Your criminal ancestors
Do you have criminal connections?
What I mean by this is do you have criminal ancestors? I’m must admit that so far my ancestors have appeared as whiter than white (morally beyond reproach), and I’m disappointed! Now, don’t get me wrong I don’t wish that many of my ancestors should have been in trouble with the law just to satisfy my quest for further information and to give my family tree more ‘colour’ (to add flourish or provide an interesting accompaniment to something i). Furthermore before your thoughts wander I’d like to state that I don’t have any criminal tendencies myself and I’ve tried to live my life on the right side of the law. But, I’m disappointed because a criminal ancestor would add so much information to the family tree and give me a fascinating insight in the social context of the time.
If you have an inkling of criminality in your family tree, or even if you don’t but would like to explore this fascinating subject then please read on. You never know what skeletons you may find in your family tree; what stories might your ancestors tell?
See https://myfamilygenealogy.co.uk/guidance/ for my 5 steps to discovering your ancestors.
How to trace your criminal ancestors
Researching your ‘black sheep’ (an idiom used to describe an odd or disreputable member of a group, especially within a family ii) has never been easier. Online records are being published weekly and those for locating the criminals in your family tree are readily available for you to research now.
The first step is to search for any contemporary accounts of the event. Particularly helpful here are newspapers held by a local library or archive; check those in the vicinity of the event. Newspapers can also be searched online through the growing database of the British Newspaper Archive (https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/). Welsh and Irish archives are available to at papuraunewyddcymru.llgc.org.uk/ and irishnewsarchive.com. Scotland is represented by https://www.nls.uk/collections/newspapers.
If you now want the detail of the proceedings, court records will be your next step. For those in England and Wales, The National Archives will be your first stop (nationalarchives.gov.uk). From 1972 onwards many records are still held by the courts themselves. Records available:
- case papers and indictments (defendant details included)
- bail or custody granted
- trial date
- jury’s verdict
- sentence (if convicted)
- lawyers and officials who participated
Of course criminal registers and court papers can be located at local archives across the country. Check https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/find-an-archive for the archives location.
Another useful website is http://vcp.e2bn.org/, providing a searchable database of prisoners from the 19th century. The National Library of Wales has a crime and punishment database at https://crimeandpunishment.library.wales/index_s.htm extracted from the gaol (jail) files of the Court of Great Sessions 1730-1830.
For court cases in Scotland The National Records of Scotland holds most court records from across the country (see: https://webarchive.nrscotland.gov.uk/20170203092531/https://www.nrscotland.gov.uk/research/guides/crime-and-criminals). Local archives can support your research with police arrest books and prison records. The Scottish Archive Network at scan.org.uk has catalogue holdings for many of the country’s archives. The Scottish Council of Archives (scottisharchives.org.uk/) to locate key repositories of information.
For the Republic of Ireland the Irish Prison Registers 1790-1924 database can be located on Findmypast.ie (or through an international subscription to findmypast.co.uk). There is also the local justices of the peace (Petty Sessions Courts Records database) 1842-1913.
Many court records in Ireland were destroyed by fire during the Four Courts fire of 1922. There is an online Ireland-Australia Transportation database (1791-1853) at http://findingaids.nationalarchives.ie/index.php?category=18&subcategory=147.
For Northern Ireland the court records are held at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (nidirect.gov.uk/proni).
- England & Wales, Crime, Prisons & Punishment, 1770-1935
- Prison Ship (Hulk) Registers
- Australian Convict Registers, including:
- Victoria, Convict register 1842-1854
- New South Wales, Convict Death Register 1828-1879
- Queensland Convict register index 1824-1839
- Queensland, St Helena Convict Index 1863-1936
- Australia Convict Tickets of Leave 1824-1874
- New South Wales, butts of convicts’ certificates of freedom 1827-1867
- Newspaper collections
- Australian Transportation, 1787-1868
- Criminal Lunacy Records, 1882-1898
- Criminal Registers, 1791-1892 (Middlesex)
- Debtors prison registers, 1734-1862
- Prison hulk registers, 1802-1849
Further information and links
The records of criminals held at The National Archives are primarily the records of criminal courts. We hold many records of the central courts of law in England and Wales, of the county assize courts up to 1971 and of the Crown courts after that (but very little, and in some cases nothing, from the last 20 to 30 years). Source: https://nationalarchives.gov.uk/; accessed Oct 2020
The Old Bailey was the central criminal court for the City of London and Middlesex. Its jurisdiction was extended to parts of Essex, Kent and Surrey in 1864 as well as certain cases previously tried by the Admiralty. Trials for serious crimes committed in this area were held here. Offences ranged from felony (a crime of high seriousness) to really, very serious crimes and the court proceedings cover 1674-1913 (197,745 criminal trials). Source: Family Tree Magazine, accessed Oct 2020.
