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  • Approximately 162,000 convicts were transported to Australia from Great Britain between 1788 and 1868. Considering the scale of this forced migration, it is no surprise that many living Australians are descended from this prison population, including yours truly.

    When he was 21 years old, my great, great, great grandfather Samuel Priestly, a native of Leeds, Yorkshire, was found guilty of “picking pockets” and sentenced to serve a fourteen-year sentence in New South Wales Australia. Priestly’s harsh sentence (double the standard seven-year term) reflects his status as a repeat offender. In 1833 Samuel was sentenced to 6 months in prison and "whipt” for stealing trousers.

    Much of what I know about Samuel Priestly is derived from this document: Samuel’s certificate of freedom, issued by the colonial government in 1847, upon completion of his long sentence in the world’s biggest prison. This very important piece of paper was legal proof that Samuel Priestly was a free man, and could leave the colony if he so desired.

    Certificates of freedom included detailed descriptions of convicts, ostensibly so they could not be stolen or sold to other convicts. The description of Samuel suggests he was not a particularly handsome fellow. He was a short; reaching only 5 foot and three inches tall. Samuel had a “ruddy” complexion; the harsh Australian sun left the Englishman a sore shade of red. He had grey eyes, light brown hair, was missing a front tooth on the right side of his upper jaw, and had scars over his right eyebrow and the left side of his upper lip. Samuel also had small hairy mole on his left jaw.

    Like many convicts, Samuel’s body was also marked by two tattoos. The letters S A M were tattooed on the lower left part of his left arm, and the letters S P were tattooed on the back of his right hand. I wonder about the significance of the letters inscribed into my ancestor’s arm? Research has shown that it was common for convicts to be tattooed with their own initials and / or those of loved ones. Could AM have been a wife or lover that Samuel left in England?

    Thanks to this family history website for certificate of freedom:
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