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

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS - An­gela Buck­ley is the au­thor of The Real Sher­lock Holmes: The Hid­den Story of Jerome Cam­i­nada (Pen and Sword). She is also chair of the So­ci­ety of Ge­neal­o­gists

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.

Be­hind bars

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

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