Monday, 3 August 2009

Executed for cutting down a tree! 19th-century England and Wales Criminal Registers Online

by Kathryn Hadley

The England and Wales Criminal Registers from 1791 to 1892 have recently been published online by the family history website Ancestry. The collection comprises 279 bound volumes, which were scanned at The National Archives in Kew. It features over 500,000 names and includes documents from 1.4 million criminal trials, providing information on charges, sentences or acquittals and dates of execution and an insight into justice in the Victorian era.

As a result of the 1.4 million trials, 900,000 criminals were sentenced to imprisonment and 97,000 were transported, primarily to Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), where they were condemned to lives of hard labour. 10,300 of those who were tried were executed, including a boy aged 14. The death penalty could be handed down for more than 200 separate offences such as stealing livestock, cutting down trees, stealing rabbit from a warren, being out at night with a blackened face or being in the company of gypsies for a month.

The collection also includes documents relating to high profile trials, such as that of Roderick McLean, who was accused of attempting to assassinate Queen Victoria with a pistol at Windsor Castle in 1882, and John Bellingham who murdered Prime Minister Spencer Perceval in the lobby of the House of Commons in 1812. Bellingham is the only person to have assassinated a British prime minister. He was tried and executed on May 18th 1812.

Access to the collection is available for a free 14-day trial on the website

For further information on the treatment of young offenders in 19th century England, read our article The Idea of Juvenile Crime in 19th-Century England
For further information on blasphemy in Victorian Britain, read our article
Blasphemy in Victorian Britain? Foote and the Freethinker
In Crime and Justice in 19th-Century England R.D. Storch considers the extent to which reforms in the system of law enforcement and the punishment of criminals, introduced in the 19th century, helped to reduce crime.

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