Until 1869 bankruptcy was a crime which usually ended with a spell in a Debtors Prison. Details of bankruptcy cases (names, addresses, dates of trial) are usually given and your ancestors maybe listed? Source: Family Tree Magazine; accessed Oct 2020.
The British Newspaper Archive is a partnership between the British Library and findmypast to digitise up to 40 million newspaper pages from the British Library’s vast collection over the next 10 years. To date (6 October 2020) 39,110,536 pages have been digitised dating from the 1700s to the present day. Source: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/; accessed Oct 2020.
Welsh Newspapers Online is a free online resource from the National Library of Wales where you can discover millions of articles from the Library’s rich collection of historical newspapers. Welsh Newspapers Online currently lets you search and access over 1,100,000 pages from nearly 120 newspaper publications generally up to 1910. Source: https://newspapers.library.wales/; accessed Oct 2020.
The National Library of Scotland’s newspapers collection is one of the largest in the UK. It is also the largest in Scotland. Items range from the earliest newspaper printed in Scotland to online titles running to thousands of pages. Source: https://www.nls.uk/; accessed Oct 2020.
The world’s largest and oldest online database of Irish newspapers. Through the Irish Newspaper Archives gateway you will find the world’s most complete Irish newspaper archive. The online newspaper archives provides a fast and easy way to access newspapers from 1738 all the way up to current day. Source: https://www.irishnewsarchive.com/; accessed Oct 2020
The Crime and Punishment database comprises data about crimes, criminals and punishments included in the gaol files of the Court of Great Sessions in Wales from 1730 until its abolition in 1830. Source: https://crimeandpunishment.library.wales/index_s.htm; accessed Oct 2020.
We hold many records relating to crime and criminals. Information about crime and criminals can be found in the records of criminal courts, criminal investigations and prisons.
Source: https://webarchive.nrscotland.gov.uk/20170203092531/https://www.nrscotland.gov.uk/research/guides/crime-and-criminals; accessed Oct 2020.
The Scottish Archive Network is a project to revolutionise access to Scotland’s archives by providing a single electronic catalogue to the holdings of more than 50 Scottish archives.
Source: https://scan.org.uk/; accessed Oct 2020.
The Scottish Council on Archives provides leadership and builds capacity for the archives and records management sector in Scotland. Source: https://www.scottisharchives.org.uk/; accessed Oct 2020.
The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) is the official archive for Northern Ireland. Source: https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/proni; accessed Oct 2020.
Genealogical prison records and nsane asylum records for the United States (US) as well as genealogical prison records for the United Kingdom UK). You will also find numerous links to historical court records, execution records and biographies of famous outlaws & famous criminals across the US, UK and Canada. Source: https://www.blacksheepancestors.com/; accessed Oct 2020.
This website is all about Crime and Punishment in the UK in the 19th Century. We have a prisoner database with actual prisoner records and case studies for a more in-depth view of the crimes and trials of some of the inmates. Source: http://vcp.e2bn.org/; accessed Oct 2020.
Launched in 2018, this public engagement partnership project, involving the University of Hull and Leeds Beckett University, encourages and supports people to explore the criminal past of their own families, communities, towns and regions from 1700-1939. This can also include victims, witnesses, prisoners, police, prison officers, solicitors, magistrates etc. Family history enthusiasts are also invited to contribute research stories. Source: https://ourcriminalancestors.org/; accessed Oct 2020
Key contacts and useful websites
- i The Free Dictionary; https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/; accessed Oct 2020
- ii Wikipedia; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_sheep; accessed Oct 2020
- Family Tree Magazine, accessed 2020
- Photo by Nick Winchester; freeimages.com/
Thanks to Manuella Armstrong for requesting this subject for my blog.
Robert Parker is a Genealogist and Trainer, based in Kent. He delivers courses, guidance, talks and research services for those interested in tracing their ancestors. See https://myfamilygenealogy.co.uk/guidance/ for his 5 steps to discovering your ancestors. Contact Robert to discuss your requirements without obligation.
What stories could your ancestors tell?