To view this media, you will require Adobe Flash 9 or higher and must have Javascript enabled.

Duration 00:43:35

Reckless, rash and repentant: Convicts’ petitions for mercy 1819-1858

A look at the pardoning process of the early 19th century, and some stories behind the petitions for mercy written on behalf of convicted criminals, found at The National Archives.

Briony Paxman is part of the Modern Domestic Records Team at Tha National Archives and has a particular interest in records related to education, the poor law, public health, crime and juvenile delinquency.

Chris Heather has worked at The National Archives for over 25 years and works with records concerning crime, prisoners, transportation and domestic history, 18th to mid-20th centuries.


Today, Briony and I are going to talk about the Criminal Petitions that are held here in a [record] series called HO 17. And, in a few minutes, Briony’s going to cover what these records include, what you can find in them, and how you can get the most out of them.

But, I thought we’d start off with an example of the type of thing that you can come across in these records – a kind of case study, if you like. So, the one that I’ve chosen concerns a small gang of criminals who operated in Liverpool in the early 1830s, and there were four members of this gang. One of them was called John Evans. The second one was his sister – we don’t really know what her name was. The third one was Thomas Reddy, and the last one, who was one of ten children, was James Rigby, and they all operated from Liverpool.

[Shows image] This is where Thomas Reddy lived at number 10 Litherland Alley in Liverpool. Now, I’ve never been to Liverpool, but I’m guessing this isn’t the posh end of Liverpool [laughter]. It gives you a flavour of where they were coming from – not very salubrious. This is in the 1960s. I think it’s been demolished now.

So, in January 1836, John Evans and his sister met James Rigby, and they were carrying three dresses, or ‘gowns’ as it says in the document. And his sister said to James that they belonged to her aunt, and she said ‘would you mind taking these to the pawn shop for us?’ and ‘here’s four pence for your trouble.’

So, the truth behind it was that they’d stolen these gowns from a bush or a shrub in Cheshire, out in the countryside. Now, that sounds a bit strange, but what they used to do in those days, when they’d finished their laundry and their washing, they would hang the clothes on bushes and shrubs to dry, and you often hear about – I think they’re called bleaching fields, or something similar, where they would lay material out in the fields to bleach in the sun. So theft of those sort of things was quite common. So they’d stolen these dresses from a bush and they were trying to pawn them for money.

So, John, James and Thomas were all apprehended and tried at Chester Quarter Sessions (still in January 1836). John Evans and Thomas Reddy were found guilty of stealing, and James was found guilty of receiving. All three of them were sentenced to seven years transportation.

Now, at the time of the offence, Thomas was nine years old, John was ten and James was 13, so basically, it’s a bunch of kids mucking about, trying to get some money. They probably chose James to do the dirty work and try and get the money from the pawn shop because he was the eldest and he may have got away with it more than the other two.

James was the first to be dispatched to Van Diemen’s Land, or Tasmania as it’s called now. He left England on the Frances Charlotte convict ship on 27 December 1836. So he’s been held somewhere for about a year before he actually was transported.

Thomas Reddy spent two years in the convict hulks Ganymede and Euryalus (I think that’s how you pronounce it) at Chatham. These are convict hulks. Now, a convict hulk is basically another sort of prison. The prisons were pretty much full up, so they would use a static ship – a ship that the navy had finished with – to hold prisoners in. So, he spent two years in there before he sailed on the Pyramus convict ship, also for Van Diemen’s Land.

John Evans, however, spent almost five years on these two hulks and…he wasn’t actually transported at all; he was finally pardoned and released in 1840.

So, how do we know all this? Where have we got this information from? Well, most of what I’ve told you so far has come from these HO 17 petitions. They are as I said…in HO 17. They cover the period 1819 to 1858. And, if you hear the word ‘petition’ today, you think of a sort of long list of names – you sign a petition, you’re asking for something. And that’s pretty much what these are. They might not have a long list of names; a petition could come from one person. It could come from a prisoner themselves. It could come from all the people in the village, so it could have a list of names.

[Shows image] This is one of the petitions on behalf of those three boys. This comes from the Clerk of the Peace in Chester where they were tried. And, the Clerk of the Peace suggests to the Home Secretary that they’re not actually transported but they’re held in the penitentiary because of their ages, but it didn’t have any effect; two of them did actually end up in Australia.

