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Convict Tattoos
This page created 6 Mar 2000
Updated 24 Jan 2002
Julie Gleeson, in her article "Early Colonial Society" published in The European Occupation, ed Tim Gurry, Heinemann, 1987, wrote of urban offenders who were transported, many of whom belonged to
gangs of professional thieves. 
"Many of these were highly organised and actually elected 'captains'.  Members of the fraternity, who were often distinguished by tattoos , met regularly in flash houses
like the 'Brown Bear' (directly opposite the Bow Street Police Office.)

David Kemp has done a study of convict tattoos, and gives on the whole a more romantic explanation for the variety of initials and symbols found amongst the records of those he studied.  A summary of
his findings is found at this website:
Historian probes the story of convicts' tattoos

Below are some tattoo meanings I noted down from the display at the Port Arthur historic site:


Anchor Hope and constancy
Man carrying anchor I carry my hopes with me
Man beside upside down anchor I have lost all hope
Woman holding scales and an anchor I have hope in justice
Anchor and crucifix I have hope in salvation
Flowerpot Any suggestions?
Initials represented often the convict himself, initials of loved ones, sweethearts, children.  A ring tattooed on the ring finger might indicate a marriage, though perhaps only a
de facto one.

Chain Letters
Tattoo History   (Some interesting reading here)
Convict Love Tokens
Convicts and Tobacco  (Possibly relevant if your ancestor had "pipe" amongst his tatts)
Thomas Burberry's Farewell Love Token


"Written On The Body: The Tattoo in European and American History". Author: edited by Jane Caplan published by Thames & Hudson. Includes an article by Hamish Maxwell-Stuart,
Research Fellow University of Tasmania, on Religious Tattoos.

Age review of the book

From the Pearly Kings and Queens website  http://www.pearlysociety.co.uk/history.htm