Crime and Punishment on Ancestry

As part of a series examining family history resources for beginners, librarian Helen Skilbeck takes an in-depth look at one of the most useful resources for continuing your family history research: records of crime and punishment. 

As well as the most popular collections of birth, marriage and death records, Ancestry hosts some fascinating databases covering criminals and law enforcers. So if you have a wrong ‘un in the family or your ancestor was in the police force, there should be something for you.

To search for a specific database use the Search function on the black menu bar and choose card catalogue. Either type the database title or use a keyword to find similar databases.

UK Criminal Registers, 1791 – 1892
For those of you with criminals in the family, Ancestry has a set of criminal registers covering England and Wales between 1791-1892. These list individuals charged with crimes and provide information about the charged individual, their trial, and sentence (if convicted) or other outcome. Once you have the date and place of trial you may be able to source other court records and prisoner registers.  Search for crime as a keyword in the Card Catalogue if you have any difficulty in locating this database.

Page from Criminal Registers showing Joseph Myers and James Sargisson
Criminal Register showing Joseph Myers and James Sargisson (no. 83 and 86). Both were publicly executed at Armley Gaol in 1864

Yorkshire Quarter Session Records, 1637-1914
Quarter Sessions met four times each year – hence the name – and courts heard both civil and criminal cases. Civil cases usually appear in the court’s order books and criminal cases in the indictment books. The West Riding Quarter Sessions were held in various places around the county and cases for Wakefield, Halifax, Huddersfield and Bradford were heard at the West Riding Quarter Sessions. Leeds had its own Court of Quarter Sessions which was separate from the main county court but due to boundary changes, some areas now covered by Leeds Metropolitan District will have been heard in the West Riding Quarter Sessions.

Quarter Sessions records for the Borough of Leeds are at West Yorkshire Archive Service, Leeds. Quarter Sessions records for the West Riding are at WYAS Wakefield. Quarter Sessions were abolished in 1971.

West Yorkshire, England, Prison Records, 1801-1914
The prison at Wakefield was established in 1595 as the West Riding House of Correction. The original facility was replaced with new buildings in the 1760s and again in 1847, the latter of which remain in use as a maximum-security prison. In 1874 the prison became part of the national prison service, known as H.M. Prison, Wakefield.

Various registers make up this collection including separate male and female inmate lists, military prisoners sentenced by court martial as well as calendars of prisoners. It also includes the records of St. John’s Community Home School. The content varies but you will generally find prisoner’s name, age, and occupation, details of offence and sentence and any previous convictions. You may even find a physical description of the prisoner or family details.

Page from HMP Wakefield Register of Convicts
Example of HMP Wakefield Register of Convicts
West Yorkshire, England, Reformatory School Records, 1856-1914
This database contains records from three reform schools in West Yorkshire: Calder Farm Reformatory, East Moor Community Home School, and Shadwell Children’s Centre. Records include admissions, commitments, and discharges and many will give details on the boy’s name, age, birth date, parent’s details, address, school, criminal history and other remarks on his experiences.

Discharge records can include date of discharge, address, and employment details. Some followed the boy for the first three years after discharge and may provide addresses, employers, and remarks.

Suffragettes Arrested, England, 1906-1914
This collection consists of an index to women who were arrested between 1906 and 1914, and then given amnesty in August 1914. It includes familiar local names such as Mary Gawthorpe, Leonora Cohen and Lilian Lenton but, frustratingly, only gives the date and place of arrest. Over 100 men feature in this index,  with over 1000 names mentioned in total. The latter half of this collection features letters, minutes and reports related to the suffrage movement.

Suffragetts arrested index showing Leonora Cohen
Example of the Suffragettes Arrested 1906-1914 collection, showing Leonora Cohen

West Yorkshire Police Records, 1833-1914
In 1829, Robert Peel introduced the Metropolitan Police Act which established the Metropolitan Police in London, while the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act provided for the creation of police forces on a local level. However, it wasn’t until the County and Borough Police Act of 1856 that it became compulsory for municipalities to establish a police force.

This collection includes a wide variety of registers that recorded appointments of regular and special constables, promotions, disciplinary actions, transfers, lists of applicants, injuries sustained in the line of duty, and physical descriptions. In some cases, the records list the marital status, names of spouses, and birth dates and places. Records cover Bradford, Halifax, Huddersfield, Leeds, Wakefield and West Riding.

UK Police Gazettes, 1812-1902, 1921-1927
This collection contains printed publications which were used for communication between police forces in the United Kingdom between 1812 and 1927 (with gaps in coverage). It contains information on wanted criminals, crimes committed, criminals who had been apprehended, and missing persons.

Ancestry has much more besides these Yorkshire-specific databases and covers the whole of the UK. For more information about other criminal and court records, where they’re located, and how to search them, please consult The National Archives online research guide on Criminals, Courts and Prisons.

For any difficulties in accessing or using Ancestry please contact the Local and Family History Library on or 0113 378 6982

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