Researching prison inmates can be a fruitful and fascinating avenue for family historians.
Murderers, bootleggers and other offenders grabbed the headlines. Even more prosaic encounters with the criminal justice system will have generated an interesting paper trail.
There are all sorts of records open to you, from calendars of prisoners and prison registers, to court material from depositions and indictments; actual case files, pardons, reprieves and transfers; and newspaper reports and notices.
And that’s still the case if your ancestor was on the other side of the bars, perhaps working as prison staff, or a witness – or even a victim.
You should at least be able to find out more about the institution where they were incarcerated or worked.
We’ve picked the best websites to help you find your ancestors’ prison records, and inspire your research:
1. Our Criminal Ancestors
This free resource encourages people to explore the criminal past of their families and communities.
It tends to eschew notorious cases, instead presenting illustrated how-to guides, timelines and case studies that feature more everyday criminality.
One case study here charts the rise and fall of a Hull businessman who in the 1920s was sentenced to 21 months’ imprisonment for embezzlement. The website draws on a number of sources to illustrate his story, including the census, newspaper reports and local court records.
There’s all sorts of information about the history of policing, prisons, ‘bodily punishments’ and youth justice. In 2019 the site’s creators will add more material from assize records and additional prison records.
Findmypast takes this spot partly thanks to this vast collection of English and Welsh documents sourced from The National Archives. They detail more than half-a-million criminals who passed through the justice system between 1770 and 1935.
Subsets include registers of convicts in prison hulks (1818–1831), after-trial calendars of prisoners (1855–1931), Home Office calendars of prisoners (1868–1929), plus records of the Prison Commission and registers of criminal petitions.
Findmypast also has a collection of about 3.5 million Irish prison registers (1790–1924). ‘Pro’ members can access the British Newspaper Archive’s digital collection.
3. National Library of Wales Crime and Punishment Database
This free National Library of Wales database is drawn from the gaol files of the Court of Great Sessions in Wales, from 1730 up to its abolition in 1830.
The website was launched way back in 2004, and while it definitely looks its age, everything still functions well.
The relatively small number of common surnames in Wales may cause problems – a simple search for ‘Jones’ gives 1,985 results.
However, there are plenty of ways to narrow the pool, by date, county, crime, punishment and more.
For quarter sessions records, which are held by Welsh county record offices, go to Archives Wales.
4. The National Archives Guide to Researching Prisoners and Prison Staff
The National Archives (TNA) also has a number of important prison records collections collections. This guide describes what you need to know before you start, where records are held, what can be found online, and how to find material in other UK repositories.
As noted in the guide, it’s important to remember that prisoners were not always imprisoned “near their home or where the offence was committed”.
TNA’s YouTube channel also has webinars related to prisons and criminals.
Ancestry’s collection of criminal registers for England and Wales covers 1791–1892. There are also a large number of smaller national and regional datasets to look out for.
A collection of West Yorkshire prison records includes calendars of prisoners from Wakefield (1872–1914) and Leeds (1896–1915), and there’s the UK-wide collection ‘Licences of Parole for Female Convicts’.
Others include the Bedfordshire Gaol Index, Birmingham prisoners, Bodmin Gaol records, prison hulk registers (from material held at TNA) and a collection of registers from debtors’ prisons.
6. Expert’s choice: Digital Panopticon
Inmates at London’s Pentonville Prison employed in construction work, 1870 (Credit: SSPL/ Getty Images)
Chosen by historian Dr Lucy Williams, author of Convicts in the Colonies:
“By the 19th century the old system of punishment in England, famed for whippings, brandings, execution and penal transportation abroad, was beginning to change in favour of a system of imprisonment.
“By the 1850s England had one of the most extensive penal estates in the world, leaving behind hundreds of thousands of fascinating records.
“The Digital Panopticon is a fantastic free resource for those looking to find records of London prisoners between 1780 and 1925.
“The site allows users to search records by name, keyword and a range of other personal details.
“Records range from the registers of the Bridewell House of Correction (1740–1795) right up to the Metropolitan Police Register of Habitual Prisoners discharged from prisons in England and Wales (1881–1925).
“However, note that the level of information in each set of records varies.
“Among the most detailed prison records are the UK Licences for the Parole of Convicts (1853–1925). Those dated 1860–1887 offer intimate details of convicts’ time in prison such as medical histories and punishment records.
“The Digital Panopticon also contains a number of detailed information pages, written by expert historians.”
7. Aylesbury Gaol
The Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies’ site has a database of prisoners entering Aylesbury Gaol in the 1870s drawn from receiving books.
8. Bath Ancestors
The information on this database is taken from sources such as quarter session minutes, police photo books and house of correction records.
9. Inveraray Jail
You can search a database of records of more than 4,000 former prisoners at this website.
10. Lancaster Castle
This site has information about the castle’s history as a place of punishment, as well as a database of inmates tried at Lancaster Assizes.
11. Proceedings of the Old Bailey
This fascinating free database details 197,745 criminal trials held at London’s central criminal court from 1674 to 1913. You can search by various fields, including punishment.
12. Scottish Crime
The National Records of Scotland has a concise guide to crime and criminality in Scotland.
13. Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine
Don’t miss our useful guide to online resources for tracing your incarcerated Scottish ancestors.
14. York Castle Prison
Many old gaols are now heritage attractions, including York Castle Prison. On its website you can search a database of 5,000 former inmates.