Friday, 4 May 2012

Tips for convict research

Apologies first:  this is the second and unfortunately the final blog for now.  Due to unforeseen circumstances I cannot continue but I want to post this as I think it will be a very useful base weather you are a newbie to convict research or have some experience.

Weather you want to do a brief précis of your convict’s life or a detailed study,
following these tips will bring better results and actually make it easier, not to mention enrich your convict research experience. 

Take your research seriously:  Doing convict research can involve some  high-level research using a variety of records – old documents, microfilm, websites, maps even.  The notes you take, the copies of records you keep, could be the basis for your eventual book or for further research for the next generation of family historians that you have inspired! 

Be systematic:  Successful research requires a system.  It’s easy to get excited about a trail – but just take your time and be thorough.  Those old documents are not going to run away!  If you see an exciting lead that is distracting you from your current one, write it down and follow it up in due course.   Have a note book where you keep things to follow up, queries, ideas, lists of useful websites and books and guides and issues to consider such as misspellings etc

Also, try and be consistent in the way you sort and keep records and photocopies. Depending on the level of detail you want to go to, you might have a notebook divided into subject headings or a folder for each subject such as trial, prison, convict ship, work as a convict, pardon, spouses and children.

Always, always write down where you found your information: Assume you will need to refer back to it (you often will!).  

Write the reference on the back of the photocopy or in your notes or some people prefer to keep a separate book for their references.  Whatever system you prefer – just do it!  !   Your diligence will be rewarded at some future point!
It’s also smart to keep a list of sources that were not useful.

When you write down your reference be as specific as possible.   Don’t just note ‘State Library of NSW’ for example – it’s a big place.  For example:
Published books
Write down:
Year of publication
Publisher and where published
Page number

Private records (eg family papers)
Write down:
Library or archive that holds it
Author if known
Title and date (eg X family correspondence or X’s journal)
Location or ‘call’ number of the original item
The microfilm or microfiche number
The page number

Government records
Write down:

Library or archive that holds it
Government department that produced it (eg Colonial Secretary)
The series and series number (eg Main series of letters received, 1788-1825)
The item (location number, title and page)     
The microfilm or fiche number      

If you are thinking of publishing or even just producing something for a few family members, it’s worth getting the references right:

Citation guides:

The University of Queensland has a very good guide for citing all sorts of formats - books, websites, original materials. 

NSW State Records has an excellent citation guide (you may be using lots of their records in the course of your convict research)

Other help for citing information:
Look at the catalogue record on the website of the institution

If you are in a library or archive, ask the staff member on the desk

Read some colonial and convict history:  Apart from being very interesting, it can provide you with some clues as to where to search next, or perhaps explain a mystery.  Some knowledge of colonial Australia and convict history can only enrich your research experience and your research results.
Two, but by no means the only excellent books on convict history are:

Hughes, Robert (1987): The fatal shore : a history of the transportation of convicts to Australia, 1787-1868, Collins Harvill, London.

Hirst, John (1983)  Convict society and it’s enemies : a history of early New South Wales, Allen and Unwin, Sydney.

A word about websites and secondary sources:  There is a great deal out there on the web and in secondary sources (eg written histories).  These can be fantastic for assisting your research, vital even, however do not rely on them for all your research and do not take them as gospel.

For example:  Sometimes a misspelling has meant that the name is not correctly indexed, or not indexed at all on the databases available on the web.  Remember that names are transcribed from 19th century hand writing and mistakes can and are made. 

Sometimes online database indexes cover only a portion of what is available eg in a given date range.  Look at the fine print to see where they have got their information from.  There might well be other indexes available as well, either on the same database or often there are paper or microfiche guides and indexes to the same resources in a library or archive so if you think a name should be there, try checking these alternatives.

Go to the original ‘primary’ sources wherever possible:  There is nothing like looking at original ‘primary’ sources – that is - the actual document or ‘manuscript’. In many cases this just isn’t possible (it’s too frail or valuable or on the other side of the world) but you might be able to see an exact copy on a microfilm in a library for example and sometimes, original documents have been digitized on databases or on websites of major research institutions that hold convict records.  By viewing the original or exact copy, you can often glean clues.  For example,  sometimes the context of the information is very helpful in getting a sense of the event that is being listed or described.