So, a petition, as I said, it could be from one person, [or] it could be from lots of people. And the reason we’ve ended up with them is because they were sent to the Monarch and then the Home Secretary. And the reason for that is when you break a law, when you commit a crime, you’re breaking the Monarch’s rules for the realm. You’ve heard of Breach of the Peace? You’re breaking the King’s peace (or the Queen’s peace). So, if I commit a crime against Gerry [Toop: former member of staff in the audience], not only am I committing it against Gerry, I’ve broken the Monarch’s rules, so only the Monarch can forgive me. So I’m writing (or whoever is writing on my behalf) to the Monarch to get mercy.

Now, the Monarch’s got better things to do than sit and read about my tawdry crimes [laughter] so it gets devolved (or whatever the word is) to the Home Secretary, who sort of looks after the rule of the land. So that’s how they’ve ended up with us, because they go to the Home Office, and we have government records.

[Shows image] Now, the next slide – don’t get too worried, I’ll explain what it means – it’s a bit confusing. But, if we go through, this shows how these records fit in to the legal process. If you start at the top, you’ve got a crime being committed. Supposing Gerry steals one of my sheep. We’re both farmers – he’s got sheep, I’ve got sheep. He wants one more, he comes and takes one of my sheep, takes it over there. If there’s no evidence, if no-one saw him take my sheep, and there’s no trail of ‘sheep fur’ [laughter] from my farm to his, then there’s no record created. It’s the end of the case. There’s no evidence for it, and we don’t know how many of those went on because there is no paperwork for it!

If someone did see Gerry take my sheep, or there’s some other evidence, if there is a trail of wool to my farm or his farm, then it’s reported to the local JP. The JP can do one of a number of things:

• he can refuse to act – he can say there’s insufficient evidence, and he can just throw it out, so that’s again the end of the case

• the next one is that he can act as an intermediary, he can say to Gerry ‘give the sheep back and we’ll say no more about it.’ That’s the end of that case

• he could do a summary conviction, which means he’ll just punish Gerry. He might say ‘okay, I’ll issue you with a fine, you’ve got to pay a certain amount,’ or in the early days he could arrange for him to be whipped or have a short spell in prison or something similar

[Shows image] These two are basically the same. He could arrange for a trial to happen, basically, so in this one, he puts Gerry in jail and holds him because he thinks he might abscond. [Shows image] In this one, he doesn’t but he says we’ve all got to turn up at the court and he’ll take depositions, which is like a statement of evidence. And he’ll arrange for the deposition to be drawn up, which is the official charge against the person. So, there’s going to be a court case.

So, it goes to trial, and the indictment goes to the grand jury – they’re the great and the good of the land, sort of MPs and landowners. And they’ll look at the case and if they see that there’s not a true bill – if there’s a mistake in the bill, if they’ve got Gerry’s name wrong, or the age of the sheep wrong, or whatever, then it ends up as… they say there’s nothing to be seen; it’s not a true bill, there’s no case to answer, and it’s the end of the case.

But if they say it’s a true bill, then it will go forward and the evidence is given to the petty jury. That’s the kind of jury that you’d go on now if you were called up for jury service. So, they would examine the indictment and the depositions, and they’d come out with a verdict. If it’s not guilty, then it’s the end of the case. If it’s guilty, then the judge will provide a sentence, which will obviously be some kind of punishment.

Now, in say the 1700s, it could be a fine or a whipping. An amazing number of crimes would end up with a death sentence – not usually carried out, but some of them would have been as an example to the others.

Prison: that was usually for short periods, just as a sort of short, sharp shock. Prison was normally used to hold people while a trial was going to happen, or until the other punishment was carried out, so it wasn’t the punishment in itself. Transportation. That was often the result of a death sentence that’s been commuted to transportation. So those were the main punishments.

