Have you found a prisoner in your family history or wondering about the punishment of offenders in your local community history? Here is a simple introductory guide to finding prisoners in the 1800-1914 period.
Broadly speaking there are two routes to begin the process to find out more – these are the most common questions that get asked:
1) My ancestor is listed as a prisoner on a Census – how do I find out more?
You might discover that one of your ancestors had been to prison by seeing them listed in prison on the Census – this will tell you which prison they are in but it won’t tell you what they were sent there for. Censuses of some prisons and other institutions do vary; sometimes they only record the initials of inmates and not the full names. To search from a prison record to find out the offence, the best route is to go first to the Criminal Registers, 1805-1892 (these are available online through Ancestry.co.uk and FindmyPast) to see if the person and offence are listed. You can narrow this down as you know what year the person was in prison (bear in mind most people served only very short sentences – see other comments below at point 2).
There are some other registers that you might find useful:
Visit our pages on Assizes and Quarter Sessions for useful background information about the courts. Newspapers are also an excellent source for finding out about criminal cases as court proceedings were often reported in the local press. Many local archives and libraries do have institutional subscriptions to some of the most useful Internet sites, such as Ancestry (www.ancestry.co.uk) or FindmyPast (www.findmypast.co.uk). Both of these websites have newspaper archives within their databases and these can be really useful as they largely comprise of local newspapers, where you will stand a better chance of finding a report of your ancestor’s trial.
If your ancestor was tried at the Old Bailey/Central Criminal Court in London then have a look at the Old Bailey Online website (www.oldbaileyonline.org), which contains 197,000 trial proceedings of the Old Bailey between 1674 and 1913. You can also trace your ancestors through the Digital Panopticon website (www.digitalpanopticon.org), which contains links to more than 50 other databases for criminals convicted at the Old Bailey from 1780.
2) One of my ancestors committed a crime and was sentenced to prison/fined/whipped – which prison would my ancestor have been sent to?
a) If your ancestor was sentenced to transportation/death/whipping/imprisonment or they were awaiting trial then they would have been sent to the local prison and to the court that they were sentenced in. In the 19th century there were a lot more prisons than there are today and they varied considerably in size. In some locations it is obvious which prison they were sent to, but in other areas there were multiple possibilities. As cities and towns expanded, new prisons were built and old ones were shut down (for example HMP Hull opened in 1870, but until that point most of the county prisoners were sent to the East Riding Gaol and House of Correction in Beverley, as the county town).
As in this example, it can be helpful to know what the county town was in order to help locate the prison.
An excellent website detailing the prisons in England in the 19th century can be found at www.prisonhistory.org – here you can view by area/county as well as listing the prisons and you can also see what archives are available for each prison and where they are located. If you know the court that your ancestor was sentenced in then this can help narrow your possibilities down.
For those sentenced to death/transportation, they would have been held at the prison until execution day or removal to the hulks and then potential transportation overseas. Many people served their entire sentence in the prison hulks and never went abroad so bear this in mind – see Tracing your transported ancestors
Most people sent to prison/gaol in the nineteenth century were sent there for short periods of time – often seven/ten/fourteen days (in 1877 for example there were 100,525 sentenced to imprisonment as a penalty in Magistrates court and of these approx 76,000 served under one month and 45,000 under 14 days or under 28 days) and this therefore was the bulk of the prison population. Whilst some of these people were repeat offenders, a proportion were not – they may have experienced imprisonment only briefly, never offended again and just because we have found them on a prison register does not mean that it is a defining feature of their life or that they were a career criminal. Local prisons did not hold prisoners for longer than two years, and as has been shown, most were held for quite short periods of time.
Sometimes the sentence (often for drunkenness or other similar low level disorderly offences) will read a fine, in shillings and pence or three days. This meant that if they could pay the fine they could go but if they could not then they would have to serve three days in prison. It is not always possible to find out which option your ancestors took. However, it is worth bearing in mind that fines had to be paid immediately and so this was difficult for many who might well have served the days imprisonment instead. It was not until the Criminal Justice Administration Act 1914 that we gave people time to pay fines meted out in court – the consequence of this was to significantly reduce the prison population.
b) If your ancestor was sentenced to penal servitude then they were serving a sentence of minimum of three years’ incarceration. Penal servitude began to replace transportation from 1853 onwards (also see Tracing your transported ancestors) and those convicted would have served a long term prison sentence in what was a national system. So if your ancestor was sentenced to five years’ penal servitude for larceny, then initially they would have been sent to the local prison but subsequently they would have been removed to the Convict Prison system.
