From 1853 onwards the Penal Servitude Act created the facility for individuals serving time in convict prisons to be released part way through their sentence on a "conditional licence" much like the well-established "Ticket of Leave" system in Australia. The paper licences issued by the home office when a prisoner was released provide details of original conviction, date of release and conditions of the licence. Prison Licences often come with a number of associated documents compiled from their passage through the prison system, collectively brought together to create an individual "case file" on release, commonly referred to as a "licence".
The licences are split into two collections: the PCOM 3 licences for male convicts and PCOM 4 for female convicts. However, only a proportion of the total licences issued between the 1850s and 1940s have survived and are accessible to the public. For women, only the licences issued between 1853-1871 and 1882-1887 are available, and for men, licences issued between 1853 and 1887.
Licences for parole were created by the convict prison system after the 1853 Penal Servitude Act substituted terms of transportation to Australia for sentences of penal servitude in a British convict prison. Licences for parole were issued on a standard printed form which detailed the conditions of release and left blank space for prison officials to fill in the name, conviction details and date of release for an individual convict.
While the physical "licence" for a convict’s parole is a single document, it is not uncommon for a number of documents to be packaged together in an individual PCOM 3 or PCOM 4 "licence". As both the prison estate and the interest in measuring and understanding criminality grew over the course of the nineteenth century, so the number of documents relating to prisoners and imprisonment increased. PCOM "licences" often contain not only the certificate of parole, but a number of associated records compiled over the course of an individual’s confinement in a convict institution. These most commonly include the penal record (or "caption") detailing their criminal history, medical evaluation form, prison offence and punishment records, details of correspondence and visits, and notes of applications by the prisoner to the Secretary of State.
The content of a licence can vary enormously: from a single page licence that details the name of an offender, details of their conviction and the date of their release, to a bundle of a dozen different documents that provide information on previous convictions, marital status, children, next of kin, known addresses, associates and visitors, copies of personal correspondence, details of prison labour, prison conduct records, medical background and doctors' notes.
If an individual broke the terms of their licence (usually by committing another offence) they might be returned to prison, and re-licenced after a suitable period. Licences therefore can also contain more than one paper licence for parole, but not every prisoner in a convict institution will have been granted, or managed to retain, a licence.
All PCOM 3 and PCOM 4 licences that were issued were recorded in the PCOM 6 register of paroled convicts. In relevant entries this register may indicate whether multiple licences exist for the same individual, where and when an individual was re-convicted, revocation of a licence and occasionally other relevant notes – such as the death of a licence holder during the licence period.
The licence documents themselves give details of name, crime for which convicted, date and place of trial, sentence, prison in which resident, intended destination on release and date of release. As such, the primary source that the licences link to are the Old Bailey Proceedings 1740-1913, where further details of their crime and conviction may be available. Licenced convicts will also be found in England and Wales Criminal Registers 1791-1892 though these sources are unlikely to give any additional information. Licence holders can likewise be found in the Prison Registers 1770-1951 which may provide more information on how and when an individual moved around the prison system.
Where licence bundles include documents with personal information and details of family members, it is possible to find named individuals in key civil datasets such as the Census Returns for England and Wales 1841-1911, which give information about family members, occupation and the date of life events.
Licences for parole indicate when a convict was released from prison whilst still under a sentence of penal servitude, and the institution from which they were discharged. In cases where other documents are included with licences to create a case file, the licences can offer much more information regarding a convict’s time in prison, their former convictions, their health, family and associates. At their most complete, the licences can provide unrivalled records pertaining to health and life course details, including a rare record of biometrics. Further guidance on how to use the licences for health and biometric analyses is provided in A Guide to Researching Biometrics and Biometrics.
The medical records contain extraordinary detail for both before and during time served in prison: diagnosis; episodes of illness or injury, disease prognosis and course medication and treatment; weights and heights; physical appearance and description; and indications of medical involvement in punishments and testing for malingering. Therefore, in the best examples, licences themselves can provide far more information on a convict than any other single source, or even a number of other criminal records combined.
The Digital Panopticon has not transcribed all of the information from the licences. The full records have been digitised and images of the original documents are available on Ancestry and Find My Past. However, the content of licence case files can vary enormously. Other than the physical licence itself, there is no guarantee of what other information will be available for any given convict. Additional documents might only be partially filled in. Therefore the Digital Panopticon has focused on the most common and uniformly compiled data in the licences. The information compiled in licence files came from a range of different sources, including criminal registers and records kept by courts, prisons and police stations, as well as information given by the offender themselves. While most information created inside the prison was accurate, those relating to a convict’s former life can contain inaccuracies and omissions either given by the convict themselves, or compiled by prison administrators.
Lucy Williams and Zoe Alker of the Digital Panopticon project transcribed data from the Registers of Prison Licences (PCOM 6) for individuals convicted in London (primarily the Old Bailey/Central Criminal Court, Middlesex and Westminster Sessions) between 1853 and 1925, which was enhanced using TNA's PCOM 3 and PCOM 4 metadata where available.
The Digital Panopticon then carried out additional transcription of selected documents created during prison sentences for these London convicts in PCOM 3 and PCOM 4. The documents were transcribed using double rekeying to 99% character accuracy.
The documents transcribed were chosen as being most useful to the project's themes of recidivism, health and biometrics, as follows:
This page was written by Lucy Williams, with additional contributions by other members of the Digital Panopticon project team.