Australia Research Guide | Criminal Records
The large collections of criminal records available to family historians give us an in-depth insight into crimes and punishments in the past but also the everyday lives of working people, who are so frequently anonymous in other historical records.
Even some of the most ‘respectable’ households may have turned to minor crimes to help support themselves. Brawlers, trespassers, thieves, and poachers are common in many family trees. If your ancestor got in trouble with the law, criminal records will describe their crimes as well as document other personal information that may help you fill in the gaps in your family tree.
Criminal records are a multifaceted collection of records that date back to the early years of colonial settlement. These records include police reports, court case files and gaol (prison) records.
Police Reports – Police Gazettes
Surviving Police Reports vary greatly from state to state. The most common surviving police report is the Police Gazettes. Police Gazettes were the way that police throughout the states, and country, kept up-to-date with contemporary policing issues. Circulated to police stations, they featured information on crimes committed, fugitive inmates, warrants issued, and court reports. However, not everyone listed was on the wrong side of the law; information was also released concerning crime victims and missing individuals.
Police Gazettes contain a wealth of information for family historians. The information found in the police gazettes varies from state to state but may include:
Court records, court depositions and related documents provide details of people who were involved in trials or other court matters. Most court documents include the names of the defendant, plaintiff, jurors, and witnesses. They may also reveal the individual’s address, employment, physical description, and family. Some records may also show the sentence and the name of the gaol.
In Australia, there were several different courts:
Court of Petty Sessions/District Magistrate’s Court – The Court of Petty Sessions was originally intended to hear minor criminal cases such as theft, breaches of the peace, drunkenness, minor assaults, and matters under twenty pounds. Usually, the cases were heard before the Magistrate without a jury.
Supreme Court – Divorce, bankruptcy, insolvency, and naturalisations were all handled by the Supreme Court. They also tried the most serious and indictable offences such as murder and manslaughter. These cases were eventually moved to the Federal Courts.
Coroner’s Court – Coroner’s courts investigated unnatural or criminally suspicious deaths. The deceased’s name, age, and location of death were all recorded in these records. Newspapers frequently reported on the proceedings of coroner’s courts, which may offer further information such as the names of the descendant’s spouse and children, as well as witness accounts. Inquests were also held into the cause of fires, even where no deaths or injuries were reported.
Reports of crimes can also be followed up in the local newspaper of the day. Newspapers can provide a great deal of information by reporting on court trials, inquests and executions.
Newspapers are sometimes the only publicly available record of a court case, particularly in the following situations:
Just because an ancestor has been found in a goal register does not mean that they were career criminals; they may have been imprisoned for a short period of time and never committed another crime. In fact, the majority of people sent to gaol in the nineteenth century were there only for a brief period of time.
For low-level disorderly offences, such as drunkenness, the penalty was often a choice of a fine (recorded in shillings) or a number of days in gaol. This meant that if they could pay the fine, they could leave, but if they couldn’t, they’d be imprisoned for the number of days recorded in the sentencing. It is worth noting that fines had to be paid immediately, which was impossible for many people. It was not until the twentieth century that people were given time to pay fines issued by the court.
As so many people ended up in prison at some time, and as the records were usually quite detailed, goal records are often very useful for family history researchers.
Although some records have been lost or destroyed, there are still numerous goal records that may be found:
Goal Entrance Books – Goal Entrance Books recorded the entrance number of a prisoner, the date of conviction and the date of entrance to the gaol, their name, offence, sentence, magistrate, age, religion, place of birth and ship of arrival (if applicable), previous and subsequent entrance number and final disposal.
Description Books – These books record the gaol number, name of prisoner, ship, where born, religion, trade, age, height, complexion, colour of hair and eyes, education (read and/or write) and physical peculiarities.
Photograph Description Book – These records contain a photograph of each prisoner and the following details: number, name, aliases, date when the portrait was taken, native place, year of birth, arrived in the colony (ship and year), trade or occupation, religion, degree of education, height, weight (on committal, on discharge), colour of hair, colour of eyes, marks or special features, where and when tried, offence, sentence, remarks, and previous convictions (where and when, offence, sentence).
Pictured: An Explorer’s Camp, Thomas Baines (1820-1875)