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Duration 16:22

Criminal ancestors: trial records at The National Archives

Nigel Taylor takes us through a short introduction into the records that can be used to trace criminal ancestors.


[Podcast recorded in 2008] In this is a talk on criminal ancestors what I hope to achieve is to give you an idea of what records we hold and what records are held outside The National Archives, and also give you an idea what you can search now online because increasingly now a lot of the records are available online.

The National Archives holds trial records. The main [records] held at The National Archives are the Assize records which were really the precursors of the Crown Courts that now exist. They sat at courts throughout the country and we hold these records from 1559, and then from 1972 onwards we hold Crown Court records. We also hold the records of the Central Criminal Court, Old Bailey, from 1834 onwards and also the Court of King’s Bench which also dealt with criminal matters.

In terms of the records that we hold, there are four main headings I would like initially to talk about. These are: indictments, minute-books, depositions and calendar of prisoners.

The indictment to start off with, is a record that gives the charge, verdict and sentence. This is a very formal record but there is a very good chance that the indictment will survive for a particular case. These are bundled together by circuits. These circuits covered a number of counties. So you had a western circuit covering Devon, Cornwall, Dorset, etc. The judges went out on circuit from London, Westminster, and they travelled from one town to the next and sat for a day, two days, maybe longer in each town.

The indictment is very formal but it will give you an idea of what the individual/ancestor was what was the charge and it will be endorsed with the verdict. The verdict is sometimes written in Latin but we do have among our research guides a guide on Assize records that gives you the translations of, for example, the Latin term for not guilty or guilty.

The minute-book which is the next type of record I want to talk about, that’s very similar to the indictment and gives brief details of the charge, verdict and sentence but these can be often easier to search because they are in book form and well, you would have all the counties for a particular circuit covered within a book and the book may cover two or three years. The indictments in comparison can be a bit unwieldy to search through because they are parchment rolls and often very dirty documents. So if you are not sure of the precise date of a trial, it is easier to go through the minute-books.

The depositions are witness statements so all the witnesses to a crime will quite often submit sworn statements. The only thing to bear in mind is that only a small percentage of these witness statements survive. It tends to be the more celebrated cases or cases with murder, riot, cases like that, the less important cases you are less likely to find any witness statements surviving but the good thing is that most of the witness statements, depositions you can put a name into our online catalogue [Discovery] and search that way so it is much easier to process of the searching these records.

The calendar of prisoners gives you, again, basic information but they are a very useful source, again, if you don’t the know the exact date of a trial because you can work through county by county and by date very quickly and it will provide a one-line entry for each of the prisoners and give you, sometimes, quite reasonable information, certainly, and I will mention in a moment, some of the records from the mid-19th century of these calendar of prisoners can give you details of previous convictions.

Trial records not held in county archives: these are the main records or types of records are Quarter Sessions as the name implies, these were usually held four times a year and these dealt with often lesser crimes than were held at the Assizes. So you don’t get murder cases heard at Quarter Sessions but you do get many type of cases that were heard at Assizes, for example: burglary, robbery cases.

So if you can’t find something in the Assize records, then the Quarter Sessions is the next place you look and those are held in the respective county archives so Quarter Sessions for Kent would be in the Kent archives and below the Quarter Sessions you had the Petty Sessions sometimes known as Magistrates’ Courts or Police Courts and they dealt with very minor cases, for example being drunk and disorderly, and in more recent times motoring offences.

I should mention at this stage that enquirers often mention when they approach us regarding court records, they will ask us for whether we hold court transcripts of what was actually said in court. These very rarely exist as court records but occasionally they do and I will mention a little bit later where you can find these records. Just to mention here, again, the calendar of prisoners, we also describe the records under the heading of criminal registers.

The main series [of records in The National Archives] are HO 26. HO stands for Home Office. That covers 1791 to 1892, for Middlesex 1791 to 1849 in the Middlesex courts then it is a series called HO 27. After that date you will refer to HO 26. For the later period from 1868 there is a series called HO 144 and these are printed documents and this is the series which gives you the previous convictions so they can be very rewarding with the information they provide you.

Again the way into these records and to identify whether your ancestor was a criminal. Increasingly now people are finding confirmation of these by using census records which have been online for a few years now. For example, the 1901 census you can bring up the census returns for Wormwood Scrubs and it will give the list of the prisoners so you then know that the person was in prison in 1901 and then you can work back from 1901 looking at the original records to see when the person first entered the prison. So it is a very nice way of actually getting into the records.

