Posted by on 21 October 2013 in General

Working at, one of my favourite parts of the job is uncovering some of the more unusual and – to our modern sensibilities – sometimes amusing stories from the records. And there’s nothing quite like criminal records when it comes to crazy stories and interesting mug shots. With that in mind, I wanted to share some of our favourite criminal ‘gems’ discovered on

1.       Young offenders

We unearthed a few interesting tales from the Birmingham Calendar of Prisoners that launched on the site last month. As there were no age restrictions on sentencing at this time (the records in this collection range from 1880-1891 and 1906-1913, children as young as 12 frequent the records alongside adult offenders. Here are a couple:

  • Henry Smith Along with his partner in crime 13-year-old Charles Walton, 12-year-old errand boy Smith was sentenced to six months in jail after setting fire to a large quantity of straw
  • George William ReadRead clearly had a taste for milk. Aged 12, he stole a gallon of milk on not one, but two occasions.


2.    Snells like bacon!

Dorcas Mary Snell, aged 45, was the original Hamburglar. She was sentenced to five years of hard labour in 1883 for the theft of a single piece of bacon! Snell pleaded guilty and was paroled two years later. Her mugshot features in our Licenses of Parole for female convicts collection, which contains documentation surrounding the licences given to around 4,400 female prisoners between 1853 and 1887.



3.       From prison chains to mayoral reins

Floating aboard a Dickensian prison hulk ship in 1834 was a little- known pickpocket by the name of John Williams – baptised John Wilson Isaac.  After he set sail and arrived in Australia in 1835, John’s life took a dramatic change of direction.  He worked his way up and after being granted a Conditional Pardon eventually went on to become the first Mayor of Parramatta, a suburb in Sydney.  His record can be found in the Prison Hulk Registers and Letter Books, 1802-1849.


4.       The (drunk) painted lady  

The Birmingham Pub Blacklist details the drunkards whose loutish behaviour saw them barred from the city’s pubs and clubs at the turn of the last century. The Blacklist, compiled by the Watch Committee of the City of Birmingham, provided licensed liquor sellers with photos and descriptions of ‘habitual drunkards’ who were not to be sold alcohol due to their reputation and past delinquencies. One of these was 25-year-old Alice, a ‘polisher and a prostitute’ who was convicted for drunk and disorderly behaviour in January 1904. Underneath Alice’s finery in the image below lay a number of distinguishing tattoos including Prince of Wales’ feathers on her right hand and a heart and clasped hands with ‘true love K.B.’ on her right arm.


5.       Doing the donkey work

In among our 67,000 Dorset criminal records, we stumbled upon this amusing tale of young George Pill. George stole a donkey from a neighbour in 1984, resulting in a fitting punishment for six weeks ‘donkey work’ (well ok, the legal term is technically ‘hard labour’). Some of George’s fellow Dorset criminals can be seen below…


 6.       One Direction, to Australia

It seems getting mobbed by women is something that runs in the gene pool for Harry Styles of boy band One Direction. Our researchers found that William Tricker Baker, Harry Styles’ 4th great grandfather, was pickpocketed and “indecently” touched by Margaret Murphy, who was soon after transported to Australia for her crimes.


 7.       US Escapee

Roy Gardner was an infamous American bank and train robber who really didn’t take to being incarcerated! He escaped twice on his way to McNeil Island prison in Washington State, and escaped the prison itself in 1921. Subsequently, Gardner earned the reputation as America’s most infamous prison escapee and became the most celebrated outlaw of the ‘Roaring Twenties’. His record from McNeil Island can be found in our US Penitentiary Records, 1875-1963 (see below).



Have you discovered any criminal stories in your own family trees? Let us know in the comments below.

Search our Criminal Records here

Authored by Bryony Partridge, UK PR Manager.

About Emma

Emma Pulman is a Social Media and digital Marketing Executive for Based in Ancestry's London office in Hammersmith, Emma regularly tweets and posts on Ancestry's Facebook page.

1 Comment

Wendy Percival 

Poor old Moses Percival b. circa 1805, Great Tey, Essex, got transported to Tasmania in 1831 for 14 years for stealing a bag of barley! He was obviously a model prisoner as he got his pardon 7 years later. Not sure what happened to him after that but his wife Hannah, who was left behind in Essex with their children, remarried in 1844.

27 October 2013 at 3:23 pm