Saturday, 22 February 2014

Global Reach of the Old Bailey Online, thanks to the Collaboration of Academic Historians

Academic historians have done genealogists a huge favour by making the records of London’s central criminal court, the Old Bailey, available online free of charge for non-commercial use.

The website is a product of many years of collaboration between the Universities of Hertfordshire and Sheffield and the Open University, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Big Lottery Fund. The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913, published shortly after the court sessions contain accounts of trials, are the core resource. In addition to images of the Proceedings with full transcripts, there is extensive background information and useful search and statistical tools.



Transportation of criminals is one reason that the Old Bailey Proceedings Online (OBPO) has global relevance to family history research. Are you thinking Aussie convicts?

The relevant information page on OBPO tells me that transportation to America started in 1718 and ended in 1776 at the commencement of the American War of Independence. For a while there wasn’t anywhere to send convicts sentenced to transportation, so prisons and prison ships (hulks) served as destinations. In 1787 transportation to Australia started, and in 1857 all transportation ceased.

That got me wondering how many people were sentenced to transportation to America and Australia and how it varied over time. Using the statistics tool I extracted the annual transportation sentences and present the information as a graph.

Annual number of transportation sentences at the Old Bailey
Source: Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.1, 15 February 2014), Tabulating year where punishment category is transportation, between 1718 and 1857. Counting by punishment.

The Proceedings only tells us what punishment was imposed, not whether it was actually carried out. Appeals, commutation of sentence, and death are reasons why a prisoner might not have boarded a ship.

The trail accounts include everything from highway robbery to pick-pocketing. A couple of convicts sharing my surname, but sadly probably not related to me, were Thomas Adams and Catherine Adams.


Thomas Adams, highway robbery, transported to America

Two cases, tried on 3 July 1772, involved Thomas Adams:

On the 17 May 1772, three men robbed John Grant, who gave evidence that
“one of them presented a pistol to me, and demanded my money, another took my silver buckles”. 
One of the robbers, Richard Burton gave evidence against his fellows, Thomas Adams alias Stanley and John Waters. He told the court that Waters took the money and Adams took the buckles, which were afterwards sold by one Jones. His presence was corroborated by him being able to relate a conversation between other witnesses about a nervous horse.

On the evening of 16 May 1772 Hannah Sherman accompanied her mistress, Mrs. Abigail Harper walking home from Chelsea. Three men, Thomas Adams, Edward Jones and Richard Burton, stopped the two women. Adams held a pistol to Hannah’s head and said, “Your money, your money, madam! or I will blow out your brains”. The men took Abigail’s distinctive watch, black mode cloak and linen cap. The following evening the three men dined at Elizabeth Siday’s room. She heard them talking about the robbery, and the watch chain was left in her room. On 18 May Jones pawned the watch. The pawnbroker recognized the watch from a newspaper advertisement and reported it to the magistrate Sir John Fielding.  The cloak was found in the possession of Frances Palmer who claimed a young man who she laid with gave it to her, and she was acquitted. In this case, Burton again testified against the other two robbers. Thomas’ defense was that Burton had held up the women. Six people gave evidence of Thomas Adams’ good character.

In both cases Thomas Adams was found guilty and sentenced to death, as were Edward Jones and John Waters. Richard Burton was not tried, which begs a few questions!

The 8 July 1772 issue of Ordinary of Newgate's Account, a publication for popular consumption, tells us that the King respited the death sentences for Thomas and his fellows on 1 July.

All three are named in a contract, dated 22 July 1772, between the justices and shipping merchants. The contract obliges the shipping merchant to transport the convicts
“to some of his Majesty’s colonies and plantations in America as soon as conveniently may be and do and shall procure from the Governor or Chief Custom House Officer of the place whereunto they shall be sent an authentic certificate of their landing there”. 
The term of transportation was 14 years.


Catherine Adams, larceny, transported to Australia

On 24 November 1851 Catherine Adams was convicted of pick-pocketing a watch worth £5 from John Oxenford on 10 November. The theft was witnessed by John Oxenford’s companion Alice M’Keller. Catherine’s accomplice, an unknown woman to whom she passed the watch, escaped capture. The trial account contains a fair bit of information on the victim and witness, but only records Catherine’s name, age of 21, and her sentence of 7 years transportation.

