The England & Wales Criminal Registers 1791-1892 contain records for all 1.4 million criminal trials reported to the Home Office that took place in England and Wales from the late 18th to the late 19th centuries, painting a detailed picture of Britain’s early legal system1.
The collection – taken from 279 original paper volumes held at The UK National Archives in Kew – document trials and sentences for crimes ranging from petty theft and fraud to the use of bad language and scrumping (stealing apples from orchards).
Each register includes details of the crime, the full name and date of birth of the accused, the location of the trial and the judgment passed. During this period, almost two in three tried for their crimes received sentences of imprisonment and almost one in 10 were either transported overseas or sentenced to death.
In total, the England & Wales Criminal Registers 1791-1892 documents:
- 900,000 sentences of imprisonment – 65 per cent of those who went to trial during this time ended up serving a prison sentence
- 97,000 transportations – many criminals who received death sentences had their sentence commuted to transportation as judges became increasingly ‘lenient’
- 10,300 executions – including a boy aged just 14.
The collection also documents the brutal period of English history infamously known as the ‘Bloody Code’ – so called due to the large number of crimes made punishable by death as the authorities sought to deter potential offenders. In the late 18th century, around 50 different offences led to the death penalty. This figure rose to more than 200 by 1815.
Crimes carrying the death penalty included stealing anything worth more than five shillings (equivalent of about £30 or $48 today), theft of livestock, poaching from a rabbit warren, cutting down trees or being caught at night with a ‘blackened face’, which was assumed to mean that the perpetrator was a burglar2.
By the 1860s, executions had become a public spectacle, with people coming from far and wide to see hangings; the wealthy would even hire the balconies of houses and pubs to get a better view.
A number of notorious criminals appear in the collection, including:
- Dr Thomas Neill Cream was a doctor sentenced to death in 1892 for poisoning several people. One of the main Jack the Ripper suspects, his final words were ‘I am Jack…’
- George Lyon was a highwayman who, according to local legend, was completely inept. On one occasion his pistol failed while he attempted to rob a coach in the rain because he allowed his gun powder to get wet. He was tried in Lancaster and sentenced to death in 1815.
- Isaac ‘Ikey’ Solomon is widely considered to be the inspiration for the Dickens’ character Fagan. He gained notoriety for his crimes, escape from arrest and high-profile recapture and trial – finally being tried and sentenced at the Old Bailey in 1830 to 14 years transportation.
- Roderick McLean attempted to assassinate Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle with a pistol. On a charge of treason, he was found ‘not guilty, but insane’ and his record from 1882 instructs that he was ‘to be kept in strict custody until her Majesty’s pleasure shall be known’. He lived out his remaining days in Broadmoor Asylum.
Public support for the ‘hangman’s noose’ began to wane at the beginning of the 19th century and transportation to colonies became the preferred sentence for ‘serious crimes’. By the 1830s, around 5,000 convicts were being sent to Australia every year3.
One in every 14 of the crimes (97,000) detailed in this collection resulted in a guilty verdict for which transportation to Australia was the sentence handed down. Details of the ultimate fate of these convicts can be found in the Convict Transportation Registers 1788-1868.
The England & Wales Criminal Registers was the first collection to be transcribed as part of the Ancestry World Archives Project (AWAP). This project provides the public with indexing software and training support to enable them to contribute in making even more historical records available and searchable online. To date, thousands of Ancestry members around the world have contributed their time to this project.
1 The collection contains registers for all criminal trials reported to the Home Office between 1791 and 1892. It is estimated that two to five per cent of trials at county courts were not reported and would therefore not be included. The collection includes all trials held in England and Wales, and although they do not cover those held in Ireland and Scotland, estimates made using records stating place of birth indicate that around 265,000 Irish and 57,000 Scots are included among the names in these records.
2 Source: The University of Durham, http://www.dur.ac.uk/4schools/Crime/Bloodycode.htm
3 Figures from the Convict Transportation Registers 1788-1868