The Sole Society, a Family History Society researching Sole, Saul, Sewell, Solley and similar names


Was Your Ancestor a Criminal?


A Talk by Colin Chapman


This article was published in the April 2018 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society


At our recent Annual Gathering, we heard a talk from Colin Chapman, who is very well known in the Family History world being the author of the very useful Chapman Cameos on all sorts of things, and for developing the Chapman County Codes. Colin gave a very interesting talk ‘Was Your Ancestor a Criminal?’ in which he explained various types of crimes, as defined in the past, and the documentation around them that can be used to learn more about an ancestor who was involved as a perpetrator, victim, judge, juror, or witness.

To start, Colin whetted our appetite by showing some potential sources of information:

First he showed the notorious highwayman Dick Turpin’s notification of execution. He also showed a reward for the return of spotted pig made by the Cranford Association. Before the time of the police wealthy landowners would band together to form associations and the subscriptions collected would be used to offer a reward in the case of a solved crime. In the instance of the spotted pig, anyone caught would be handed over to the magistrate to be tried at the quarter session. 

Thomas Kyll's pamphlet, providing an eye-witness account of the trial of Dick Turpin

Thomas Kyll's pamphlet, providing an eye-witness account of the trial of Dick Turpin


Colin showed a broadsheet from Northampton advertising the upcoming 1821 pubic execution of Mary Clarke who had killed husband. Often these sheets were illustrated with an image from a woodcut and one would also be produced after the execution. Broadsheets of this type would be found in local record offices rather than on commercial websites.

Colin then moved on to the main part of his talk:


He defined a criminal as a person who committed, as a Principal or an Accessory, a crime which was an act committed, or omitted, in violation of a public law. He emphasised that crimes were wrongs of a public nature and that wrongs of a private nature, such as slander, assault and battery in a private place, false imprisonment, and nuisance (he mentioned 15 major wrongs) were not strictly regarded as crimes, so would not be detailed in this talk.

Colin pointed out that definitions of wrongs, and so of crimes and criminals, have changed over the centuries, and we must be careful not to judge our ancestors against today’s definitions, standards and lifestyles. Even 1954 definitions of Treason, Felony and Misdemeanour do not apply today and the court systems for examining and punishing wrongs have also changed. 

Colin showed the cover of ‘The Hangman’s Record’ produced in 1911 by a Mrs Burgess which claimed to include details of all principal executions over 400 years.

He also showed a letter dated 1884 from Henry Stevens to the High Sheriff of Northamptonshire offering to be county executioner. This gave his age as 36, the fact that he was strong and over 6 foot tall and that he was teetotal.

Five Types of Crimes

Colin then detailed five types of public crimes, giving examples within each type of precisely what an ancestor might have done, or was accused of having done, or claimed to have witnessed, or claimed to have been a victim.

1. Crimes Injurious to God and Religion

These were based entirely on contemporary interpretation of the Christian faith of the Established Church in Britain, i.e., Roman Catholic prior to the Reformation and Protestant (but strictly Anglican) immediately after the Reformation. Many of these crimes would have been passed to the Church Courts to be dealt with under Ecclesiastical Law. Examples Colin gave included challenges to Christian basic faith such as Apostasy, Heresy, Blasphemy, Witchcraft and Nonconformity (which varied over the years depending on which denomination was in favour at the time). Other crimes in this category were associated with moral behaviour such as Cursing, Lewdness and Sabbath Breaking. 

As an example of this type of crime Colin showed an 1842 broadsheet, which told that Hannah Ann Nutt was committed for keeping a bawdy house.

2. Crimes Transgressing the Law of Nations

These included acts such as Piracy and Infringing Rights of Ambassadors; for example by not enabling persons formally appointed by (Britain’s) sovereign to travel unhindered in another country while on the sovereign’s or the nation’s business.

