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Using Criminal Records For Family History Research

Author: Chris Nickson - Updated: 11 April 2013 | commentsComment
 
Genealogy Criminal Records Family

Let's face it, as much as we dread the idea of finding a criminal in our family history, there's also a thrill to it, too. It adds a bit of colour to what might otherwise be a very sober family tree. A lot, of course, depends on the crime; we might not want up to being descended from a cold-blooded murderer, for example. Yet for a long time so many things were treated as crimes that you might well have had a relative who ended up in court.

Genealogy And Accused Persons Records

One thing about the penal system, it generated a lot of paperwork. They had to keep tracks of criminals in jail or awaiting trial. For anyone involved in genealogy, the beauty of criminal records is that many of them, certainly from the 19th century, still survive. What's more, they can reveal a lot about the accused.

The calendars of people accused of crimes but awaiting trial would generally have a name index, along with the given name (not always the same thing), crime, age, trade and whether literate. Depositions for the Quarter Sessions (which was for the lesser crimes that didn't warrant an assize court), would have name, address, occupation and signature. If your ancestor was a criminal, you'll certainly find him in those.

Records of Convicted Criminals And Family History

If a person was found guilty, the sentence could be many things, ranging from prison to transportation or execution by hanging (a popular public spectacle for many hundreds of years). But whatever happened, they'd initially have to be transferred from court to jail, and the papers for that give the next of kin, age and marital status. In genealogy, that information is worth its weight in gold, because you establish not only a home address, but also a relationship to help you along with your family tree.

Prison registers, too, can be a motherlode for family history. They're available for most of the country from 1805-1892 (London from 1791). Those criminal records give you the criminal's given name, place of birth, and the date of death (if they died in prison), any evidence of their identity and their residence. Some even add residence, place of birth, marital status, number of children and religion – a genealogy treasure trove. For juveniles (and there were many) you can find the name and address of their parents. Repeat offenders and escapees had their descriptions listed, a little item that can fill out a family history nicely.

Those in jail were termed prisoners. If they were transported, they became convicts, and a further wealth of paperwork was generated about them. Hanging was the end of the line for many, and often for crimes that wouldn't even get them in jail today. Again, there are exhaustive records.

Where to Find Old Court Records

The National Archives is the main source for criminal records and genealogy. They certainly have all those from the Old Bailey and the assize courts. Magistrates' court and Quarter sessions records will be held locally, and were concerned with commonplace crimes like fornication. They were also charged with everyday tasks like discovering the fathers of illegitimate children, and the granting of licences to sell alcohol, but again, small things like that can reveal a lot about your ancestors.

Police Records and Tracing Family History

If your ancestor was on the right side of the law, you can find his records with the local police force. Or, if he served in the Metropolitan Police between 1829 and1933, those records (which aren't complete) are at the National Archives – another genealogy avenue.

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Leave a Comment...
I am trying to find details of a court case in London/E London dating from 1970 (+/- one year) in which the defendant received a 3 year sentence for armed robbery. I do not know any more than those dates, the person's name, very rough details of the crime and which end of London the crime occurred in. Where do I start?
Dixie - 10-Jul-12 @ 1:00 PM
The problem, of course, is that going back it's much harder to find any court records. So if you had a criminal ancestor in the 18th century, only a few of those records - such as ones from the Old Bailey - really remain and are useful. Many have simply vanished, and in many instances it can be difficult to find records of executiosn, lets alone trials. This adds to the problems in putting together a complete family history.
Ray - 30-May-12 @ 2:27 PM
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