Born in Downpatrick in 1786, Ann Morrison was a county servant, a low-paid seasonal worker on farms and estates. Having had her son Samuel out of wedlock, Ann would have had difficulty making ends meet. This may explain why, in March of 1820, Ann was found guilty for knowingly "having a forged note of the Bank of Ireland in her possession" and sentenced to 14 years transportation. Incarcerated with her child for over a year in Downpatrick Gaol, Ann and the infant Samuel were transported to Australia on the "John Bull" in 1821. Ann's story is just one among hundreds of those transported from the Old Gaol of Downpatrick.

Established in 1717, penal transportation initially saw prisoners transported to North America and the Caribbean, the American Revolution meant a new colony was needed by the 1780s. An alternative was found in Australia and in 1791 the first ships bearing prisoners departed Ireland for New South Wales. During the era of transportation, 162,000 prisoners were transported to Australia from Britain and Ireland, with over a quarter coming from Ireland alone.

Transportation proved to be a more acceptable form of punishment. To prison reformers, it offered the chance for convicts to reform their lives in a disciplined context. For others, it provided an effective alternative to capital punishment, as public opinion began to see execution as too severe. For both sides, it offered a more practical option; it took the pressure off the prison system, provided an "out of sight, out of mind" solution, and delivered a labouring population to Australia.

After sentencing, authorities housed the convicted in the old Gaol to await transportation. Convicts would often be marched to a port such as Warrenpoint before travelling by boat to Cobh in Cork and then to Australia. The journey to Australia was long and often arduous. Earlier transport fleets had suffered high mortality rates. By the time the Old Gaol opened however, conditions began to improve somewhat. Only one death had been recorded among convicts transported from the Old Gaol, an elderly man named Andrew Richey in 1799. Outbreaks of illness were still common on convict ships, however. From 1815, it was required that a naval surgeon was onboard to care for the prisoner's health.

Once in Australia, male prisoners were used for labour, working for free settlers on farms or by the government in building the roads, railways and buildings. Women were either house servants for free settlers or in the case of Ann Morrison, worked at Parramatta's Female Factory. Convicts lived under strict rules; breaking one would result in harsh, sometimes brutal punishment, including flogging or, in the case of women, having their hair shaved off. After a few years, convicts could apply for a ticket of leave that would grant them more freedom to travel and work throughout the colony. Most of those who completed their sentences remained in Australia, with several prospering. Ann Morrison married and, with her husband, opened an inn, the Currency Lass.

Contrary to popular belief, few interned in the Old Gaol for political crimes between 1796 and 1806, such as those involved in the United Irishmen rebellions, were sentenced to transportation. There is debate about the exact number of political prisoners and rebels transported from Ireland during this time with some suggesting as many as 2,500-5,000 and others as little as 500.

One of the first convicts transported to Australia from county Down was Robert Flanagan, a Newry highwayman imprisoned in Downpatrick. Notorious for his actions, his neighbours had written the court asking for him to be sent to Australia instead of being released. Another Old Gaol convict, Michael McIlvanney, was transported in 1813 on the charge of attempting to pass himself off as a Church of Ireland minister so he could carry out weddings for money.

While McIlvanney's case is almost comical, the economic volatility of the late 1810s and 1820s led to a period of increased crime. The aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars led to an economic depression from 1815 until 1822, which coincided with a dramatic rise in the rate of transportation from Britain and Ireland. By 1820, most of those transported were convicted of petty crimes such as robbery, vagrancy, assault, forging, shoplifting and highway robbery. Like Ann Morrison, Elizabeth Dogherty was sentenced in 1820 for passing forged bank notes and transported from the Gaol to Australia with her infant child.

Others turned to more aggressive crimes. In 1822, Patt Roney, William Cardwell and John Duffy were arrested on charges of burglary and robbery and were transported in 1823 for seven years. These three men were all residents of Downpatrick and had families to support. Patt and John lived with and supported their parents. William had a myriad of responsibilities as he cared for his wife, children, widowed mother, and several orphans. It can be argued that they turned to criminal activities out of financial need and desperation, like Ann and Elizabeth.

During its 34 years in operation 400 convicts were transported from the Old Gaol in Downpatrick. While many convicts would go on to live peacefully after their sentence ended, few would return home. Ann Morrison never saw Ireland again, she experienced hardship and success in Australia until she died in 1859 from old age.

Convicts continued to be transported from Downpatrick from the New Gaol that opened in 1830 until 1868 when the transportation system ended.

To learn more about the Old Gaol’s connection to Transportation, you can visit Down County Museum Tuesdays to Saturdays, 10 AM to 4:30 PM.