So, our documents that we’re talking about today (the petition), they would tend to come in from supporters of the prisoner or the prisoner themselves after the punishment has been announced and perhaps before it’s carried out, so before they’re being transported. And hopefully, what that would do is it would result in a respite, which is basically they say ‘okay, hold everything, we’ll look into it and we’ll come out with a second sentence.’ And that might lead to a pardon. But very often, probably the majority of cases, the petition would just be ignored, unless there was brand new evidence, or it was such a heavy petition with important people signing it – MPs and vicars from the local area and so on. So that’s how they fit in.

Now, this is part of the petition for Thomas Reddy [shows image]. As you can see, it’s what you would think of as a petition. You’ve got the request. So a petition basically is a request to someone in power to do something or to change something. And then it’s signed by whoever is asking for it. And this has been around the village – well, Liverpool, or his area of Liverpool – and signed by people, and they’re supporting the main part of the petition, which is over here, and this was written by Patrick Reddy, who was Thomas Reddy’s father.

But this was written, as you can see at the top, in November 1838 – that’s two years after the crime was committed. So this shows that you can have petitions coming in at any time – even after they’ve gone to Australia, you can have petitions coming in. So you may – if you find your person in there, you may have a wodge of petitions from all over the place, from different people, different times. It doesn’t happen straight away, as soon as the crime’s committed, or the sentence is announced.

Now this arrived at the Home Office, and it was six days too late; he had already been transported on 15 November, and this is dated 21 November. So he’s already gone.

Now, the next slide shows a colourful cartoon – a contemporary cartoon by George Cruikshank. This is 1812. And the reason I’ve shown this, really, is because it shows the contempt that petitions and the lower classes were viewed with by the upper classes. [Shows image] This is the Prince Regent, George, who was later George IV of England, dancing and drinking at a lavish party with the wife of a man who sits with a dejected look on his face, holding a sheet of paper. So, he’s here, and this is his wife, and George is dancing with her. And the man is holding a sheet of paper, which says ‘Order of the Day,’ so this is what George is having to do during the day, and it says ‘breakfast: two to be hung at Newgate,’ and then it says ‘lunch, dinner and tea, followed by supper: German Fling (I think that’s a type of dance), penny sausage with bread, cheese and kisses etc, followed by dancing all night.’ So he’s just living a life of pleasure alone, and not doing what he should be doing.

As you can see in the background, there are two people being hanged, and this is the wife of one of them. She’s got two children here, and another babe in arms, here, and she’s saying ‘if rogues, like poor ones, were for to hang, it would thin the land, such numbers would swing upon Tyburn Tree.’ And that’s a bit tricky to understand. What it means is if all the rich rogues were hanged, it would reduce the population as so many men would be hanging from the gallows.

Now, the reason I’ve included this is, this little bit of paper down here under his foot – that’s a petition, on behalf of one of these guys up here, written by her, and it says ‘the petition of a wife and mother of three helpless children, for respite.’ And at the very bottom it says ‘rejected, GPR.’ That’s George, Prince Regent. So that’s how they were viewed at the time. They weren’t taken very seriously.

Okay, I’ll hand over to Briony for more details on how to get the most out of these records.

Thanks, Chris. Chris has shown us how the petitions fit into the judicial system, and I want to spend some time briefly explaining how they fit in with the records of the Home Office. We’re going to look at the content and the format of the records in more detail, exploring the variety of material you find, what it all means, and how you can try and find out what happened next.

Understanding how the records work is important, and the way that HO 17 fits into the wider Home Office collection is a good example of how many 19th century records interrelate. They don’t exist in isolation, nor can you expect one record to contain everything produced about an individual. Instead, you follow someone through the administrative process.

When correspondence came into the Home Office, it will have been sent to the relevant team of clerks. At this period, the incoming post to the Home Office was small enough that the Home Secretary will have reviewed it all personally with his advisors, and he will have instructed as to a response. In order for him to do this, he relied on the expertise and the knowledge of his clerks, and they will have summarised the contents of each letter. This is known as ‘docketing.’

They will also have kept registers, filed the letters and dispatched the responses. According to Jill Pellew in her ‘History of the Home Office,’ the clerks who dealt with criminal business had the lowest status of any clerks in the Home Office. But it was their expertise, knowledge of precedent and statute, and their attention to detail that was of vital importance to the smooth running of this branch of the office.

