The County Gaol of Down was a transportation gaol. Those sentenced to be sent to the penal colony of News South Wales were held in the gaol prior to being despatched to Australia.
Transportation from Great Britain to Australia began in 1787 but it was only in 1791 that the first ship left Irish shores. Over the next seventy-seven years between 45,000 and 55,000 Irish convicts are thought to have been transported. Most of them were destined for New South Wales and Van Diemen's land (now Tasmania).
But in 1787 transportation was not a new phenomenon. Under George I a regular system of transportation was established and Acts of Parliament outlined a series of transportable offences. The loss of the American Colonies in the War of Independence, however, meant that another destination for convicts had to be found. Australia was chosen for its distance, its size and resources and because it offered opportunities in agriculture, whaling and trade with the Far East.
As a punishment transportation appealed to a broad range of groups. Penal reformers welcomed the idea because it held out the possibility of a new and reformed life within a disciplined context. Many others from the propertied classes recognised it as a good means of ensuring retribution and deterrence at a time when public opinion shrank from the death penalty. Above all, it served a practical need as prisons were overcrowded and ineffective
However, most convicts were transported for very petty crimes. The museum's Convict Database shows that most male convicts in Down were found guilty of larceny involving small amounts of money, cloth, handkerchiefs, leather or pieces of jewellery. The 66 women transported from Down Gaol over the period the gaol operated were mostly indicted for stealing money, clothes and cloth along with shoplifting and forgery.
Once in Australia, abele bodied men were assigned to free settlers as workers or worked on government building schemes. Women were usually assigned as farm servants or, if they had small children, to the female factory at Parramatta. On completion of their sentences, or in many cases, in advance of that, convicts were given a ticket of leave. Most convicts became good citizens of the Colony and led productive lives. Some became rich or achieved prominence in their new country. Today many visitors to the museum come from Australia to see where their ancestors were imprisoned.
The museum holds a database of prisoners transported from the gaol. Follow the links on the right hand (Prisoner Gaol) side to search for more details.
You can also consult the database of prisoners from County Down produced by Australian researcher, Noelene Williams. Follow the links on the right hand side (Prisoner Down) to search for more details.