Following the implementation of the 1853 Penal Servitude Act, a new licensing system for convicts was introduced in Britain. It had its origins in the ‘ticket-of-leave’ system operating in New South Wales, Australia, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, which gave well-behaved transported convicts the opportunity to work for themselves or for an employer before their sentence expired.
Under the new licensing system in Britain, which was also often referred to as ‘ticket-of leave’, well-behaved convicts could be released early on licence, from up to one-third of their sentence, depending on their behaviour and the length of the original sentence (essentially an early version of our current parole system).
The system allowed each convict to accrue a small amount of money while in prison, which would be given to them on release. They would also receive a suit and a pair of shoes, along with a railway ticket to a chosen destination.
While on licence, the former prisoner would have to meet certain conditions. If they committed another offence or associated with notoriously bad characters, then they would lose their licence and be returned to prison. They could also lose their licence if they were found to be leading an idle life or having no visible means of support, unless they could prove that someone was supporting them financially.
Between 1864 and 1869, all male licence-holders also had to report to a local police station on a weekly basis. This requirement was changed to monthly after the introduction of the 1871 Prevention of Crimes Act, which also stated that a licence holder who breached his conditions in any minor way could now be imprisoned. However, their licence would not be forfeited in such circumstances.
Of course, the licence system didn’t always run smoothly. The requirement for licence holders to report to a local police station every month was difficult to enforce, and many convicts may have simply ‘disappeared’ from the system. They also complained that they lost their jobs when the police arrived at their workplace, alerting their employers to their status as a former prisoner and licence holder.
But on the whole, the system was deemed successful and a modified form still exists today.
Records of male and female licence holders
Around 50,000 folders containing details of male and female licence holders covering the years between 1853 to 1887 are available to view at the National Archives, under the catalogue references PCOM 3 and PCOM 4. Some of these files have been digitised.
The licence folders are an invaluable source of information and include a range of information about the individual including:
- Details of offence
- Degree of literacy
- Marital status
- Number of children
- Next of kin
- Height, weight and medical history
- Distinguishing marks
- Photograph of licence holder (from 1880s)
Licence folders may also contain details about previous convictions, names and addresses of family and friends, and even correspondence sent and received by the convict, including returned letters to recipients that could not be found and those suppressed by the prison authorities due to the content of the letter or because the recipient was a known criminal.
More information about the licence folders is available at the National Archives. For further details about the licence system and how licences relate to other crime resources, visit the Digital Panopticon website.
Information taken from Victorian Convicts: 100 Criminal Lives, edited by Helen Johnston, Barry Godfrey & David J. Cox (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2016).