Chris and I manage a team of volunteers who are working very hard to catalogue the material of HO 17. But until this work began, the only way to access the petitions was through HO 19, which is the register to these records. These ledgers are arranged by date and initial letter of surname, and this is where the criminal clerks will have initially logged the letter as it came in, giving it a unique case reference number. So our team of volunteers have catalogued just under a third of these records, so if you can’t find an individual doing a catalogue search, I really suggest you use these HO 19 records. Once you’ve got your reference number, it’s quite easy to then follow it up and find the petition. Unfortunately, you can’t guess what the reference number’s going to be; it’s fairly random, so we’ll look at these HO 19s.

The registers are also a useful means of identifying cases if you’re making a study of a particular type of crime, or a particular area. If you look at the columns in the registers, well there’s a name, you’ve got where and when they were sentenced, and the crime itself.

Presumably for ease of storage, the petitions were folded up into three, with the docket recording a summary of the case. These summaries can be really helpful, particularly when handwriting inside gets tricky, and they also help you really pick out the key points to do with the case.

[Shows image] This is a docket sheet for Evans, Reddy and Rigby – the gang that Chris mentioned earlier. We have their names, ages, the place of the trial, and type of court. The clerks were very prone to abbreviating information on the docket sheets, and the trial information is a very good example of this – it looks like ‘Chester, QR, Sess,’ and that means Chester Quarter Sessions. A good rule of thumb is that they will have started the word and then put a little small letter up the top at the end, a bit like if you were writing ‘1st’ with the ‘st’ at the end. The boys’ crimes have also been abbreviated – stealing apparel and receiving apparel, as Chris said. The ‘DO’ is short for ‘ditto’.

Next listed is the sentence, in this case, seven years transportation. I just want to show you some examples of the sentences because it might not be immediately obvious. In the top right, it says ‘sentence commuted to transportation for life.’ This is a good example of where one sentence was passed at trial, and then it was reduced, either at the end of the court sessions, or some time before the petition came in. The only sentence worse than transportation for life is death, so I’d assume that this was the original sentence in this case. And it again underlines what Chris was saying earlier that mercy can come into play at any time. And also just because you’ve already had your sentence reduced once, it doesn’t stop you from applying again, and you might get a further reduction.

Returning to the docket sheet for Evans, Reddy and Rigby, we see a note of a jailer’s report. On assuming a petition, the Home Office will have written back to the local area – to the local jailer – to make an inquiry of the convict’s character. Here we find the results of these inquiries from the jailer in Chester. Despite their ages, jailer’s report reveals that none of these boys is a stranger to the justice system. All three are described as ‘bad.’ Evans has been convicted twice before. Reddy has been twice in jail on a charge of felony, and Rigby has been convicted before, as well. So this doesn’t really bode very well for them.

Finally, the docket sheets can be useful in giving an indication of the Home Secretary’s decision. In this instance, the annotation at the bottom doesn’t look particularly helpful. It states only ‘answered 23rd January, 1836.’ Again, I’ve got some more examples of these scribbled annotations. They can be brief and sometimes pretty opaque, a favourite being usual ‘answer.’ When you look at a lot of them it can seem really relentlessly negative – you get lots of ‘nils,’ ‘cannot be granted,’ ‘no,’ and very occasionally you get a pardon or an ‘F pardoned,’ like the one at the top. However, I wouldn’t be disheartened because it may not actually be the end of the road and you can find out more, particularly where a date of response is provided. And I’m going to show you how to do that in a minute.

Before that, I just wanted to show you some of the other things you can find in HO 17. If your loved one was sentenced to transportation for life, I’m sure you would try everything you could to get their sentence reduced – producing evidence of good character, of their years of honest employment and so on. And this is just what many petitioners did. For example, we find lots of examples of medical statements, confirming a convict is too old or too young, too sick, too lame, too insane, to finish their sentence.

This is actually quite a good tactic because convicts who were old or unwell were not likely to be much use once they were transported. They would soon become a burden, either in the penal colony, or indeed on the way there. To be blunt, it was no good having your convict dying on you because it would be expensive and not very helpful, so it was much better they were released and then someone else could look after them. Similarly, those who were very ill in prison were also good candidates for release.

