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The Business of Convict Transportation: The First Contractor for Transports to the Government

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

Jonathan Forward, after being appointed “Contractor for Transports to the Government,” ran his new business out of his house on Fenchurch Street in Cheapside. He now deployed his fleet of slave and merchant ships–many of which he named after himself–to carry the large number of convicted criminals who received a sentence of transportation to the American colonies.

A Higher Rate

Over the course of the first year, Forward transported over 400 felons to Virginia and Maryland on four ships. He sold them all, pocketing the profits from the sale for himself and collecting his contracted fees from the Treasury.

In March 1719, he returned to the Treasury and demanded a higher rate. He claimed that the low price of tobacco, which was essentially used in trade for the felons on the American shore, made it financially impossible for him to continue under the present terms. This time, Forward sought ₤5 a head for felons from county jails and beyond, while maintaining the ₤3 a head for transporting convicts from Newgate. The need to clear the jails of felons was so great that the Treasury agreed to his demands and granted him a new long-term contract. In 1727, he received another raise when ₤5 became the standard fee for transporting all convicts, including those from London.


Forward was often involved in litigation to protect his business interests. In 1723, both Maryland and Virginia passed laws attempting to limit the number of convicts imported into their colonies. Forward immediately complained to the Board of Trade, and the laws were quickly overturned. He also showed up in court attempting to rescue payments from tobacco planters who had gone bankrupt.

Sometimes Forward found himself defending his own actions against the government. In November of 1735, 139 convicts from 5 previous sessions at the Old Bailey were still awaiting transport, so Forward was brought before the Lord Mayor of London to account for the delay. Forward argued that he lacked the number of ships to accommodate such large numbers of convicts. This argument failed to elicit sympathy from the Lord Mayor. He forced Forward into agreeing to clear all convicts waiting to be transported out from Newgate Prison three times a year, in March, August, and December. Despite this agreement, the problem persisted, and Forward was again brought in to face the same charges a year later.

Criminal Connections

Not surprisingly, the transportation business with its association with crime was riddled with scandals and shady dealings. Forward had strong ties with Jonathan Wild, and the two of them worked together on capturing convicts who returned early from transportation. Forward needed to maintain the integrity of his business, and he could face penalties for any convict that he transported who returned early. Wild liked to recruit for his criminal empire convicts who returned prematurely from transportation, because he could keep them under tight control by threatening to turn them over to the authorities, where they would receive an automatic death sentence. If Forward ever learned through inside information about the return of a convict, he would tip off Wild about his or her presence back in England.

Forward sometimes fell victim to the illicit dealings of those in his employment. One of his senior captains, William Loney, served Forward between 1728 and 1737. Loney had long retired to Hatton Garden, London, when it was discovered that he had swindled Forward by switching the marks on hogsheads of tobacco, so that he received quality leaf while Forward was left with inferior leaf. Loney also manipulated figures so that the payment of debts owed to Forward fell to himself instead. Forward estimated that the losses incurred by Loney’s actions totaled ₤1,400.

The Loss of His Contract

Forward lost his exclusive contract to transport convicts with the government in 1739 to Andrew Reid, but he continued in the convict trade, this time without the government subsidy. He died a wealthy man at the age of 80 in 1760, leaving much of his property to his grandson, Edward Stephenson, and his West Country estates to his daughter, Elizabeth. She was married to Robert Byng, who became Paymaster of the Navy and then Governor of Barbados. At the time of her marriage back in 1734, she was worth an estimated ₤10,000, giving some indication about the vast wealth accumulated by Forward in the convict trade.

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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.

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