Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Category: archives

Why criminal ancestors sound so much more fun

Actor Lytton Grey, on the right in this image, was married to one of my ancestors; and attended her 18-year-old sister’s illegal marriage (© Criminal Historian)

Who would you rather be descended from – a worthy notable of a provincial town, whose munificence or moral rectitude resulted in a glowing obituary, or a city wide-boy whose exploits were recorded in newspapers and trial reports?

A few generations ago, you may well have said the former. Many people I’ve spoked to have grandparents who were horrified at the idea of having a criminal forebear, and who would have eagerly covered up the crimes – metaphorically, of course – with a focus on someone more deserving.

But times change, and now, it seems we all want to have a naughty ancestor caught stealing ladies’ underwear or even killing someone in a pub brawl. As long as it’s sufficiently in the past, it becomes a thing of interest, something that makes your family – and you – stand out.

I’ve been researching my family tree for years, and so far, it’s brought up a big, fat nothing in terms of trial reports or criminal records. On my father’s side, I am descended from generations of Dorset farmers, who were asked to be on juries, determining the fate of local miscreants, but who were law-abiding, middle-class individuals.

The worst thing I have found out about a member of this family is that the obituary of one of them insinuated that he was a bit annoying. That’s not really interesting enough, is it?

Gough Square – home of Samuel Johnson, and my ancestors (© Criminal Historian)

On my mother’s side, again, there’s little evidence of criminality, but much of being upstanding members of a community. One ancestor was one of the first policemen in Gloucester; he took on the job to help look after his aged, widowed mother financially (bless). Another was a neighbour of Dr Johnson‘s, living in Gough Square in the City of London. This ancestor is certainly listed on the Old Bailey Online website – but only as a jury member. A third represented his Oxford ward as a Poor Law Guardian, and had a keen interest in the welfare of the poor and conditions in the local workhouse.

The exploits of criminals – such as this 1936 murderer – are better remembered than the quiet achievements of the majority

I should be proud of having public-minded individuals as ancestors, who wanted to be involved in their local areas, and who helped ensure not only that local administration processes worked as smoothly as possible, but who helped put criminals behind bars. I am, honestly. Perhaps the problem is that these men, all good and true, do not have their achievements recorded to the same extent as criminals do with their offences.

Obituaries are key to remembering the achievements of local worthies, but mine were minor in their achievements, and of the two obituaries I’ve found for my Dorset lot, one is short and makes that slightly disparaging comment as though it is the most significant thing it can record about the individual; and the other exists mainly to note that my ancestor died in 1852, at the age of 96, from a ‘visitation of God‘.

So, weirdly to some, but perhaps inevitable given my research interests in crime, I’ve been really trying to find some evidence of criminality amongst my ancestors. As those who have read my book, Life on the Victorian Stage, will know, my great-grandfather had three sisters, all of whom were on the stage, and two of whom died at tragically early ages.

They sound good company: one eloped with an already married actor, the two marrying in an illegal ceremony in front of one of the other sisters and her (legal) husband; and one had an illegitimate child who she created a made-up father for, but who was given the name of her sister’s husband, making me wonder if he was actually the natural father of her child. But although fascinating, they weren’t ‘criminals’ in the sense that we usually mean it.

Their grandfather, though, shows more promise. He claimed to have been born in Hanwell, west London, but there’s no trace of his birth of baptism either there or anywhere, in fact. There’s no record of him existing prior to his marriage at a fairly advanced age. He claimed to be a captain in the British army, but The National Archives has no army records relating to him at all.

His wife had a substantial amount of money, and her family took steps to ensure that her husband wouldn’t receive a penny of it, instead passing it down to her daughters. Did they suspect him of only marrying for the cash?

And, most intriguingly, are two stories in the press that seem to refer to him, both later in life: in one, his wife is charged with assault after going after a woman she believes is having an affair with him; and in the other, he is charged with fathering a child by his gentry neighbour’s far younger servant. The newspaper reports how the court thought it hilarious that this elderly man could have possibly got up to anything with a young girl, let alone fathered a daughter; more intriguingly, it states that this man ‘calls himself a Captain’, as though they also doubted his origins and his claims of army employment.

The latter stories help flesh out this unknown ancestor – he appears to have been a ladies’ man, at least. The lack of records relating to him, his lack of family, mean that I can speculate that he was a fraudster, a man with an assumed identity, someone who desired money, and sex, and had affairs.

The reality might be more prosaic: the relevant records might not have been digitised; he may have been born in one place but baptised somewhere different, or been told he was born in a certain place when he wasn’t…. and so, perhaps, the unknown is sometimes better than the known, for with the former, you can create the person you hope your ancestor was; whereas, in truth, all I know for sure is that he, like so many of my other ancestors, was also another blooming Poor Law Guardian.

