In this session of the Digital History seminar, streamed live on 8 May Hamish Maxwell-Stewart gave a fascinating talk about reconstructing the lives of convicts taken to Australia in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Using digital tools (but not going too much into them) Maxwell-Stewart looks at what the records tell us – and it would seem they tell us a lot. We have information on rates of illness and life expectancy; we have details about punishments and work-loads for convicts; we also have information about repeat offenders. More than this, though, the project that Maxwell-Stewart is working on is enabling families in Tasmania to reconstruct their family pasts and reconcile themselves with a history that might well have a criminal basis.
This project has produced the Founders & Survivors: Australian life courses in historical context 1803-1920 website, which, as Maxwell-Stewart notes, is the result of a partnership between historians, genealogists, demographers and population health researchers. The project seeks to record and study the founding population of 73,000 men, women and children who were transported to Tasmania. Indeed, Maxwell-Stewart actively encourages similar collaborations believing that University historians still do not take genealogy or family historians seriously despite the amazing evidence that have been collected in those pursuits.
As an example of the information contained in the site I looked up my surname ‘Phillpott’. There were no items under that spelling, although I am aware that the spelling of the name has changed over the centuries. Most of my family resided in Kent during this period, and there is one record that contains a place of birth of Hollingbourne in Kent of a John Philpott. I don’t think he is a direct relation, but his record shows that he was born in 1808, was married to Elizabeth and had one child. John was a labourer and a protestant. He was convicted of stealing bim cloths (I’m not entirely sure what those are? Any ideas?). Previous convictions are interesting: John Philpott was convicted for releasing a donkey from a pound and for assaulting a constable. For his various crimes John Philpott was taken from Sheerness to Australia on-board the Westmoreland under John Brigstock. The journey took 116 days. It is certainly an interesting and highly useful resource.