Find your ancestors in England and Wales, Crime, Prisons and Punishment 1770-1935


Convicts excercising in the yard at Pentonville Prison in the 19th Century

Were your ancestors in trouble with the law? Follow them through over 5 million records of criminals who passed through the justice system in England and Wales between 1770 and 1935. Find out where they stood trial, what sentence they were given and what their life was like in prison.

In association with The National Archives, Findmypast is excited to release an extensive collection of records from criminal cases, gaols, hulks, prisons, and criminal calendars. England & Wales, crime, prisons & punishment, 1770-1935 is the largest single collection of British crime records online. Explore the world of courts and prisons, and discover if your ancestor committed a criminal offence and what your ancestor’s sentence was. You can also find physical descriptions and photographs of your ancestor, whether your ancestor was executed or transported, and official correspondence about your ancestor’s case, as well as petitions sent by the accused individuals and their family and friends to have sentences reduced. This extraordinarily rich collection of records covers the justice system from the days of the Bloody Code – where most property crimes carried a death sentence – to the justice system we know today. The collection holds 22 series of records from The National Archives.

Each record comprises a transcript and an image from the original document. There's a huge range of material in this collection and the amount of information you can find out is huge. The transcript can tell you your ancestor's name, any aliases they might have used, their year of birth, age and where they were born, their occupation, the court they were tried in and the type and duration of sentence they received. Images will often reveal even more information. This is where you can find a physical description of your ancestor or even their photograph. You might even find their appeal for an early release or a quashing of their sentence or one from family or friends. You can find details about their previous convictions, family life and state of health as well as all kinds of details about the case against them.

Many of the records contained in this collection are quite long documents so do make sure you explore the following pages by clicking on the white arrow to the right of the image screen.

Discover more about the British Criminal Justice System

Cranking air at Darmoor Prison, with details of the various levels of punishment

The crime records on Findmypast cover a period when the British Justice System was evolving rapidly. During the early 19th century, justice reform campaigners were pushing for complete reform of the so-called Bloody Code, as British criminal law had come to be known. Someone passing through the justice system in our earliest records would face a very different justice to those who passed through at the turn of the 20th century.

By 1815, when the reform movement really kicked off, you could be put to death for 288 different crimes. This number had risen from just 50 at the end of the 1600s. With policing still at a very rudimentary stage it was thought that the only way to protect property rights was with severe, summary, capital judgements that would serve as a grave warning to anyone considering taking another man’s things. This meant that you faced the same punishment if you broke into an empty house as you would receive if you had brutally killed someone. People were hung for relatively minor thefts, the penalty for forging the British pound was the same as for high treason.

In 1832, the first major Reform Law was passed, removing the death penalty from housebreaking, horse and sheep stealing and forgery and more laws, over the next five years, reduced the number of capital offences to just three – murder, attempted murder and treason.

So for someone who had got caught up in bad company in the 1780s the stakes were a lot higher if they got caught. Once they were convicted there were usually two options – death or transportation. The prison hulk ships that had been introduced to house the convicts who could no longer be sent to America after independence now housed those waiting to be sent to colonise Australia. Transportation sentences were usually harsh; the minimum was usually four years, rising to 7, 14 and life. You can find even more transportation records elsewhere on Findmypast and some in the ‘Useful links and resources’ section.

After the legal reforms of the 1830s more and more prisoners served their time in purpose built prisons. You will find extensive prison records in this collection, with prisons from all over England and Wales.

Life in prison was harsh. Those sentenced to hard labour faced gruelling days on monotonous tasks. Stone breaking was a common punishment as was the treadmill – once a method of grinding grain but reduced by the 1860s to a grim conveyor belt or a nightmarish contraption set into the walls that prisoners would access in stalls that separated them from their fellow convicts and discouraged any conversation. Prisoners in solitary confinement might be tasked with the “crank”. This was a handle set into the floor of the cell attached to a system of gears. The crank would have to be turned thousands of times a day. How hard it was to turn was determined by the prison guards who could tighten or loosen it as will – thus earning the name “screws”.

Food was equally monotonous and plain but it was not unusual for prisoners to be placed on punishment rations of bread and water. Prison authorities could also choose to whip prisoners who had broken gaol regulations. Sentences of 40 or 60 lashes were not unusual for the worst offenders late into the 19th century.

If you were convicted of a crime you could still appeal. Convicts either wrote to the Government themselves or got their friends or family to do so on their behalf. You can find these petitions in this collection. Many go into minute detail about family circumstances or the prisoner’s health concerns as well as revealing fascinating detail about the case they had been convicted for.