Convict Transportation to Australia from Dumfries and Galloway (1787-1869) and my Convict Ancestors.

The January meeting of the Kirkcudbright History Society was opened by Chair Mike Duguid with reference to the fact that the Society has lost three founder members who have died recently. Ian Devlin, Adam Gray and Billy McKeand all contributed in their own individual styles to the recording of local history. They will all be missed and he sent the Society’s condolences to their families.

Professor Donald Cowell was then introduced as that night’s speaker. A member of the society he is always a popular speaker which was reflected in the record breaking audience numbers.

His subject was based on transportation of convicts. While researching the history of Kirkcudbright prison he became interested in just what happened to the prisoners who were transported. This led him to research miscreants in his own family.

Between 1787 and 1868 Britain transported tens of thousands of Convicts to Australia. Prisoners from all parts of the country, male and female, young and old were involved in this large scale mass movement of people from one side of the world to the other. Using local prison records held in the Stewartry Museum in Kirkcudbright; together with careful research conducted at the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh, he explained how some prisoners began their journey to Australia from prison cells in Kirkcudbright prison and other prisons in Dumfries and Galloway.

The Tolbooth Kirkcudbright

He covered the various methods of punishment of which transportation was just one. Initially transportation was to the Caribbean and America but after the American War of Independence this changed to Australia. A map of Australia showed the areas where the miscreants were shipped. The major crimes which had been committed were theft and fraud, murder not being a transportable offence.

The nationality and gender balance proved very interesting. In Scotland transportation was not a sentence for a first offence.

Locally there were between 300- 400 people transported.

If the situation demanded such a trial, although held in Kirkcudbright prison, the prisoner was tried at Dumfries. If convicted and sentenced they were transferred back to Kirkcudbright, this counted as day 1 of their sentence. From here they were transferred to Calton prison in Edinburgh. In due course they were shipped from Leith to London and held in a hulk till allocated to a ship. These were converted merchant ships. The journey to Australia could take up to 4 months, sometimes with no stops. Over the period there were 900 such voyages made by 400 ships.

Once landed they were interviewed by the Governor as to their health and any complaints about their journey.

After this they were allocated to an area of work.

An artist from Dumfries called Thomas Watling was one of the local subjects he gave as an illustration. Thomas was convicted of fraud and sent to Australia in 1788 where he made his name as an artist.

He was eventually freed by the Governor and made his way back to Britain via India. Finding life difficult he found the Governor, who was back in London, who introduced him to the Royal Academy.

An example of Thomas Watling’s work

He did not make a name for himself in his lifetime but there is a large collection of his work in the British Museum.

After covering a few other local examples, Don moved to his own family where he had found two relatives who had been transported from the Isle of Man.

Mary and Jayne Cowell were transported for stealing 7 yards of lace, worth 10/6, landing in Australia in 1823. Don discovered the ship they had travelled on “The Mary” which had been visited by Elizabeth Fry prior to departing. His research found a lot of detail about Mary who lead a varied life out there. Jayne died in1855. After 3 marriages Mary died in 1842.

Don summed up by encouraging members to research their own family history and has supplied two free websites which are an excellent starting point.

The February meeting of the Society is on the 14th when the speaker will be Paul Goodwin whose presentation will be “Film Archives of the Glenkens in the 1950s”. All welcome.