts.
The crop failure was corn.
James Lane was a convict transported for stealing corn!
See? It was a bit of a stretch obviously fate…with some gentle nudging from Mother Nature.
Nudging that ensured Mary stayed put.
What if there had been no rough seas? Well, Mary would most likely never have come to Tasmania at all.
But there were…and she did.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
My apologies to any descendants of the other convict women on-board the Mermaid in 1828…it was apparently all about me back then…just so we’re clear. 😉
The Mermaid‘s intended departure port, arrival in VDL and the decision to retain the prisoners there are described fully in The Mermaid (1) 1828 An Unintended Arrival by Anne McMahon, published in the September 2015 issue of Tasmanian Ancestry (Tasmanian Family History Society Inc.) pp. 82-84. Anne’s fantastic account of the Mermaid’s voyage in 1828 is well worth a look!
Lock up your household goods and hold onto your valuables – I am descended from convicts.
Note the plural there: convicts.
At last count, 14 of them. Transported to Australia for crimes ranging from stealing hankies or clothing, right through to housebreaking and arson.
So…if there is any truth to the whole ‘inherited traits’ thingy, perhaps you should steer clear.
Or at the very least, avoid eye contact when our paths cross.
Just to be safe.
OK – I kid. Not about the number of convicts, but the whole ‘follow in their footsteps’ bit. I am one of the most law-abiding people I know. Come to think of it, perhaps our family trait is ‘rebellion’?
I have rebelled against crime, and now use my powers for good.
All I need is a cape.
I don’t mean to make light of it. I do really appreciate where I have come from, and am learning more and more about the lives (and times) of our ancestors. They were a pretty interesting bunch!
It is funny how times have changed. It wasn’t too long ago that discovering a convict in your family tree resulted in lowered voices and secrets kept. These days it’s – thankfully – a different story. They are (mostly) wheeled out proudly, with crimes, records and tales compared.
They were amongst our original pioneers after-all.
I even remember watching an episode of the Australian version of ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ where one of the celebs (Jack Thompson, I think) said that being descended from a convict was a badge of honour. Australian Royalty, if you will.
I must admit I quite liked the ‘badge of honour’ part. It also made me wonder if it would be nice to be descended from ‘actual’ royalty.
I would no doubt rock a tiara, look fetching in jewels, and I do quite fancy the idea of swanning about in a castle.
But the thing is – I’m actually a bit proud to have found these people. Like many at that time, they survived hardship and adversity, had bucket loads of resilience, served their time, and built their lives. They raised their families in an at-times unforgiving place; often leaving loved ones at home, never to be heard from again.
Times were tough for many, but they survived. Some a little blemished (and returning to crime), some just quietly going about their business, and some doing really well and prospering in their new ‘home’.
So…I kinda love my little family of ‘criminals’, warts and all (and there are a few). Discovering their stories has been just wonderful.
And let’s face it; if it really is a badge of honour, it’s fair to say that I’m covered in them…