At risk of sounding somewhat the old codger, it must be said that the Justice system didn’t mess about back in the day. I refer to the 19th century and the news that family history website Ancestry.co.uk has published the records of more than 67,000 Victorian criminals, detailing crimes ranging from petty theft and drunkenness to arson and murder.
Two of the archives – those of the Dorset, England Prison Admission and Discharge Registers 1782-1901 andDorset,England, Calendar of Prisoners 1854-1904 – also include mug shots of 19th century convicts.
I found these, in particular, to be most useful. If you’re struggling to put a face to that character in your novel, then look no further than here….it’s a great resource in itself.
What struck me from the records was the level of punishment meted out for some very innocuous offences.
Take one Samuel Baker (73) as an example. He was sentenced to nine months hard labour after breaking into a house to steal two brushes, some vests, and a pair of stockings in 1893. Bit harsh, if you ask me…
Then there is 18-year-old George Pill, who stole a donkey from a neighbour in 1894, resulting in a punishment of six weeks hard labour.
Of course, they were the lucky ones. Many thousands of criminals convicted of serious crimes during Victorian times were actually transported to the colonies, primarilyAustralia, where they would serve out their prison sentences at minimal cost to the state. Travelling conditions were so bad that many died on the six-month voyage.
For a quick snapshot of the Victorian criminal class you won’t find anything better than this.
Check out http://www.ancestry.co.uk