Libraries and archives – Convict research Heaven:
More and more information is on the web, especially many indexes can be freely searched and if you want to exercise the credit card you can find quite a bit in terms of the original records.  However,  it’s the tip of the iceberg.  The rest of the iceberg is in libraries and archives.  These wonderful places are all working hard to get their stuff up on the web but this takes money and time.  In the meantime a visit to these fine research institutions will pay dividends. 

Can’t visit?  Don’t despair.   There is usually an online inquiry form or give them a ring.  They can often send you copies of documents (for a fee) and some will even do a little research for you or at least advise you how to proceed on your topic. 

Librarians and archivists are fantastic guides to their collections.  They deal with hundreds of inquiries every week and develop a lot of knowledge about where you might find the information you are after. State Libraries and State Archives in Australia as well as some university libraries are the keepers of the main records such as those produced by government departments that managed convicts and personal papers such as convict letters or papers of wealthy landowners that employed lots of convicts.   Also some overseas institutions are very important repositories of convict information such as the UK National Archives. (mini tip:  Copies of many of the UK National Archives convict records are held in major libraries and archives in Australia – accessible for free and a few of those records are available online as well).

Local libraries are excellent sources of local historic information as well and if they have a local studies librarian, their knowledge of their collections and the local area will be an invaluable help.

Libraries and archives have developed lots of online guides to convict research and their websites are also alive with information if you look carefully – especially in the catalogue!! 

Catalogues:  There is a strange contradiction about many family historians that I have never quite solved:  they are by far the most enthusiastic and dogged of researchers and yet they are also the ones most reluctant to use the catalogues of libraries and archives. But it is the catalogues that will guide you to the bulk of convict resources.  If you have trouble searching the catalogues (and I agree it is not always easy), speak to a staff member: catalogues and guides, indexes and lists are their stock in trade.

Before you visit:  Check their websites – they may be closed on certain days or for renovations or you may need to bring particular forms of identification to join up or in the case of some university libraries, they may have restricted access if you are not a student.  

When you visit:  Allow plenty of time when you visit.   Also, do not be afraid to approach the desk!  Staff are there to help!

These wonderful professionals can’t know everything though and sometimes it can be useful to ask the same question of different staff in the big institutions or at different institutions to glean different hints.

If you are looking at original documents handle them with care and do keep them in the order you found them. 

Other tips:

Be mindful of spelling.  Many convicts were illiterate or semi-literate and wrote their names phonetically and may have used more than one spelling.  In many cases their names were entered into documents by clerks who would write what they heard pronounced.   Also, convicts might have used aliases.  Sometimes the records will identify aliases. 

The separation of the Australian colonies:  Originally New South Wales - the first Australian colony – was much bigger and included areas that eventually became separate colonies.  These were:  Moreton Bay (now Queensland), Port Phillip (now Victoria), Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania).   Norfolk Island was also administered mostly by New South Wales, though Tasmania administered it from 1844-1853.  Therefore it may be worth checking with State Records of New South Wales and the State Library of New South Wales, for records of convicts sent to these states, as well as in sections for NSW convicts on databases.

Some colonies received convicts direct from Britain, and some were places for secondary offenders and as all colonies had the same British statutes, they also participated in the transportation of locally convicted people

Dates when convicts were received/transported:
  • ·      New South Wales:  1788-1842; 1846-1850 – exiles* only
  • ·      Tasmania  (Van Diemen’s Land): 1804-1853
  • ·      Norfolk Island: 1788-1814; 1825-1855
  • ·      Queensland (Moreton Bay): 1824-1839; 1849-1850
  • ·      Victoria (Port Phillip):  1803-1804; 1836-1851 (roughly) from other colonies and 1844-1849 – exiles* only from UK
  • ·      South Australia (offenders transported from here): 1837-1851
  • ·      Western Australia: 1850-1868 

*Exiles were given Tickets of Leave on arrival

Pictures:  Sadly there are very few early drawings of convicts but with the advent of photography in the 1840s, there are a number of portraits of ex- convicts and there are gaol portraits in the latter part of the 19th century.  Very few pictures of convict ships exist. 

A ticket of leave to all those who got through this. I hope you find it helpful.

I’ve barely begun but must take my own ticket of leave
Unfortunately, due to circumstances out of my control, I am no longer able to continue this blog but I know at least this post will be of some use.  There are many good guides on the internet and a wealth of knowledge amongst staff in libraries and archives.  I hope to get back to this blog one day.

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