Van Diemen’s Land was set up as a penal colony in 1803 by the British Empire. It is estimated that some 75,000 convicts were shipped there up until 1853 when the mass transportation of people ended. The most common crime that led to transportation was petty theft or larceny. Followed by burglary or housebreaking, highway robbery, stealing clothing, stealing animals, military offences, prostitution and crimes of fraud. Transportation on a large scale ended as the authorities mindful of the rebellion in the American colonies feared a similar uprising could occur on Van Diemen’s Land.
Although mass transportation ended in 1853, political prisoners were still transported. Many Irish Fenian prisoners continued to be transported to Van Diemen’s land, including Thomas Francis Meagher, leader of the Young Irelanders. Meagher managed to escape and went to the United States in 1852. He was also the Irishman who introduced the Tricolour, and which is now the Irish national flag.
Van Diemen’s Land was the original name used by Europeans for the island of Tasmania, part of Australia. It was named by the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman in honour of a Dutch Governor Anthony van Diemen who had sponsored his exploration. The name was changed from Van Diemen’s Land to Tasmania in 1856. This removed the unsavoury criminal connotations with the name Van Diemen’s Land while honouring Abel Tasman.
In 1818, a Sligo woman named Mary Ford was tried and convicted at the old Sligo Courthouse. She was charged with larceny for stealing clothes. Mary was sentenced to 7 years transportation to Van Diemen’s Land, initially, she was imprisoned in Sligo Gaol before she was transferred to Kilmainham Gaol.
The image above from the National Archives shows a list of female convicts to be transported including Mary along with the items of clothing which were supplied to them. Mary received a shift (smock dress) and shoes. In 1819, a ship was secured to transport the convicts to the Cork prison depot. They later boarded a larger vessel which set sail from Cork to Van Diemen’s.
Over twenty years later, in July 1842, at the Sligo court sessions, George O’Malley, a twenty-year-old Sligo carpenter was convicted of larceny from a house he was working in. What he stole was not reported in the newspapers. His conviction was stated as a robbery in the newspapers implying force was used, but in the court archives, he was convicted of the lesser crime of larceny.
For his crime, he was sentenced to seven years’ transportation to Van Diemen’s Land. He was transferred from Sligo to Kilmainham gaol on the 7th September 1842. He departed from Kingstown Harbour (Dun Laoghaire) on 22 September 1842 on the Navarino ship arriving three months later on 10 January 1843.
After O’Malley arrived in Van Diemen’s Land he like other prisoners would have been interviewed by the Superintendent of the Prison Barracks to ascertain his previous work experience. This helped to identify skilled workers and separate workers into trades. Each convict was then stripped to the waist and any distinguishing features were put on file. In an era before fingerprinting and photography, this information was required for identification purposes. The process also had a psychological impact on convicts and was clearly designed to be demeaning.
We know from prison records that O’Malley ended up on a Probation gang. This was a new system introduced on Van Diemen’s Land, which involved all convicts subjected to stages of punishment, commencing with a period of confinement and labour in gangs. If they progressed satisfactorily through several stages they received a probation pass and became available for hire to the settlers. Sustained good conduct eventually led to a ticket-of-leave or a pardon. As a trained carpenter, O’Malley’s skills would have been in demand and considered an asset to settlers.
From the records, it doesn’t look like O’Malley ever returned home. There was a George O’Malley who died in Violet Town, Victoria in 1879 which may have been the same man.
Convicts could leave the colonies after their sentences were completed or after being granted an Absolute Pardon. Although it wasn’t very common as most couldn’t afford the fare back home. Some prisoners were only given Conditional Pardons, which meant they were free but they weren’t allowed to return to England or Ireland.
This blog post was first published on 24 July 2018 on melcoo.com. It was updated and republished with new information on 24 March 2020.
Newspaper archive: Limerick Chronicle 1842
Findmypast ancestry records < findmypast.com >
Tasmanian history: < www.utas.edu.au >
Convicts to Australia: < members.iinet.net.au >
Image prisoner: Internet Archive Book Images – < Flickr.com >
Van Diemens port image: < antiqueprintclub.com >
Ancestry article on common crimes < blogs.ancestry.com.au >