Monday, 14 March 2016

A Criminal Ancestor – new PHD study seeks ancestors who were connected to a crime

Are you descended from convict ancestors transported far from home or did great, great, great uncle John end up in court for squabbling with the neighbours? If your ancestor was a hardened criminal, a victim of a miscarriage of justice, a political prisoner, or in court for not paying their dog licence a new study is looking to hear from you.

Criminals in the family have always fascinated family historians and it seems more of us are discovering more of them all of the time. The digitisation of the records of the criminal justice system and newspapers are bringing to light a side of our ancestors that may have previously been kept secret.

The crimes themselves range from the minor, even amusing, to the serious, and tragic. From a few cows wandering unsupervised along a country lane resulting in an appearance at the petty sessions court and a 2 shilling fine, to a young girl stealing some lace and being transported for 7 years to Australia, a sentence which really meant a lifetime exiled from her native land. A young boy imprisoned for vagrancy. A rebel. A highwayman. A murderer.

The documents which record their crimes often have amazingly rich details not found in birth, marriage, or even census records. From prison registers we can get physical descriptions of someone who lived long before the invention of photography, we can learn their height, weight, eye and hair colour, and any distinguishing scars or features such as tattoos. From newspaper accounts of trials we hear their voices as they give evidence.

But how do we feel when we come across an ancestor who broke the law? And how do they shape how we view our family’s history? Is a criminal ancestor someone to be ashamed of, to celebrate, or part of a larger story? What do their crimes, and the punishments they received tell us about them as people, and about the time and society they lived in? You can help provide the answers.

As part of the Digital Panopticon project, Aoife O Connor of the University of Sheffield wants to hear from family historians across the globe who have discovered ancestors who were connected to a crime. She is conducting short anonymous online surveys.

Aoife is based in Dublin, Ireland and is studying for her PhD part-time. Her own family history includes, among others, one ancestor aged 18 imprisoned in 1821 for thirteen days on suspicion of stealing a frame saw (the same ancestor was fined for excise duty evasion to the tune of £12 10 shillings in 1838), and another who was fined two shillings at the Petty Sessions Court on the 24 December 1855 for driving a horse and cart with no reins.

Take part in the survey now at

Aoife O Connor -

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