A couple of years ago I took an online course from Pharos Teaching & Tutoring Limited about Victorian Crime & Punishment. This particular course, that I highly recommend, was part of a certificate program about which I will write later along with comments on courses in general.
Following is a summary of some of the sources of information I learned about, with respect to Britain specifically, where genealogists may find the names of their ancestors. These will include many documents associated with crimes, even though the family members being searched were not themselves criminals.
For family historians, name-rich documents are important sources in unravelling personal relationships and events that impacted individual lives. Legal proceedings produced many types of records that are replete with personal references. Such accounts, if they have survived, help to chronicle the activities of a community and many of the people in them.
Judicial records are generally thought to deal mainly with the subjects of inquiries – victims of offenses or those accused of perpetrating them. But within court annals one might also find the names of presiding officials, court officers, witnesses, juries, deponents and, possibly, family members of almost any of them.
Higher courts – in Britain, King’s (or Queen’s) Bench – dealt with most of the more serious legal matters, both civil, in the Plea Side, and criminal, in the Crown Side, as well as with appeals from lower courts. One may find named individuals in a number of different types of records in cases heard – in the indictment and writ files, controlment rolls, depositions and rule books. Assize court records, dealing with only the criminal cases, are another source of information although often not as complete or reliable with respect to identifying people.
The Court of Chancery was, in many respects, on an equal level of the judiciary to the King’s Bench, but was charged with meting out decisions based on justice and equity, rather than summary judgments. It dealt mainly with matters involving land, estates, trusts and guardianship. Documents, including the pleadings, evidence, decrees and other reports, contain many references to people and families who brought or were the targets of suits. Those dealing with only money concerns, under common law in the early part of the 19th century, may have been handled in the parallel-operating Court of Exchequer.
Minutes of the local and regional Petty Sessions and Quarter Sessions courts also contain many invaluable types of records reflecting communities. In addition to misdemeanor and criminal cases, they might include information about borough or parish administrative appointments, matters affecting businesses or social interaction within the community. Names of individuals granted licenses – as gamekeepers, alehouse operators, pedlars and hawkers or slaughterhouse owners – will appear in the transcripts. Persons appointed as Justices of the Peace, Poor Law Overseers, constables and sheriffs, highway contractors, coroners or almost any other position of importance in the community will also be listed.
Information about property and inheritance were also be the subject of court decisions, especially after 1857 when the probate of wills and estates was moved to the new, civil Court of Probate.
By the mid-1800s, as a result of many new laws promulgated by governments, litigation of most legal matters had moved from ecclesiastical to civil courts with much of it, resulting in an explosion of claims and suits as people turned to the courts for the resolution of their disputes. There was a large increase in the volume of records kept on the populace (to the delight, now, of family researchers).
The 1800s also saw the organization and expansion of police services. The Metropolitan Police Act of 1829 established a regional force in the greater London area. It was followed by Rural Constabularies Act of 1839 and County and Borough Police Act of 1856 extending the reach of the national government to the counties who were obliged to launch their own police departments. New sets of records were created with details about the individuals involved directly in policing including service records that give full physical descriptions, as well as birth places, birth dates, previous occupations, marital status and career information.
Punishment of Offenders
The names of those convicted of offenses, whether minor or serious, may be found in any number of records associated with punishment, at a local level – in Quarter Sessions records – or in prison or transportation lists. Information will also be available for those who administered or supervised the prisoners on various censuses or government documents.
The positive result for present-day genealogists was the production of a profusion of court-related records, from Victorian-era Britain, listing people of all walks of life, along with details about their occupations, places of residence, family relationships and origins. The latter can be particularly important for historians whose ancestors apparently disappeared from the areas where they were born and raised. For those actually convicted of crimes, there may be an abundance of information. Police, court, prison and/or transport records may contain details of their physical appearance, general health, literacy, family members, occupation (or lack thereof), places of residence and other history. Local newspapers, reporting on the events, are also sources for such information.
Sources of Searchable Data:
Kings’s (Queen’s) Bench – records held at The National Archives (TNA) under series KB
Court of Chancery – records held at TNA under series C
Assizes – records held at TNA under series HO and ASSI
Petty Sessions and Quarter Sessions – primarily in local record offices
Search local record office catalogues, TNA catalogue, Access to Archives (A2A) and National Register of Archives ( NRA) and other specialty websites.
Police records are held by TNA – under series MEPO and HO
Search TNA catalogue, A2A and other specialty websites
Records of those sentenced to prison or transportation held in TNA under series HO, PCOM, CO or PRIS
Search TNA catalogue, A2A, NRA, local record offices and other specialty websites
References for Information:
Victorian Era – General
Wayne Shepheard is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program in England, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy and is a past Editor of Chinook, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Family Histories Society. Wayne also provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated