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It is Australia Day next week, and so my name lists for January are names of convicts from the First and Second Fleets.

Convicts were the prisoners who filled overcrowded British prisons in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Because the death penalty was applied even to what we would consider minor offences, people were sent to prison for what we would consider to be misdemeanours, such as petty theft, or not crimes at all, such as being in debt.

Many convicts were disposed of by sending them to the colonies as cheap labour – nearly always North America – until the term is now understood as those prisoners sent to the colonies. The American War of Independence putting an end to America as a colony, another place had to be thought up to send convicts, and the east coast of Australia seemed a likely spot.

The First Fleet sailed from Portsmouth, Hampshire on May 13 1787, and consisted of eleven ships, led by Captain Arthur Phillips. Aboard were around 1487 people, including 778 convicts (192 women, 586 men). They travelled 24 000 km (15 000 miles) across the sea for 252 days.

On January 26 1788, the ships sailed into Port Jackson, which Phillips called “the finest harbour in the world” – an opinion many have shared since. They anchored in a sheltered place they called Sydney Cove, after British Home Secretary, Lord Sydney.

Life was very difficult in the new colony, and punishments could be extremely harsh. Convicts were basically slaves, mostly used on public works, but also assigned to individuals as a personal labour force.

The names of the convicts were those common in Britain in the 18th century, with names from the Bible being often used. Rather than cover historically famous convicts, I chose people for their names, giving a rather random selection of ordinary people and their unremarkable fates.

[All convicts’ names can be found here. Information on convicts from the First Fleet Database].


Deborah (Elam/Ellam/Elias)

At the age of 20, Deborah was found guilty of stealing 36 shillings worth of clothing, and sentenced by the court in Chester to seven years transportation. She sailed to Australia on the Prince of Wales. She married a fellow convict and brought a complaint against him; it was judged to be “trivial” and she received 25 lashes in punishment. The couple had seven children and have many descendants. Deborah died in 1819, “universally respected by her numerous friends and acquaintances”. The name Deborah means “bee” in Hebrew, and in the Old Testament Deborah was a prophetess, judge, advisor and warrior. The Song of Deborah, which she is said to have composed, may be the earliest Hebrew poetry we know of. Deborah didn’t rank in Australia until the 1940s, and peaked in the 1960s at #12. It left the Top 100 in the 1980s and hasn’t ranked since the 1990s.

Dorothy (Handland aka Dorothy Gray)

Dorothy made her living as a dealer in old clothes. In her early 60s, she was found guilty of perjury at the Old Bailey and sentenced to 7 years transportation. She sailed to Australia on the Lady Penrhyn. Dorothy is believed to be the oldest convict, and despite her age, she survived the voyage and returned to England when she had completed her sentence. Dorothy is the English form of Dorothea, from the Greek meaning “gift of God”. There are three saints named Dorothea, one of whom we call Saint Dorothy. A legendary virgin martyr of the 4th century, said to be of surpassing beauty, her cult spread across Europe in the Middle Ages. The name Dorothy was #2 in the 1900s and 1910s, and remained Top 100 until the 1950s. It has been unranked since the 1980s.

Flora (Lara/Larah, aka Laura Zarah)

Flora is thought to have been Jewish. She was found guilty of stealing a mahogany tea chest and money to the value of 5 shillings, and sentenced by the court in Westminster to seven years transportation. She sailed to Australia on the Prince of Wales. She was described in the court records as being of an evil disposition; she married in Australia and left the colony in 1801. Flora was the Roman goddess of spring, married to the west wind, Zephyr; her name is from the Latin for “flower”. Flora is the scientific term for all plant life. Flora was first used as a personal name in France, and it’s especially famous in Scotland, because of Jacobite heroine Flora MacDonald. Flora has never been Top 100 in Australia – it peaked at #112 in the 1900s, and left the charts in the 1950s.

Lydia (Munro, aka Letitia Munro)

At the age of 17 Lydia was found guilty of stealing material to the value of 20 shillings. She was sentenced to death by the court in Kingston-upon-Thames, which was later commuted to 14 years transportation. She sailed to Australia on the Prince of Wales. The convict records show that she was the victim of a sexual assault and attempted rape by another convict. She married, and she and her husband went to Tasmania where they raised a family of eleven children; they have numerous descendants. She died in 1856. Lydia of Thyatira is a character in the New Testament, regarded as the first convert to Christianity in Europe. She was a successful merchant who was baptised by St Paul and became a deacon in the early church; she is considered a saint by several denominations. Her Greek name is after the place name Lydia, an area of the ancient world now part of modern Turkey. Lydia has charted almost continually without ever hitting the Top 100. It peaked in the 1900s at #137, disappeared from the rankings in the 1930s and ’40s, and is currently #322.

