Were your ancestors in trouble with the law? Follow them through over 3 million records of criminals who passed through the justice system in England and Wales between 1770 and 1935. Find out where they stood trial, what sentence they were given and what their life was like in prison. You can also find physical descriptions and photographs, find out if they were executed or transported, and even read official correspondence about their case as well as petitions sent by the accused and their family and friends to have sentences reduced. This extraordinarily rich collection of records covers the justice system from the days of the Bloody Code - where most property crimes carried a death sentence - to the justice system we know today.
Each record comprises a transcript and an image from the original document. Given the scope of the records in this collection the amount of information varies hugely but in general you can find out the following about your ancestor:
The amount of information listed varies, but the transcript usually includes a combination of the following information about your ancestor:
Session commencing month
Session commencing day
The image will often have even more detail and you might even find a photograph of your ancestor or an example of their handwriting. Many records have several images attached so do make sure you explore all the connected pages and documents if you see an arrow at the side of the image viewer. Additional details may include:
Physical description (height, complexion, build, visage, eyes, hair)
Name of committing magistrate
Name of judge
Date of warrant
Date of receipt into custody
Petitions for pardons from your ancestor, their family or their supporters
Correspondence about details of the case, disposal of assets (in the case of prisoners convicted of murder)
Comments on the case from the convicting judge
These records include details of over 17,600 prisoners for the period 1818-1831. They relate to convicts held in prison hulks Cumberland, Dolphin and Ganymede. Hulks were ships used as floating prisons, often when they were no longer fit for battle but were still afloat.
These records include details of almost 176,000 prisoners for the period 1855-1931. The after-trial calendars provide information about prisoners from each trial calendar or session.
This set contains almost 638,600 records from sworn lists of convicts on board prison hulks between 1824 and 1854. Records of prisoners in convict prisons and criminal lunatic asylums will follow in due course.
There are almost 272,950 records of people mentioned in the Criminal Entry Books between 1782 and 1871.
Criminal Entry Books contain bound copies of letters sent out from the Home Office concerning criminal cases, warrants for arrest and pardons.
These records provide details of petitions for just over 16,300 people for the period 1817-1858. Convicted criminals, or their family and friends, made a petition when they wanted to revoke or reduce the sentence. Occasionally, the governors of convict prisons recommended prisoners for early release for good behaviour.
There are just over 19,000 further records concerning petitions in this set. Some petitions have additional documents attached, such as newspaper cuttings or other documentation. It is worth browsing through the connected images as some petitions are quite lengthy documents that will give details of family circumstances and the grounds on which they are hoping to appeal their sentence.
There are over 77,000 records for the Home Office registers of correspondence relating to criminal petitions.
The copied letters will often refer to previous correspondence which may or may not have survived and will usually give the outcome of the appeal.
As a result of overcrowding in the national prisons, the government had to rent out cells in county prisons. These records hold the details of 13,665 prisoners who were housed in prisons at Aylesbury, Bath, Leeds, Leicester, Northampton, Nottingham, Preston, Reading, Somerset, and Wakefield, between 1847 and 1866.
The registers give each prisoner's age, marital status and number of children, whether they can read or write and their trade as well as when and where they were convicted, what their crime was and sentence, the national prison they had been received from, whether they had any criminal history and where they were removed to and when.
There are almost 86,000 records in this set comprising of prison registers from Millbank, Parkhurst and Pentonville prisons as well as annual statistical returns from between 1860 and 1869 for county gaol and juvenile reform schools in England and Wales, arranged by county.
The prison registers give each prisoner’s age, marital status and number of children as well as where they were received from and when, what previous offences they might have and where they were removed to and when. These records are very similar to those of the overflow prisoners kept in county prisons that you will find in HO 23.
This collection includes 6,890 records made up of transcripts and images of original letters and reports from trial judges on cases and criminals in which they call for commutation of sentence, free pardons etc.
These letters often include details of the family circumstances of criminals as part of the reasons for clemency and so can provide a wealth of insight for genealogical researchers.
There are almost 339,400 records here from the printed lists of the prisoners to be tried at Newgate, in London.
As well as the printed list, from July 1822 onwards there are manuscript additions giving the results of the trials.
This small set of 888 records contains a calendar of the prisoner at Winchester listed for trial at a Special Commission of Assize after the agricultural riots of 1830. The so-called Swing Riots swept England between 1830 and 1831. Agricultural workers burnt barns and haystacks and destroyed farm machinery in protest at increased mechanisation and low wages. Within the records is the most notorious rioter James Thomas Cooper, who was known as Captain or Lord Hunt. He had organised riots in Hampshire, Wiltshire and Dorset and was executed in Winchester on January 15th 1831.
