This week we’re releasing more fascinating criminal and prison records on Ancestry.co.uk. The Prison Hulk Registers and Letter Books and the Licenses of Parole for Female Convicts are very different record sets, but both represent a vivid snapshot into the criminal justice system of the 19th century.
This is a great opportunity to see if you can find an ancestor in either collection – perhaps you can also search the England and Wales Criminal Registers to find the original trial citation, or use our unrivalled collection of Transportation Records to find evidence of a sentence served in the New World (We’ve even documented individuals eventually returning to the UK as free men in the Incoming Passenger Lists.)
As well as their importance to our research, records such as these also have a huge social significance. It’s easy to watch films and TV programmes about this time and assume the criminal justice system was incredibly harsh, often brutal and usually unjust. While in many ways this was true, there are also many things within these records which indicate similarities with the systems and principles of justice we still operate today.
The prison hulks, for example, were floating prison ships moored around many of the large naval ports of the UK – London, Chatham and Liverpool for example. These ships were originally a response to the sudden cessation of transportation to America after the War of Independence, but are also significant for a number of other reasons. They marked the first involvement of private companies in the operation of state prisons for one, and they suggest a justice system sentencing more people to incarceration than the prison system can accommodate – both of which are still very true (and controversial) today. It’s easy to forget that the UK’s last prison ship HMP Weare only closed in 2005, and there’s even talk of the new Government commissioning more such prisons.
Likewise, some of the Licenses of Parole for Female Convicts paint a surprisingly familiar picture of paroling convicted felons. These detailed and engrossing records – many of which include photographs – detail often multiple offenders being released from prison under license exactly as we do today, when the more typical view of Victorian justice might be that these women would be locked up and the key thrown away, without any hint of parole.
Whether this is an early example of progressive social values, simply a pragmatic response to prison overcrowding, or a combination of the two isn’t easy to discern. Transportation, capital punishment, hard labour and many other brutal practices have been thankfully phased out since these records were created. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the judicial system of the past faced many of the same issues – and in fact came up with many of the same solutions – as the systems we operate today.
Image © The National Archives