Researching your criminal ancestors
by Jenny Thomas
It’s the way of the world that some genealogists, when they discover a criminal ancestor, shy away from the very thought – they delete the evidence from their records and pretend they never stumbled across it. Great-great-grandfather Joe was simply missing from the 1881 census, and it’s just a coincidence that someone of his description turned up in the local jail.
But others relish the idea of an ancestor who was a little out of the ordinary, and rush to find out more about their deeds of daring-do. It can be a fascinating investigation, not only as regards the facts of your particular case, but the social history behind it. We are often surprised by what was considered criminal in days gone by, and which misdemeanours were subject to the harshest punishments. Here are some suggestions as to how you might search for more information about your criminal ancestry.
Step one: Write down everything that you know
It’s the golden rule of genealogy, and here it is again: the first thing you need to do is write down everything that you already know about your criminal ancestor, and gather as much information as possible from your relatives and from basic genealogical records.
There may be a tale or rumour in the family that initially arouses your interest, and points you in the direction of certain records. Or it could be that your ancestor appears in jail at the time of a census – or that their family’s geographical movement between censuses leads you to suspect that they were running away from something. Or perhaps you have stumbled across another record altogether that indicates a criminal line.
Whatever your grounds for suspicion, it is useful to try and ascertain as precisely as possible the dates that you think are relevant. For example, is your ancestor in prison for two censuses running, or can you narrow down the time period by looking at the birth certificates of his or her children, or other relevant documentation? Your ancestor cannot be in prison if they are conceiving children, witnessing death certificates or marrying in the local church. Or is there a time when your ancestor seems to disappear altogether – perhaps they have changed their name – or even left the country, either voluntarily or under sentence of transportation? It is this information that will serve you well by narrowing the windows that you need to search as your investigation continues.
You can find the basic genealogical documents, or indexes to them, at several websites, including
www.ancestry.co.uk - Click here to read the review
www.findmypast.com - Click here to read the review
www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk - Click here to read the review www.genesreunited.com - Click here to read the review
Step two: Have a look at the available records of indictment, trial and conviction
For this you will need a little patience. It is sometimes a bit of a challenge finding the records relevant to your ancestor: the surviving material is shared between local and national archives, some will not survive at all and only some of the rest will be name-indexed. But with a bit of persistence you might well come across a goldmine.
A good place to start for 19th century criminal records is examining criminal registers and calendars of prisoners. The criminal registers will give details of the indictment and sentence in criminal cases, and will tell you when and where the trial took place, which should lead you to the appropriate court records. Calendars of prisoners provide similar information, and may also contain a photograph and a date of birth for your ancestor, to assure you that you really are on the trail of the right person.
Equipped with the date and place of the trial, you are in a position to examine court records, some of which are held in local archives and some at The National Archives, depending on the type of court the trial took place in. The National Archives has produced an invaluable, detailed, research guide which should help you find the records relevant to you:
There are also some good online resources for really serious crimes. For example, the Proceedings of the Old Bailey 1674-1834 are available at:
For smaller crimes, your best bet is to start with quarter session records, which are likely to be held in the local record office for the county in which the trial took place.
For more about the various courts and types of trial throughout our history, have a look at:
To locate the county record office relevant to you, have a look at:
Step three: How severely was your ancestor punished?
The above records should tell you the sentence imposed upon your ancestor, but there is often more to be uncovered once the sentence is passed. Prison records, which are again shared between local archives and The National Archives, may give you details of your ancestor’s period of incarceration. You might find a history of the prison in question, with accounts of the lives and experiences of the inmates. If the sentence was transportation, you may be able to trace your ancestor’s progress from their trial to arrival and settlement abroad. For more information about transportation, have a look at The National Archives research guides:
For transportation to America and the West Indies:
For transportation to Australia:
There are also online resources for convicts to Australia. Have a look at the collection on Ancestry:
And for further resources to trace convicts and prisoners, have a look at:
And, of course, it is always interesting to spend a portion of your research time examining other cases that arose at the same time as your ancestor’s, to see what crimes other people committed – and what punishments they suffered. You may discover that your ancestor was particularly fortunate, or treated particularly harshly.
Step four: Search the other available records
The great thing about criminal ancestors is that whatever they got up to, they probably created a lot of records you can use to find out more. However mild or serious the crime, you are likely to find an account of it and the subsequent trial in one or more local or national newspapers. You may even find a continuous saga, from the discovery of the crime to the trial, conviction and even a sensational account of a public execution. If the crime involved manslaughter or murder, you could order a death certificate of the victim, and may find more information in inquest reports or coroners’ records. And it may be that you can uncover details of your ancestor’s arrest in the records of the local police.
Step five: Do your background reading
Now is the time to place your ancestor in context, and examine the wider social picture. Was he or she typical in the crimes they committed, the punishments they received or the conditions that may have driven them to crime? Were many people being tried and punished for the same or similar offences? And why was your ancestor’s crime judged to be more or less serious than other misdemeanours?
For background information, a social history perspective and helpful reading lists, have a look at: