Hunt down the criminals

Hunt down the criminals

Not all of us had decent, law-abiding ancestors – here’s the genealogy detective’s guide to learning more about the black sheep of the family

How to, How to

How to

How to

Whether you’re tantalised or appalled by criminal ancestry, the good news is that crime (when caught) has tended to leave more of a paper trail than quietly plying an honest trade. Also, remember that records of crime can often help you track down ancestors in the police force or legal system.

It will help your quest if you know when and where your ancestor was convicted. The most serious crimes were tried at assizes, held twice a year in each county from the 13th century to the 1970s, when crown courts came in. The National Archives holds surviving assizes records. Meanwhile the Old Bailey Online website is a treasure trove of trial reports back to the 17th.

Lesser crimes were often handled at Quarter Sessions, again county-based. The records of these are usually in your local county record office – very few are online.

If your ancestor was locked up, prison registers after 1878 are again often in local record offices; otherwise try The National Archives (which also holds records of bankrupts and debtors, Metropolitan Police records from 1829, and more generally is the main repository for court records). has transcripts of registers of convicts transported to Australia between 1787 and 1898.

A scene from one of the convict ships known as the ‘hulks’, described vividly in Dickens’ Great Expectations. This picture comes from the Illustrated London News (see box, below)

Discover your criminal ancestors

If you’re lucky you may be able to track a criminal ancestor across several record sets at Let’s start with the Criminal Records for England and Wales.

Our search for Thomas Parry, born in 1800, The original document shows a Thomas Parry convicted of “Burglary” at Monmouth in the summer of 1832. It shows he was sentenced to death, but this was commuted to life transportation.

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Thomas Parry

Prisoners due for transportation typically began their incarceration in the prison hulks – decommissioned ships made famous by Dickens in Great Expectations. We can search hulks records at TheGenealogist.


The hulks record confirms Parry’s crime of burglary and that he was “transferred to New South Wales 14 Sept 1832”. He had been staying at Her Majesty’s pleasure on the ‘Discovery’ at Woolwich. Searching TheGenealogist’s Australian convict transportation registers, there’s our man again. He sailed on the ‘Camden’, in fact on 21 September.

In Focus: Old Bailey Proceedings

The Proceedings of the Old Bailey from 1674 to 1913 are online at and make for fascinating reading

Old Bailey

  1. The criminals and the crime are listed at the top – Samuel Smith was accused of stealing sugar tongs, a watch and other items
  2. In this case a secondary crime of receiving is also being tried, against Robert Bright
  3. One of the victims was Thomas Evans, who describes when his items went missing
  4. This person appears to be a witness to the accused behaving suspiciously. All names in these records can be searched at the website
  5. Little details in these records show the personalities of the individuals involved
  6. A police constable gives his testimony – again, his name can be found by searching the site
Old Bailey 2

Interestingly the receiver was given a much harsher punishment, of transportation – it seems that he had employed the 15-year-old Smith to steal goods for him to pawn.

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