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Convict Voyages: From Prison to Convict Ship

Note: This post is part of a series on Convict Transportation to the American colonies.

Once the convict merchant was ready to make the trip to America, the convicts were released from prison and loaded onto the ship, along with dry goods and perhaps a few indentured servants. Convict voyages were generally timed to leave just after the spring and autumn sessions of the assize courts. After the eight to ten week voyage, the ships would usually arrive in Maryland or Virginia either in June and July or in October and November.

Exiting Prison

A contributing factor to the general abuse that permeated all English prisons was that jailors bought their positions and then used fees to recoup and profit from their investment. Jailors extracted fees from suspected criminals entering the prisons and then charged set fees for releasing them. For every convict who was discharged for transportation, the Keeper of Newgate prison charged 14 shillings and 10 pence.

Jonathan Forward and other convict transport contractors used part of the payments they received from the government to cover the jailor fees for releasing the prisoners they were supposed to transport. Since jailors and justices of the peace maintained such tight control over the delivery of convicts in and out of prison, convict merchants who did not have guaranteed contracts with the government had to maintain good relationships with these officials in order to secure future contracts.

Transportation contracts were struck between merchants and justices soon after sentences were handed out in court. A Transportation bond was then drawn up, which included a fine of ₤50 if an authentic certificate of convict arrivals from the governor or chief customhouse officer at the American destination could not be produced by the contracted firm. The firm also agreed to transport the convicts within a specified amount of time after the signing of the contract and not to lend aid to any transported convicts attempting to return to England before the end of their terms.

The release of the convict from prison was an important moment. The term of transportation, be it seven or fourteen years, began as soon as the Keeper of the prison delivered the criminal to the captain of the convict ship.

"Representation of the Transports going from Newgate to take water at Blackfriars" - The Newgate Calendar

A Parade of Convicts

Upon their release from prison, the convicts were marched through the street to the transport ship chained together, two by two. This parade of convicts, which occurred 3 or 4 times a year, would generate considerable attention. People in London would follow the chained group as they emerged from Newgate and made their way through the streets down to Blackfriars at the edge of the River Thames to board the convict ship. Lists of the criminals who were being transported were sometimes available for purchase by the curious among crowd. The departure of convicts for the colonies generated so much interest that newspapers continued to report on its occurrence up until the practice of transporting convicts to America ended.

On August 20, 1752, The Maryland Gazette published the following description of convicts being led down to the ship, with a special focus on Daniel Bishop, who received a reprieve of transportation for life for committing murder:

Bristol, May 2. Last Monday Morning a great Number of People resorted before Newgate to see the 11 Transports carried away for Biddeford. The principle Object of their Curiosity was Daniel Bishop, who was condemned to be hang’d last Midsummer Assizes, for the Murder of his Sweet heart, Winnifred Jones. Ten of the Prisoners were mounted two upon a Horse, chain’d; and Bishop was put upon a single Horse without Chains. As he was the last that came out of the Prison, the People were impatient, and cry’d out, Where’s Bishop?—He no sooner appeared, but they set up a loud Huzza, and bestowed on him divers Reproaches: In particular a young Woman cry’d out, Hang the Dog, &c. and told him she was glad to see him come to this. He behaved with great Assurance and Boldness, wav’d his Hat, and huzza’d in Chorus. The Streets through which they passed were exceedingly crowded with People, who in general bore him such an Indignation, that they cry’d out, Hang the Dog—Hang the Dog.—A Halter,—A Halter, &c. and pelted him with Dirt. At the Foot of Redcliff Hill, six of the Prisoners were thrown from their Horses, occasioned by their taking Fright at the Noise of the Populace. At which Place a Woman told him, with a Halter shaking in her Hand, She would be glad to see him hang’d up to her Sign Post, for that he had killed her good honest Servant Maid, Winnifred Jones.—He made Answer, What should I be hang’d for? I have been hang’d a great many times to such as you.—On Redcliff Hill, he struck a young Man who had pelted him, several Blows; which together with his impudent Behaviour, had so incensed the Populace, that they more eagerly pelted him with Dirt and Stones; and ‘tis thought would have tore him to Pieces had not the Persons who guarded the Prisoners prevented them. Several Thousand People followed him as far as Bedminster.

While this event seems to be more spirited than other marches to convict ships, it gives an idea of what it was like for convicts and witnesses alike.

