Prison Records

July, 2007




Tezz (genealogy101 @t of Hertfordshire writes: I found my ancestor Richard Burnell b 1884 Whitchurch, Buckinghamshire (transcribed as Whitechurch) in the 1901 census.  He was a prisoner in His Majesty's Prison, St Albans.  I would like to find a record which would tell me why he was imprisoned and how long for. He married in 1907 and lived the rest of his life in Watford. I have tried HALS, but they did not have any information relating to the prisoners within the prison beyond the census returns

It can be very helpful if your ancestor was involved in crime - because this can be a source of detailed information that would not otherwise be available. It is therefore well worth following this up as once you have got date and place for the trial there will be other possibilities - such as the court records. If he was convicted in Hertfordshire HALS may well have these. There might also be an account of the trial in local newspapers.

The most likely place to get information on prisoners when all you know about their crime is that they were a prisoner in a census is the National Archives at Kew. They have an online guide to the records available at  and catalogue reference HO140 is probably the most relevant.

However I have never used the National Archives for criminal research and HO140 may not cover short magistrate sentences or cases where the individual was held on remand awaiting trial.

The census records can sometimes come up with surprises, and if the prison sentence was short the wife would often "cover" the fact that her husband was not at home. For instance I found that a petty criminal James Stratton (1807-1887) was recorded twice in both the 1851 and 1871 census - where he is shown as being in prison and at home at the same time.

Most of us have criminal ancestors somewhere - or "fine upstanding people" who one might now think ought to have been imprisoned for their actions - because they made their fortunes in the slave trade or exploiting child labour. The last thing one wants are boring ancestors which never did anything worth recording beyond their birth, marriage and death.

A friend became very excited because she had found a lengthy newspaper account of a well attend public event at which her ancestor was initially an active participant. There was a description of how he looked (how often do you know things such as the hair colour of your ancestors?) and some comments about his casual demeanour in front of the excited audience. My friend was not the least worried that her ancestor was not active at the end of the event - which was a public hanging! If he had been anyone else at the event the newspaper would not have included such personal details!

In most cases the criminal evidence is more mundane - with evidence about everyday things - such as which public houses the criminal and their associates frequented. Titbits like this help to convert your ancestors into a real person and not just a name and date on a family tree. There are many examples of the kinds of information that can turn up in court cases in Old News.
If you find the National Archives records helpful please let me know as this could help me to advise other people, with a suitable page on this web site.

August, 2007

As a result to the above request Patricia has provided a interesting synopsis of her experience of transportation related records at the National Archives - see Criminal Records at the National Archives, Early 19th Century

Hertfordshire Criminals in Bedford Goal

Samuel Jones was born in Tring in 1816 and in 1838 he was 5 feet 9 inches high, had brown hair, hazel eyes, and had a scar on his upper lip. 
And how do we know this? 
Samuel was in Bedford Goal having committed for highway robbery, and was later put on board the Fortitude, at Chatham, on the way to Australia. This information comes from the Bedfordshire Goal Register which is currently being put online by BLARS. For more examples see Some Tring Criminals.

Hertfordshire Genealogy News, November 2011

See WILLSON, Governors of Hertford Goal, 1756-1838

If you can add to the information given above tell me.

Page created May 2007