UK Criminal Records
and Your Family Tree

Have you discovered UK criminal records relating to someone in your family tree?

Don’t fret about it – almost everyone finds someone in their family tree, sooner or later, with a criminal past!

The more you search, and the broader your tree becomes (with extended family such as cousins, etc.), the more likely you are to find someone who ran afoul of the law in olden times - or perhaps even more recently.

Having found a few with UK criminal records in my own tree, I can say that it is somewhat of a humbling experience! However, it helps to keep in mind that, in the course of browsing through this type of record, I have seen many examples of individuals tried and convicted, and sentenced to death, for things for which we would not even prosecute today.

An example: a child was found guilty of stealing an apple from an orchard, and was hanged for it.

Durham Jail, Elvet, County DurhaDurham Jail, Elvet, County Durham, England Wikimedia Commons

In my own family, one distant relative back in the 1800s was tried for, and found guilty of, the crime of 'theft in a dwelling house', in the amount of GBP 5. She served a prison sentence of 9 months.

While admittedly, 5 pounds was worth much more then than it is now, one would think that this sort of thing could have been dealt with privately. It seems to me that there is more to this story than meets the eye!

At the time, she was working as a domestic servant/cook in a boarding house, and was ‘with child’ without benefit of marriage. She was eight months pregnant at the time of sentencing. So, I have a distant relative with the somewhat dubious distinction of having been born in a British prison!

Since she would have had little free time outside of her working duties, some family members I discussed it with have surmised that it is likely that the father of her son was someone within the household.

Was the owner of the boarding house (a married man with young children in the house) the father? Was this his way of getting rid of her - or perhaps the wife's method of dispensing with her, and getting back at her by saddling her with a UK criminal record? A pending y-DNA test, courtesy of one of the descendants of the son born in prison, should tell the tale!

Believe it or not, finding UK criminal records pertaining to someone in your tree has its upsides: you can discover all sorts of information about the person and his or her family that you would not otherwise find easily!

Things like a physical description (height, weight, hair and eye color, distinguishing marks, etc.), names of parents, address and occupation at the time of arrest, next of kin, and so on, all were recorded on the documentation related to their detention.

Remember, also, that even though a person may have been exonerated, and therefore did not actually end up with a UK criminal record, s/he may still have spent time in jail – or gaol, as it used to be spelled – awaiting trial, or they may have had a bail hearing, which could yield further information about them.

And, if the person was apprehended during or after 1871 in England, there likely will even be a ‘mugshot’ of them, as it became mandatory as of that year to photograph all accused persons.

Scale of JusticeScale of Justice Wikimedia Commons

Clues in the Existing Records

How do you go about finding out if an ancestor, or a member of your extended family, had a UK criminal record? What sort of clues should you look for in the existing records concerning them and their families?

One great clue is a family member who is missing from a census document, while the spouse and children are listed. The spouse may be listed as ‘married’, although I have seen examples of spouses who said they were ‘widowed’, in order to avoid having to tell the enumerator that they were married to a convict!

I found one fellow this way; it turned out that he was serving a three-month sentence for assault, and the sentence happened to overlap with the census enumeration. His wife and two children were living at the same address as they were in the previous census, and she was listed as ‘married’.

When I searched specifically for him in the census documents, apart from his family, I located him in the local prison. The related UK criminal records indicated that he was there for about 90 days, for assault.

Another clue is to look at the birth dates of the children. Generally speaking, up until the early 1900s, children were born about every two years in a marriage.

Gaps in the record could indicate the death of one of the spouses, and the subsequent remarriage of the surviving spouse; they could also indicate that one of the spouses was away for a period of time.

Reasons for the gap could include (among other explanations) military service, serving jail time, or hospitalization during the gap period. Gaps followed by a family migration to another part of the country (or to one of the colonies) could also indicate a desire for a ‘fresh start’, where no-one knows about their UK criminal record.

If you suspect that your ancestor had a UK criminal record, one of the best places to look for information about it is in the newspapers in the area where your ancestors lived. If you can access a database of online British newspapers, you can search for your ancestor by name.

If not, then a search of newspapers during the 'gap period' may prove fruitful.

Most newspapers of the day provided full coverage of the criminal proceedings as they occurred, and thus can provide an excellent starting point in determining where and when your ancestor was tried, and whether or not he was convicted.

Links to Pages about UK Criminal Records

For detailed information regarding what is available, in terms of UK criminal records concerning accused persons, prisoners, and convicts, see my individual pages regarding England and Wales, Scotland, and Ireland - coming soon.

Go to 'Criminal Records in England'

Go from 'UK Criminal Records and Your Family Tree' to FamilyHistoryAlive Home Page

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