A Convict in the Family: Links Across Generations

Echoes of history are evident in the travelling exhibition A Convict in the Family, currently on display at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre. This exhibition from Sydney Living Museums features photographs of the descendants of convicts, usually in their own home, with items symbolising their ancestor’s crime.

The crimes that resulted in the life changing act of transportation are varied, and it is sometimes bewildering to see modern representations of these thefts. A retired academic sits at a kitchen table, looking directly at the camera, with a single gold ring representing his ancestor’s crime. Clothing was a popular item for theft, with coats, dresses and handkerchiefs featuring in several photographs, along with lace. Lots of lace. But not all crimes involved property, such as the convict transported for vagrancy.

In some of the photographs there are interesting links between the convicts and their descendants. The occupations of the descendants vary, but performing arts and public servants feature quite a bit. One of the descendants of James Ruse is included; Ruse was transported for breaking and entering, and was given an early land grant and the opportunity to establish a productive farm. His successful efforts were rewarded with additional land grants, and his legacy is noted in the photo above, taken on the Parramatta River. The excerpt is taken from his gravestone, which he partly carved before his death:


This exhibition made me think deeper about these unconventional beginnings of European settlement in Australia, not least of all because like many other Australians I have a convict or two in my family tree. Theft of jewellery, a steel watch chain, a single handkerchief (valued at three shillings) and a wicker basket with nine pecks of beans – all of these crimes were serious enough to ensure a trip across the seas.

There is a link to a summary of the exhibition here, including an interview with photographer Mine Konakci. The importance of understanding your past in order to have a stronger sense of belonging is evident throughout the exhibition. The video interview includes many of the photographs and is well worth a view.

Do you have a convict in your family tree?

[Photo: taken on Parramatta River, Parramatta]

4 thoughts on “A Convict in the Family: Links Across Generations

  1. What a cool museum! I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be shipped halfway around the world to another country as a result of committing a crime, or what that would mean to the family. And actually, I do have a convict in the family tree!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is a great museum – a great space of the exhibit. It is rather mind-expanding to contemplate being sent so far away from everything familiar as it really was the end of the known earth at the time. It is only in recent decades that it has been socially acceptable to acknowledge convict ancestors, and much effort was put into obscuring such connections before then. It is interesting to see that you also a convict in your family tree, and Australia certainly wasn’t the only place where convicts were despatched to. Thanks for sharing your connection 😊


  2. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of my ancestors ended up out there, working class Irish often ended up in the wrong side of the law. It is amazing to think that in Britain at that time there were 225 crimes punishable with the death penalty including the types of theft you mention above. Often transportation was the sentence when the death penalty was commuted, usually with young children or pregnant women, or towards the end of this era when people were starting to campaign against “the bloody code” as it was called.


    1. It is so interesting to hear a perspective from the other side, so to speak. With the sheer volume of people transported – over 160,000 to Australia alone, let alone other parts of the empire – the chances of having some family link to a convict somewhere along the line is rather likely.

      I was staggered to see the reference to 225 crimes punishable by death, but it does help to explain where there is such a wide scope of misdemeanours which were enough to get you on a ship to avoid the death penalty. It is hard not to shake your head at some of the crimes worthy of permanent relocation to another continent looking back with the benefit of hindsight. Thank you, too, for reminding me of the movement to stop transportation. A bloody code, indeed.

      Liked by 1 person

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