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Tracing Your Prisoner Ancestors (Paperback)

A Guide for Family Historians

Family History P&S History > British History P&S History > By Century > 19th Century P&S History > True Crime

By Stephen Wade
Imprint: Pen & Sword Family History
Series: Tracing Your Ancestors
Pages: 208
Illustrations: 33 black and white illustrations
ISBN: 9781526778529
Published: 21st October 2020


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The history of the British prison system only had systematic records from the middle of the nineteenth century. Before that, material on prisoners in local gaols and houses of correction was patchy and minimal. In more recent times, many prison records have been destroyed.

In Tracing Your Prisoner Ancestors, crime historian Stephen Wade attempts to provide information and guidance to family and social history researchers in this difficult area of criminal records. His book covers the span of time from medieval to modern, and includes some Scottish and Irish sources.

The sources explained range broadly from central calendars of prisoners, court records and gaol returns, through to memoirs and periodicals. The chapters also include case studies and short biographies of some individuals who experienced our prisons and left some records.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I am addicted to research and tracing my ancestors. I really enjoyed this book and I will be putting what I have learned into practice.

NetGalley, Wendy M Rhodes

An extremely interesting read with sufficient leisure time, there is a glossary of terms and criminal offences which, by themselves, define human intransigence and the distinctions between misdemeanors and felonies. Another aspect that family historians should read taking the research to its ultimate conclusion.

Cumbria FHS

Wade, as a specialist in the history of crime and law in the UK, realises that tracing your prisoner ancestors necessitates not only a knowledge of the records available to researchers but also an appreciation of how the penal system has evolved over the centuries. Explaining such a complex topic and making it easily readable to laymen is not a simple task. This book succeeds in its aims and through the use of case studies brings the topic to life.

All in all, it is a fascinating read, even if you don’t have prisoner ancestors! Wade has managed to explain the complexities of the criminal system, its records and how they affected our ancestors with his well-researched and illuminating guide.

Family and Community Historical Research Society Newsletter, Volume 22, November 2021

"A reference guide which we will find useful".

The Essex Family Historian - Journal of The Essex Society for Family History - August 2021

Stephen Wade’s excellent book isn’t so much a guide to tracing your prisoner ancestors – there’s already a volume in the series devoted to criminal ancestors – but to understanding the documents and other material at which you’re looking. It’s a great introduction to legal terms, offences, procedures, sentences, and much more besides.

Ripperologist, July 2021, No. 169 - review by Paul Begg

Like the rest of the Tracing Your Ancestors series, the resources and utilities either included in or spoken about in this book make this a fantastic guide in starting to find incarcerated relatives.

Heather Nowlan, Family Tree Searchers

Great book for background history of prisons. Useful information to help trace ancestors who may have frequented jail.

NetGalley, Nicola Barker

This book is a really good guide with sufficient information to point the family historian in the right direction. Highly recommended.

Doncaster & District Family History Society (Doncaster Ancestor)

This is another one of the author’s specialist books on crime and law, dealing with prisons and prisoners. It is well researched and written.

Clwyd Family History Society, featured in Hel Achau 148, March Issue

Tracing Your Prisoner Ancestors is fascinating. Prison registers are the backbone of the records, some of the Scottish ones have photographs and have been digitised.

Glasgow and West of Scotland FHS

As featured by

Bristol and Avon Family History Society

I found this book very helpful in understanding the criminal justice system in the past. The author honestly admits to the difficulties of tracing anything more than basic details of a criminal ancestor, unless of course they were responsible for a big or notorious crime, but goes on to suggest many avenues of research to help with fitting together a picture of the person and what they went through. With case studies a strategy is outlined to try to fill in details of crime, conviction and the person’s time in prison. I personally found the glossaries of offences and legal terms extremely useful in understanding some records I had already discovered. The extensive bibliography gives further possible avenues for research.

5 stars

Read the full review here

Amazon Customer, Jayne

... if you wish to deepen your understanding of the evolution of prisons in the context of social history, beyond the experience of your own ancestors, this publication certainly merits attention.

Alde Valley Suffolk Family History Group

Ideal for anyone interested in tracing their roots. This book is very easy to navigate and also provides fascinating insights into the penal system in previous centuries. Well researched and written, this is an excellent reference book.

NetGalley, Carol Keogh

Review by by Angela Buckley

Overall, it provides an excellent starting point for family historians to investigate their relations who ended up behind bars.

WDYTYA? Magazine, January 2021

The book covers a wide range of topics related to crime and imprisonment, and includes a number of case studies which help to illustrate the subject.

Read the full review here

Lost Cousins

The book is split into chapters and clearly sets out to give you an excellent overall plan of each stage that you need to go through. We have chapters on Prison History, Staff and Regime, Records, Transportation, Lunatics and offences. There is also a great glossary at the back which does explain a lot of things. Whilst I can’t say how helpful the book is, as I don’t have any family in prison, it does seem like an excellent and reliable book. You can tell this by the detail, layout and instruction, it comes across as a very easy guide. I enjoyed the fact there were case studies in each chapter to help you realise any problem you would come up against. As usual with these books there is more than adequate pictures, photos and diagrams to help you out. This book is another fantastic resource and really does add to the high level produced in this series by Pen and Sword Books.


Read the full review here

UK Historian

This is a great resource for anyone wanting to trace their British ancestors who may have spent time in a prison. This is fantastic for helping understand how they work and what information you can yield. I'm about to restart my family tree journey so this book has proven invaluable as before I found some details on incarcerated relatives but had not known how to really get more information. Great book.

NetGalley, Kirsty White

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Excellent resource for genealogists and historians on available prison records in the UK. This book includes a comprehensive history of the prison system and the social and cultural reasons for the changes that ensued. Case studies in each chapter step through the process to uncover information about the prisoner. Informative illustrations and ephemera accompany the text and help the reader imagine life in Victorian times, for example, and the challenges facing prisoners of the era. A helpful glossary of legal terms and prison terminology is included.

NetGalley, Nydia Hanna

As I've been tracing my family's history for over thirty years, this book caught my attention.
It was a very interesting read and I even learnt about a gaol in my home town.
The author has certainly done lots of research and I can highly recommend this book.

NetGalley, Tracey Ford

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I eagerly look forward to any new Pen and Sword publications as I know how beneficial they have been to my family history research.
Even as someone who has been compiling their family tree for a while now I seem to find something of use in every new publication .
A very interesting and informative read even if you haven’t a ‘ Black Sheep ‘ in your family !

NetGalley, Alison Bevington

This is a guide to how to find your ancestors.

It tells you about the history of the prisons and gives you case studies of different people.

It was very informative.

NetGalley, Natalie Power

This is a helpful resource and tool to help one search for and find their ancestors. I highly recommend it.

NetGalley, Jessica Murdock
 Stephen Wade

About Stephen Wade

Stephen Wade is a freelance writer specializing in the history of crime and the law in Britain and Ireland. He has written fourteen true crime and crime history books, including Tracing Your Police Ancestors and Tracing Your Criminal Ancestors. His history of detectives, Plain Clothes and Sleuths, was published in 2007 and he is currently completing a history of the City of London Police. He also teaches crime history at the University of Hull and, as a visiting lecturer, at Oxford. He has contributed to Family Tree Magazine, Ancestors and other periodicals.

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