Punishment Records and Criminal Offences

Punishment Records can give a lot of information about your ancestors if they were convicted of a criminal offence.

About Prison Records

Few criminals were held for long periods in gaol until the 19th Century. If a serious offence had been committed the offender was either transported or executed for their crime. Vagabonds and vagrants were usually sent to a House of Correction and put to work.

County Gaols were used to hold offenders before their trial.  Houses of Correction were used to house offenders who received a short sentence, this normally being a period of hard labour. Houses of Correction and County Gaols were merged in 1823 and then called prisons.

These prisons were regulated by Justices of the Peace in Quarter Sessions, the records being held by local County Record Offices.

Dates of entry and transfer or removal of criminals were recorded in prison registers.  The date and place of conviction is also given in the register.  A criminal's physical appearance was sometimes noted and photos of inmates were often included from 1869.  These registers are closed for 100 years.

Many convicts who would normally have been executed were sentenced to transportation.  Transportation of these convicts began in 1620 and these persons were sold to landowners as 'bond servants' and sent to America or the West Indies.  Convicts transported had to remain with the landowner until their sentence had ended, when they were free to return home.

Most convicts chose to remain in their new country.  Transportation to America ceased when, on July 4th 1776, the thirteen American Colonies at war with Great Britain adopted the Declaration of Independence and regarded themselves as independent states.

Between 1776 and 1787 persons sentenced to transportation were held in gaols which became overcrowded and this led to a public outcry so a temporary solution had to be implemented.

Healthy convicts were kept on disused ships that had been moored along the Thames estuary and also at ports along the South Coast.  Unhealthy convicts were usually kept on hospital ships.  Transportation to New South Wales in Australia began in 1787, ceasing in 1867.  During that time over 160000 people were sent to Australia.

Little information other than the fact the criminal had been transported can usually be found in a British Court Record.

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