 

Discussing ‘The Cult of the Criminal’ in Victorian England

Coverage of the Richmond Murder, from the Illustrated Police News of 26 April 1879

I was in London yesterday, firstly to do some research at the London Metropolitan Archives (my visit there being slightly later than originally intended, both due to an impromptu lunch with a friend in Chelsea, and due to the lovely autumnal weather meaning I made the perhaps rash decision to walk from Chelsea to Clerkenwell rather than getting the tube, which would have been quicker).

However, I had also booked to listen to Anne-Marie Kilday give a talk on a female criminal ‘celebrity’ later at the Guildhall Library. Anne-Marie, who is professor of criminal history at Oxford Brookes University, has been conducting some fascinating research into the ‘cult of the criminal’, using criminology professor Yvonne Jewkes‘ research into contemporary cases to see if this ‘cult’ is really a modern phenomenon, or whether Jewkes’ categorisation of what makes a case ‘newsworthy’ can be equally applied to 19th century cases.

Kilday has been focusing on one particular historic case, that of Kate Webster, the ‘Richmond murderer’ who killed her female employer in 1879, to assess why she received so many column inches compared to other contemporaneous cases.

A chapter on Kate Webster appears here, and I highly recommend the book as a whole

Although I won’t spoil her research by detailing it too much here – if you want to read more about it, get Law, Crime and Deviance since 1700, edited by both Kilday and David Nash, as it contains a chapter about the case (which is a great read) – it’s clear that the Webster case had several elements that made it particularly attractive for the press, and an attention-grabber for the rather gory-minded Victorian public.

It involved both a female perpetrator and a female victim, and a level of violence that was unusual in a woman (or certainly perceived as being unusual). As Kilday noted last night, there was little press focus on the victim, Julia Martha Thomas – she was a widow, there was a hint that she may not have been a particularly great employer, but otherwise, she was sidelined in favour of hundred of articles focusing on Webster’s past and present.

And so this focus on Webster created an image of her as a (somewhat warped) kind of celebrity. It helped that she was an outsider in more than one way – she was an Irish immigrant during a time of significant anti-Irish sentiment; she was a woman; she was working-class. She was a complex individual – in some ways, something of a mystery, with a disputed backstory.

The attendance for Anne-Marie’s talk – and the many questions from the audience afterwards – shows the enduring interest we have in criminals and criminality

After she was hanged for murder, souvenir editions of newspapers relating to the case, and to her, were published, full of illustrations showing her in various parts of her own story. She even became a Madame Tussaud’s waxwork.

In researching Kate Webster’s case so thoroughly, Anne-Marie has convincingly shown that the cult of the criminal – the turning of such a criminal into a celebrity – is not a modern phenomenon. From gaol-breaker Jack Sheppard, whose exploits were lapped up in the early 18th century, and who continues to be written about today, we have always been grimly fascinated by those who transgress (in relation to studies of 18th century ‘criminal celebrities’, look at the work of Bob Shoemaker and Heather Shore in this area).

The difference by late Victorian times was that there was an expanding press with more and more pages to fill, a rise in sensationalism (from sensation novels and penny dreadfuls, to an increasingly tabloid-style of reporting in the press), and a love of the Gothic. These factors helped create the modern criminal celebrity, of which Kate Webster was an enduring example.

Petition regarding proposed archive charges

Further to my earlier post regarding Northamptonshire Archives‘ proposed restriction of ‘free access’ to its records, and a punitive charge of £35 per hour to visit it in the afternoon, Mary Ann Lund has set up a petition asking Northamptonshire County Council to reverse this decision.

You can sign the petition here – if you’re a historian, archivist or genealogist, or you are simply interested in our history and heritage and believe that everyone should be able to access archive documents regardless of their finances, do consider signing.

What value do we put on archival research?

The Northants Archives Twitter page: where local history lives, but at a cost

Most of us who spend time delving into dusty archives as part of our jobs know the pressure county record offices are under financially. Council budgets are being stretched so much that they are about to snap; libraries have already seen the brunt of this, with curtailed opening hours and lack of facilities.  When councils have to cut back, it seems that history and culture are little valued, and are slashed at with little compunction.

The latest archive to try and cut costs is Northamptonshire Archives and Heritage Service, which is doing so by passing the cost of research onto users. On its Facebook page, it has published the following post:

 

It is basically restricting its ‘free access’ to three mornings a week, plus one Saturday a month; and if you want to visit in the afternoon, you will have to pay for the privilege. It’s not just a nominal sum – it’s a rather hefty £31.50 PER HOUR.

You can see what is going to happen. There will be a reduced footfall, because researchers will balk at the cost of visiting. The council will then state that because fewer people are visiting the archive, its hours can be restricted further – or even, that the archive is not needed at all.

‘Free access’ should be the fundamental part of visiting an archive. Many of those visiting simply do not have the money to pay to view archive documents; many are students, for example, and surely we should be encouraging them to take an interest in their local history, and to gain a curiosity and inquisitiveness about original documents, and to find the stories hidden within them, rather than put measures in that put them off finding out information?