The other way now is the website of the Old Bailey Online [] which now covers 1674 right through to 1913 and this is where the actual shorthand notes of what was said in court have been digitised and enable you to search under the name of the accused and any other term or word that appears in the text. And, again, this will give you sometimes much more information than you can find in the formal records but it will lead you to original records. We at The National Archives, hold the Old Bailey, Central Criminal Court records from 1834. Before that time then you have to go to the London Metropolitan Archives for the Old Bailey original records.

You can also search [Discovery] The National Archives catalogue, again, by using name. I mentioned before that you can find depositions, witness statements, but you can also find the individual’s Home Office file or Prison Commission files, Director of Public Prosecutions is another example where we sometimes get a file. Again, these are all listed by the name of the accused and it will come up on the calendar and give you the ordering reference and documents.

The other source that you can find in The National Archives is the petitions for mercy appeals. These can be very rewarding because you often get the accused petitioning for mercy. For example, they would petition for a reduction in sentence or they say they were wrongly convicted and should be released and then the petition would be referred to a judge to make a decision and then they may be released early or their petitions may be turned down but you do get sometimes great testimonies, not only from the accused but also people who knew them, maybe people from their village, relations or an important person from their community who will be speaking up for them. These are in various Home Office series. They are listed in our research guide ‘Tracing Nineteenth Century and Twentieth Century Criminals’.

There is also the Court of Appeal. From 1945 there are case files in a series called J82 and often you get court transcripts within these files. Some of the Home Office petitions’ records and their judges’ reports we have extensively catalogued in The National Archives’ catalogue [Discovery] and, again, you will be able to search under the name of the accused and any other important terms, like the location, the nature of the crime.

We also hold individual prison registers in The National Archives in Home Office series and also in a Prison Commission series called PCOM 2. Again, you can search our online catalogue to find if we do hold the registers of individual prison and sometimes those registers will include photographs of the prisoner and physical descriptions.

We also hold prison licence records. If a prisoner is released early under licence. We do have a run of these surviving records from 1853 to 1887 for male prisoners in a series called PCOM 3 and for female PCOM 4 and these from, certainly from the 1870s, do include many examples, photographs of the prisoners and also you do have a lot of detail of their conduct in prison, also sometimes personal letters surviving on the file and a record of any petitions that they may have made while in the prison. Again, we are indexing these records. A lot of the female prison licence records have already been catalogued and you can search under the name of the prisoner.

There are also more prison register that are held in county archives. Again, you can search through our website through the National Register of Archives database to find where these particular prison registers are held.

We also have in The National Archives records relating to transportation to Australia and in the earlier years to America but the records for transportation to Australia we hold in a series called HO11 which registers cover 1787 to 1867. Additional supporting records have now been indexed through the website or Australian Convict Index. Again, you can search through their websites and find initial information that will lead you, hopefully, to surviving original records.

There are also other examples of databases on various internet sites. I would mention first of all the National Library of Wales. They have indexed their court records for the so-called Court of Great Sessions in Wales of 1730 to 1830 and if you do a search then you will get information about the offence when mentioned in courts and the dates.

Another example of a database on a website is The National Archives of Ireland for which they have indexed and catalogued their transportation records and, again, the search engine gives you quite a bit of information if you find an entry for your ancestor.

Other sources, generally, always be aware of national and local newspaper trial reports. Certainly by the mid-19th century you increasingly will get an individual trial report listing in a local newspaper and so Colindale Newspaper Library, part of the British Library in North London has a great collection of local newspapers, whereas national newspapers which can sometimes be more convenient than visiting the local archives for the area you are interested in. The National Archives only has the Times available. We have it in a digitised form but it is only available onsite at The National Archives.

Another source is British Trials 1667 to 1900 on microfiche. We have this available to be seen at The National Archives. These are microfiche versions of reports of what was said in court. They were really the pamphlets that were sold for a penny or a couple of pennies for the mass market so they tended to be more popular cases, murder cases, cases that had some sort of local or national interest but they are still worth looking at because the index is so good. It is indexed by the names of the accused and in effect by locality as well.

I hope this talk has helped to give you some pointers in searching for criminal ancestors and also encouraged you to use the internet sources and also to look generally for any websites that have already done a lot of the research for you and you will find other privately created websites that will give you information about individual records.

Transcribed by Sara Perry as part of a volunteer project, June 2015

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