Penal Servitude was a sentence of three parts:
The first period was separate confinement – from late 1840s to 1880s/early 1890s men were sent to Pentonville and Millbank and women were sent to Millbank (in the early years the government also rented cells in some larger local prisons – TNA HO23 Register of Prisoners in County Prisons, 1838-1875 on FindmyPast and www.digitalpanopticon.org). Separate confinement generally lasted for between six and nine months, and prisoners were held alone in single cells where they would work, eat and sleep. They would only leave the cell for exercise and to go chapel (if you want to see what a separate chapel looked like you can see one at Lincoln Castle Museum where the Victorian Prison site has one of the few preserved examples – www.lincolncastle.com/content/victorian-prison).
The second part of the sentence was labour on the ‘public works’ – this would be undertaken a one of a number of prisons for men that opened or were adapted during this time – for men at Portsmouth/Portland/Chatham (and Chattenden)/Dartmoor/Dover/Parkhurst/Brixton for example, men worked on government construction projects like building breakwaters, quarrying stone, clearing land for railways. Women were sent to Brixton and Parkhurst in the early years, but from the late 1860s they went to Fulham (called Fulham Refuge but it was a prison) and to Woking prison, and later in the century at Aylesbury. Primarily, women worked in large industrial laundries undertaking the laundry for the majority of the prison system as well as other large organisations.
The final stage of the sentence was release on licence, which was an early form of our current parole system (see Convict licensing system). If you had an ancestor who served a sentence of penal servitude and was released on licence then their Penal Record contains a great deal of information about them and about their prison experiences (see Convict licensing system).
3) What do prison registers contain and are there any for my ancestor available online?
You could also look at a new website that aims to collate all available sources for English prisons into one site (www.prisonhistory.org). Although you can’t search for individuals on this website, if you know from other sources which prison your ancestor was sent to, you can find out where all of the records relating to that particular prison are located and what records survive.
Local archives can hold a lot of information about Quarter Sessions sittings. These are often in the form of printed Quarter Sessions Calendars of Prisoners and can be a very useful source of information about your ancestor. If your ancestor was tried at the Assizes, then most Assize records are held at the National Archives (see Assizes).
Some local archives have made their prison registers available online via Ancestry/FindMyPast. Some archives have done these themselves, for example:
Bedfordshire and Luton Archives Service
Others have had collections digitised in partnership with Ancestry or FindmyPast for example:
Find My Past – large easily searchable collection (subscription)
City Of York Calendars of Prisoners 1739-1851
Devon, Plymouth Prison Records 1832-1919
England and Wales, Crime, Prisons & Punishment, 1770-1935 – this multi data set collection which contains 20 collections of records, those that cover Home Office calendars of prisoners, registers (including Newgate).
Manchester Prison Registers 1847-1881 – they are incomplete but the prison registers cover Belle Vue Prison, HMP Strangeways and Salford New Bailey, though different sets of documents survive for each prison. The kinds of information usually contained in them are as follows but this varies with the type of register/prison. The registers usually give:
- Register number/prisoner name/when and by whom crimes were committed/how committed
- Charge/summary conviction/sentence/age last birthday/place of birth
- Personal description including height, complexion, hair, eyes, marks upon person and remarks
- Professional trade or occupation
- Last or usual residence (and address of friends, if to be advised of prisoner’s discharge)
- Religion/education/married or single (and number of children)
- Number of previous committals
- Date of discharge
- Some might also have information about relatives; letters received and sent out/record books
Ancestry holds a huge amount of archives relating to prison, prison records and registers, indexes for a number of counties in the UK. We have not listed the full collection here but some examples include, West Yorkshire Prison Records, Bodmin (Cornwall), Somerset, Gloucestershire, Surrey.
If you are searching for Scotland or Welsh records then they also hold:
Scotland, Prison Records Index, 1828-1878
Fife, Scotland Criminal Registers 1910-1931 (also Fife Asylum Registers, 1866-1937)
Wales, Swansea and surrounding area – Gaol Records 1877-1922