In addition, many people visit archives that are not near where they live. When I was researching in the archives for my PhD, I visited Northampton, a good 90 minute drive from my house, and I know people travel far further than that to access the information they need. Factor in transport costs as well as archive access costs, and researchers may simply not bother. That’s if the archive is accessible in the first place, and many are not, shoved away out of town centres in areas where you have to have a car in order to get there.

In addition, if I had been charged £31.50 for every hour I was in an archive, I would have been financially stuffed. Sometimes, you have to order a bulk load of documents, and spend hours poring through each individual item until you find the one page that is what you were looking for. Sometimes, you may not find that item at all. Think of what you might miss if you are counting the pounds you are spending, anxious to get your work done before you go into your overdraft.

My original piece for The Guardian, from 2013

Four years ago, I wrote an article for The Guardian, expressing concern about the various fees charged to access documents in the archives. My main concern at that time was the photographic copying fees levied by record offices, which could be varied and even prohibitive. I never realised that in 2017, we would be facing charges simply to walk in through an archive’s doors.

This move will be detrimental to all but the wealthiest researchers. It will put many off taking those first steps in archival research, and will further reduce the importance of history in the minds of many. Northamptonshire clearly has little truck with its value, and sees it as a good place to cut costs. That’s both sad, and worrying, as it is setting a precedent that other counties may follow. And the more record offices that set an ‘admission charge’, the less research will get done as a result – and that’s a real loss for historical research.

 

New crime and punishment records online

The Findmypast search page for its crime collection

Findmypast added a final 68,000 records to its collection of England and Wales Crime, Prisons and Punishments records last Friday, with its collection now being the largest set of English and Welsh crime records available online.

All these new records have come from The National Archives at Kew, and are taken from five separate series:

  • Home Office (HO 8) – convict hulks, convict prisons and criminal lunatic asylums, quarterly returns of prisoners
  • Central Criminal Court (CRIM 9) – after-trial calendars of prisoners
  • Home Office (HO 140) – calendar of prisoners
  • Home Office/Prison Commission (PCOM 2) – prison records
  • Home Office/Prison Commission (PCOM 3) – male licences, 1853-1887

This image is from Findmypast’s collection, and originated in the HO8 files (HO 8/161). Part of the ‘Convict Hulks, Convict Prisons and Criminal Lunatic Asylums: Quarterly Returns of Prisoners’, it records names, ages, offences, where and when convicted, the sentence, and the convict’s health and behaviour during the quarter of the year in which the returns were compiled. So here, we can see that William Jeffs, a 22-year-old burglar, had displayed ‘bad’ behaviour, whereas another convict had shown ‘exemplary’ behaviour despite being a convicted rapist.

As you might be able to tell from this image, not all the names are written out in full – several are just initials and a surname – and the location and year are not evident from this simple search result, so you may need to do a bit of cross-referencing or scrolling back through images to give you more information.

FMP’s records have come from The National Archives at Kew

Also, do not assume that the place listed at the front of the entire document is the only one mentioned – for example, with this image, some prior pages are from the Attested List of the Convict Department, Criminal Lunatic Asylum, Broadmoor, and for the quarter ending on 30 September 1864 – but the last entries in the original book are for the Invalid Convict Prison at Woking.

But if you suspect you have a criminal ancestor, these online records may help you track them – and their crimes – down; and even if you don’t have a convict in your family tree, they make for fascinating reading!

You can access the Crime and Punishment collection on Findmypast here – a subscription is needed for full access.

New Metropolitan Police pension records released online

The National Archives has announced the release of a set of its pension records relating to Metropolitan Police officers on Ancestry.

The registers of pensions awarded to Met Police officers (MEPO 21) include personal details about the police officers that might include place of birth, marital status, parents and next of kin, service details and, from 1923, details of the officer’s spouse.

You can search the registers on Ancestry under ‘London, England, Metropolitan Police Pension Registers, 1852-1932‘.

The entry above relates to Constable John Howard of Thames Division, whose pension of £44 started in October 1852. The second page of his entry, shown above, is full of detail, from his short height and ‘nearly bald’ head, to his parents’ names, date and place of birth, and the date he entered the police service.

So if your ancestor was a Met police constable, or you’re researching former officers, have a look through this new release of documents, and enjoy!

An image from the Newgate Calendar

An image from the Newgate Calendar

Findmypast has today released the third phase of its crime, prisons and punishment collection, covering England and Wales between 1770 and 1935.

The collection now includes the following series from The National Archives (TNA):

  • PCOM 4: Home Office and Prison Commission Female Licences
  • HO26: Home Office – Criminal Registers for Middlesex
  • HO27: Home Office – Criminal Registers for England and Wales

More records from other TNA series (HO8, HO47, HO140, PCOM2 and PCOM3) have also been added, along with the Newgate Calendar, vols 1 and 2 – containing over 80,000 records of ‘notorious characters’ and their offences up to 1841.

Tasmania Convict Records from 1800 to 1833 can also now be searched – a collection including records from over 20 different sources, held by the Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office.

This latest tranche of criminal records can be searched on Findmypast via this link.

 

© 2018 Criminal Historian

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