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]


Challenging Assumptions: Colonial Convict Women

Recently I listened to Australian academic Carol Liston talk about a research project she is working on with Dr Kathrine Reynolds. One of the aims of the project is to better understand the lives and circumstances of women from England, Scotland and Wales who were sent to Australia as convicts from 1810 to 1835. Due to record limitations, Irish female convicts were not included.

A common perception about convicts sent to Australia from 1788 to 1868 is that many were sent for minor misdemeanours such as the theft of a loaf of bread or that ultimate fashion accessory, a handkerchief. There are instances of this, but by casting a wide net over three decades and looking at trends across the female convicts, the perception is firmly challenged. The women who were sentenced to transportation were usually repeat offenders and thefts were often significant – in many cases the financial equivalent of a year’s wage or more. Another perception about female convicts is that they were usually young, in their late teens or early twenties, and of childbearing age. The research indicates that the average age was closer to twenty-nine, and that there were many instances of women in their forties and fifties being sent across the seas.

During the period in question, over 5,000 women were transported to the Australian colonies. The sheer volume of women, although significantly lower than the number of men transported over this period, means that the ability to focus on individual stories is limited. As genealogists know, tracing female convicts can be challenging as there can be various name changes for marriage and other reasons, making it difficult to have a clear or continuous record. Sources used to assist with the research include trial documents, newspapers, correspondence, surgeon journals and petitions.

Evidence confirms that in many instances the women were organised, risk-taking innovators; in some cases there were networks of criminals fencing stolen goods or acting in groups to lure victims and steal from them. Part of the challenge for the successful criminal, male or female, was the limited ways in which to spend their ill-gotten gains. The property market was controlled by the aristocracy so money was spent on food, alcohol, clothes and travel – ‘flash’ criminals would be seen travelling around in carriages above their station and attract suspicion.

To be sentenced to transportation was a life-changing event. Part of the consideration of the research project is the impact this had on the women. There are stories of successful female convicts – ask any descendant and they can usually confirm the success in the simple fact that they are here, the maternal line survived – but what of those who struggled with the upheaval and psychological impact of being sent to other side of the world with very limited chance of return? To be leaving behind family and friends and in some cases, their children and husbands? Children were allowed to be transported in some instances, and there are a few examples of husbands and children following the convicted women but these are the exception. How did the convict system take care of those who didn’t cope?

Prior to transportation there were some measures put in place in an attempt to ensure that convicts were fit to travel before they boarded the ship. Various strategies were employed by some women to try to defer or cancel their departure, including pregnancy (which might delay the inevitable for up to a year) or pouring boiling water over their feet. During the trip, some convicts became so upset as to die on the voyage or arrive in a state of distress. Some deaths on the trips were put down to broken hearts, the toll of being sent away simply too much to bear. An example was given of a French governess who was transported to the colonies. The records show that she went from being an English-speaking woman, able to take care of her appearance and manage herself prior to departure to becoming so distressed during the voyage that she was able to communicate only in French, with six convicts being assigned to take care of her during the voyage as she could no longer manage to feed or take care of herself.

In some cases, women who were unable to cope with the life in the colonies ended up self-harming, struggling with alcoholism or committing suicide. Some ended up in colonial hospitals and asylums. But the records also show the spirit of resilience and acceptance. One woman, convicted for theft, applied to have some of her property including cash that had been her own but confiscated by the local sheriffs following her conviction returned to her so that she might be able to purchase provisions for the long and arduous trip as well as goods to set herself up in the colony.

Have you had any of your historical perceptions challenged recently?

Carol Liston is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Western Sydney, and I listened to her talk at a meeting of the Fellowship of the First Fleeters – Eastern Farms Chapter. 

[Photo taken at the Cascades Female Factory in Hobart, Tasmania: Through this gate passed thousands of women and children. Lest we forget.]

Rouse Hill House & Farm, Rouse Hill

Recently I paid a mid-week visit to Rouse Hill House and Farm. Amongst the expanding suburban sprawl in the north-west of Sydney, from the Windsor Road you can spot an old schoolhouse atop a hill, and behind a row of trees is one of the oldest colonial houses in the district.

Rouse Hill was built in 1813 by convict labour for Richard Rouse. Rouse was the Superintendent of Public Works, and was given a land grant at Rouse Hill along with instructions to build a tollhouse between Parramatta and Windsor. It was near the site of the Battle of Vinegar Hill (1804), the largest convict rebellion in Australian history. The Rouse family lived on the property from the 1820s until the 1990s.

The site has been redeveloped in recent years to include a visitor centre and educational facilities for school groups. There were buses of school children on site on the day of our visit, and they could be glimpsed wearing schoolclothes of the 1800s, dutifully following a school teacher wearing a heritage-style dress and carrying a basket. Quite a contrast with the modern shuffle of cars, trucks and buses down the hill.

Tours of the house are at set times, and we were fortunate enough to arrive in time for a guided tour with one other visitor. Hannah, our guide, was informative and engaging. It felt like a private tour with the space and time to really take in the surroundings. We were whisked up the hill to the house on a people mover, passing by the relocated Rouse Hill public schoolhouse. There were panoramic views out to the Blue Mountains and Windsor, and whilst there is only a small fragment of the original landholding left, it is possible to imagine what it must have been like 200 years ago.

The house is unique for being occupied by the same family for six generations. The hallway, fitted with three stag heads, opens up into the four rooms on the ground floor. These rooms are a record of the family that lived there, densely filled with all manner of paintings, furniture and fittings, the high ceiling rooms covered with intricate wallpapers, curtains and furnishings, sideboards loaded with photos. Although it has been empty of Rouse relations for nearly 20 years, there is somehow a feeling of trespassing, that surely the family will be back at any moment.

Upstairs there are seven bedrooms which are usually inaccessible to the public. Above the stairs there are sections of ceiling which are exposed due to hail damage and flooding decades before. Restoration continues but there is more of a remedial approach: repairs are done in a similar style using like materials or from material salvaged on site to keep historical integrity intact. This is also in accordance with the way the family seemed to retain or repurpose household items, rather than dispensing with them once the initial use had passed.

The rear of the house leads out to servants quarters, kitchens and a butler’s pantry, amongst other rooms, and there is a paved arcade area which was used as a venue for musicals, entertainments and feasts after hunting parties. The Rouse family was known for the breeding of thoroughbreds, and the stables are a testament to the value of their livestock. Beautifully carved stalls housed the horses which included several Melbourne Cup entrants and winners.

There are a couple of horses on the property, along with some cattle that were being rounded up as we watched. The hen-house on the property was well-known; whilst in ruins now, at the time it was built there were no other brick houses in the area so the poultry had superior accommodation to the majority of the local dwellings. The bathhouse, separate to the house, is still intact. The linkages with Aboriginal heritage in the area is acknowledged with bush tucker tours of the farm.

At the visitor centre there are computers set up with virtual tours of the rooms, including the bedrooms, with additional information available on paintings and photographs which adorn each room. You can relax with a cuppa and just take in the sense of history and space of the site. The site is one of the Sydney Living Museums with lots of interesting information about the farm here. The blog post on Hirsute heritage and facial fashions is particularly entertaining.

More than any other house museum I have been through, this house felt as though the family had stepped out, perhaps a few decades ago, and had forgotten to return. Have you ever been to a place that made you feel like this?

[Photo: dining room table, set for a meal, Rouse Hill House & Farm. Note the half-moon shaped plate – have you seen one of these before?]