What do you know?

This guide was last updated in 2009

It’s the golden rule of genealogy: the first thing you need to do is write down everything that you already know about your criminal ancestor, and gather as much information as possible from your relatives and from basic genealogical records.

There may be a tale or rumour in the family that initially arouses your interest, and points you in the direction of certain records. Or it could be that your ancestor appears in jail at the time of a census – or that their family’s geographical movement between censuses leads you to suspect that they were running away from something. Or perhaps you have stumbled across another record altogether that indicates a criminal line.

Whatever your grounds for suspicion, it is useful to try and ascertain as precisely as possible the dates that you think are relevant. For example, is your ancestor in prison for two censuses running, or can you narrow down the time period by looking at the birth certificates of his or her children, or other relevant documentation?

Your ancestor cannot be in prison if they are conceiving children, witnessing death certificates or marrying in the local church. Or is there a time when your ancestor seems to disappear altogether – perhaps they have changed their name – or even left the country, either voluntarily or under sentence of transportation? It is this information that will serve you well by narrowing the windows that you need to search as your investigation continues.

You can find the basic genealogical documents, or indexes to them, at several websites, including ancestry.co.uk, findmypast.com and scotlandspeople.gov.uk.

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