A Convict’s Progress

“Van Diemen’s Land is indebted for its present prosperous condition chiefly to the crimes committed in England”[1]


Between 1803 and 1853 over 70,000 convicts were transported from Britain to the island then known as Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania).
As an outpost of the British Empire, the Crown was keen to develop settlements there, exploit mineral wealth and agricultural development, and to thwart French ambitions of a colony in Australia.

South Kesteven was no different from other areas in sending thousands of prisoners to the colonies.  Most were sentenced to transportation for minor offences such as theft, for periods of between seven and nine years.

Sarah Marvin, from Morton by Bourne, the dark haired and blue eyed daughter of Jane and Edward Marvin was one such prisoner.
On the 27th June 1836, aged just 15, she appeared before the Kesteven Quarter Sessions in Lincoln, charged with theft.
Sarah pleaded guilty to having stolen four cotton sheets and one linen sheet belonging to Elizabeth Seward.  She was sentenced to seven years transportation.

Sarah may not have been too sad to have been leaving England.  At the time of her transportation she ‘confessed’ to having run away from home after striking her mother, and was listed as having been ‘on the town’ (a catch all term covering homelessness, vagrancy and prostitution) for a year before her arrest. It is easy to see how sheets left drying on a hedge would prove a great temptation to a young woman in desperate circumstances.

On 9th August 1836, she sailed with 184 other female convicts on the Westmoreland, arriving in Hobart, Van Diemen’s Land, on the 3rd September 1836.
On arrival, each convict was seen by the surgeon, and details of their appearance, occupation, and general character were recorded.
The physical descriptions of the convicts were crucial for identification, but the character assessment could determine a prisoner’s future.

Convict Description (TAHO: CON40/1/14) (reproduced with permission)

By the time that Sarah arrived in Van Diemen’s Land, the increase in female prisoners had led to the creation of purpose built prisons for women known as the ‘female factories’.  Women were strictly segregated into classes depending on the crimes they had committed, and reports of their previous behaviour from the ship’s surgeon.

A convict’s class would determine the treatment and opportunities they would receive in these infamous institutions.  Women in the “criminal” class would be given punishment tasks including preparing wool for spinning and picking oakum – monotonous hard labour which involved untwisting scraps of old rope to create loose fibres.
In the “probationary” class, women would be trained in skills necessary for service, such as needlework and laundry. Women in the “assignment” class women would be sent out to work as servants in the wider community of free immigrants.
Women would rise through the classes through good behaviour, or proficiency at their tasks, but could be returned to the factory for poor behaviour, or any further criminal activity.

Despite being described as being of bad character in the surgeons report, Sarah did not stay long in the female factory. By December 1836 she was working for Mr D. McArthur and living at his residence on Liverpool Street, Hobart.

Convict conduct record for Sarah Marvin (TAHO: CON40/1/8) (Reproduced with Permission)

Sarah returned to the cells of the female factory twice. On 2nd August 1837, she was sentenced to solitary working in the cells for one month after ‘misconduct in raising a false report against Mr McFarland and making use of bad language’.
On 24th April 1838 she was sentenced to four days in the cells on bread and water as punishment for ‘Making use of bad language in the Public Street’.

Life as a transported convict was hard, and for many it could be desperate, but for some it offered opportunity.
Convicts who were working in service or as labourers received a wage, as well as being housed, clothed and fed. This resulted in many being able to save money for their future, or even send money back to their families. For many a new life in the colonies, even as a prisoner, was preferable to conditions back home.

Marriage was encouraged, and on the 2nd October 1837 a request made by Charles Tanner to marry Sarah was approved.

Marriage record for Sarah Marvin and Charles Tanner (TAHO RDG36/1/3) (Reproduced with permission)

Charles, a Blacksmith’s labourer from Bristol, was also a convict. He had been sentenced to seven years transportation for theft, and sailed from England in 1833 on the Emperor Alexander.
A troublemaker at the start of his sentence, Charles was written up for punishment twice. He received a sentence of 10 days in the tread wheel in 1834 for ‘being found in the public house…representing himself as a freeman’  and six months hard labour in a chain gang for ‘neglect of duty and being absent without leave’ in 1835.  For Charles this was clearly an effective deterrent, there are no further reports of misbehaviour on his part.

They were married at St David’s Church (now St David’s Cathedral), Hobart on 6th November 1837.

St David’s Church from Macquarie Street, c.1850 (Cathedral Archive) – Reproduced with kind permission from St David’s Cathedral Archive

In 1840, Charles received his certificate of freedom and Sarah received a ticket of leave, allowing her to live with her husband, a conditional pardon followed in 1842. The census of that year shows her, recorded as a bonded person, living at 71 Liverpool Street, Hobart with Charles and two other free men. Charles is recorded on the census as working as a Mechanic or Artificer.  Sarah received her Certificate of Freedom on the 27th June 1843.


Sarah and Charles had at least three children. Their first child, Charles Edward, was born in 1839, and died aged just 22 months. He was followed by John, born 1843 and Fanny, born 1845.
Some time after Sarah’s release the family emigrated to Melbourne, Australia. Sarah died there on the 24th April 1854, aged just 32.  She was survived by her husband Charles, and her two children, John and Fanny.



The author would like to thank Ruth Wilson, Cathedral Administrator, St David’s Cathedral Hobart and Nolan Navarre from the Tasmanian State Library and Archive Service for their assistance in producing this post.



[1] Bishoff, J. (1832) ‘Sketch of the History of Van Diemen’s Land’

Image 1  – Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office: Convict Department; Description Lists of Female Convicts, CON19/1/14 page 434, 1828-1853

Image 2 – Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office: Convict Department; Conduct Registers of Female Convicts Arriving in the Period of the Assignment System, CON40/1/8, 1803-1843

Image 3 – Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office: Registrar General’s Department, Registers of Marriages pre-Civil Registration, RGD36/1/3 no 3672, 1803-1838

Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office: Convict Department; Conduct Registers of Male Convicts Arriving in the Period of the Assignment System, CON31/1/43, 1803-1843

Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office: Convict Department; Description Lists of Male Convicts, CON18/1/6 page 545, 1828-1853

Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office: Convict Department; Appropriation lists of Convicts, CON27/1/6, 1822-1846

Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office: Convict Department; Registers of Applications for Permission to Marry, CON52/1/1 pg196, 1822-1846

Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office: Registrar General’s Department; Register of Hobart Deaths and Launceston and County District Deaths, RDG35/1/1 no 637

https://www.femaleconvicts.org.au/ , FCRC Female Convicts in Van Diemen’s Land, Database Entry for Sarah Marvin, ID No 1192, accessed 20/05/18

Lincolnshire County Council, Transported Convicts Database
https://www.lincolnshire.gov.uk/libraries-and-archives/lincolnshire-archives/archives-collections/transported-convicts-database , accessed 15/05/18

https://convictrecords.com.au/ships/westmoreland/1836    Convict Records: Westmoreland 1836 accessed 08/06/18