Researching Criminal Ancestors

criminal mugshots
1 Oct, 2019

Researching Criminal Ancestors

In recent years, the expansion in digitisation of historical records used by genealogists and family historians has led to the wider availability of material relating to crime, policing and punishment in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Materials such as criminal registers, institutional prison records and photographs or ‘mugshots’ are often used by archives and museums to draw-in the reader. What do we need to bear in mind when using records to find out about crime and the criminal justice system in the past?

The Crimes

As today, most offenders appearing in the criminal justice system in the past did so for petty crime. Overwhelmingly, this was made up of minor public disorder, drunkenness, assault and petty thefts, and therefore the imprint of these offences on the historical records of the past can be small. The ‘Criminal Registers, 1805-1892’ list the offender, the offence and the punishment for indictable offences, but records for the considerably larger volume of summary offences in the courts of petty session do not survive in this way (though they may at the individual court level). The documents which outline your ancestors’ crimes and the punishments they received might be the only records that you are able to find.

More evidence exists of more serious offenders and offences (though this also varies across the country) but our perceptions of crime in the present need to be evaluated against a system of the past that largely saw property offences as being far more significant than our present day emphasis on interpersonal violence. Thus, even the more serious punishments that were meted out by the courts in the nineteenth century could be the result of prosecutions for property offences. The majority of people sentenced to transportation or serving sentences of penal servitude (long term imprisonment after 1853) were also doing so for theft. Related crimes included larceny of money, property, clothing and theft from the person as well as lesser violence. Serious violence was in the minority.

The Justice System

It is also important to think differently about how criminal justice was organised. Today we often think of this as a centralised criminal justice system with national cohesiveness, but in the eighteenth and for the majority of the nineteenth century, most criminal justice was local. Policing and the courts system were organised by local authorities or boroughs and most of the activity of the system happened at this level. Then, as today, most activity occurred in the magistrates’ courts (petty sessions or police courts, as they were then known). Before 1877 all local prisons were in the hands of local authorities and administered by the Quarter Sessions (a county level court system for offences to be punished short of the death penalty). The highest courts in the land were the Assizes. Only abolished in 1972 (replaced with the Crown Court), the Assize courts were regional and historically met twice a year, as judges from London travelled on circuits across the country to try capital crimes. By the 1860s there were only four capital offences, and in practice, offenders found guilty were executed for crimes of murder. But in the earlier period, a considerable number of offences were capital, but the question of whether they actually resulted in the death of the convicted offender creates another potential pitfall for researchers.

The gap between the sentence given in court and the punishment given and how it was dealt with in practice could also vary. Those sentenced to death by the courts were not necessarily executed (there were various ways by which people might be able to plead mercy and have sentences commuted to transportation or penal servitude instead, for example). Furthermore, those sentenced to transportation did not necessarily ever leave British shores. Some transportees died or were released directly from the hulks (disused warships housed convicts on the Thames and south coast of England) whilst they awaited ships to Australia; this may have been on medical conditions or due to the fact they had served a significant period there. It is therefore worth checking both records of sentences in England as well as lists of those who embarked or arrived in Australia.

A ‘criminal’ ancestor?

The final point to note is one about emphasis.  Finding a person with a criminal conviction in your family history can be a very interesting and a revealing part of exploring their story; it can be an avenue to explore information about them that you would never normally have found (particularly about the working class or the poor who have left few records behind) but we should also be cautious in what we take from this.  Finding a crime committed by an ancestor is illuminating but we may also be putting much more emphasis on this moment in their life than they ever did.  Most people were petty offenders; they might have had an encounter with the criminal justice system in an otherwise law-abiding life, so they are not a criminal ancestor but an ancestor who committed a crime.

Criminal Ancestors Project

Our Criminal Ancestors is a project led by Professor Helen Johnston and Professor Heather Shore, originally funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. You can find out more about the project and find guidance, tips and source guides for researching criminal, police and prison ancestors on our website or follow us on Twitter @ourcriminalpast .


About the Author.


Professor Helen JohnstonHelen Johnston is Professor of Criminology at the University of Hull. She is an expert in the history of crime and punishment from 1750. She has undertaken extensive research on local prisons, convict prisons and licensing/early release mechanisms. She has researched the experiences of both prisoners and staff and the evolution of prison architecture. Helen is also interested in crime and criminal justice heritage and the preservation, presentation and dissemination of crime heritage in museums, archives and heritage sites.

She has been Principal Investigator and Co-Investigator on a range of funded research projects supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Economic and Social Research Council and the British Academy. She has published widely in these areas, most recently Crime in England, 1815-1880 (Routledge, 2015) and Victorian Convicts (with Godfrey and Cox, Pen & Sword 2016).


Guest Writer

Guest writers are non RQG members who are experts in their own field. They range from academics, archivists to experienced (but not necessarily qualified) genealogists.