Nine Australian Ex-Cons Who Turned Their Lives Around

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Nine Australian Ex-Cons Who Turned Their Lives Around

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Australians have been locked up for nearly two years, but what many people sometimes forget is that, ironically, this country started off as a prison state! 

In conjunction with a new update to their collection of digitized convict records, Ancestry.com.au, the global leader in family history, has uncovered remarkable stories of some of our nation’s convict ancestors who changed their lives for the better once they set foot on Australian shores. 

These include Francis Greenway who was deported to Australia for forgery, only to become a renowned architect whose face appeared on the $10 note and a 15-year-old girl charged with stealing lace who later became the First Lady in her state. 

Part of Australia’s history is shaped by convicts who were sent to our shores from abroad – often for petty crimes. Between 1788 and 1868, 162,000 convicts settled in Australia, and today, an estimated 20% of Australians are descendants of convicts.

As part of their continued efforts to provide Australians with greater insight into the stories of their ancestors, Ancestry.com.au has updated its Western Australia Convict Records, 1846-1930 collection, so that information such as the arrival date of the ship (‘vessel’), and next of kin now appear in record indexes online, providing a more detailed experience for customers looking to find out more about their convict ancestors.  

As a whole, the collection includes 685,000 records related to convicts in Western Australia, including documents such as Convict Registers and Character Books, Correspondence, Letterbooks, and Stamp Books, Medical Registers and Journals, and Prisoner Personal Property Books. This variety of documents provide details including, names, information about their transportation to Australia, salaries, character (in character books), court cases and details of when they were released (ticket of leave).  To give people a taste of what you could discover within Ancestry’s fascinating collections of convict records, some of Ancestry’s expert genealogists have uncovered incredible stories of Australian convicts who changed their paths in life.

1. Alfred Chopin: The Thieving Photographer

Photograph by Alfred Chopin. (sourced from State Library Victoria)

The Crime: Found guilty of accepting stolen goods

Became: A famed and sought-after photographer

Time period: 1860s

The Ancestry Record: Western Australia, Australia, Convict Records, 1846-1930

Convict records on Ancestry tell us that Alfred Chopin was transported as a convict to Australia on The Norwood in 1867, charged with accepting stolen goods, and sentenced to 10 years.

However, Chopin was wrongly accused and officially received a free pardon in 1869. While Alfred was not technically a criminal, the conviction that sent him to Australia allowed him to change his life for the better.

Alfred certainly seized the opportunity and became one of the country’s most sought-after photographers, known for his portraits of significant officials. 

2. John Rowland Jones: The Embezzler

John Rowland Jones: The Embezzler. (sourced from Ancestry.com.au)

The Crime: Found guilty of embezzlement

Became: A reporter for the West Australian government and editor of the West Australian Newspaper

Time period: 1860s

Ancestry Record: Western Australia, Australia, Convict Records, 1846-1930

West Australian convict record tells us that embezzler John Rowland Jones arrived in January 1868 on the Hougoumont.

John received his Ticket of Leave in 1870 and went on to work as the editor of The West Australian Times and Hansard Reporter for the Western Australian government.

3. John Boyle O’Reilly: The Pilot Newspaper

Poems, 1868. Dedication and letter from John Boyle O’Reilly to Father Patrick McCabe (sourced from State Library of Western Australia)

The Crime: Found guilty of Rebellion

Became: The owner of The Pilot Newspaper

Time period: 1860s
Ancestry Record: Western Australia, Australia, Convict Records, 1846-1930

John Boyle O’Reilly, according to a Western Australia Convict Record, was tried and charged for being a part of a rebellion group, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, in 1867, and was set onboard one of the last convict ships, The Hougoumont, to be sent to Western Australia.

John later escaped to America, where he became the editor and part-owner of the Boston newspaper, The Pilot. However, friend and human rights activist that he was, he also helped plan the 1876 rescue of six fellow Irish Republican Brotherhood prisoners from Fremantle prison.

4.          Enoch Barrett: Convict Nurseryman

Enoch Barrett: Convict Nurseryman. (sourced from Ancestry.com.au)

The Crime: Found guilty of stealing from trains

Became: The first Commercial Nurseryman

Time period: 1850s

Ancestry Record: Western Australia, Australia, Convict Records, 1846-1930

According to this Western Australian convict record on Ancestry, Barrett was sentenced to 10 years gaol in 1851 for stealing from trains while working as a switchman for the London & Brighton Railway Company. He arrived in Australia in 1852, and his wife Mary and their three children later joined him, in 1854. 

