England Dictionary of Crimes (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Court Records-Criminal, Civil and Ecclesiastical  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Prisoners And Punishments

Nefarious Activities

One of the best sources for detailed descriptions of the lives and activities of prostitutes, thieves, swindlers, cheats and beggars is London’s Underworld by Mayhew (edited by Quennell 1987). TNA has two comprehensive research guides, D78 on 19th century criminals, and D88 on sources for convicts and prisoners 1100-1986. Some records of specific types of offenders include:


After the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, his daughter Elizabeth I was faced with a huge problem of itinerant paupers with nowhere to go for assistance. Beauchamp provides an erudite discussion of who these people were and how the law coped with them. From 1832 gaol time was mandatory for convicted beggars:

  • First offence they were termed idle and disorderly – 14 days.
  • Second offence they were a rogue and vagabond – one month.
  • Third offence called an incorrigible rogue – three months.


There are records of bigamists in the Old Bailey proceedings at Old Bailey and a list of bigamists, adulterers and abductors of maidens at Exclassics. Herber’s article on clandestine marriage is a most useful reference (Sex, Lies and Crime: Clandestine Marriage in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Family Tree Magazine Vol 20 #1, page 6-9) and Harris (A Swindler and Multiple Bigamist. Charles Samuel Cave 1793-1870. Hampshire Family Historian Vol 30 #3, page 192-195) has a story of bigamy in the early 19th century in Hampshire.


The genealogist should note that along with the occupation of minter went that of counterfeiter, and the latter may be equally well recorded in the courts and elsewhere. For example, the parish register for Holy Trinity, Exeter, Devon for 1596 states that Heught Beare was hanged, beinge a prisoner, at the gallowes …for copyinge of our majesties coyne. White has a most interesting article about his ancestor who faked ancient coins. Holdsworth(Coiners Chronicle. Peacock Books, Mytholmroyd, West Yorkshire, 1984) has a fascinating account of coining involving murder, fraud, intrigue and the pursuance of justice in 18th century Yorkshire.


Some interesting records of drinking and drunkards might enliven your family history:

  • Scarr (Drink and the Devil at Bishop’s Stortford. Genealogists’ Magazine Vol 24 #2, page 49-50) describes the problems with drunks at a Michaelmas Fair in Hertfordshire.
  • In 1902 police were encouraged to keep records and photographs of habitual drunkards who fell foul of the law, and distribute them to publicans. Wood’s (Alcoholic Ancestors in Genealogical Miscellany. Family Tree Magazine Vol 20 #6, page 14-15 and More Alcoholic Ancestors in Genealogical Miscellany. Family Tree Magazine Vol 20 #9, page 13) two articles in 2004 describe some of these records now in archival custody in Suffolk and Wolverhampton—see also Wolverhampton. Fearn (Meet Some of London’s Habitual Drunkards. Family Tree Magazine Vol 20 #11, page 6-7) has published details of the larger collection from the Metropolitan Police.


The embezzlement by a solicitor of an estate destined to provide almshouses in Twickenham, Middlesex, together with his prosecution and guilty verdict is described by Alexander (William Candler and the Almshouses. West Middlesex Family History Society Journal Vol 21 #2).


The Bank of England hanged many people for forgery!
Some tales of forgers in the family include:

  • Ÿ Hill’s (Brothers in Crime. Family Tree Magazine Vol 19 #7, page 43-44) story about a whole family of banknote forgers in Bath, Birmingham, and London. One of them, whilst incarcerated in a prison hulk at Sheerness, gave evidence against many others in order to enable his wife and children to accompany him to Australia.
  • Ÿ Barrett’s (Southborough Fire Brigade: The Early Years. Bygone Kent Vol 25 #4, page 207-210) account of the Southborough, Kent fire brigade reveals that it was set up with the aid of a forged will, the perpetrator of which was sentenced to 14 years penal servitude at his trial at the Central Criminal Court in 1893.
  • Ÿ Mary Marzagora’s prosecution for uttering forged banknotes and counterfeited tokens, and her subsequent transportation to Australia with her four children, and deteriorating life there are told by Hardy (Memorials of the Marzagora Family. Further Light on John and his Convict Wife Mary. Genealogists’ Magazine Vol 23 #9, page 332-335).
The Daily Advertiser, Gloucester 13 January 1774 [Berrett]
Last Week were committed to our Castle two Men, for erasing out of the Register-Book of the Parish Church of Stroud, the Name of James Vick, who was baptized there in 1753, and inserting the same name as baptized in 1752, to make the said James Vick of the Age of 21, to qualify him to sell as Estate


Ash’s Discovering Highwaymen is a fun place to learn about this type of criminal, and Wood (1995) has details on the genealogy of the famous Dick Turpin. I note from Palmer’s Index to The Times that one of mine, Thomas Jupp, was convicted of highway robbery in 1856 at age 14!


A most useful reference at TNA is the London Metropolitan PoliceRegister of Murderers 1891-1917 (except 1910-1911) in MEPO 20/1 which names the criminals, victims, policemen, doctors and witnesses. McMahon (Postbox. Cockney Ancestor (East of London Family History Society) #96 page 12-14) has several examples from these records.

