Criminal Ancestors

Discussion in 'Criminal Ancestors' started by Daft Bat, Jan 2, 2015.

  1. Daft Bat

    Daft Bat Administrator. Chief cook & bottle washer! Staff Member

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    Northamptonshire, England.
    When investigating crimes and punishment of the past you should not expect the punishment to fit the crime.

    Take for example a pauper ancestor caught stealing. They could be sentenced to death or have a reduced punishment of transportation for 14 years. If the punishment was for a lesser crime and the death sentence was not passed, then the transportation would be for a period of 7 years. However, a well-to-do person running over and killing a pauper could get as little as a fine.

    What you will need to know before you start.

    Try to find out:
    · the name of the prisoner, including variant spellings
    · when and where they were imprisoned

    Which records and where are they?

    These are not stored in one central location, so it is often best to start looking in local archives. A prison nominal register will have the following headings:

    · Register number
    · Name of the prisoner – both Christian name and Surname
    · Summary of convictions, including date and place of committal
    · Re-examination and Trial (if appropriate)
    · Assizes and Sessions
    · Offence
    · Sentence
    · Education
    · Age, height and colour of hair
    · Trade or Occupation
    · Religion and Birthplace
    · Previous convictions
    · Date of discharge
    · Remarks

    Calendars of prisoners provide similar information, but may also have a date of birth recorded and even a photograph!

    These details should lead you to the appropriate court records, which may be found either at the local Archives or at The National Archives (TNA), depending upon the type of court the trial took place in. Trial records of quarter sessions, petty sessions and magistrates' courts should be found in the Local Archives, whereas trial records of the Supreme Court of Judicature and Central Criminal Court from 1834 should be found at TNA.

    Quarter Sessions
    These were county courts held by the magistrates (also known as Justices of the Peace) Instigated in the 14th century, they were held four times a year at March, June, September and December. The work of these courts was varied and they could be dealing with criminal matters from petty theft to rape. Quarter Sessions courts also dealt with administrative matters such as licensing. More serious crimes were referred on to the Assize courts where professional judges could handle them, rather than the Justices of the Peace.

    Assize records
    Records from the Assizes provide the name, occupation and address of the accused. However, this information should be treated with caution as aliases were often used and other false details may have been given. Not only that, but the address given is often where the crime took place rather than where the accused actually lived.

    If you know approximately when your criminal ancestor went to court, it could also be worth checking both local and National newspapers of the day. Local newspapers may be found in the local Archives and in most cases have been copied onto microfilm. However, for a small fee, a copy could be made for your own records.

    The British Library Newspaper Archives website (pay per view) is another excellent source of information. They are adding new issues on a regular basis. Some criminal records are accompanied by a photograph (but not always), the first ones having been taken in the 1850s. Alternatively, if you live near to Colindale in North London, a visit to the Newspaper Reading Room is also worthwhile. Again, for a small fee, a copy may be made of articles found.

    Police Archives
    The local Police may also have arrest records either in their own Archives or the County Record Office.

    Helpful related websites
    Many can be subscription or Pay-per-view (PPV)

    Find My Past (PPV)
    Crime, Prisons & Punishment.

    Ancestry (PPV)
    England & Wales, Criminal Registers.
    Australian Convict Transportation Registers.
    UK, Prison Hulk Registers and Letter Books.

    Republic of Ireland, Prison Registers, 1790-1924

    The National Archives
    Prison and Prisoners
    Transportation (punishment)
    A description of The Old Bailey court proceedings and what records they hold.

    Types of punishment

    This punishment meant beating a person across the backside with birch twigs. Once a common punishment, it was imposed by the courts for minor offences. Birching as a punishment for minor crimes was abolished in Britain in 1948 (Although it was used in prisons until 1962).

    The crank was a handle that convicts had to turn again and again. That was its only function as it was not connected to anything useful and was just used as a punishment in itself. Normally the prisoner had to turn the handle thousands of times before he could eat and it was hard and very monotonous work. The crank was abolished in British prisons in 1898.

    Forcing people to pay money is an obvious method of punishment and it has been used since Ancient Times.

    Hanging was a very common method of execution in England. In Britain the death penalty for murder was abolished for an experimental period of 5 years in 1965. It was abolished permanently in 1969 although the death sentence could still be invoked. The last ever death sentence anywhere in the UK was passed on 10th July 1992 on the Isle of Man.

    Hard Labour
    Prisoners were put to work quarrying or breaking stone. They were also used as a labour force for building roads.

    Pillory and Stocks.
    The pillory was a wooden frame on a pole with holes through which a person's head and hands were placed. The frame was then locked and the person subjected to humiliation and ridicule. The stocks were a wooden frame with holes through which a person's feet were placed and they were humiliated in the same way. Use of the pillory and stocks went out of favour in the 19th century. The pillory was abolished in Britain in 1837 and the stocks in 1872.

    Before the 19th century prisons were not commonly used as a punishment. People were usually only held in prisons until their trial. The sentence was usually execution or some form of corporal punishment. Many prisoners died in prison before even going to trial due to the unhygienic conditions. They were a breeding ground for typhus, which was known as gaol fever.

    Public Executions.
    Many people believe that the last public execution was that of Michael Barrett at the Old Bailey on May 26th 1868. However, the hanging of Joseph Le Brun on the island of Jersey on August 11th 1875 was also public.

    Transportation was merciful compared to the death sentence. It was also a convenient way of ridding Britain of criminals

    Transportation started around 1614 to the North Americas and the West Indies and carried on till 1775. The American Revolution of 1776 meant that transportation to North America was no longer possible.

    This did not put a stop to the sentencing to transportation. The convicts were held in prison while the government tried to find somewhere else to send them. The prisons soon became overcrowded, and extra accommodation had to be provided. In 1776 Parliament authorised the use of old navy ships ("Hulks") that were moored in coastal waters to be used as gaols for a two year period. They continued to house prisoners for a further 82 years!

    The solution to the crisis was to develop a new penal colony, and on 13 May 1787 the first fleet set sail for Australia.

    Transportation was not formally abolished until 1868

    Whatever your criminal ancestor did, there is bound to be a paper trail that should lead you to a wealth of information that other ancestors might not have.

    (Written by Terry Drayton)
    Maid of Kent, Sis, LianeH and 6 others like this.
  2. Daft Bat

    Daft Bat Administrator. Chief cook & bottle washer! Staff Member

    Likes Received:
    Northamptonshire, England.
    Updated. :)
    Ma-dotcom likes this.

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