By this time, the penal system was rather keen on keeping track of prisoners, so there are a number of other records of Catherine Adams. Both the Home Office (some digital downloads available from The National Archives and indexed by Ancestry) and colonial authorities kept records. In addition to her name, the date and location of her trial, and the name of the transport ship after arrival in the penal colony, unequivocally identify her.

The Convict Transportation Register records that Catherine embarked the ship “Sir Robert Seppings” on 17 March 1852 as one of 220 female convicts bound for Van Diemen’s Land, now known as Tasmania. The ‘Indents of Female Convicts’, recorded on arrival in Tasmania on 8 July 1852, tells us Catherine was a plain laundress, but also notes “2 years on the Town”, and names her relations as Michael, parents John and Sarah, and siblings John, Eliza, Harriet, Emma and Sophia, all resident at Kentish Town (Middlesex, England). Although her marital status is given as married, the ‘on the Town’ comment often alluded to prostitution. On 18 October 1852 Catherine applied for permission to marry fellow convict John Asbury, which was recommended on 6 April 1853. The marriage took place on 2 May 1853 at St George’s church, Hobart. In contrast to the earlier indents record, Catherine’s status is given as a spinster. The Conduct Register lists the services or employment of convicts, and other events. The latest entry, dated 10 October 1854, notes a recommendation for a conditional pardon, granted by the Home Office on 23 November 1854.

Old Bailey Trails:
Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.0, 18 February 2014), June 1772, trial of THOMAS ADAMS, alias STANLEY JOHN WATERS (t17720603-17).
Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.0, 18 February 2014), June 1772, trial of THOMAS ADAMS EDWARD JONES FRANCES PALMER (t17720603-10).
Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.0, 16 February 2014), November 1851, trial of CATHERINE ADAMS (t18511124-32).

Copyright 2014 Sue Adams


  1. What a wonderful resource for finding more about the black sheep in one's family! Since I've already discovered a couple of murderers in my family tree, I wouldn't be surprised if I found one among these records. Thank you. I never knew they existed.

  2. A fascinating account of new records now available online and thank you for bringing it to my attention with your analysis and stories of Thomas and Catherine Adams.

  3. One of my ancestors who lived near Salisbury, Wiltshire was sentenced to transportation. I have not found any record of him getting any further than one of the prison hulks. I know he survived and returned to his family as he appears on the next census. He died as many did a pauper in the workhouse.
    Transportation may have been a better option as I believe that conditions on the prison hulks were worse than the prisons.

    1. You may be right about conditions on the hulks, Hilary. Certainly there were (officially) regulations about keeping the ships clean and so cutting down the number lost to diseases on the voyage. The convicts were, after all, cargo and therefore valuable goods for the captain and Surgeon-Superintendent to deliver.

      I reckon my convict ancestors had a much better life in Aus than they'd have had if they hadn't been transported.

  4. I love this site. A few years ago when it came online members of our family got quite a giggle when reading about the trial of our ancestors Elizabeth Phipps and James Westbrook.

    1. Me too, Jill. I got my mum in fits of giggles over one trial. It's a wonderful resource. The blog's worth reading, too.

  5. Fascinating These Records are kept....and in such detail. I have to bookmark this for further use. Great Post and a wealth of information.

  6. Great post, Sue! I'm another fan of Old Bailey Online and its different research uses. I didn't know about the statistics tool - thanks for that, I must go and play with it.

    I'm interested to see that Catherine was given permission to marry so soon after her arrival. One of my convict ancestors, Sarah Marshall, probably never married, but her first child was born 10 months after she arrived, the father also being just 10 months in the colony.

    Did you know that the Old Bailey Online peeps are looking for guest bloggers? It might be worth looking at.

    Thanks for a fascinating, well-researched post.

  7. I love the Old Bailey Online. Have found some that have possibilities, but njust not sure yet. :)


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