[Shows image] This is an example of a certificate of ill health, sent in for a convict called Martha Geary. Age 70, she’d been convicted of stealing linen in 1827. In 1832, the sheriffs of London and Middlesex write to the Home Office, recommending her and another two prisoners for early release on account of their ill health and their good character. This certificate from Newgate surgeon Gilbert McMurdo confirms that Geary is too feeble and infirm to finish the rest of her sentence. He says that she should be released from the confinement incidental to a prison, which is likely to shorten her life and render her remaining years a period of great suffering.

In a similar vein, this series does not just include petitions but also correspondence regarding the disposal of criminal lunatics – their removal from jail to lunatic asylums, and the funding of this care. Such correspondence can end up being quite lengthy, as individuals move between diagnosis of sanity and insanity, and so they move between jail and lunatic asylum. And as such this is series is actually quite an interesting study in the early treatment of criminal lunatics and the difficulty of making a firm diagnosis.

[Shows image] This example is Philip Manuel. He’s 61 and he’s been charged with murder, but he was acquitted on the grounds of insanity. The form here which is from his time in Bodmin Jail states that nothing is known about his insanity because when he’s been there, he’s actually shown himself to be fairly kind of tranquil and orderly. So despite his uncertain diagnosis, he does actually end up going to Cornwall County Lunatic Asylum, but it’s a good example of how it’s quite difficult to pin down these people sometimes.

Enterprising petitioners might include evidence to substantiate their claims of innocence. From witness statements to descriptions and diagrams of the crime scene, these sorts of studies and sources can really enrich a case. [Shows image] This is one of a series of colour sketches which was included in a petition for a man called James Gibbs. He was tried at the Gloucestershire Quarter Sessions in April 1837 for killing and stealing a sheep. Accompanying the petitions and correspondence are drawings of the crime scene. There is also an astronomical calculation, which kind of tries to show that at the precise time that the crime took place, the moon cannot have illuminated the scene of the crime so that they could identify the witness. This particular drawing is showing…well it shows the kind of hut where the sheep was, and you’ve got the pool of blood where he killed the sheep, and then he kind of jumped down (this is a wall, and the road is at a lower level, so you can see him kind of jumping down), you’ve got his footprints where he lands, and then this is supposed to be James Gibbs; and the idea is that the way the moon came, the witness (who was supposed to be at a nearby window) couldn’t have actually seen James. He would have been in darkness down in the hollow. This actually works [laughter] because Gibbs is pardoned, so we like this because it’s a good kind of illustrative example of quite early forensic work, so it’s good.

Of course there was nothing apart from the cost to stop people applying many, many times. Theoretically, all applications for one person should be filed together, although we have found a number of anomalies. Repeat applications can help you trace an individual’s progress, and some petitions sent from convicts already transported can provide an interesting glimpse into life in the new colony. It can also provide some quite moving descriptions of the individual’s regret at being separated from their family.

I also wanted to draw your attention to the fact that we have petitions on behalf of those convicted in Scotland. These cases can be very detailed, but routinely including printed copies of the indictment, like this one, witness statements, and the opinion of the judge and the Lord Justice Clerk. So although the Scottish court system is separate from England and Wales at this time, the monarch is of course the same, and so it all comes through the Home Office. We also, similarly, have petitions for those convicted on the Isle of Man, or in court-martial.

Earlier I spoke about the Home Office annotations to the docket sheet that might indicate what happened to a convict. The story doesn’t necessarily end with a ‘nil’ from the Home Secretary. Because of the sheer volume of people being sentenced to transportation, most didn’t leave immediately after sentencing, and Chris has mentioned this already. Many spent time on the convict hulks – old warships like this one [shows image], which were adapted to become floating prisons. The hulks were introduced several decades earlier, and they were initially a temporary measure. Well, during the American War of Independence, we couldn’t send our convicts to America anymore, so they were kind of put on these floating prisons. And even once transportation to Australia was up and running, the numbers being sentenced to transportation still far exceeded the number of places on transport ships. So, we get many people waiting out their time on these hulks. Some of those transported might actually never leave home waters, might serve out their time on one of these ships.