3. Crimes Affecting the Power of the State

There were two major categories of this type of crime, High Treason and Felonies Against the Royal Prerogative. The former crimes were mostly associated with the sovereign or senior members of the royal family or the judiciary as individuals responsible for power nationally, the latter crimes related to acts on government bodies that affected the country’s stability and security.   :

As an example of a document relating to this type of crime Colin showed an extract from the Police Gazette of 1886 which had lists of deserters from various ships. The information given for each person was:  name of ship, age, place born and physical descriptions.

4. Crimes Infringing the Rights of the Public

Colin described four categories of offence covered by this type of crime: against Public Justice, against Public Peace, against Public Trade, and against the Health and Police of the Community. He gave us many examples of offences under each of these headings and explained why they had been considered crimes.

Offences against public justice included falsifying court records, influencing the fates of guilty offenders by contacting witnesses, juries or gaolers, handling stolen goods, obstructing arrest or assisting escape from custody. Colin showed us a report in the Northampton Mercury describing a man breaking out of goal. The report gives a good description of the escapee, including what he was wearing and where he was from. Many newspapers are now online and can be searched using key words.

Offences against public peace included participating in activities that were thought likely to upset the status quo as well as leading to public disorder; examples were rioting and fighting in public, attending seditious meetings, carrying a gun without a licence, destroying new technologies such as sluices and weighing engines, and claiming to predict the future. Colin displayed a document from the Dorchester Assizes which named the Tollpuddle Martyrs who were prosecuted for holding unlawful meetings in 1834.

Offences against public trade were introduced to stop practices likely to drive small traders, in particular, out of business. Offences included smuggling, unfair market activities, fraudulent bankruptcy, usury and encouraging skilled persons to leave Britain and settle overseas.

Offences against the health and police of the community included ignoring isolation warnings of infected people and areas, and selling unwholesome provisions goods, marital infidelity, providing gambling facilities without a licence, ignoring game laws and participating in clandestine marriage.

5. Crimes Derogating from Rights and Duties of Individuals

Colin explained that crimes of this type were mostly related to serious attacks on individuals such as homicide, manslaughter, murder, rape and kidnap, or on property such as arson, burglary and larceny. Examples of this type of crime can be found in records of assizes, inquests, reward notices, broadsheets, local newspapers, etc… Colin showed several examples of such records, for instance arson committed by 18 year-old George Briggs, for which he was sentenced to five years penal servitude, recorded both in the sentences of prisoners at the Northampton Summer Assizes of 1875 as well as on a broadsheet issued at the time.

We were shown an 1836 £20 reward notice for information on theft of silverware from a vicarage and then a newspaper report in the Northampton Herald detailing that the thief had been caught.

A vicar in Buckinghamshire published notification in a local newspaper in 1793 that, following several burglaries, he will shoot any burglar found near his house after 10pm. 

We saw details of an 1836 inquest of a person who had hanged himself; the inquest report also listed all the jurors’ names. The suicide was said to be ‘labouring under temporary depression of spirits’.

Though not crimes, Colin even showed us a 1908 school punishment book with such heinous offences as whistling, fidgeting, tearing up work, being cheeky and playing in class. Between one and four strikes were recorded as punishments.

As a final example Colin illustrated the comprehensive £200 reward notice for the apprehension and conviction of Huffam (Huffy) White who had robbed the Leeds mail in 1812. The notice detailed White’s four earlier crimes, arrests, convictions, imprisonments on hulks and subsequent escapes over a ten or more year period, and gave full descriptions of his age, appearance, clothes and how he spoke – a fascinating document.

Colin concluded by suggesting that, having described so many offences that were on the statute books in the past, some of them seemingly trivial to us today, it was feasible for him to turn the title of his talk around and tell us “Your Ancestor Was a Criminal!”

£20 reward offered for information in Kidderminster house burglary, 1816

£20 reward offered for information in Kidderminster house burglary, 1816



Return to The Sole Society Home Page