Criminal records are quite plentiful in England, as in many countries where punishment for perceived crimes has been meted out for centuries.
One of the earliest forms of what could be called a court, although not as formal as today’s proceedings, was held by the Lord of Manor. He would hear and decide disputes, many of them relating to property and its use within the boundaries of the Manor.
This evolved into the two types of courts which co-existed for several centuries, and which between them handled virtually all matters of a criminal nature in the land: the Quarter Sessions, and the Assizes.
Those two types of proceedings eventually gave way to something much more closely resembling the modern court system, with all of its levels of complexity.
The Quarter Sessions dealt with more minor criminal matters. These trials were held by Justices of the Peace, who tended to be wealthy landowners.
Records of Quarter Sessions exist from as early as the 1350s in some areas of the country. Four times a year (i.e., every quarter – hence the name, Quarter Sessions), the Justices would hear cases with respect to the local area.
In addition to criminal records, Quarter Sessions justices also generated records dealing with the granting of liquor licenses; maintenance of highways; appeals of poor rates (somewhat akin to a modern-day appeal of municipal property taxes); settlement examinations (of people coming into the parish, to determine whether they should be allowed to stay, or whether they would become a burden on the poor rolls), as well as removal orders; bastardy examinations; and many other local or municipal matters.
Quarter Sessions records – and any criminal records they generated - are held by the local authorities, and most likely would be located in the county archives.
Quarter Sessions criminal records can be quite extensive for a given area, although what is available, as well as the years of coverage, varies from county to county.
Here is an example of the available Quarter Sessions criminal records, this one for the City of Norwich, in Norfolk County:
To find out what holdings there are for the county where your ancestor lived, see Access to Archives.
Please note that what is online on the Access to Archives site is simply a catalogue of the holdings in the various county depositories.
Unless the criminal record / document you are seeking is online somewhere (i.e., available for download, for a fee, on the National Archives site; on a county Records Office site; or on a subscription or pay-per-view site), you may have to pay someone to go to the particular archive and retrieve the actual information for you.
The Assizes handled the more serious crimes, such as theft, murder, assault, highway robbery, bigamy and rape. These matters were passed up to the Assizes from the Quarter Sessions.
Assizes were held by a group of justices who rotated through various counties on a circuit. Each area on the circuit would have two, and sometimes three, Assize sessions per year.
Assize criminal records are held at the National Archives.
However, they are not all under one convenient heading; they are scattered under various headings in the catalogue and database.
Some of the categories of records where one is likely to find criminal records related to a particular prisoner, or to an assize at which that prisoner was tried or sentenced, are the following:
I found the brother of one of my direct ancestors listed in one of these. He was convicted of larceny in Norfolk, England on January 7, 1834, and was housed on board the derelect ship Leviathan by January 30, 1834.
He eventually began transportion to Australia on July 4, 1834, but was transferred to another hulk in Cork, Ireland in September 1834. He died October 10, 1834, at Cork, having contracted cholera. Seventeen others also died of cholera at Cork.
It may also prove useful to search for Petitions for clemency. These were requests for a reduced sentence, or an outright release of the prisoner, notwithstanding his/her guilt, on grounds such as being of good character (prior to the offence), being slow-witted and duped into participating in or committing the crime; being in ill health; and so on.
Many of the petitions asking for a lighter sentence were signed by a group of people, often including the prosecutor who acted on the file, if he felt the sentence was too harsh. Some petitions were granted, and others were not.
You may also find reference to a coroner’s inquest, if the crime of which the prisoner was accused involved the death of another person.
These might be found in the Assize files themselves (and therefore may be in the National Archives); or they might be located at the county archives where the deceased person died, and where the coroner did his investigation.
If the inquest was fairly recent, it may be necessary to obtain the coroner’s consent to get a copy of the document relating what happened at the inquest. This has to do with privacy concerns regarding living family members. Older coroner’s files appear to be listed as ‘open’ records, and are available for viewing.
