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Beginning Your Family History

Part Seven: Criminal Ancestors

User Avatar Penelope Lovesy 05/06/2020 16:44:57


If your ancestors were ordinary working people, chances are they will be largely absent from many historical records and sources. However, looking at criminal records can uncover a great deal of information about everyday lives and local communities. 

If your ancestor was on trial or convicted of a crime you may find a physical description. For example, in the Dorchester Prison Admissions 1821 Mary White of Poole is 36 and 5’2’’ with brown hair, brown complexion and grey eyes and has “lost the sight of the left eye, little finger left hand crooked.” These few details can add so much to a name and date on a family tree especially when there are no photographs.

An abundance of details about community life can be found in criminal records. For example, in the Poole Quarter Session Indictments 1622-1835, which cover various crimes, we find John Bartlett, a labourer, who in 1738 was fined for placing “a large quantity of filth, dirt and other offensive things on land near Hill Street which polluted the air and annoyed the residents of nearby houses.” This really brings Poole in the 1700s to life. Criminal records also highlight local industry. In 1770 John Lapsley and Peter Bolger, Mariners, were found guilty of stealing “thirty fathoms of hauser rope, value 10 shillings”.  Their punishment was transportation. This allows us a glimpse into life and trade at the time - Poole was a thriving port with much industry connected to the shipping trade.

If your ancestors are Poole based or you are interested in the local area, The Archive Index, including The Quarter Session Indictments can be found here: http://www.poolehistory.org.uk/taxonomy/term/50/all?keywords=poole%20Archive%20Index&recordType=&keywords=poole%20Archive%20Index&recordType=&termID=50&x=0&y=0

Navigating criminal records can be difficult as resources are scattered and vast. The National Archives is a good place to start and they have produced a blog explaining the topic here: https://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/trace-criminal-ancestors/

The National Archives has also created several research guides available for a range of different records: https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/?research-category=criminals-courts-and-prisons

This guide is a great introduction to what you can view and where. It also includes a video all about tracing criminal ancestors: https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/criminals-and-convicts/

Have a look at the guides and try searching some of the many resources. You might uncover some family stories for your tree.

A freely available resource is The Proceedings of the Old Bailey 1674-1913 https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/ “A fully searchable edition of the largest body of texts detailing the lives of non-elite people ever published, containing 197,745 criminal trials held at London's central criminal court.”

There are guides about the resource and getting started here: https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/static/GettingStarted.jsp and here: https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/static/SearchHelp.jsp

This leads to The Digital Panopticon https://www.digitalpanopticon.org/ “This website allows you to search millions of records from around fifty datasets,relating to the lives of 90,000 convicts from the Old Bailey. Use our site to search individual convict life archives, explore and visualise data, and learn more about crime and criminal justice in the past.” Alongside searching for individuals, this website has a comprehensive section on historical background so you can learn a great deal about the criminal justice system and what would have happened to your ancestors.

National and local newspapers give a real voice to your ancestors and impart an essence of the community. Read about crimes committed, trials and hear voices from the past. Unfortunately there is no free access online to newspapers. They can be found using subscription sites like Find My Past and the British Newspaper Archive: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/

You will also be able to access local newspapers in local studies libraries when they reopen.  Here is a blog which shows how the newspapers have been used to piece together a story of one woman with many different names: https://ww1poole.wordpress.com/2019/06/19/the-astounding-record-of-a-poole-girl/

Ancestry also has criminal records from around the country available to search.  From the homepage:

  • Click on search (the search on the top bar)
  • Scroll down to by location
  • Select England
  • Click see more about England
  • Scroll down the page to England Wills, Probates, Land, Tax & Criminal
  • Select View all England Wills, Probates, Land, Tax & Criminal (16)
  • Select Switch to all collections that are related to England

Here you can search an assortment of records from different localities.

The story of Elizabeth Rideout, of Poole, demonstrates how records can be used to uncover more about an ancestor. Joseph Rideout married Elizabeth Bottly on 19th March 1703.  They went on to have five children born between 1705 and 1714.  Elizabeth Rideout was baptised on the 16th February 1706 and her youngest sister, Joanna, was baptised on the 28th April 1714. 

The Quarter Session Indictments for Poole show that in 1737, thirty-seven women were found guilty of assembling unlawfully and disturbing the peace with their riotous assembly. Sixteen of these women were named and included Elizabeth and Joannah Ridout. The women were rioting over food prices. Read more of the story here: http://www.poolehistory.org.uk/node/329322

Elizabeth and Joannah pleaded guilty and were fined one shilling. It is difficult to trace our ancestors closely through the 1700s, especially if they did not own property or have significant wealth. We next find Joannah getting married in 1748 to Edward Morphus. 

Elizabeth’s story can be continued using criminal records. In March 1768 she is accused of felony and her sentence is to be transported for seven years. We know that she sailed on the John and Betsy and arrived in New York, however we do not know if she ever returned to Poole after seven years. She would have been in her sixties, so this seems unlikely. Read more about her transportation sentence here:


This blog covers a huge variety of sources. It is so interesting to read the records, even if your ancestors don’t appear, as they really do bring local communities to life.  Please do get in touch if you unearth any interesting stories: localhistory@bcpcouncil.gov.uk

Image credit: From the Collection of Andrew Hawkes 


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