Others might have been one of those listed on the periodic recommendation lists, which were sent in by the overseers of the hulks. They would recommend convicts for a pardon, and this would open up space for more inmates to come in. [Shows image] This is an example of a recommendation list for the Leviathan hulk, which was moored at Portsmouth. As you can see, the list provides the bare details of the men’s cases. You get their crime, where and when they were committed, and the sentence.

You also sometimes get this last column, gives you a character report. These men have come from far and wide to end up in Portsmouth – they come from Norfolk, Lincolnshire, and Devon. These men were three out of every hundred men on the ship who would have served half their sentence and were distinguished for their good conduct. Unfortunately, not all of them made the final cut and six of the men listed here were rejected at the Home Office. Presumably, they would then have remained on board, either until their time expired, until a space opened up on a transport ship, or perhaps until they were recommended again for early release. These lists are scattered throughout HO 17, and as part of our cataloguing work, we are noting down these men so that it will be a lot easier to find them in the future.

Finding an individual on a recommendation list is pretty lucky. The best way to find out how the Home Office responded to a petition and what happened to that individual is to look at the criminal entry books, which are in HO 13. An entry book is where you find the office copy of outgoing correspondence. They may not sound or even look very interesting, but they can be very helpful. The books are in a sort of rough date order, and they are internally indexed. They’re not indexed by convict name, as you might hope, but by name of correspondent – first, those people who received a positive response, and then the others, under the title ‘promiscuous,’ which means ‘miscellaneous.’

We can use these registers to find out what happened to the criminal gang, Rigby, Reddy and Evans. The docket sheet in this case, if you remember, simply said ‘answered,’ and a date in January 1836. Looking through the register that covers this date, we find an index entry for Henry Potts, the Clerk of the Peace for Chester, who wrote that petition. Because he wrote the letter, we find the entry under his name. And the index gives a page number where a copy of the correspondence can be found. Turning to this page, we find a transcribed copy of the letter sent to Potts. Unfortunately for Rigby, the Home Secretary thinks his sentence should stand, and he should be sent out of the country. Evans and Reddy are perhaps a little more fortunate. The Home Secretary recommends they be kept in prison in Chester, until a new juvenile wing at Dartmoor Prison is ready to receive them.

If you find a petition in HO 17, I really recommend you follow it up in these HO 13 records as the administrative process doesn’t end with a petition, and you can be taken in these unexpected directions. You wouldn’t think these boys would go to Dartmoor. However, as Chris is about to show, and the recommendation lists prove, the story doesn’t always end where you think it will, and documents like this can mislead.

Now, when we were looking at this particular case, and we were reading through the documents that relate to these three boys, I’d spotted a number of anomalies that I thought I would just share with you, because they’re quite interesting in themselves. First of all, John Evans’ sister wasn’t convicted, or doesn’t appear to have been, which is a bit odd. She may have been, but she’s not featured in the documents we’ve come across so far.

The petition states that Reddy was convicted for robbery at Birkenhead, not stealing, so there’s a difference. I mean there’s a difference between stealing and robbery, like there is between burglary and house-breaking. There are only slight differences, but it’s not completely 100% right; it should be one or the other.

Their ages vary – I mean we know they’re teenagers, or young children, but their ages vary. It could be that they didn’t know their age. At this time, the birth certificates weren’t around. But also, there was this custom of saying that if you were in your tenth year – so you’re actually nine, but you’re in your tenth year, it would go down as ten. Like if you have a baby now, it’s in its first year, but we would wait until a year’s gone by before calling it one. So, there’s discrepancies there.

The petition says that this offence was Reddy’s only offence, and yet on the docket here, and also in the hulk register, it says he’s been twice convicted before. And whether Rigby knew that these articles were stolen or not, he may have been completely innocent – we don’t know from what we’ve seen so far whether he was innocent or not.

And the hulk register, which we’ll see in a minute, says that the articles that were stolen were two shirts, and yet the petition says it was three dresses, or three gowns. So there’s nothing really, completely, utterly wrong, but it’s just things don’t quite tie up. And it just shows that these records, if you view them in isolation, you can’t really rely on them 100%. Just treat them as evidence, and you need more evidence to confirm or deny each piece. Don’t forget they’re handwritten, they don’t have computer records, a lot of things are written from memory or from other things that might be unreliable that they’re using. The people writing petitions – perhaps they couldn’t write, or read, themselves, and they would have got someone else to write it, and they can’t see whether they’ve written the right thing or not. It could be that they’re deliberately twisting the truth. The petitioner might say ‘well this is his first offence, you know, can we let him off?’ But he’s a wrong’un and he’s been in and out of prison several times, but he’s trying to influence the decision. So as I say, treat them as evidence. It’s not 100% accurate, probably, but it gives you the right path to follow.

