An Ancestor in Crime

This is a guest post by Aoife O Connor, one of the PhD students on our partner project, the Digital Panopticon, who is researching the impact of the digitisation of historical crime records. 

Digitisation has opened up archival records to entirely new audiences, eager audiences. Material which sat on a shelf from one end of the year to the other, never or rarely requested, is now viewed and used by thousands of researchers across the globe. As part of the Digital Panopticon Project I am researching how family historians and genealogists use crime records in their research. How have the things they have discovered impacted the direction of their work, the story they tell and how do they integrate a criminal ancestor into their family’s story?

As anyone using the Old Bailey Online knows, criminal records are one of the best sources for learning about non-elite lives. They are richly detailed records containing everything from physical descriptions of prisoners to wonderful contextual details. There are a wide range of crime records available both in archives and online. At the opposite end of the court system from the Old Bailey there are the records of the Petty Sessions. From these records local communities can be reconstructed as the inhabitants go about their daily lives, paying dog licences, liquor licences, and yes, being fined for allowing their cattle to wander into a neighbour’s field. From newspaper court reports we hear the voices of ordinary men and women as they give evidence. We learn where people lived and who their neighbours were, the geography and social structure of villages and towns come into view. Infanticide records, saddening and shocking as they are, reveal the moral pressures of their times. Prison records often give physical descriptions include height and weight, and distinctive markings such as tattoos, and later, a photograph.

Genealogists have long recognised the value of crime records. Three of the major guides written for family historian were published before the records were digitised.[1] However, whereas previously genealogists often relied on family lore, or the discovery of an ancestor in an institution in a census record to lead them to their ancestor’s criminal records, it is now possible for a family historian to stumble upon literally dozens of ‘criminal’ ancestors. Descendants of victims, witnesses, and judiciary can also learn valuable information about their ancestors’ lives. I am also exploring how genealogists convey potentially difficult personal heritage to living family members. Equally I want to hear from those who are proud of their ‘criminal’ ancestors, and those who discovered more about their ancestors because of a crime, perhaps they were a witness or a magistrate. Being some of the best records for non-elites records associated with crime are particularly invaluable in Australia and Ireland where traditional genealogical records such as censuses are virtually non-existent. But does this mean family historians in those countries see those ancestors primarily as criminals or do they view crime records in a more neutral light? So many questions!

To help with my research I am hosting a number of short surveys on my website. If you have discovered an ancestor in the Old Bailey Records (or any crime related record on or offline) I would appreciate your taking the time to take one (or all!) of the surveys:

[1] Hawkings, D. (1987) Bound for Australia: A Guide to the Records of Transported Convicts and Early Settlers; Wade, S. (2009) Tracing Your Criminal Ancestors: A Guide for Family Historians; Hawkings, D. (1998) Criminal Ancestors: A Guide to Historical Criminal Records in England and Wales.

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