Convict Family Reunion Scheme

Following the Select Committee on Transportation's report in 1812, the British Government introduced a scheme to send out certain wives and children of convicted men to join their husbands in New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land. Between 1817 and 1843 at least 508 men applied to have their wives and families sent out under the scheme, which appears to be the first assisted immigration scheme to the colonies.

Under the scheme the women and children were sent out free of charge on the female convict ships. On the ship they were fed, clothed and on some ships the children received a rudimentary education. The families were listed separately on the embarkation lists which often did not state numbers or names of the free women and children, but between 1820 and 1842 at least 297 wives and 643 children were sent out to join their husbands and fathers in Van Diemen's Land. It was thought that such a scheme would help to redress the imbalance of gender in the colonies and provide an incentive to good behaviour among the male convicts. In Britain the scheme received support from landowners and the church who bore the burden of supporting wives and families of convicted men through poorhouses which were financed by parishes.

A convict who had received his ticket-of-leave was entitled to apply to have his wife and family sent out at government expense. He had to apply through his master, who forwarded the application to the Superintendent of Convicts, who applied to the Governor for approval. Applications were then sent to the Colonial Office in London and on to the Home Office. Depending on the number of available berths on the female convict ships chartered at the time, certain families were selected and, if they wished to go were notified of the time and place of embarkation. Families had to get themselves to the point of embarkation at their own cost. On arrival they were released into the care of their husbands.

The complicated process of application and the inefficient administration by the Home Office in London led to a random method of selection. The scheme was discontinued in 1843 apparently due to the increased cost incurred sending women and children on to New South Wales after transportation to that colony ceased in 1840. The scheme was reintroduced in 1847 and continued until the early 1870s.

Further reading: Jenny Parrott, 'For the moral good?: the government scheme to unite convicts with their families 18181843', M Humanities thesis, UT, 1994.

Jenny Parrott