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 Research Guide > British Trials > Next: Imprisonment

Research Guide

Trial Records
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Britain went through its Industrial Revolution between 1730 and 1850. In that time it was transformed from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy. The advent of industrial mechanisation and the steam power which drove it forced most of the traditional agricultural labourers and cottage industry workers to seek alternative employment. Most relocated to the major cities, but there was never enough work to go around. As a result, the desperate displaced people were forced to turn to petty crime in order to survive.

Understandably, arrests and prosecution were soon to follow. Bearing this in mind, convict researchers will understand that a trial in London's Old Bailey, or Central Criminal Courts, did not necessarily mean the accused was born in London. However, it does appear that many of the English convicts did come from large cities such as London, Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle and Glasgow where crime was more rampant than in rural areas.

As would be expected, most rural crimes were food related as well and seemed to involve the theft of animals and poaching. In later years, rural convictions for arson and machine breaking began to appear as the industrial revolution changed the face of agriculture and put even more people out of work.

Depending on the nature of the crime and where it was committed, prisoners were brought to trial in either an Assizes Courts or a Court of Quarter Sessions. Assizes Court sessions were held from time to time in each English county before a Judge acting under a special commission and jurymen or assessors were asked to decide on a verdict. Quarter Sessions Courts were convened before two or more Justices of the Peace when required but no less than four times a year.

English Trial Records
Trial records often hold the earliest recorded information about convicts, their trials and the crimes they committed. The only earlier records about them would generally be their birth, baptism and marriage records. The availability of other records usually depended on the occupation of convicts and their father's, but apprenticeship records could give more information. Law books and maps could shed more light on the nature of the crime, its penalty and where the event took place.

Old Bailey trials were published in news sheets and today they have been arranged chronologically, bound into a series of books, and microfilmed. Copies are held in the Mitchell Library in Sydney and further copies are generally available elsewhere in Australia.

A trial date is needed to locate an account of the trial and as a rule, researchers need to find convicts in later records before a search for the beginning of their convict life can begin. Those later records would include Convict Indents, Musters and Pardons, all of which are explained later on.

Trial records for convicts tried elsewhere in England can be found at the London Public Record Office (PRO) in Kew or at the County Record Office responsible for the place where the trial occurred. Generally, Assizes Court records are held at the PRO while Quarter Sessions records are held in local County Record Offices.

Record Agents with access to PRO files are needed to obtain copies of Assizes records and if a letter is sent to the PRO, they will send a list of local genealogists and researchers to contact. The PRO should mention the availability of other records at the same time. These could include pleas for clemency and judges reports and they can be very useful as they often contain details of the convict's family. A personal visit to the record offices can often result in access to original records and copies from them instead of microforms.

Newspaper coverage of trials and crimes is often more likely for trials in regional areas, but the 'London Times' does carry many accounts from the Old Bailey. A copy of the newspaper account of the trial and crime should always be requested when ordering an extract of a trial from a County Record Office.

One local resource that many researchers overlook is the Australian Joint Copying Project (AJCP). It was a joint project between Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom and was geared towards microfilming records that were held in England but related to the colonial period in Austalia and New Zealand. Copies of the resultant microfilms are held in most Capital City Libraries and possibly in other major libraries. A series of handbooks accompany the collection and among the convict records are items from Millbank and Portland Prisons, the Prison Commission and the War Office.

Irish Trial Records
If a convict was Irish, the State Paper Office in Dublin should be consulted to see if convicts appealed against their sentence. It generally appears that early Irish trial records were burnt during the Irish Civil War in 1922 and it's now a matter of searching through the newspapers of the day for specific trial details.

Scottish Trial Records
Court papers for Scottish convicts are available from the National Archives of Scotland in Edinburgh. The date and place of trial needs to be supplied and they will give a quote outlining the number of pages available and the cost of photocopying, airmail postage, packaging, handling and VAT.
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