A Guide to Researching Family History

The Digital Panopticon website combines records provided by partners to recreate the offence history and fate of 90,000 men and women who were tried at the Old Bailey in London. Using legal and civil records the website builds timelines and convict life stories. The connections made by the website may help you to discover the fate of your convict ancestor.

A Convict in the Family?

To discover an ancestor of course requires that they must be documented in some way. For most people, that means being discoverable only at times when the church or government took an interest in their existence: most notably, at birth, death or marriage. For many countries, there is a wealth of further "life course" extant archive records. In England and the United States there is also the luxury of census records. In Ireland and Australia that is not the case, neither country has any nineteenth-century census records to speak of. Genealogists have in turn become adept at using other sources to tell their family story. As a result, genealogists and family historians have long appreciated the utility of the records of the historical criminal justice system. They are some of the best records for the discovery of ordinary ancestors. The records cover a relatively large percentage of the population and contain levels of detail not found in most records. From the nineteenth century, prison registers recorded much which went beyond mere "offence" and "sentence" information. For example, prison licences recorded biometric and personal details, including "height", "weight", "hair" and "eye" colour, "distinguishing markings" and "education" levels. Other convict resources, can also include a kaleidoscope of detailed personal information, from name and address details of victims and next of kin to copies of letters and, after the 1850s, photographs of the prisoner.

Discovering a criminal ancestor was previously a pain-staking business requiring many hours sifting through microfilm and precise knowledge of the offence and the movement of the individual through the criminal justice system. Usually the search was only undertaken by those that knew (or suspected that there might be) a criminal in the family tree. With digitisation the search for a convict ancestor became easier. It is now possible to satisfy simple curiosity and type a name into a search engine to see if an ancestor might have been imprisoned or transported. But piecing together that ancestor's life remains a challenge. The Digital Panopticon can build a detailed "Life" and help find elusive answers to such tantalising questions as: Was this their first offence? Were they actually executed or transported?.

The records brought together by the Digital Panopticon show that not all offenders who were sentenced to death or transportation suffered those fates. Many who were sentenced to death were in fact transported, and others who were sentenced to transportation in fact spent time in prison before being released. You can compare your ancestor's experience with those of others by using the visualisations tool on the home page. With this tool you can also see which offences resulted in transportation, imprisonment, execution or military service.

Searching for a person

The Search Builder allows you to search by a person's name, and keywords.

Use "Add more search criteria" to search by:

Search Tip: Start your search with Name & Birth year. Adding in too many details may give you "0" results. Most records contained name and age information, but not all documents contained information such as place of birth or conviction. Starting your search with just name and birth year will give you the best chance of finding your ancestor.

Downloading Results

Results of searches can be downloaded from the site.

Sets of results can be downloaded as a tsv file. A tsv file is a text file which can be cut and pasted into a spreadsheet. Each person will have their own line in the spreadsheet and will be identified with a unique lifeid code.

To download a single entry you will need to enter enough criteria to narrow your search results to a single person.


To find individuals who have several records:


To build this invaluable database the project co-ordinators utilised records hosted by FreeBMD https://www.freebmd.org.uk, Ancestry.co.uk https://www.ancestry.co.uk, Findmypast.co.uk http://www.findmypast.co.uk, Old Bailey Online https://www.oldbaileyonline.org and Founders and Survivors http://www.foundersandsurvivors.org and by creating databases from sources previously unavailable online. Where the "Digital Panopticon" does not own the data the individual records link to a fuller record on one of these websites. A full description of each record set is also available.

The timeline of an individual's offending was built using automated record linkage with some manual intervention. Algorithms were designed to match individuals in different records by their name, birth year, offence year, offence and, where applicable, the name of the ship on which they were transported.

Further Information

Author Credit

This page was written by Aoife O Connor with additional contributions by other members of the Digital Panopticon project.