Onto the Ship

Ships transporting convicts tended to be separated out from those transporting commodities, so there was plenty of space between the convict ship and any others. First-hand accounts of the loading of convicts onto the ship include descriptions full of tears, embraces, and goodbyes as the convicts were finally separated from their families and friends, possibly for the rest of their lives. This sad moment is depicted in a doggerel poem called The Poor Unhappy Transported Felon’s Sorrowful Account of His Fourteen Years Transportation at Virginia in America (1780), which in general appears to be fairly accurate in its details about convict transportation:

My father vex’d[,] my mother she took on,
And said alas! alas! my only son,
My father said, it cuts me to the heart,
To think on such a cause as this we part.

To see him grieve pierced my very soul,
My wicked cause I sadly did condole,
With grief and shame my eyes did overflow,
And had much rather chuse to die than go.

In vain I griev’d and in vain my parents wept,
For I was quickly sent on board the ship,
With melting kisses and a heavy heart,
I from my dearest parents then did part.

The moment of boarding the ship could be particularly harsh for couples who were convicted of committing a crime together and were both sentenced to transportation. Government officials would generally go out of their way to separate the two by sending each of them to different colonies on different ships. If they could afford to do so, husbands and wives could book passage on the same ship together instead or try to arrange to become indentured in the same colony, but this rarely happened.

Not all departures, however, were somber. On January 5, 1769, The Virginia Gazette reported, “Saturday morning between four and five o’clock the transports, to the number of eighty, were conveyed from Newgate and put on board a close lighter at Black-friars, in order to be forwarded to the British plantations. They went off very merry, huzzaing; and declared they were going to a place where they might soon regain their lost liberty.”

Once the transports boarded the ship, they were sent down between decks to a prison hold where they were secured until they reached port in America. Once a convict was shipped off, his or her family members were left to fend for themselves. Most likely, they would fall into a life of crime themselves or end up in workhouses.

Resources for this article:

  • Carew, Bampfylde-Moore. An Apology for the Life of Mr Bampfylde-Moore Carew. 8th ed. London: Printed for R. Goadby and W. Owen, 1768.
  • Coldham, Peter Wilson. Emigrants in Chains: A Social History of Forced Emigration to the Americas of Felons, Destitute Children, Political and Religious Non-conformists, Vagabonds, Beggars and Other Undesirables, 1607-1776. Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Pub. Co., 1992.
  • Langley, Batty. An Accurate Description of Newgate, with the Rights, Privileges, Allowances, Fees, Dues, and Customs Thereof. London: Printed for T. Warner, 1724.
  • The Maryland Gazette. “Bristol, May 2.” Thursday, August 20, 1752, p. 3.
  • Morgan, Kenneth. “The Organization of the Convict Trade to Maryland: Stevenson, Randolph and Cheston, 1768-1775.” The William and Mary Quarterly 42.2 (1985): 201-27.
  • Revel, James. The Poor Unhappy Transported Felon’s Sorrowful Account of His Fourteen Years Transportation at Virginia in America. London, 1780. A later edition is also available from Documenting the American South,
  • Smith, Abbot Emerson. Colonists in Bondage : White Servitude and Convict Labor in America, 1607-1776. The Norton Library; N592. New York: Norton, 1971.
  • The Virginia Gazette (Rind), Thursday, January 5, 1769, p. 2.

Learn More About Convict Transportation

Learn more about convict transportation to colonial America by reading my book, Bound with an Iron Chain: The Untold Story of How the British Transported 50,000 Convicts to Colonial America. Paperback ($16.99) and Kindle ($4.99).

Smashwords: All e-book formats ($4.99).

Most people know that England shipped thousands of convicts to Australia, but few are aware that colonial America was the original destination for Britain’s unwanted criminals. In the 18th century, thousands of British convicts were separated from their families, chained together in the hold of a ship, and carried off to America, sometimes for the theft of a mere handkerchief.

What happened to these convicts once they arrived in America? Did they prosper in an environment of unlimited opportunity, or were they ostracized by the other colonists? Anthony Vaver tells the stories of the petty thieves and professional criminals who were punished by being sent across the ocean to work on plantations. In bringing to life this forgotten chapter in American history, he challenges the way we think about immigration to early America.

The book also includes an appendix with helpful tips for researching individual convicts who were transported to America.

Visit Pickpocket Publishing for more details.

One Comment

  1. Michele Knights wrote:

    I am reading ‘A kind of freedom’ by Ken Follett in which one of his principal characters has been sentenced to deportation. I wanted to get a picture of the conditions these poor souls were condemmed to. mans inhumanity to man will always be a puzzle.

    Sunday, July 19, 2009 at 8:19 am | Permalink

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