Examples of interesting cases include:

  • Hunnisett’s (Sussex Coroners’ Inquests 1558-1603. PRO Publications) full description of the witness depositions at the trial of Elizabeth Hunnisett, charged with murdering her two-year-old son in Stilehouse, Sussex.
  • The death certificate in April 1910 for John Massey aged 72 states Cause of death: fractured skull caused by blows on the head with a blunt instrument inflicted by Amos Peel and John Dugan. What is noteworthy is that the certificate was issued before the murder trial began—a trial at which both Peel and Dugan were acquitted from lack of evidence! (Waterall).


Wouldn’t we all love a pirate to brighten up our family tree? Sources are available for such apparently unrecorded men and Harris discusses the reprint of a 1724 book with names and histories. Redmond’s (An Ancestor among Pirates. Family Tree Magazine Vol 18 #8, page 17-18) fascinating story of finding his pirate ancestor pictures another 1824 sourcebook.


Kenyon (Wilful Murder in Genealogical Miscellany. Family Tree Magazine Vol 7 #8, page 38) relates the tale of his gamekeeper ancestor shot by a gang of poachers in Lancashire in 1843. The assize records for the Palatinate of Lancaster included the coroner’s report and statements from three witnesses and a surgeon. One of the gang had been recognized and five were brought to trial on a charge of murder of a gamekeeper by night— poachers shooting him with a gun. Another of the gang became a witness for the prosecution so escaping charges himself. The five accused were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged, but newspapers provided information on reprieves for four who were then transported; only one was hanged—in front of a reported crowd of 30,000.


Some good references for the oldest profession (genealogy is only the second oldest!) are those by:

  • Sharpe (Crime in Early Modern England 1550-1750. Longman, London, 1984) concerning both the rural and organized city trades.
  • Burford on London, including the stews in Southwark, which were brothels licensed by and appearing in diocesan records (and we thought the church was against such shenanigans!)
  • Fowler (Kept Mistresses and Low Women. FamilyTree Magazine Vol 12 #7, page 5) discusses the notable lack of women listing their true occupation as prostitutes in the census.

Bawdy houses are found in quarter sessions records, and also in the Metropolitan Police records for London.


In the northern British dialect reiving was going on plundering raids, and the Border reivers were not popular. For over 350 years they carried out bloodthirsty raids on both sides of the English/Scottish border, their activities being the subject of a museum described by Rhodes—but see the important follow-up by Siddall (Biased Views? [Reivers] in Readers’ Letters. Family Tree Magazine Vol 8 #12, page 18).

Slave Traders

The iniquitous slave trade was carried on by London merchants, one of the most prominent slave traders in the 1720s being Humphrey Morice who was also a governor of the Bank of England and an MP. The story of several of these London merchants is told by Morris (Stepney Merchants and the Slave Trade. Cockney Ancestor (East of London Family History Society #89, page 20-24), whilst Bailey (The Industrial Heritage of Britain. Ebury Press/Book Club Associates) concentrates on the other major port of Bristol whose trading slumped after abolition. Anslow (Men Who Changed the World. Family Tree Magazine Vol 4 #10, page 24-25) tells about those who worked to abolish the slave trade, it being made illegal in Britain in 1807, and all existing slaves in the British Empire were emancipated on 1 Aug 1834 (Boyes).


Increased duties, especially those on wines and spirits (brandy, rum, gin), during the late 18th and early 19th centuries resulted in widespread smuggling of liquor and hundreds of other dutiable goods such as tea and lace. Smuggling was largely successful because the customs officers found it impossible to police, and also because of social approval. There are hundreds of stories of worthy citizens (such as our ancestors!) turning a blind eye or actively assisting this free trade, and of customs men in league with the smugglers.

The golden age of smuggling is reckoned to be 1700-1850.


Theft is described in many ways in the law. Young (Cash in Hand but Not for Long!. Family Tree Magazine Vol 15 #5, page 25) describes the tricks played by thieves amongst throngs of people in the streets or at fairs. Coins were kept in pouches or purses attached to the waistband by cords, and all the thief had to do was to cut the strings, giving him the nickname of cutpurse. Any such criminal sleight-of-hand was known as hugger-mugger giving rise to the modern term mugging. A common trick played on those with double-digit IQs was to offer them a small sack, called a poke, purportedly containing a lively pig. When he opened his poke the buyer found a cat, giving rise to two old English phrases Don’t buy a pig in a poke and Let the cat out of the bag.

Chart: Types of Theft

Burglary Theft at night
Grand Larceny

Theft of goods valued over 12d (1/-) from a person’s
house (not from the person or at night). The
distinction between petty and grand larceny was
removed in 1827.

Larceny Theft, stealing
Petty larceny Theft of goods to the value of 12d (1/-) or less.
Robbery Theft with violence
Theft Stealing, larceny


Treason is a betraying, treachery, or breach of faith, especially against the sovereign or liege lord. High treason is that against the sovereign, whereas petty treason was against private superiors and is no longer a separate offence. Saunders has a list of specific actions including ravishing of royal ladies, waging war against the king, counterfeiting the royal seal or money and killing senior royal officials.

Men convicted of high treason were formerly sentenced to be drawn on a hurdle (a woven piece of wooden fencing) to the place of execution. This was typically from Newgate Prison to Tyburn. They were there disembowelled alive and hanged, then beheaded and quartered. From 1814 the disembowelling was omitted, and in 1870 the punishment reduced to hanging. Women convicted of any kind of treason were formerly burned alive but hanging was substituted from 1790.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Court Records-Criminal, Civil and Ecclesiastical offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.