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Genealogy and a Criminal Past

By: Chris Nickson - Updated: 1 Dec 2011 | comments*Discuss
 
Genealogy Criminal Jail Prison Old

Finding that you have a criminal among your ancestors can come as a shock. Most of us are law-abiding people, so the revelation of someone in the family who’s been convicted of a crime can lead you to wondering what happened – and give you something to deal with.

Go back beyond the 19th century and records are spotty, as they are for many things. But for the 19th and 20th centuries there’s plenty to help you in your search, helped by the proliferation of prisons and punishments.

Awaiting Trial

Much as people are placed on remand before trial today, in the past those accused would be jailed to await trial, although it could be a long time before they enjoyed their day in court. Although you won’t find any detailed records of what went on during prison stays, whether before or after conviction, discovering where an ancestor was, and for how long, is relatively simply.

Searching the calendar of those awaiting trial will give you some details about your ancestor. It will say whether they were literate – remember, literacy was far from universal - along with the person’s age, whether they had a trade, and the name they gave upon arrest, as well as their real name if it could be discovered. These can usually be found in the local records office for your area, although most aren’t online.

In some instances, where the prisons are high profile tourist attractions these days, it’s possible to search a database there – crime as entertainment. Type the family’s surname into one of the machines there and it brings up a number of possible matches, including the crime and the sentence they received, which in those days would be generally either transportation or hanging.

Prison Sentences

Different levels of crime were tried by different courts, much as they are today. Minor crimes would be in Magistrate’s Court (the petty sessions of these courts would generally involve local offences, such as fornication or adulteration of food or ale) or at the Quarter Sessions (for crimes of a slightly more serious nature). Again, these records will generally be found in local records office and hold some information about the person, including the verdict of the court and what happened – discharged, prison, or whatever. They would not judge capital crimes as a general rule.

For the assize courts and for everything involving the Old Bailey’s, England’s best-known court, go to the National Archive. These will be the capital cases where the verdict could easily be hanging.

Note that convict records (by definition, a convict was someone who could be transported) are extensive and separately held. Although there will be some records in the UK, most will be in Australia, which was the destination for convicts from 1788.

In Prison

Most prison records aren’t as extensive as a researcher might hope. There will be registers of different kinds for researchers. Every prison has registers for admissions and discharges, which will be organised chronologically. Where there’s a prison sentence, knowing the discharge date is important.

After 1805 there are plenty of prison registers, which will mostly be available at local records offices (or at the prison itself in some instances). Although these contain a fair bit of information, depending on the particular prison, there is generally nothing about the person’s prison stay. So, although you get the brief details (plus, in the case of escapees and repeat offenders, a physical description), you learn nothing of the person’s life inside. One thing you will discover going through a prison register is the large number of juvenile criminals in jail, a very sobering thought.

Later in the era, once photography became commonplace, some prisons began taking pictures of inmates and some of these remain; Stafford Prison, for instance, has photographs of prisoners from 1883-1911.

After Release

There was no probation or early release for good behaviour in the 19th century. A prisoner served his or her sentence and was then out on his own. To follow after that, the usual sources – city directories, censuses, birth, marriage and death records – will tell the rest of the life story, or at least give the bare bones of it.

How do you deal with the fact that an ancestor has been convicted of a crime? A fact is all it is; it happened and it’s part of your family history. Without a record of the trial, which won’t be possible in most instances, you won’t know the circumstances of the crime. Simply note it as one more event in the history of your family and move on. It’s not shocking; if anything it adds a little cachet to the past.

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