Tasmania is one of the few places in the world where it’s possible to study intergenerational health issues, because the settler population was among the best documented in the British Empire.

“The lives of nearly 75,000 convicts were meticulously recorded in leather bound volumes by convict clerks. They provide incredible detail on the convict workforce—those who laboured in farms and road gangs or were incarcerated in places like Port Arthur and the female factories,” says Professor Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, a historian at the University of Tasmania. 

The research has uncovered striking links between individuals’ experiences and the health of their descendants.

“We’re using them to ask what happens to you if your ancestors have a terrible start in life? Could it influence the likelihood that you will develop for example, type 2 diabetes?” Professor Maxwell-Stewart says.

“One surprising finding is that children of convicts were taller than other colonially born children, such as those born to free labourers who migrated from England. Our research suggests this is due to smaller family size, which meant fewer mouths to feed and therefore better overall nutrition.”

They’ve also found that solitary confinement not only increased the risk of dying while incarcerated but shortened the person’s lifespan—a finding with implications for debates on prison and institutionalisation today, Professor Maxwell-Stewart says.

His team is transcribing and photographing the records, and are setting up standard protocols for digitising, transcribing, indexing, linking, visualising and storing data.

Working with the Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office, The University of Melbourne, and Ancestry.com, we’re making these histories available online for people to access and discover their own ancestry. We want to see these archives used, to bring to life the stories of the people from Tasmania’s past.

They’ve also established innovative digital datasets that link multiple historical series located in the UK and Ireland with Tasmanian historical records held by several institutions including the Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office and the State Library of New South Wales. 

The University researchers have collaborated with groups including the Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office, the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority, the National Trust, the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, the Tasmanian Registry, the Tasmanian Data Linkage Unit, Heritage Tasmania, and production company Roar Film.

Find out more:

  • Let historic sites speak for themselves - literally: At the Penitentiary Chapel in Hobart, the walls are alive with the stories of long-gone convicts. Stories of the thousands of forced immigrants have been projected onto the historic walls. Professor Hamish Maxwell-Stewart wrote the script for the audio-visual show, which brings together details from a range of convict sites including Port Arthur and Maria Island. It was created in collaboration with production company Roar Film and the National Trust.
  • What’s in a name? Roughly a quarter of Tasmanians are active members of the Tasmanian Name Index. The Index, created by UTAS researchers with the Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office, is an online search portal that links more than 890,000 names to 1.17 million digitised items, many of them connected by the University’s ‘Founders and Survivors’ project.
  • See your ancestor’s mugshots and more: ‘Founders and Survivors Storylines’ allows users to search the records of 69,669 Tasmanian convicts by name, police number, trade, voyage data, or crime. The ‘Mugsheets’ section uses identity records to create faces of convicts. It was funded by Education Services Australia. The Founders and Survivors team also helped create the Digital Panopticon website, which traces London convicts in Britain and Australia.

Interested in partnering with the University of Tasmania? Find out more here.

About Professor Hamish Maxwell-Stuart

Hamish Maxwell-Stewart is a Professor of social history in the School of Humanities. His research, currently funded by three ARC grants, uses Tasmania's colonial archives to explore intergenerational health issues. He is best known for his knowledge of convict transportation. He was awarded the Margaret Scott Award for the best book by a Tasmanian author in 2010, for his book 'Closing Hells Gates'. He is currently collaborating with Researchers at the universities of Liverpool, Sheffield, Oxford and Sussex on the 'Digital Panopticon' project, which is looking at the global impact of London Punishments between 1780 and 1925.

View Professor Hamish Maxwell-Stuart's full researcher profile