England Criminal Punishments (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Court Records-Criminal, Civil and Ecclesiastical  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).


An under-used source at TNA is the large number of records relating to outlaws, and there were plenty of them in addition to Robin Hood and his Merry Men. It was not uncommon in the mediaeval and early modern periods for someone to end up on the wrong side of the law and be outlawed, or waived if female.

Outlawry normally resulted from criminal or civil proceedings in the law courts when the accused failed to appear in court and the sheriff could not apprehend him. After not responding to summonses read out in five successive county court sessions, the accused was declared an outlaw and a warrant was issued for his arrest.

The records provide details about the offence, particulars of social status, personal connections, property, wealth and business activities. They are in many different series in TNA such as writs of outlawry 1821-1870 in CP 38, and reversals of outlawry 1737-1860 in CP 39. Outlawries were generally reversed by purchasing a pardon at the Fleet or Marshalsea prisons in London, and then presenting this at court. Michelle Cale’s Law and Society: An Introduction to Sources for Criminal and Legal History from 1800 has more information.


Feather describes curious cases from the five-volume Newgate Calendar giving insight into crimes tried and concluded in this infamous London prison. Lists of prisoners held in Newgate Prison 1782-1853 are in series HO 77 at TNA.

Execution and Hanging

A hanging in former times was an occasion for drunken revelry and huge crowds would assemble for the topping of a popular candidate. The bodies were often sent for dissection as part of the sentence, (this was a legal way of procuring bodies for medical science), and may have been displayed either before or after this to raise money for the widow. Others not sent to the medical men were handed over to the next-of-kin for disposal in their own parish churchyard or, if they couldn’t afford the carriage, locally.

Hangings for burglary, passing forged banknotes, arson, petty theft and murder in Norwich are described by Richard Johns (Executions. Practical Family History #332, page 19) and by Michael Young in Family Tree Magazine, and Ratcliffe (They Showed No Mercy. Family Tree Magazine Vol 9 #6, page 15-17) relates the story of a murdered sailor, the depositions at the trial and eventual sentence on the convicted to be hanged on Sunday 7 April 1878 and afterwards dissected and anatomized pursuant to the statute, and afterwards hung in chains on the spot where the murder was committed. The hangman was known as His Honour the Finisher of the Law, and the most famous one was William Calcraft who held the post from 1829-1874; Jeffery is a descendant and has written his story (Great-great-great-grandfather’s Other Job. Family Tree Magazine Vol 11 #11, page 3-5).


All male and female convicts sentenced to transportation in Great Britain were first held at Millbank Prison in Westminster; Sherborn describes the prison and its records. Convicts might be sentenced to transportation for 7, 10, 14 or 15 years or life; if the latter then they faced the death penalty if they returned home. Many transportees chose to stay in their new country, or couldn’t afford to return, or died.

TNA has research guides on transportation first to America and West Indies 1615-1776 (L16), and later to Australia 1787-1868 (L17). There is a Convict Transportation Register in HO 11 which lists all British mainland transportees 1787-1870 by named ship, plus their date and place of conviction and sentence, but they are arranged by departure date of each ship.

Useful and comprehensive lists of Australian convicts, ships, and more is on the NSW State Records website.

An online database of transportees from Lewes, Sussex Assizes is at: 1066 Genealogy

LAKE al. HIGGINS John, 20, Westfield – life. Ref: QR/824 – 1834 Oct
LAMBERT Rebecca, Dallington - 7yrs. Ref: QR/766 - 1821 Jan
LANDS John, 40, watchmaker, East Grinstead - 10yrs. Ref:QR/946 - 1850 Feb
LANE William 23, upholsterer, Falmer - 7yrs. Ref: QR/946 - 1850 Feb
LANGRIDGE Jane, single, Fletching - 7yrs. Ref: QR/821 - 1834 Apr
LANGTON Thomas, 18, Brighton - 7yrs. Ref: QR/797 - 1828 Oct
LATTER Joseph, 45, harnessmaker, Lewes - life. Ref: QR/838 – 1836 July
LAWRENCE John, 35, Catsfield - 7yrs. Ref: QR/823 - 1834 July
LEDWARD al. MITCHELL Edward, 11, Hove - 7yrs. Ref: QR/837 - 1836 May
LEES James, 25, labourer, South Malling, assault - life. Ref: QR/872 - 1840 Oct


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Court Records-Criminal, Civil and Ecclesiastical offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.