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About the Project


Founders & Survivors is a partnership between historians, genealogists, demographers and population health researchers. It seeks to record and study the founding population of 73,000 men women and children who were transported to Tasmania. Many survived their convict experience and went on to help build a new society.

The records created of our convict founders are the most detailed descriptions of the bodies and lives of men, women and children created anywhere in the world in the 19th century. No other settler society has such a record of their founders’ heights, eye colour, literacy, skills, family history, problems and temperament.

Australia’s convict records have been placed on the UNESCO Memory of the World.

We know so much about them when they were in the convict system, but we know very little about most of them once they were free. How many returned to their homeland? How many stayed in Tasmania, or went to other colonies, especially Victoria? What was their health like?

How many were able to make a new start? How many founded families? How many became not just survivors, but founders?

We will follow mothers and daughters and fathers and sons, looking at life span, health, families, occupations and where they settled.

We will then connect them with those who served in the AIF in World War 1 and compare the service records of the male descendants of male convicts to investigate changes in height, childhood diet and health, and resilience under stress.

We will reconstruct the history of Australia from the grass-roots up, starting with the most disadvantaged of Australia’s colonial settlers: the men, women and children transported as convicts to Van Diemen’s Land.

Why only Tasmanian Convicts?

We are looking only for convicts transported to Tasmania because the Tasmanian records are better than those that have survived in New South Wales. In NSW, many of the conduct records were destroyed and the penal system in Tasmania, particularly with the introduction of the probation system from 1840 to 1852, produced astonishingly detailed records of convicts’ behaviour and experience. We also have many more medical records for Tasmanian convicts and Tasmania and Victoria were more advanced than NSW in the recording of births, deaths and marriages. We hope that others will take up the challenge of the NSW and Western Australia stories in the future.

What can we learn from such a database?

By comparing heights between convicts and their grandsons and great grandsons in the AIF, we can learn a great deal about childhood diet and health, changes in the economy in England, Ireland or Scotland and in the Australian colonies, differences between rural and city childhoods, and the role of genetics in body size.

Comparing the age and causes of death of succeeding generations helps medical researchers understand changes in human health, in particular the role of prenatal growth, infancy and childhood on adult health. We can learn more about the later-life effects of childhood infectious diseases, of influenza epidemics and changes in diet.

Comparing family sizes over generations tells us about changing attitudes to families and about women’s health over time.

Following the history of families can tells us about how Australia has worked as a society, about what government policies have helped people get ahead or have held them back. We can see the effects of changes in education, land selection, war service home loans, taxation policy, welfare, women’s rights and migration. We can learn more about the impact of war and economic changes. And from this, we can plan for the future with a better understanding of what has worked in the past and what may work in the future.

We can even learn about the effects of climate on different generations, about the long-term effects of droughts and severe winters.

We can learn about the effects of extreme stress and suffering on those who experienced the worst of the convict system or the war, and about resilience and recovery. This is particularly important for cardiovascular disease and the study of human temperament and wellbeing.

Finally, we can learn how modern Australia was put together by the men and women who were forced to come here, exiled from their families and homelands, and who, against the odds, were survivors and founders of the nation.

Founders and Survivors Acknowledgements

The data employed by the Founders and Survivors project has been collected by a number of different individuals.

Professor Deborah Oxley (All Souls College, Oxford)
Professor David Meredith (History, Oxford)

Generously provided access to indent data collected for male and female convicts arriving in Van Diemen’s Land. The majority of this data was sourced from records held by the State Library of New South Wales and relates to male and female convicts arriving in Van Diemen’s Land after 1839.

Dr Peter Gunn (Flinders University)
Dr Rebecca Kippen (Melbourne University)

Supplied data for Tasmanian births, deaths and marriages covering the period 1838-99. This was collected under the following Australian Research Council grants. A78715590, A79131567, A79532723 and DP0451835.

The Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office
Supplied electronic copies of indexes for arriving convicts, convict permission to marry, departures from Van Diemen’s Land/Tasmania 1817-1858 and free arrivals.

This information was supplemented by material collected under two ARC grants:

Australian Research Council Discovery Grant — ‘Founders and Survivors Australian Lifecourses in Historical Context’ 2007-11
Associate Professor Hamish Maxwell-Stewart (University of Tasmania)
Dr Rebecca Kippen (University of Melbourne)
Professor Janet McCalman (University of Melbourne)
Professor Ralph Shlomowitz (University of Flinders)
Professor Alison Venn (University of Melbourne)
Professor David Meredith (Oxford University)
Associate Professor Shyamali Dharmage (University of Melbourne)
Gavan McCarthy (University of Melbourne)

Australian Research Council Discovery Grant, ‘Convicts and Diggers: a demography of life courses, families and generations’ 2010-13
Dr Rebecca Kippen (University of Melbourne
Associate Professor Hamish Maxwell-Stewart (University of Tasmania)
Dr Damminda Alahakoon (Monash University)
Dr James Bradley (University of Melbourne)
Associate Professor Shyamali Dharmage (University of Melbourne)
Professor Kris Inwood (University of Guelph)
Professor John Mathews (University of Melbourne)
Professor Michael Shields (University of Melbourne)

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