Certificate of Freedom No. 44/801

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Certificate of Freedom No. 44/801

Government document

By: Anonymous

Date: May 21, 1844

Source: The New South Wales Government's Archives and Records Management Authority

About the Author: This is a facsimile of a document placed online in image format by the New South Wales Government's Archives and Records Management Authority, Australia.


This document certifies that a woman, "Catherine Maguire alias Murphy," had finished serving her sentence as a convict in the penal colonies in Australia as of May 21, 1844. The document shows that Maguire was convicted in the Irish county of Fermanagh in 1837 of an offence not, for some reason, specified here, and sentenced to seven years of penal servitude in Australia. Maguire was thirty-six when tried and sentenced, forty-three when freed. The document describes her as a house servant by "Trade or Calling" and, besides a general description of her by height and coloring, describes identifying marks by which she could be definitely known: "Lost a front tooth in lower Jaw and canine tooth in the upper Jaw[,] Mole on right side of neck."

Thousands of such documents have been preserved by the government of Australia. This is a typical Certificate of Freedom, but the convict's offence was not always omitted: another exemplary Certificate, for a male convict, specifies that he was convicted of "extorting money" when twenty years old and also sentenced to seven years of penal servitude. Sentences of seven, ten, and fourteen years were commonplace. Other forms of partial or complete termination of penal servitude were recorded by Tickets of Leave and Pardons. Tickets of Leave allowed individual convicts to work for themselves for pay provided that they stayed in a specified area, reported themselves period-ically to the authorities, and went to church every Sunday if possible. Pardons were occasionally issued to convicts who had received life sentences and might be either conditional or absolute; conditional pardons required the convict to remain in Australia, and absolute pardons (much rarer) allowed the convict to return to Britain if they so desired and could pay for their own passage. Recipients of Certificates of Freedom were also free to return to Britain.

Since the convict in this case, Catherine Maguire, had an Irish name and was sentenced in Ireland, she was probably Irish. About a third of convicts transported—as transfer to a penal colony was called—were Irish; about a fifth were women. The noting of an alias on this Certificate of Freedom may indicate that Maguire had been sentenced under the name of Maguire and since been married. Convicts who wished to marry while still serving their sentences could do so only with permission from the Governor of the colony where they were imprisoned.



See primary source image.


Before the American Revolution, about fifty thousand convicts were transported from Britain to the colonies in North America. After the United States achieved independence, this was no longer feasible. However, in 1770 the English explorer James Cook had discovered what seemed an ideal substitute: New Holland, now known as Australia. (The term "Australia" did not come into use until about 1800.) The first expedition to transport prisoners and guards to Australia was sent in 1787, a fleet of eleven ships carrying a total of 775 convicts and several hundred other persons, including crew, soldiers, officials, and families of the non-convict members of the party. This expedition established the first permanent European colony on the continent in the area of what is now Sydney, the capital. Several other penal colonies were also established in Australia, and a large prison, Port Arthur, was constructed on the island now known as Tasmania. Convicts who were deemed worthy of additional punishment (e.g., those that committed new crimes in Australia) were sent to Port Arthur for closer confinement. The colonies were self-supporting, rather than supplied from abroad, making them penal "colonies" rather than remotely-located jails. By the time the last convicts arrived in Australia in 1868, about 160,000 had been sent. Voluntary emigration to Australia began in the 1790s and proceeded in parallel with convict settlement. Moreover, former convicts such as Catherine Maguire mostly stayed in Australia and constituted a growing local population. As decades passed, the character of non-indigenous Australian society gradually shifted from penal colony to simply a colony. Australia was federated as a democratic, independent Commonwealth state in 1901. Indigenous Australians did not have the vote until the early 1960s.

The consequences of British penal and voluntary settlement for the indigenous population of Australia, at first numbering about half a million, were catastrophic. The Aborigines were driven from their land to make way for settlements and perished in large numbers—much like the natives of North America—from infectious diseases inadvertently imported by the Europeans. By 1900, the indigenous population of Australia was down to about a tenth of its original size.

Penal servitude has been used by various governments that have access to remote, less-desirable territories and who wish to dispose of some persons without executing them. (Most convicts deported to Australia were not violent criminals: the latter were usually hung in Britain.) France used Devil's Island, near South America, as a comparatively small penal colony from 1852 to 1945.


Web sites

Australian Government: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. "Ancient Heritage, Modern Society." 〈http://www.dfat.gov.au/aib/history.html〉 Jan. 20, 2006 (accessed March 2, 2006).

The New South Wales Government's Archives and Records Management Authority. "Welcome to State Records NSW." 〈http://www.records.nsw.gov.au/staterecords/welcome_to_state_records_nsw_1556.asp〉 2006 (accessed March 2, 2006).