Some of these files can contain some very graphic details. However, they will also provide evidence of the circumstances surrounding the person’s death, and most likely, there will be statements from witnesses, or summaries of their testimony at the inquest, who were at the scene or lived nearby.
There will also be indications of the accused’s alleged involvement in the crime, usually from the witnesses, or from police statements after their investigation.
For further information on finding UK criminal records, see the National Archives’ Criminal Trial or Conviction section.
No discussion of England’s criminal records would be complete without at least a passing reference to the Old Bailey courthouse, where many of London’s most notorious criminals were tried.
The Old Bailey (named for the street on which it sits) has existed, in one form or another, since the 1600s. It was destroyed by fire twice over the centuries, and has been rebuilt several times to reflect changing ideas about courts and trials.
It was located right beside the Newgate prison, affording a convenient method of transporting prisoners to court for their trials.
Interestingly, the building erected after the first fire, in 1673, was completely open on the ground floor on one side. In addition to allowing spectators a good view from outside, reasons for leaving it open included providing fresh air to those inside, thereby avoiding the spread of typhus, which was rampant in the prisons.
The building was renovated in 1737, closing up the previously-open main floor. The threat of typhus, however, was still very real; an outbreak of typhus in 1850 spread through the courtroom, resulting in the death of 60 individuals.
The current building, on which construction was completed in the early 1900s, sits on the site of the former Newgate prison and the former Old Bailey courthouse.
The Newgate prison had become dilapidated, and other arrangements were made for the housing of any prisoners still confined there.
As previously mentioned, the former courthouse had been badly damaged by a fire. Both older buildings were demolished to make way for the new, larger Old Bailey courthouse.
What is so interesting about the Old Bailey (also known as Justice Hall, the Sessions House, and the Central Criminal Court), especially for family historians, is that all existing records of trials held at this location have been transcribed, in their entirety, and posted online in a database.
From 1674, only selected trials were published. From 1678, however, all trials were published, in a publication with a lengthy name, known colloquially either as ‘The Sessions Papers’ or ‘The (Old Bailey) Proceedings’.
While initially published with a view to entertaining the populace, as time wore on, the Proceedings took on a more formal air, and were used for more serious purposes.
By the 1770s, the Proceedings, as a record of the trial, were presented to the King as a basis upon which to make his decision as to who among those given the death penalty should be pardoned. There was much more emphasis on accuracy and impartiality in the record, as opposed to the sensationalism of the past.
At this point, the publication was targeted more at lawyers and other members of the legal profession, rather than at the general public, and all trials were reported with the same degree of depth.
The Proceedings ceased publication in 1913.
The database containing the trial records for the Old Bailey cases is located at www.oldbaileyonline.org. Access, searching, and downloading all are free.
As outlined above, with the exception of the Old Bailey records, which are online and freely searchable, the available records are split between the National Archives and the county archives or record offices. Indeed, you may find records with respect to a particular case in both locations.
My suggestion would be, after searching a newspaper archive to discover where and when your ancestor was tried, to check the Archive to Archive website, to see what is available at the County level, and then move to the National Archives website.
I hope that you will find this brief outline of researching criminal records in England of assistance in your search!
As of last month, FindMyPast.co.uk has added British newspapers dating from the 1700s to its database. All names mentioned on a particular page have been indexed, although it is still necessary to search the section of the page in which the name appears.
The newspaper reports of the day also included crime reports from local Assizes and Quarter Sessions. I have found a description of the crimes committed by a number of people of interest to my research, including their crime; if they stole something, a list of the articles they stole, from whom, and when; other details of the crime; who testified at the trial, and what they said; and so on.
In one case, the local games warden had his cousin charged for trespassing on private property looking for game! I wonder how that affected family relations in that small village!
As of February 2013, FindMyPast UK has also added a UK criminal database, complete with photographs (where they exist) of those charged. This might be the only place where you would get such a photo, as many were too poor to afford professional photographs.
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