Page last updated at 11:56 GMT, Sunday, 24 January 2010

New records of UK convicts sent to Australia go online

Caged prisoners below deck on a transport ship bound for Australia
More than 160,000 convicts were deported to Australia by Britain

New records of more than 55,000 convicts transported to Australia in the 18th and 19th centuries have gone online for the first time.

They contain details of people who were shipped to Australia and were subsequently pardoned or served out their sentences.

Family history website said the records could be accessed for free for seven days from 24 January.

The company estimates more than two million Britons have convict ancestors.

The convict registers of conditional and absolute pardons 1791 to 1846, and the New South Wales certificates of freedom 1827 to 1867 have been launched online. said the publication marked the end of a four-year project and the launch was to coincide with Australia Day on Tuesday.

'Full journey'

Company spokesman Dan Jones said: "While Australia's convict history itself has been well documented, there are thousands of individual stories in the collection just waiting to be told."

All 15 registers, which comprise the Australian Convicts Collection, can be read for free for a week. They contain various details including personal information, place of conviction, name of ship and departure date.

After 30 January, people will have to pay to search the records.

Australia became a penal colony in the late 18th century to alleviate the chronic overcrowding in British jails, with the first 780 convicts arriving in 1788.

When the last shipment of convicts disembarked in Western Australia in 1868, more than 160,000 convicts had been transported to the continent.

'Prince of pickpockets'

The journey to Australia by boat took eight months and the majority of the convicts were men. Although a small number had been found guilty of serious crimes such as murder and assault, most had committed minor offences.

Among the thousands of convicts detailed in the collection are a number of infamous criminals including Israel Chapman, a highwayman who later became one of New South Wales's first police detectives.

The journey of George Barrington - the so-called 'prince of pickpockets' - is also there. He was a gentleman thief who received an absolute pardon in 1796 after helping to quell a mutiny during the voyage.

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