There is also a report on the trial as well as a list of the jury with instructions for the challenges in the 1798 case of Rex v. O’Coighly and others. This trial was of United Irishman, Father John James O’Coighly of Loughgall in County Armagh and others for their part in the 1798 Irish rebellion. Father O’Coighly was executed on June 7 1798. The records are for the panellists from whom were chosen the jurors in the trial. They were all significant landowners. The image shows their name, rank or occupation and comments on whether they were likely to vote with or against the prosecution with notes on their character from the trial judges and barristers. The jurors who were picked are marked with a number in the top left hand corner of the page.
This set also includes prison statistics and regulations covering the years from 1824 to 1826.
These records include over 630,000 people for the period 1868-1929. The records contain after trial calendars, which are lists of prisoners tried at assizes and quarter sessions and cover England and Wales, Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. Prisoners awaiting trial in the Central Criminal Court at the Old Bailey are also included as well as those due to be tried in Admiralty Courts.
Most records include the name of the prisoner, their age, profession and level of education. They also include the name of the magistrate who committed the case to trial, the date they arrived in prison, details of their crime, the name of the trial judge and the conviction and sentence received.
There are over 632,000 records covering records held by the Prison Commission and the Home Office concerning prisons and prisoners.
These are a very diverse set of records with records covering prisons all over England and Wales as well as Gibraltar prison and some prison hulks. There are registers of prisoners and habitual criminals including several photograph albums. Calendars of prisoners to be tried at assizes and quarter sessions contain records going back to 1774. Prison records include a wide range of records which can include minute books, visitors’ books, order books, journals of governors, chaplains and surgeons, a the records for groups of prisoners on work parties. There are extensive records for Pentonville, Chatham, Portsmouth, Millbank and Wormwood Scrubs prisons among others. There are also army prisoners held in the Savoy prison in Middlesex.
These records can give an incredibly detailed look at your ancestor’s life in prison going far beyond the details of their conviction and prisoner number and since there are several books of photographs of prisoners here you may even be able to view a photograph of them.
This set contains almost 36,700 records of male convicts who were granted licences to be at large by the court, in other words, who were allowed out on parole.
There are notes of the licences and also notes of revocation of the licence, under the Penal Servitude Acts of 1852 and 1864 endorsed on old captions, or orders of court, and, in some cases, transfer papers.
These are lovely records for family researchers as the images include rich details about the convict. You can find out if they were married and how many children they had, the name and address of their next of kin, their profession and a full physical description as well as where they went when they were released from gaol. Best of all, if you explore through the file on your ancestor you are likely to find their photograph stuck on the last page.
There are 3,665 records in this set dating from between 1843 and 1871. These records contain copies of court orders (‘old captions’) for the imprisonment or transportation of prisoners.
These are the papers written up by the trial judge and handed to the policemen who were to take the prisoner away to jail after he was convicted. All the paperwork involved in transferring prisoners is here, with individual documents for transfer between prisons and the records for that prisoner while he was in the gaol. There is a huge amount of detail in these records and it is worth browsing through all the available images to find all the separate documents concerning an individual prisoner. The later records even include a full medical history which is extremely unusual in genealogical records. There are also some records concerning prisoners serving their sentence on prison hulks.
These records include details of over 151,330 habitual criminals for the period 1881 – 1936.
These are the registers of habitual criminals kept by the police and circulated among the force on a regular basis. They include a detailed physical description noting all distinguishing marks and a full criminal record with notes on whether the convict had been apprehended. Some records are from the Police Gazette appendix which included photographs of some of the prisoners. Also included is a list of 5,824 habitual drunkards from the period 1903 to 1914, which would have been circulated weekly to licensed persons and secretaries of clubs. They usually contain two photographs of each drunkard: face on and profile.
There are over 158,250 records from the accounts held by the Treasury Department of for the various convict hulks around England. There are quarterly accounts here covering the Bellerophon, Justicia, Captivity, Laurel, Leviathan, Portland, Retribution, Prudentia, Stanislaus and Savage between 1804 and 1831 as well as departmental accounts from 1558 to 1937.
Quarterly accounts usually list the convicts by name and detail what provisions, bedding and clothing had been provided for them. These records do not generally include details of the convicts’ crime or sentence.