Our England & Wales, Crime, Prisons and Punishment records can reveal incredible levels of detail about your criminal ancestors, including the exact nature of the crimes they committed, where and when they took place and the sentence they received. Many also include physical descriptions, petitions for clemency, reports on behavior, health and education, and mug shots. Many also record the details of any victims and government officials involved in the case.
Although the records are already incredibly rich, even more detail can be revealed by searching our collection of historic newspapers. The extent to which the crime records can be supported by the newspapers is unique, as a significant proportion of crimes was mentioned in local papers. This means that the chances of finding a newspaper report mentioning your ancestor's crime are relatively high, and reports can reveal intricate details surrounding the case that are not included in the records.
Clues can include court reports (in which your ancestor's behavior and personality are described), reports on the case describing the evidence presented to the court, the court's subsequent finding, and even direct quotes from your ancestors. They can also reveal a whole host of valuable biographical details, and, depending on the severity of the crime, may even contain images or sketches relating to the case.
Findmypast's Collection of Historic British Newspapers
Findmypast's exclusive collection of British newspapers was released in partnership with the British Library at Colindale. The British Library has one of the world's most comprehensive newspaper collections, containing nearly three centuries of newspapers from every corner of the United Kingdom. The collection currently contains 126.5 million fully searchable articles from 358 local, regional and national newspaper titles from around England, Scotland and Wales.
How to search
Early newspapers often captured the pulse of the times and reflected the attitudes and beliefs of the people living through them. Everything is covered, from the affairs of politics, war and the economy right through to contemporary fashions, jokes and cartoons.
They allow you to uncover incredible levels of details about the lives of your ancestors and discover what life was like on their street, their town and their time period from the 1700s up to the 1950s. You'll also find letters, obituaries, opinions and advertisements that bring the period you're reading about to life.
The newspapers are available to search by name, keywords and date. It is usually best to start off with a broad search, using either a name or keyword. You can then begin to gradually include additional information (such as the location of the crime, the nature of the offence, or the court in which the case was heard) to narrow your results.
The Newspaper search allows you to search by first name, surname, location and key word
Use the filters on the left-hand side of the results page to narrow them down by date, place or newspaper title. You could also select a specific newspaper to browse. View the list of newspaper titles that are currently online, choose the one you're interested in, then drill down using the filters on the left until you've got to the edition you're looking for. The filters on the left of the screen (see below) will further refine and narrow your results by newspaper title, publication date, or region.
Narrow down your results using the filters at the left hand side of the results page
In the headlines: Horace the Modern Highwayman
A good example of the remarkable levels of detail that can be uncovered by searching the newspapers is the case of 22 year old medical student, Horace Wright. Horace appears in an 1869 Calendar Of Prisoners and is listed as being tried at Oxfordshire Assizes for "unlawfully assaulting Frank Strange Copeland with intent to rob him". This appears to be a fairly unremarkable charge at first glance, but after searching for Horace in newspapers, more information surfaces.
Horace appearing in a Calendar Of Prisoners For Trial At The Assizes For The Year 1869
Searching for Horace by name brings up over 4,000 results. These results can be narrowed down quickly as Horace's crime record reveals exactly when and where the was charged. Simply filtering the results to the exact year of the offence, 1869, greatly reduces the number of results to 145 articles. The results listed will include an extract of text in which the names or keywords included in the search appear.
In this case, a brief glance at the filtered results indicates that the articles listed appear to correspond with the details recorded in Horace's Calendar of Prisoners record as they describe a 22-year-old man of the same name being tried at the Cambridgeshire Assizes in the same year. Please note that positive search results will not always be this easy to identify and you may need to thorough read through the original article to ensure that all names, dates, locations and facts match the record in question. Click the camera icon to the right of the results to view a scanned image of original article in full.
The results for the filtered search contain extracts hinting at the content of the article
The reports describe how Horace originally gave his name as Charles Trevor before further investigations uncovered his true identity. He was a wealthy medical student training under an eminent surgeon in Soho, the son of a respected Nottinghamshire doctor, and the nephew of the distinguished physician Dr Samuel Wright.
A sketch of Horace mid-robbery in the Illustrated Police News - 30th October 1869 © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
They also tell how Horace grown tired of his studies and was attracted to the glamour and romance surrounding the celebrated highwaymen of the 18th century. Determined to enact his fantasy, Horace purchased a black horse, an authentic highwayman kit complete with 'Napoleon boots, mask and hat', loaded two pistols with paper wadding and began holding up coaches in Cambridgeshire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire.
Numerous highly detailed reports describe how he'd wait at remote locations and ambush isolated travelers at gunpoint, shouting: “Your money or your life!". A number also include first-hand accounts of the robberies presented to the court by his victims and a detailed description of how the "gentleman highwayman" was eventually apprehended at a roadside inn.
Horace's trial was widely publicised due to his upper middle-class background and the eccentric nature of his crime spree. Direct quotes from Horace himself can be found within the various articles, as Horace absolved himself of any responsibility by claiming that a serious addiction to highway robbery meant that his actions were out of his control. He also claimed to believe that highway robbery was his purpose in life and that he was likely to re-offend. Despite the serious nature of his crimes, Horace was only sentenced to 1 month's hard labor.
A sketch of Horace may have been included in one of the many reports surrounding the case. Filtering the results by 'article type' and selecting 'illustrated', allows you to browse publications that included images. After searching for illustrated articles using a number of different keywords (e.g. 'modern, highwayman. medical student, Cambridge'), an Illustrated Police News page appeared in the results depicting the Modern Highwayman Holding up a coach.
Discover more about tracing your criminal ancestors in this handy video guide: