The Growth of Record Keeping about Convicts

An example of the categories of information collected about convicts in the 19th century.

One of the key reasons why the Digital Panopticon project is possible is the growth of record keeping about the personal details of convicts which took place in the nineteenth century.

Whereas eighteenth-century records of criminal justice rarely provide any more information about the criminal than their name, by the mid-nineteenth century detailed records were kept about their age, physical characteristics, education and religion, family and previous convictions, together with judgements about their "character". This information was all routinely collected long before it was consolidated into the 1869 Habitual Offenders Act and it presages the better-known late-nineteenth-century introduction of photography and fingerprinting. It is owing to all this contextual evidence that this project has been able to reliably link records together to create the Life Archives which are the principal objective of this project.


This table provides a brief overview of the major changes in record keeping about the personal characteristics of criminals which took place in the key decades between 1780 and 1860. It is based on a survey of records kept both locally and nationally, but with a focus on London. The table records the point at which such record keeping became routine.

Type of Information

When First Reported Regularly



Hulks registers


Bodily state

Hulks registers


Place of birth

Criminal registers



Criminal registers


Height, eye/hair colour, complexion

Criminal registers



Millbank prison registers



Millbank prison registers



Millbank prison registers


Marital status

Millbank prison registers


No. of children

Millbank prison registers



Hulks registers


Parents / Family

Hulks registers


Instruction / Schooling

Criminal registers



Pentonville prison registers


We can summarise the most important of these developments in four stages.

Hulks Registers and Criminal Registers

The first developments occurred in the late eighteenth century. In the 1770s, prisoner ages were recorded in the Hulks Registers 1801-1879, with ages also recorded in the Old Bailey Proceedings 1740-1913 from 1789 (for those found guilty) and the England and Wales Criminal Registers 1791-1892 from 1791. The creation of the latter by the sheriffs of London and Middlesex in 1791 marked the collection of further types of information. These recorded, for the first time in tabular form, information about the ages, places of birth, occupations and physical descriptions (height, eye/hair colour, complexion) of each person accused of a crime who was committed to Newgate Prison, London's principal prison for holding those accused of serious crimes.

The elaborate title page, in florid handwriting, of the first volume, which proudly promised "a particular description of each offender", indicates the pride taken by the clerk in its creation.

Millbank Prison Registers

The second stage in the development of record keeping came with the opening of the first national penitentiary, Millbank Prison, in 1816. In addition to the information already collected, the Prison Registers also included information about the prisoners' attitudes (their character, behaviour and religion), and family status (marital status for both sexes, number of children for female prisoners).

Prison Chaplains

The third stage, in the 1830s and 1840s, saw important new developments in existing record series including the hulks registers and criminal registers, and the development of new record-keeping practices by prison chaplains. New information was collected about education (literacy skills and degree of previous instruction, particularly by prison chaplains), as well as information about family and friends and, in the registers of the newly built Pentonville Prison, prisoner weights.

Prison Capture Papers

In the final stage, these types of information were consolidated in the documents which accompanied prisoners from prison to prison following the implementation of the progressive stage system and public works prisons from the late 1840s: often called UK Licences for the Parole of Convicts 1853-1925, but more accurately described as prison capture papers. Records needed to be kept to accompany prisoners from prison to prison, and to determine when they should be moved onto the next stage, depending on their character and behaviour, and to determine when they should be released on a prison licence. These documents record physical descriptions of the convicts, assessments of their character, reports on their health and behaviour in prison. While specific categories of information vary by locality, the papers for John McKay, convicted in Northampton in 1850, include the following:

Name, last residence, trade or occupation and where learned; age, height, complexion, colour of hair, colour of eyes, visage, marks on the body; place of nativity; is he lame or ruptured; can prisoner read or write; where did prisoner go to school and how long; officer's account of prisoner's character and former habits; father's name trade residence; is prisoner single, married, or a widower; if married, wife's residence and means of subsistence; number of children, names and ages; offence, where committed, prosecutor's name and residence, verdict and sentence; has prisoner been in custody before; if so, when, where, and for what offence; conduct during prison.

Inevitably, since this was a process largely dependent on local initiative, it was not as straightforward as the schematic summary in the table suggests: some developments were stopped after a few years and only resumed later, while others, first found in some local records, were not implemented nationally for many years. The amount of information collected in the criminal registers, for example, was significantly curtailed in the early nineteenth century, only to be restored in the 1830s. But cumulatively, they resulted in the collection of a massive body of evidence about the accused criminals, convicts and prisoners who were caught up in the British criminal justice system.


Even more information was collected about convicts who were sent to Australia. As a military colony for the first few decades of its white settlement, those running the colony had the power and resources to keep very close track of convicts. Indeed they needed to do so, since the colony was essentially a prison without walls, with the convicts dispersed throughout the land as they performed their indentured servitude or were released on "tickets of leave". For the wealth of data collected, see the two Founders and Survivors datasets included in the Digital Panopticon: VDL Founders and Survivors Convicts 1802-1853 and Founders and Survivors Biographies.

Why was so Much Information Collected?

Scholars have offered several different explanations for the growth in record keeping"

Descriptions of persons, such as their age, height and weight, facial features and distinctive marks, would be helpful in identifying individuals before photography was invented. And information about previous convictions and character and conduct may have been useful in determining the nature and length of prescribed punishments. But the problem with this explanation is that more information was collected than was necessary for these practical purposes, or the information was collected long before it was used for such practical purposes. Information about occupations and place of birth, for example, was of limited use in identifying individual criminals.

Recording practices often went beyond what was practically necessary. Information in the criminal registers from 1791 about occupation, place of birth and female marital status (with the last more consistently provided in the Millbank prison registers from 1816), and on male marital status in the hulks and prison registers from the 1810s, did not influence sentences and penal regimes or constitute an effective means of identifying prisoners. The same applies to some other types of information collected in prison registers: attendance at chapel with reasons for non-attendance; information about prisoners’ families (as previously recorded in some prison transfer forms); whether the prisoner had been in the army or navy and if so what regiment or ship; when the prisoner went to school, and for how long. And what are we to make of the recording of male marital status in the registers of Parkhurst Prison (a prison for boys) in 1838? While perhaps a few of the categories of information just described might have influenced sentencing decisions or penal regimes, there is very little evidence that it did.

Descriptions of six prisoners escaped from Newgate, from Hue and Cry (1816).

However, we should not exaggerate either the desire of the state to collect this information, or the amount of power this information gave to those in authority. The problem with this explanation is that it doesn’t explain why so many of the innovations in the collection of information occurred at the local level, by local officials, quasi-officials and independent social investigators. In a governing context in which domestic issues were largely left to the responsibility of county and local authorities (most prisons were administered locally until 1877), the extent of this local initiative is not surprising. If anything, this story is about a growth in local state power, not national power, and even then it was often not formally sanctioned by local leaders, as we can see from the very prominent role played by prison chaplains. This is the work of local officials, not Whitehall bureaucrats. National officials sometimes discouraged the collection of this information, refusing to pay for it, or to make use of it, as they didn’t see the need for it.

In fact, the collection of this information gave some agency to the accused and the criminal (the governed, rather than the governors), since often the accused or the convict was the only person in the room who knew their ages, places of birth, occupations and religion. At least some prisoners enjoyed their own form of power, reinventing aspects of their identity to, for example, avoid harsher punishments for those with previous convictions or secure more comfortable prison conditions. As the chaplain of Northampton County Gaol and House of Correction complained in 1838 when explaining that the entries in his registers "could not be depended upon", "the greater part of prisoners present themselves under constraint, if not under disguise".

The collection of information on a wide range of subjects did expand dramatically at this time, but while this wider phenomenon provides an important context for understanding record keeping about criminals, it doesn’t explain why some types of information were collected more extensively collected than others, and often long before others. Criminals were some of the first subjects of these new record-keeping practices, alongside two other groups: military recruits and aliens (both from the late eighteenth century) — and we can imagine the particular reasons why both of these other groups were thought to merit the same special attention given to alleged criminals.

Our Explanation

These explanations don’t fully explain the how, when and what of the increasing collection of personal information about criminals. Our explanation is this: these innovations were the result of a new moral and empirically-driven desire to better understand the criminal and the causes of crime (and not just control or punish them), and this quest resulted from (as well as contributed to) evolving ideas about the causes of crime. This growing desire to know more about the individual criminal and explain the causes of crime was enabled by the development of penal institutions such as the hulks and the reformed prison which held captive populations which could be subjected to close study.

This record-keeping points to the existence of a diffuse, but significant information gathering culture among local officials, which was not primarily driven by the Home Office or Parliament. There was clearly a desire on the part of these officials to understand their custodial subjects and their crimes, but since there was no consensus about the causes of crime there was no agreement about the types of information that needed to be collected, and record-keeping practices varied.

The Ordinary of Newgate's Account for March 1749. Old Bailey Proceedings Online, OA17490317. © Bodleian Library.

The changing focus of the types of information collected over time reflected wider shifts in contemporary thought about crime. Prior to the late eighteenth century, understandings of crime were centred on a universalist conception of sin, which explained crime as the inevitable consequence of sinners falling down a slippery slope. Empirical studies of individual criminals (such as the life stories of the London hanged published in the Ordinary’s Accounts) were compiled in order to demonstrate this preconceived general principle (McKenzie), so individual circumstances were less important.

While this understanding of the moral causes of crime persisted into the next century, patterns of record-keeping from the 1780s reveal a developing new interest in particular details about offenders, echoing contemporary intellectual developments promoting individualism and the self in philosophy and literature. This change is epitomised by the decline of the Ordinary’s Accounts, which ceased publication in the 1770s. With the decline of the "everyman" understanding of criminality, no longer was everyone seen as equally prone to crime, and there was a growing desire to understand the distinctive characteristics of those who actually offended.

This was, however, an evolving process. The collection of information about ages from the 1790s reveals some of the first attempts to investigate the roots of criminal behaviour, leading to new attention being paid to juvenile delinquency. This was followed in the 1820s and 1830s with a new interest in the relationship between education, religion and criminality, and as part of a growing focus on the reformation of offenders. So data was collected on prisoners’ character, religion, literacy and education. In the 1840s and 1850s interest shifted to socio-economic factors, and in the 1860s to the influence of criminogenic neighbourhoods, recidivism and bad company, all reflected in the compilation for the first time of statistics about places of birth and occupations; and in the collection of more systematic data about previous convictions (required by the Habitual Offenders Acts).


We need to understand the "panopticon" of record keeping if we are to make informed use of the records on this website. We need to understand how the records changed over time, and why. As with all historical research, the records determine what we can say and, as the Ethics and Digital History page explains, they are laden with their own ideological meanings. Users can read these records against the grain, of course, but this is where the dangers of the "digital" potentially arise, since once placed in our database the records have been removed from their contexts (though we endeavour wherever possible to provide linked access to full documents).

While the nineteenth-century desire to "understand" the criminal has some parallels with our own research questions, they are not the same. The mid-to-late nineteenth-century focus on recidivism, for example, was based on assumptions about immorality and "bad habits" which modern researchers do not share in their desire to understand criminal desistance — the difference in language is revealing. In attempting to understand recidivism, historians today are more likely to examine convicts' social background and family life, as well as the impact of particular forms of punishment, information which was much less well recorded at the time. Despite the cornucopia of records bequeathed to us by nineteenth-century officers, we need to be careful not to allow the convicts we study to be defined simply by the information these officers decided to collect about them, for their own reasons.

Further Information

Author Credits

This page was written by Robert Shoemaker, with additional contributions by other members of the Digital Panopticon project team.