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The Business of Convict Transportation: Jonathan Forward’s Successors

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

Jonathan Forward served as the first Contractor for Transports to the Government from 1718 to 1739. He was succeeded by a tight network of convict transporters who dominated the industry up until the practice of shipping convicts to America ended.

Andrew Reid

In April, 1739, Jonathan Forward lost his exclusive government contract to transport convicts to America to Andrew Reid, who struck a deal with the Treasury for the same terms that were enjoyed by Forward. Reid was friends with the Secretary to the Treasury and used this connection to secure the position. Under Reid’s watch, the convict trade reached its low point. Voyages conducted by his firm were characterized by a high death rate among the convicts, despite an apparent financial incentive to keep them healthy. Even though Reid would occasionally express compassion for those convicts who died during voyages, conditions on board his ships did not improve significantly.

Reid was not an efficient transporter of convicts either. Just like Jonathan Forward, Reid was accused in 1749 of being derelict in his duties of clearing the London jails of convicts waiting transportation. He pleaded the same excuse as Forward did back when he faced similar charges, that he lacked the resources to handle the vast numbers of convicts sentenced to transportation. Later, on March 26, 1751, the Secretary of the Treasury complained to the Lord Mayor that Reid was still not meeting the terms of his contract and that he should be held more strictly accountable to those terms, especially in light of the late increase in robberies. Again, despite the Treasury’s complaints, conditions did not improve. In 1752, James Armour, acting as Reid’s agent, was forced to pay ₤14.17s.6d. to compensate the city for housing prisoners beyond the time that they should have been transported by Reid.

John Stewart and Duncan Campbell

John Stewart, a Scotsman, joined Reid as a partner in 1748, and in March, 1757, Steward succeeded Reid as the Contractor for Transports, with James and Andrew Armour as his partners. Stewart was a much more efficient transporter than Reid, and during the time he held the position both the timeline for emptying jails and the death rate on ships improved.

Stewart served until he died in February, 1772, and his partner, Duncan Campbell, attempted to renew the contract with the Treasury. While the two held the government contract, Stewart and Campbell averaged a profit of ₤6 per convict, a 70 percent excess profit per freight space, which was incredibly high. Not surprisingly, when Campbell sought to renew the contract, the business of transporting convicts was so lucrative that there was a line of merchants willing to transport the government’s convicts for nothing. Campbell failed to earn the contract and the position of official contractor was essentially dissolved. Campbell continued to transport felons without any subsidy from the Treasury until 1775.

Contractors without Subsidies

Convict merchants who held exclusive contracts with the government received both a subsidy for each convict transported and a monopoly on transporting malefactors from London and the surrounding counties. Merchants who held exclusive contracts with the government, however, were not the only ones involved in the convict trade. Anyone could theoretically join the convict transportation business; those without government contracts just wouldn’t receive a subsidy for their work. Localities throughout England who were not entitled to offer a subsidy from the central government often had to strike their own deals with other convict transporters.

While those who held exclusive government contracts held significant advantages over those who did not, they were also required to transport all convicted criminals, no matter what their physical condition was. The elderly, the physically challenged, and women all brought lower prices when they were sold off in America, so transporting them was less profitable. If convict transporters had their druthers, they would have been able to pick and choose the convicts they wanted to transport, but such selectivity would have run counter to the government’s goal of clearing out the jails. Many of the smaller firms who entered the convict transportation business were also involved in the slave trade or in transporting indentured servants, where they enjoyed a great degree of freedom in deciding who they would carry overseas. Merchants who struck deals with the government or local jails, though, generally had less control over the condition of their human cargo.


Next to London, Bristol was the other center for convict transportation in England, although it did not begin to thrive in this trade until the 1750’s. Bristol served as the launching point for most of the convicts transported from the western part of the country, including Wales. Two firms dominated the trade from this city: Sedgely & Co. (1749-1768) and Stevenson, Randolph, & Cheston (1768-1775). These two firms transported 2,954 convicts during their existence and accounted for about 90 percent of the total trade in Bristol.

The firm of Stevenson, Randolph, & Cheston did not receive a government subsidy, but it did make exclusive arrangements with jailers. These arrangements minimized the jail fees associated with releasing the convicts, which most contractors were responsible for covering as a part of their business agreement with the government. The firm’s profits were more modest than those earned by Stewart and Campbell, though. It averaged ₤1.45 per convict, or a 17 percent profit per freight space.

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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).

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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.

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