Barrett was a man of many talents. He became a gardener and the colony’s first commercial nurseryman and was later appointed as the Government House Gardener, before becoming the Head Gardener of the Public Garden and Public Reserves in Perth. 

5.          Francis Greenway: Thief who turned Architect Superstar

A drawing of Francis Greenway’s buildings – The Court House and St James Church, Hyde Park, Sydney by T.S. Hatfield (sourced from New South Wales State Library)

The Crime: Found guilty of forgery

Became: A famous architect

Time period: 1810s

Ancestry Record: Australia, Convict Records Index, 1787-1867

According to convict records on Ancestry, Francis, from Gloucestershire, England, was found guilty of forgery in March 1812 after his architect firm went bankrupt. But he got a new chance at life in Australia and became one of the country’s most renowned architects.

In his lifetime, he designed prominent buildings, including St. James Church and the Supreme Court in Sydney. He made such an impression on our country that his face was included on the former $10 note. 

6.          Esther Abrahams: The First Lady of New South Wales

A portrait of Esther Abrahams (sourced from The British Colonisation)

The Crime: Found guilty of stealing lace

Became: The First Lady of New South Wales

Time period: 1780s 

Ancestry Record: New South Wales, Australia, Convict Indents, 1788-1842

Esther Abrahams was a 15-year-old petty thief who became the First Lady of New South Wales. According to a convict record on Ancestry, Esther was sentenced to seven years transportation to Australia for stealing lace from a draper’s shop in London. 

Esther met and married a man called George Johnson, who became lieutenant governor, which meant that Esther got the unofficial role of ‘The First Lady of New South Wales’. 

7.            Mary Riebey: The Convict Mercantile

The Crime: Found guilty of stealing a horse

Became: The first successful businesswoman in Australia

Mary Reibey on the $20 banknote (sourced from Great British Life)

Time period: 1790s

Ancestry Record: Australia, Convict Records Index, 1787-1867

Mary was, according to a convict record on Ancestry, transported to Australia in 1792, for stealing a horse at 14 and was sentenced to seven years of transportation to Australia. She later married Thomas Reibey who passed away at a young age leaving Mary to manage both the couple’s seven children and several family businesses. 

But there is more to this powerful woman’s story. In 1817, the Bank of New South Wales was founded in her house in Macquarie Place, and later on, Mary became appointed as one of the governors of the Free Grammar School. Mary is also depicted on the $20 Australian banknote for her impressive achievements as a true businesswoman of her time.

8.          William Blue: The Old Commodore

William Blue: The Old Commodore. (sourced from Wikipedia)

The Crime: Guilty of stealing sugar

Became: Sydney’s first Water bailiff (law officer)

Time period: 1790s 

Ancestry Record: New South Wales, Australia, Certificates of Freedom, 1810-1814, 1827-1867

 Sweet-toothed William Blue was charged with stealing 20lbs of raw sugar on board the convict transportation ship, Lady Jane Halliday, and according to a certificates of freedom record on Ancestry he was deported to Botany Bay for seven years!

Once free in Change3, William took a new route in life and worked in the Sydney harbour, transporting passengers on his boat and trading oysters. He became the city’s first “water bailiff” and is the man that Blue’s Point is named after.

9.          Mary Wade: The Youngest Convict

Mary Wade: The Youngest Convict. (sourced from Women of History)

The Crime: Found guilty of stealing clothing

Became: One of the founding mothers of the early European settlements of Australia

Time period: 1780s

Ancestry Record: New South Wales and Tasmania, Australia Convict Musters, 1806-1849

At Christmastime in 1789, Mary was the youngest convict aboard a ship bound for Australia, after stealing another girl’s clothes. Fast-forward a few decades, to 1817, and Mary had found love, married, and set up home near the Hawkesbury River with another convict Jonathan Brooker. 

It is speculated that Mary gave birth to 21 children in her lifetime, with her family spanning five generations at the time she was alive. Today, tens of thousands of Australians are descended from Mary, including former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. 

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