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Ancestry site extends criminal data

Published 29/06/2015

Officials at Findmypast.com have announced that more criminal records are available through the site
Officials at Findmypast.com have announced that more criminal records are available through the site

There is usually a black sheep in every family and from today people can search their ancestry online to uncover whether a criminal is lurking in their family tree.

Almost two million new records are now available, charting more than 150 years of crime and punishment in England and Wales.

The records reveal a very different criminal justice system, when a death sentence was seen as a fitting punishment for forging money and public executions were the norm.

Genealogy website Findmypast.com teamed up with the National Archives to digitise records from 1779 to 1936.

New details about the case which provided the inspiration for a character in Charles Dickens' Bleak House are uncovered among the records.

Pleas for the lives of Maria Manning and her husband Frank to be spared after they are sentenced to death for killing Maria's lover Patrick O'Conner are revealed.

They fell on deaf ears, with the couple hanged in front of a crowd which included Dickens in London in 1849.

The author's horror at seeing the execution motivated him to campaign against the death penalty and write the character of Mademoiselle Hortense.

Other records tell the stories of notorious people including arsenic poisoner Mary Ann Cotton, "efficient" executioner William Calcraft and John Bellingham, who was responsible for the only assassination of a prime minister in Britain's history.

The records show that Bellingham, who killed Spencer Perceval, evoked sympathy from some members of the public who saw him as a martyr.

Findmypast spokeswoman Estelle Calfe was surprised to discover 24 criminals in her family tree.

She said: "The detail and depth of the stories you can put together from these records are astonishing."

Myko Clelland, a historian with the site, said victims as well as criminals can be searched in the records.

He added: " These new records offer a unique insight into the country's criminal past. Whether villain or victim, anyone can now discover whether their family tree contains any hidden 'black sheep' or victims from their very own home at the touch of a button.

"Offering unrivalled detail and content, the records now online make it possible today to trace criminals through the justice systems from details of their arrest to punishment and rehabilitation."

Caroline Kimbell, head of licensing at The National Archives, said: "We have worked with Findmypast to digitise this fascinating collection of historic criminal and prison records held here at The National Archives, Kew, making them available online for the very first time.

"The personal records for those locked up can be heart-breaking, especially those of child convicts."

The 1.9 million new records bring the total number of Findmypast's crime and punishment records to almost three million.

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