Rachel (Earley/Early/HurleyHarley/Arrly)

At the age of 25 Rachel was found guilty of stealing tea and silk worth 3 shillings, and sentenced by the court in Reading to seven years transportation. She sailed to Australia on The Friendship, and spent time in irons onboard, for the twin crimes of “theft and dirtyness”. As a convict, she once received 10 lashes for not obeying orders. She married twice, and had a daughter, but was left by both husbands; she has living descendants. She died in Tasmania in 1842. In the Old Testament, Rachel was one of the wives of Jacob. Her name is Hebrew for “ewe”, perhaps with connotations of purity and submissiveness, although in the Bible Rachel did literally take care of her father’s sheep. Rachel is said to have been of overwhelming beauty, and Jacob loved her best of his wives. She was plagued by infertility issues, but managed to give birth to Joseph and Benjamin, her husband’s favourite children. Unfortunately, she died in childbirth, and her tomb is still a place of pilgrimage. The name Rachel has charted almost continually since 1900, dropping from the rankings during the 1940s. It peaked in the 1970s at #19, and is currently #118.


Barnaby (Denison/Dennison/Deneson)

At the age of 28 Barnaby was found guilty of “intent to rob”, and sentenced by the court in Bristol to seven years transportation. He sailed to Australia on the Alexander. According to the convict records, he was once sentenced to 50 lashes for “singing loudly at an improper time”, and became a night watchman. He died in 1811. The name Barnaby is a medieval English form of Barnabas. In the New Testament, Barnabas was a companion of St Paul and fellow missionary. His name was Joseph, but when he converted from Judaism to Christianity he was given the name Barnabas, which is a Greek form of Aramaic, and can be translated as “son of prophecy” or “son of encouragement”. There are many literary characters named Barnaby, most notably Dickens’ eponymous Barnaby Rudge.

Cooper (Handy/Handley/Henley)

Cooper made his living as a weaver. At the age of 33 he was found guilty of assault and highway robbery to the value of 20 shillings and sentenced to death by the court in Salisbury. This was commuted to seven years transportation, and he sailed to Australia on the Friendship. Cooper was held in a hulk at Dunkirk before he left, and at one point managed to escape during an uprising, but was recaptured. His report says that he behaved “remarkably well” otherwise. Not long after his arrival in Australia, Cooper was killed by Aborigines while gathering greens. Cooper is an English surname referring to someone who makes barrels as their occupation. Apart from being a popular name, Cooper is well known in Australia as the surname of the family who owns Cooper’s Brewery in South Australia. The name Cooper first joined the charts in the 1990s and peaked in 2009 at #4. It’s currently #7.

Ferdinand (Dowland/Dowlan/Doolan)

Ferdinand was a dustman. At the age of 32 he was found guilty of stealing a horse worth 30 shillings. He was sentenced to death at the Old Bailey, commuted to seven year’s transportation, and sailed to Australia on the Scarborough. He died in 1827. The name Ferdinand is from the Spanish form of a Germanic name meaning “daring journey”. Brought to Spain by the Visigoths, it was used amongst the royal houses of Spain and Portugal, and through them became common in the Hapsburg family, rulers of the Holy Roman Empire. One of its most famous namesakes is Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese explorer whose expedition was the first to circumnavigate the globe (although Ferdinand himself did not survive the voyage). Ferdinand is also a character in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest; a prince who is shipwrecked on Propsero’s island, and falls in love with his daughter Miranda.

Ishmael (Colman)

At the age of 32 Ishmael was found guilty of stealing woollen blankets worth 14 shillings, and sentenced to seven years transportation by the court in Dorchester. Ishmael was held in a hulk at Dunkirk before sailing, where he was described as “decent and orderly”. He died after only 16 days at sea on the Charlotte; the report from the ship’s doctor says that his death was brought about through his long confinement before the trip, which had brought about “low spirits and debility”. Ishmael is a name from the Bible which is translated as “God has heard”. In the Old Testament, Ishmael was the son of Abraham and his wife’s handmaiden, Hagar; Ishmael and his mother are two Biblical characters who get a raw deal, being cast into the wilderness to fend for themselves and not receiving any inheritance from Abraham. According to tradition, he is the father of the Arabic people, and is considered such in Islam, Judaism and Christianity, although this isn’t historically accurate. The prophet Muhammad traced his bloodline from Ishmael, and he is one of the prophets of Islam. In literature, Ishmael is the brooding narrator of Herman Melville’s famous novel, Moby Dick.

Job (Hollister)

At the age of 21 Job was found guilty of stealing tobacco and sentenced to seven years transportation by the court in Gloucester. He sailed to Australia on the Alexander. When he completed his sentence, Job left the colony and migrated to Vancouver Island in Canada. Job is another Old Testament character who has a miserable time. A righteous man, God allows Satan to take away his wealth, his children and his health in an effort to tempt him to curse his Creator. He never does so, although he is aggrieved by the process, and spends a lot of time wondering why all these dreadful things keep happening to him. The story ends happily, with God rewarding him many times over, but with no reasonable explanation for his treatment. Although the tale bears all the hallmarks of an allegory on the human condition, Job is regarded as a prophet in Judaism and Islam, and is given a saint’s day in several Christian denominations. In line with the narrative, Job’s name is translated as “hated, persecuted”.

Image is of The First Fleet in Sydney Cove, January 27, 1788 by John Allcott (1938). Painting held by the National Library of Australia.