You could, in this instance, look up the trial records – it’s Chester Quarter Sessions, so they’re not going to be here, at this office, they’ll be at the Chester Archives in Cheshire, if they survive. But that might shed more light on this case, and it may say whether John Evans’ sister was convicted as well. So, these petitions that we have here, they stop in 1858. That’s when the collection finishes, and that might be reflecting changes in government policy on the criminal justice system because transportation was coming to an end. It finished in 1868, when the last ship arrived at Western Australia. Also, the Court of Appeal was starting in 1875 and it may just be that…I mean a lot of our collections stop and start in unusual places when new government departments are set up like the Home Office itself, you get things starting and stopping. You get things starting and stopping when a new king or queen takes over. So, we can’t really say for definite why they start and stop in these years, but you can find later petitions in HO 45 and HO 144. It isn’t a large collection, but you’ll find them cropping up here and there.

So where else can you go if you need more evidence to support what you’ve seen so far, where else can you go? Well, if it’s early enough, there’s a collection of judges’ reports on criminals, so where these fit in, is if someone sends in a petition on behalf of a criminal…written to the monarch, but it’ll go to the Home Secretary. He might not know what you’re talking about. He will say ‘well, I’ve never heard of this person. Send it to the judge at the trial.’

Now the judge – this could be several years after he’s presided at the trial, but he will refer to his notebooks and see what happened at the trial and he will summarise what the crime was, who this person was, evidence given at the trial and so on, and he’ll come down to a conclusion. Now sometimes he doesn’t give a conclusion; he just leaves it open to the Home Secretary to say whether a change should be made or not, but very often he’ll say ‘yes, having looked at the evidence again, I think mercy could be considered.’ Or, he’ll just say ‘no, I don’t think mercy should be considered.’

But these documents in themselves are very useful for background information, wonderful for family history because it will give other members of the family. It might say that the person convicted…their parents were upstanding citizens of the community, his father was in the Navy for so many years and so on, and it can lead you off to other family history sources, and they’re just nice stories in themselves, some of them. And the outcome, if there is an outcome, if he does say ‘do this’ or ‘do that,’ then you can find that in the HO 13s that Briony mentioned earlier. So all of these records are interlinked. You don’t get the most out of them if you just look at one; you have to follow the story through.

[Shows image] This shows the docket for James Rigby. Not much on there, but there are three letters in pencil, just hastily dashed off, saying ‘nil.’ And that means nothing’s going to happen. They’re not going to do anything as regards to the petition; they’re going to ignore it. So have a look at the front page of the petition and see where that leads. If it didn’t say nil, it might say something else. It might say ‘penitentiary,’ in other words, ‘don’t send him to Van Diemen’s Land; he can go in a penitentiary,’ and it might say which one, or it might give a clue as to which one. In that case, you can go off and look at the prison registers, and find the person in the prison register listed there. In this case, it doesn’t say that, it says ‘nil,’ so the likelihood is he’s going to be transported. So then, you can start thinking about, well, which other records would relate to transportation. You’ve got transportation registers and other things that I’ll mention in a minute.

So, as I say, don’t view something in isolation. A lot of family historians sort-of ‘collect’ names. They’ll try databases, type a name in, ‘ooh, there’s another one,’ like a stamp and stick it in an album, and they don’t think about how the record that they found that name on might lead to other records, or relate to other things.

Okay, so James Rigby would have been down for transportation, but he didn’t go straight away, and neither did John Evans or Thomas Reddy. [Shows image] You can see them listed here. This is a hulk register – a register of people on the hulk, the Euryalus. You can get these on Ancestry now. You used to have to just look at them here, the original documents, but you can search by name on Ancestry, which is how I found this one. Otherwise you’d have to order up a likely volume for which hulk he might have been on, and look through and see if you can find him. I think they were on microfilm before that, but now you can just search by name, it shows their ages; stealing two shirts, not three dresses; Chester; and the date of the conviction, here.

