Tracing your police ancestors

By Dr David J. Cox, University of Wolverhampton

Local archives/record offices

Policing agents can appear in a wide variety of sources, ranging from Justices’ notebooks, Petty and Quarter Session (QS) registers, newspaper reports of trials (these usually relate to more serious offences), QS minute books detailing the appointment of parish constables, Finance or Watch Committee records, council committee records etc. It is always best to seek the advice of the local archivist first, as they know their records better than any online catalogue!

Newspapers

Either at local archives/record offices, or at the British Library, St Pancras – note that the BL reading rooms at Colindale closed a few years ago. Many historical newspapers are also available online through various subscription services – check with your local archives/record offices to see if they offer access to any of these services (which can otherwise be very expensive to subscribe to). Be aware that colonial newspapers also carried reports of trials which took place in Britain – a surprisingly good source can be National Library of Australia (NLA) Trove website.

Online resources

Too numerous to mention individually – many police forces have some form of online presence which includes a historical aspect (but be aware that the police have been notoriously poor at keeping historical records – many forces have absolutely no records!).  The most obvious starting points are Ancestry and Find My Past- the latter has particularly good digitised newspapers. The various censuses (especially from 1841 onward) are very useful as they provide occupational records, as well as street directories etc.

Suggested further reading list

  • Clive Emsley, The English Police: A Political and Social History, Routledge, 1996 (2nd edition), ISBN 978-0582257689
  • Clive Emsley, The Great British Bobby, Quercus, 2010, ISBN 978-1849161978
  • Philip Rawlings, Policing: A Short History, Willan, 2001, ISBN 978-1903240267
  • Stephen Wade, Tracing Your Police Ancestors, Pen & Sword, 2009, ISBN 9781844158782
  • Martin Stallion and David S. Wall, The British Police: Forces and Chief Officers 1829-2012, Police History Society, 2011 (2nd edition), ISBN 9780951253861
  • Police Ancestors – Who Do You Think You Are? website.
  • The National Archives website – How to Look For Records of Police.
  • Police History PDF guide to Tracing Your Police Ancestors.

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This image is shocking. Even more so next to an image of a Wandsworth prison cell from the late 1850s👇. The hand crank has gone, but little else has changed. As Dostoevsky famously wrote: 'The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.' https://twitter.com/robroballen/status/1552908625013874691