Our Criminal Ancestors

Using historical criminal justice records

by Professor Helen Johnston

Professor of Criminology, University of Hull

(guest contributor)

During 2017 and 2018, we led a collaborative public engagement project funded by the AHRC called ‘Our Criminal Ancestors‘ and we continue to work with a range of archives, museums and heritage organisations to engage the public in this fascinating area of research. As academic researchers in the field we were struck by the massive expansion of digital historical records and particularly those relating to crime, policing and punishment. Criminal registers, ‘mugshots’ of offenders and records from prisons, police, workhouses, asylums have all become more widely available to genealogists and to family historians.

We worked with project partners Hull History Centre, developing an ongoing relationship with them, and with East Riding Archives to bring together and promote the archives relating to crime, policing and punishment in this region. We held workshops with the public to help people get started with ‘criminal ancestors’ and we used this term broadly to include all those ancestors who might have encountered the criminal justice system as for example, the accused, as offenders, police officers, prison warders, witnesses to or victims of crime.

Hull City Police 1905 (archive-ref POL/4/10/2/4)

We also complied a ‘source guide’ to all the crime, policing and punishments archives and materials available for Hull and the East Riding (download a pdf of the source guide). As well as the archives and collections available it also features a guide to the court system, case studies of offenders and interesting criminal cases that occurred in the region during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

We have continued to expand our website (see ourcriminalancestors.org ) – the aim of which is to help the public to get started with research – we have guides to researching transported convict ancestors; police ancestors and prison ancestors. We have articles, blogs and ‘Criminal Lives’ written by associates of the project and by members of the public who have sent in their family stories to share.

East Riding Archives – Criminal photo or ‘Mugshot’ – John Handscomb (archive-ref QAP/7/37) – using the Criminal Registers (1791-1892) (see Quarter Sessions records, archive-ref Q) we discovered that John was tried at York Summer Assize in July 1875. He was charged with the crime of larceny and on being found guilty was sentenced to 7 years’ penal servitude and 5 years’ police supervision. It might be possible to find out more about his case by looking at the The British Newspaper Archive online or about his time incarcerated through prison records if they survive.

Top tips in understanding your criminal ancestor research:

Most offenders committed what we might consider to be quite minor offences – often relating to drunkenness, public disorder, assault, petty theft – visible public behaviours easily picked up by the police. So as today, most crime was petty and appears most frequently in magistrates courts (petty sessions or police courts they were also known as). A brief encounter with the criminal justice system may not have defined your ancestor’s life – though in researching ordinary people these documents may offer information about a working class or poor ancestor that is not otherwise available, given that many people left little material about their lives.

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. Before 1877 all local prisons were in the hands of local authorities and administered by the Quarter Sessions (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, 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 those executed were put to death for crimes of murder. But in the earlier period, a considerable number of offences were capital, but whether they actually resulted in the death of the convicted offender is another potential pitfall for researchers. 

(Image: Kate King – Volume of photographs of convicted offenders, 1875-1928. archive-ref QAP/7/37)

As a society today we tend to put a great deal of emphasis on interpersonal crimes of violence and this is reflected in our contemporary criminal justice system, but in the past greater emphasis was placed on property offences and you might be surprised by the sentences that people received for crimes like larceny of property like food, clothes and money. Most of those serving sentences of penal servitude, men and women, (long term prison sentences from 1853 onwards), wearing the ‘broad arrow’ uniformed clothing, the popular image of the Victorian prisoner, did so for crimes of larceny.

Police officers with horse and cart, outside Howden Police Station, early 1900s (archive-ref POL/3/11/9/2)

Just because your ancestor received a sentence does not always mean it was carried out; for example, a sizeable number of those sentenced to transportation to Australia never left our shores, they served out their time on the Hulks (decommissioned war ships anchored on the Thames or along the south coast) or were released due to ill health. Those sentenced to death were not always hanged – they might appeal for mercy, be transported or given penal servitude instead – so check different types of records for these offences. At the lower end of offending,  it is sometimes unclear in cases where the courts sentenced with the option of a small fine or a short prison sentence (e.g. three days), you might not know which option your ancestor took. It is also worth bearing in mind that that courts expected immediate payment and so those without money, savings or friends or family to help, may well have gone to prison. It was not until 1914 that we really gave people time to find the money to pay fines and when we did this it diverted a considerable number of people away from the prison system.

by Professor Helen Johnston (University of Hull)

( Our Criminal Ancestors is a project led by Professor Helen Johnston (University of Hull) and Professor Heather Shore (Manchester Metropolitan University), 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 www.ourcriminalancestors.org or follow us on Twitter @ourcriminalpast )

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