That’s one side of the page. On the other side of the page, you get a little bit more. It gives the seven years’ conviction; they can read; and then again, like we said, convicted twice before; and it’s (which one is it?) it’s Thomas Reddy that’s – no, it’s John Evans that’s convicted and pardoned in 1840, so he spent more or less five years on these awful hulks. Thomas Reddy – his character and connections are bad, twice in jail, charged with felony, and he’s off to Van Diemen’s Land on 15 November 1838, here [shows image].

So, if he’s off, he going to be on a transport ship, and you can find transportation registers. This one shows the transportation register entry for James Rigby, on the Frances Charlotte transport ship. Now, whilst they’re on the transport ship, what else can you find? They would normally have a medical officer appointed from the Royal Navy and we have what we call surgeons’ journals in ADM 101, and they can be very useful. One of them I saw had an actual plan of the ship and a little mark where the surgeons’ quarters were – where he was stationed in the ship, and you’ve got a plan of the whole ship there. Some of them are like diaries, and they would fill out what happened each day of the journey, what the weather was like, where they went, what happened. Others are more kind of formulaic, they might just say a list of people who were sick, and what they had wrong with them, and then what the treatment was, and whether they died at the end of it.

[Shows image] This one that’s coming up is for the Pyramus, for the journey on which Thomas Reddy went; he was on this ship at the time. Now, Thomas Reddy isn’t mentioned. Lots of other people are mentioned here, you can see their names and their illnesses there. But Thomas Reddy must have been fairly fit because he wasn’t mentioned. But that’s another source you could use to find more information on your convict.

Then, at the end of the journey, he arrives in Van Diemen’s Land. If he had gone to New South Wales, there are censuses in HO 10 that you can use. Other things that you might like to try are licenses. That’s more so if they were in prison here and they are released slightly early at the end of their sentence. We’ve got licenses in PCOM 4 and PCOM 3. [PCOM] 3 are the men, and [PCOM] 4 are the women. There are more petitions. Don’t forget, you could petition at any time, even if they’d gone to Australia, they could still petition on your behalf, and they’re in HO 17, and another series that we haven’t started indexing yet, HO 18. So you’d have to use HO 19 to get into those.

One of the options given to the Home Secretary was to suggest that a criminal might join the Army or the Navy. So they might be sentenced to death, but offered the chance to go into the Army or the Navy instead, and if that happened, then obviously, you look for Army or Navy service records. And then, probably the best thing are the trial records. We haven’t covered those very much, but if the trial happened in an Assize Court, then we’ve got the records here. If it was Quarter Sessions, then you’d go to the County Record Office and hope they survive. Sometimes they don’t survive, but that would give you what the person was convicted of and witness statements, and they would sort of reflect what the judge’s report might say as well. That could back the evidence up. If you collected all this evidence together, that’s the best picture that you’re going to get.

Okay, as Briony mentioned, we’ve got a team of volunteers, who’ve worked, I think for about seven years, on these documents, and they’re gradually working their way through them, indexing them by name, date, court, crime and so on, and every year, we’re adding more to the catalogue. I think we’ve added about 12 more pieces, which is thousands of people’s names. The whole collection, I think between HO 17 and [HO] 18 is about 40,000 petitions, so 40,000 names going into the catalogue eventually if we do the whole series.

So, I’d like to thank the volunteers – there’s a couple of them here now, so thank you for your hard work, and we couldn’t do it without you.

Okay, thank you for listening.

Transcribed by Abigail Teece as part of a volunteer project, May 2015


  1. Janet K L Seal says:

    Please could you turn up the volume of your podcasts. My pooter is set up for maximum so I am unable to increase volume at my end.
    The film volume is fine – it is only the audio pods which are too quiet.

    1. Ruth Crumey (admin) says:

      Thank you for getting in touch Janet – we’re sorry you’re having problems with the volume. Has this happened with all of our podcasts? We do check the them prior to publication but I’ll pass on your comments to the editors and we’ll see what we can do.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

We will not be able to respond to personal family history research questions on this platform.
See our moderation policy for more details.