FOCUS ON: CRIMINAL RECORDS
Following the recent release of 1.9 million criminal records on Findmypast, Angela Buckley reveals how to find felonious forebears both online and in archives
After the recent release of 1.9 million criminal records on Findmypast, we tell you how to find your felonious forebears online and in the archives
Though some of us may be dismayed about finding a criminal in our tree, many will find it exciting to discover a law-breaking ancestor, especially given the amount of records they will have left behind.
Now, the recent release of 1.9 million criminal records on findmypast.co.uk provides an excellent opportunity to track down the shady characters lurking in your family tree.
There are many reasons why people broke the law; above all, if your family were struggling to survive then they may have been driven to cross the line. In the 19th century, more often than not, crime was linked to the challenging conditions in which many of our ancestors lived, with cramped housing, few amenities and no safety net of social benefits. Other factors that could have driven people to crime include unemployment, low wages, bereavement or mental health issues that weren’t understood at the time.
The most common indictable offences were theft and assault. The former was punishable by death until 1832, and then by transportation as the prisons became full of those simply stealing to survive, while the latter was often fuelled by excessive alcohol consumption.
In the 18th century, individuals suspected of breaking the law would have usually been arrested by the parish constable and brought before a local magistrate. By the early 1800s, crime rates had risen sharply, which led to the creation of the Metropolitan Police Force, in 1829, by Sir Robert Peel.
Throughout the rest of the century, the judicial system developed, and although there was a reduction in capital offences, there was an increase in legislation, outlawing many activities, such as gambling and some blood sports. As new crimes were added to the statute books, it became more likely that ordinary people might break the law.
Rolls of rogues
The best place to start looking for a potential felon is in the criminal registers and calendars of prisoners at The National Archives (TNA). Calendars of prisoners were published before trials and give basic information about the prisoner and the
offence they were alleged to have committed. These can be found in the series HO 140 (1868-1971) at TNA, in county record offices and on findmypast.co.uk. The criminal registers, HO 26 and 27 (1791-1892) list all prisoners, whether awaiting trial or after conviction. They are accessible through ancestry.co.uk. Once you have located an individual, you then need to begin at the scene of the crime and follow the paper trail through the courts, until you reach the conclusion.
In the first instance, all those suspected of misdemeanours were tried locally at the petty sessions, which were summary courts presided over by two magistrates and generally without a jury.
For acts such as theft and wilful damage, defendants appeared at quarter sessions, which comprised justices of the peace and a jury. The most serious crimes were referred to the assizes, which were held twice a year and presided over by two or more judges. The quarter sessions and the assizes were replaced by the crown courts system in 1971.
Petty and quarter sessions records are held at the county record office where the offence was committed. These fascinating documents, which are not always available online, can be accompanied by additional paperwork that gives more details about cases, including depositions (statements made under oath), case files and recognizance books (bonds to ensure good behaviour). When Cornelius Willoughby was indicted for stealing potatoes at the Wiltshire Quarter Sessions on 17 May 1844, it seemed to be a straightforward case of theft, but the depositions revealed that his stepmother had shopped him to the police in a personal vendetta.
Some county record offices have online indexes, such as Hertfordshire Archives, through which you can order electronic copies of the court records for a fee. Furthermore, some indexes of regional crime records are published by family history societies. The Society of Genealogists’ library has a wide-ranging selection of indexes, books and pamphlets.
The assize records are kept at TNA, in the ASSI series (15591971), except for records from the Central Criminal Court at the Old Bailey (1674-1913), which are to be found at the London Metropolitan Archives and can be downloaded for free from www.oldbaileyonline.org.
Whether your ancestor was acquitted or convicted, they will appear in the prison records. As prisoners moved through the penal system, their progress was well documented and these records are now widely available, due to the online subscription sites.
The original records can be located at TNA, local archives and in prison archives. They contain detailed information, including residence, marital status, occupation, previous convictions, physical descriptions and occasionally even mug shots.
For example, John Dawson was convicted several times for ‘keeping a disorderly house’ in
Manchester in the 1860s. The records from Belle Vue Prison describe him as having a sallow, pockmarked complexion, with missing teeth and one of his fingers having been cut off.
The recent release of crime and punishment records on
findmypast.co.uk brings its total to almost three million. These include prison records, transportation registers and convict ship lists.
Ancestry.co.uk also has a comprehensive collection comprising quarter sessions,
prison records and criminal lunatic asylum registers. Criminal records available at thegenealogist.co.uk include the Convict Transportation Registers as well as 90,000 other criminal records. offender through the courts, you can bring the story to life by finding out more about their personal circumstances and the details of their crime.
Check regular family history resources, such as birth, marriage and death records, and the censuses, to build up a picture of what life was like for your criminal ancestor.
Records from workhouses, industrial schools and asylums may be invaluable for discovering more about their struggles.
Find a skeleton
Tracking down a ‘skeleton’ in your genealogical closet can be an enriching experience and you may be able to acquire a graphic description of an incident from contemporary newspapers. When Thomas Willoughby was indicted for attempting to commit suicide, there was no additional information in the Wiltshire Archives, but a report from the Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette stated that Thomas had tried to drown himself following a heated argument with his wife. The British Newspaper Archive ( www.britishnewspaper archive.co.uk) has more than 11 million pages online. The website can also be accessed via findmypast.co.uk, while you can also search 18th- and 19th-century newspapers on lastchancetoread.com, including the Police Gazette.
Members of the Bow Street Horse Patrol in the early 1800s. It would be incorporated into the Metropolitan Police Force in 1837
Convicts imprisoned on board a transportation ship headed to
Australia in the 19th century
Mug shots of prisoners at Wormword Scrubs. Photographing criminals became a legal requirement in 1871