I get these press releases on occasion and this one really raised my eyebrows! I’m curious to see what is within the new release and though I’ve not gotten that far in my own research, perhaps it will help one of you! As a Findmypast Ambassador I get these press releases and access to their website as a perk. Here’s what they sent to me:
2.5 Million Historic Criminal Records Released Online – reveal merciless sentencing of petty crooks and the crimes of Victorian Britain’s most notorious killers
- Over 2.5 million new records from Findmypast.co.uk shed light on the lives of our felonious forebears
- Available online for the first time, the records provide fascinating insights into the history of crime and punishment in 18th, 19th and early 20th century England and Wales
- Spanning 1779-1936, the records allow you to discover villains and victims in your family tree and piece together their journey through the criminal system
London, UK, 29th July, 2016 – Leading family history website Findmypast.co.uk has today released the records of over 2.5 million historic criminals in association with The National Archives. The release marks the final instalment of their Crime, Prisons and Punishment collection, the largest searchable database of English and Welsh crime and punishment records available online, containing over 5.5 million records.
The collection covers 157 years of criminal history (1779-1936) and records the intimate details of millions of victims and villains, beginning with judges’ recommendations for or against pardons, petitions through which criminals and their families could offer mitigating circumstances and grounds for mercy, and later, licences containing everything from previous convictions to the state of a prisoner’s health.
They reveal many ordinary and extraordinary stories of criminals, victims and law enforcers from the Georgian highway robber, the Victorian murderer and the Edwardian thief, to the common rural poacher, unemployed petty food thief and the early trade unionist.
The collection includes mugshots and coloured images of historical records, as well as detailed accounts of infamous serial killers, notorious executioners, and the only successful assassination of a British Prime Minister.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, the criminal Justice system’s chief concern was the defence of property. Crimes “against property” tended to be taken more seriously than crimes “against the person” and, until 1823, the theft of goods worth more than 12 pence (about one-twentieth of the weekly wage for a skilled worker) had been punishable by death. Records often reveal how those convicted of larceny frequently received harsher sentences than those convicted of violent offences. Examples include;
- 11-year-old London street child, Mary Wade, who was sentenced to death by hanging at the Old Bailey in 1788 for stealing clothes from another child.
- 18 year old Thomas Abdey who was sentenced to transportation for life in 1823 for the theft of a handkerchief.
- 22 year old Charles Biggs who was sentenced to life imprisonment for the theft of trousers.
- 14 year old Richard Cooper who was transported for life after stealing a piece of ribbon.
- Thirty-five year old artist Edward Ball from Eastbourne who was given the death sentence with no mercy for attempting to use a forged £5 note in 1808.
This trend continued until the beginning of the 20th century. One bizarre list of court cases in Essex dating from 1896 shows how a Mr. Charles Norton was sentenced to nine months in Pentonville Prison for stealing five cases of brandy while an errand boy named George Roker was jailed for only four months for manslaughter.
The history of British crime
The collection also shows the evolution of the criminal justice system in the 19th century as the Britain dealt with the impact of industrialisation, urbanisation and population growth. Crime rates exploded as more and more desperate people crowded into industrial cities in search of work, rising from roughly 5,000 cases a year in 1800 to around 20,000 in 1840.
Crimes against property were by far the most common offences committed during the 18th and 19th centuries, with larceny, theft and burglary continuously topping the charts. Receiving stolen goods and forgery were also common offences while violent or destructive crimes such as arson, murder and shootings were less frequent.
The majority of offenders were young males convicted of petty thefts. The most common offences committed by women were linked to prostitution and were, essentially, ‘victimless’ crimes – soliciting, drunkenness, drunk and disorderly, vagrancy. Domestic violence rarely came before the courts as it tended to be committed in the private sphere of the home and was largely tolerated in working-class communities. Amongst other classes, the publicising of such behaviour would have been regarded as bringing a family’s reputation into disrepute and offences were rarely reported.
“Few can resist the allure of a black sheep in the family, those rogues who have a real story to tell. Now we can tell these stories at the touch of a button and with original photographs too, perhaps even look into the eyes of someone who makes us a part of who we are.” said Myko Clelland, historian at Findmypast.co.uk.
Dr Paul Carter at The National Archives said: “Criminal records are perhaps some of the most detailed and intimate records for the family historian. Those criminal records held by The National Archives, and now available through Find My Past, are a genealogical treasure trove. The various returns from convict hulks, calendars’ of prisoners, petitions for clemency, licenses and registers, allow the researcher to track the criminal careers of their ancestors and the evolution of the criminal justice system from the 18th to the early part of the 20th century. For the first time online researchers can chart their ancestors often from their first brush with the law, through imprisonment, appeal, transportation or execution to commutation of sentence, release from imprisonment and in many cases acquittal.”
This final phase of the Crime, Prisons and Punishment collection includes over a million criminal registers listing the names of prisoners, offences, sentences and dates of conviction as well as licences to male and female convicts. Licences include full physical descriptions of inmates along with a photograph (from 1871 onwards), details related to their offence and conviction, and reports of their behaviour, or misbehaviour, in prison. Also included are trial calendars, records of prisoners in lunatic asylums, petitions submitted by family and friends and judges’ reports.